One of the difficulties of legislating against hate speech is the lack of a clear understanding of what the concept means. Even the chief advocate who is presenting the bill in the senate has a distorted and limited understanding of the meaning of the concept. You can say that right from the beginning, the bill is deeply flawed. A concept that cannot be defined by its chief promoter is a scam. It is a tragedy that many senators who are intellectually challenged are adamant that the bill must pass. How do you support a bill that promises to harm you more than the people for whom the bill was intended?
The chief campaigner of the villainous hate speech bill, we must remember, is Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, who initially recommended death by hanging as penalty for people who breach his proposed bill, if it becomes law. The bill passed its first reading nearly three weeks ago. The second reading of the bill is about to commence. The bill is now moving so quickly and dangerously to becoming a law that will undermine our freedom to express ourselves. Before it becomes a law, the bill still has some hurdles to scale.
Abdullahi, the advocate of the bill, is a rigid man with a never-say-die attitude to issues in life. He has said categorically he would never withdraw the bill irrespective of the groundswell of public opposition to his brainchild. We must remember that the man sponsored the bill during the Eighth Assembly but the bill was incinerated before it could move any further. Now, he has reintroduced the same bill and given it extra teeth by adding the death penalty by hanging clause to satisfy his bizarre understanding of how to make laws that aggravate citizens’ conditions. So far, the bill has been criticised forcefully by a coalition of civil society groups, including lawyers, university teachers, journalists, and other citizens who claim the bill is intended to constrain the media and violate people’s right to express themselves freely.
In the public sphere, the hate speech bill remains unpopular. It has sparked a torrent of criticisms against the sponsor. Many people are unhappy with the ill-defined contents of the bill. The danger though is that the bill is at such a critical stage that it could sail through the senate if it is not shot down right now. Civil society and human rights advocates must rise against the hate speech bill. Everyone must resist the bill that aims to curtail our individual rights and freedoms, including our freedom to convey our views in a public space without hindrance.
The hate speech bill is not the kind of law that legislators were elected to make. It is a proposition with an evil intent. In its current form, it is not beneficial to society. It will not lift the socioeconomic conditions of impoverished members of our society. It will not put food on the dining tables of many families that are struggling. The bill is a distraction. It is a vexatious proposal intended to provoke rather than inspire citizens.
Of all the challenges that confront the nation, particularly economic hardships, unemployment, poverty, and lack of basic needs, the hate speech bill does not deserve the priority attention it is receiving from senators. It should be the least item in lawmakers’ priority list of much needed projects. How did Senator Abdullahi, the proponent of the ill-defined and unnecessary bill, determine that a law against hate speech, in the narrow form in which it is currently framed, is the most urgent need of members of his constituency?
Legislators were elected to make laws for the good of society. The hate speech bill is not in the best interest of society, regardless of what senators believe. The bill is at odds with the reality of daily living. Rushing the bill through the senate suggests that our all-knowing and astute lawmakers have no knowledge of the kind of legislation that would help to improve people’s welfare, wellbeing, and security.
Although Abdullahi has bowed to public opinion and flagged that he would remove the death penalty clause from the bill when it returns to the senate for the second reading, he seems to be ignorant of why people have expressed vigorous opposition to the bill. It is not only the death penalty element that has offended people’s sensitivity and drawn public angst against the bill, it is also the feeling that the bill is unnecessary and will serve no public interest purpose.
As a measure of the amount of pressure that has been brought on him and his bill, Abdullahi said the death penalty clause would be modified by the Senate when it is further debated by the National Assembly. He conceded: “We have followed closely arguments for and against the hate speech bill, and seen the reason why some kicked against it… Clearly, from the conversations, Nigerians agree that we have a problem today as a result of hate speech which has fuelled so many killings and violence and is responsible for cases of depression and suicide.”
It is ridiculous for Abdullahi to embellish his case for his bill by exaggerating the impact of hate speech on individuals, without verifiable evidence that hate speech has resulted in many deaths and violence or has led to a high rate of depression and suicide in the country. Without statistical data and medical reports that show the correlation between hate speech and increase in depression and suicide, Abdullahi’s claims must be deemed as spurious, unfounded, and groundless. What is the link between hate speech and suicide? How does hate speech lead to depression? These issues were not addressed by Abdullahi.
It seems to me that Abdullahi is looking for anything to justify his hate speech bill. Even in his desperation, he ought to know that Nigerians are not naïve to believe anything. We need statistical evidence rather than wobbly statements that are hooked on sentiments. That is not how to convince a sceptical public.
It is interesting to note that former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida has responded to the hate speech bill controversy by stating emphatically that no one could suppress the views of Nigerians or deny the citizens their freedom of expression. When he expressed his consternation about the hate speech bill, Babangida said: “I am surprised that this bill has resurfaced. There is no basis for this now. We are developing; we should be allowed to develop. If we make mistakes people can be cautioned. If somebody goes off you have the right to call him to say, ‘no, we don’t want this. Unless people are able to express themselves, those in government or in authority will not know what is happening in the country.”
Babangida’s position is unassailable. He said quite pointedly that the hate speech bill “is crude and out of tune with the 21st century reality. It could have happened, may be some 300 years ago, but not now.”
There is nothing else to add when a former military dictator who should be pushing a bill such as the hate speech proposition stands clearly opposed to the bill.