Fred Itua, Abuja
Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi is the sponsor of the controversial bill on Hate Speech, which prescribes a death penalty for promoters of incitement and other violent crimes.
Although he has jettisoned the death penalty clause, more stakeholders are still calling for a total discontinuation of the consideration of the bill.
In this interview with Sunday Sun, the Niger North senator who doubles as the deputy chief whip of the Senate spoke on the bill. He also spoke on the allegation of the Senate being a rubber stamp, among other issues.
You were actively involved in the process that produced Ahmad Lawan as President of the Senate. In 2015, you were among those who kicked against the position of the party. What changed in 2019?
We must appreciate the fact that what happened in the Senate was not what we desired as party members then. Like our national chairman has said at several fora, the party didn’t manage its 2015 post-election victory well. There was no consultation, no engagement and people were left on their own. When it was time to make a decision, a consensus wasn’t built. We saw the emergence of two camps in 2015. Having gone through that experience, we were convinced of what we wanted to do. Personally, this is my assessment. It was the lesson learnt from our 8th Senate experience that informed the action we took. We consulted widely and prayed that our party gets the majority in the Senate. As soon as INEC gave the green light that we were winning, we had to start our campaign early. That paid off. It was our own initiative. We were able to deliver a victory never seen before.
Since Lawan emerged, we have seen a bipartisan support and almost all the requests from the Executive have been approved. This honeymoon, how long will it last?
It depends on your definition. Whenever any request is brought to the National Assembly, we debate it and if it is unambiguous and it will not hurt our people, there is no need to grandstand. In the last Assembly, there was grandstanding. I was the spokesperson of the last Senate. As much as I wanted to defend some things, I knew that some things were a product of grandstanding. So far, we have been pragmatic in the 9th Senate. It doesn’t mean that when things are wrong we will not say so. The President of the Senate has also been able to say some things that are wrong. When we said we were going to pass the budget before end of the year, no one took us seriously. Today, that is becoming a reality. When we work together, we will be able to do so much. I don’t want people to go around with the impression that this is a rubber stamp National Assembly. What rubber stamp means is that, anything the President brings, we won’t even look at it. We will just collect and approve.
If that is your argument, how can you explain what happened recently when the President brought 56 amendments of the Finance Bill. Not one item was altered, instead, everything was approved. We have also seen other requests of the President passed as soon as they come. Are these not proofs that the Assembly is a rubber stamp one?
That’s not true. The idea of the Finance Bill was a joint initiative. The National Assembly itself was interested in the Finance Bill. This is not the first time we are considering the Finance Bill. It was there in the 8th Assembly. There were components of the Bill that we worked on. When you scrutinise and there is thorough work between the two parties, what do you do? We still subjected it to a public hearing.
If it was subjected to a public hearing, why was there no alteration? Why pass the 56 recommended amendments without any alteration?
People can make that argument and they are entitled to it. If you’re a teacher and your student gives you what you want, will you fail him? It means the Executive did a thorough job. We did the needful because it is going to help this country.
Another argument about being a rubber stamp Senate is the confirmation of 43 ministers. For the first time, 23 out of the 43 were asked to take a bow and go?
What is wrong with that? How many of them didn’t merit what was done to them? If this is the case people are citing, it is a bad one. Are people saying that for us to prove that we are not a rubber stamp, we should look for errors where there are none? Let’s get serious and I want Nigerians to give us the benefit of the doubt. In the 8th Senate, anything we did was considered to be against the President. Here we are, doing our good work and they’re complaining. What do they want us to do? President Buhari has said that this is his last term and he will want to be remembered for something. He wants to leave a legacy. Remember this four years is like four days. Buhari wants to see results. We are in the same party. We campaigned for the same thing. Has the President brought any request to the National Assembly that is not in the interest of Nigerians? We are making every effort to see that whatever Mr. President brings, it will help this country. For instance, we have taken a stand having approved names of the board of NDDC. President of the Senate was unambiguous about it. Does that portray the character of a rubber stamp person?
You have been in the news for weeks now because of the controversial Bill on Hate Speech you sponsored. How have you been coping with the negative attacks?
I am very happy that Nigerians are having a conversation. I am also happy that Nigerians are having a conversation on a problem that has been with us for a long time. People are beginning to come to terms with the problem. It was curiosity that led me to what hate speech is all about. My first concern was the violence that has refused to go away in different places. I have travelled to every state in this country while doing my official duties. In the past, you could travel freely, but today, you can’t do that. I am also aware that many people who used to stay in places different from their own have ran away because of violence. I stumbled on facts that many bodies and interested individuals had studied violence in this country. From my findings, most of these violent crimes are preceded by hate speech. The violence centres around two fault lines- religion and ethnicity. Many people have lost their lives, loved ones and other things. I am worried about that. Knowledge tells me that when you search, you see. I believe that since the trigger factor has always been hate speech, I felt we should do something about it. I am glad that the United Nation is interested. I did some research and found countries that have done something about this hate speech.
Are there any democratic countries that have prescribed death penalty for hate speech?
We have passed the issue of death penalty. Let’s not go into that again.
People have argued that your Hate Speech Bill is attempting to deal with the symptoms instead of the real thing- bad governance. People are angry and they only vent their anger…
That’s their own thinking. If they can bring out the facts, let them do that. People see things they want to see. My concern is incitement to violence, hostility and the fault lines I have identified. I am not dealing with the symptoms. I am dealing with the main problem. Can’t we find ways of engaging other people? If people are talking about bad governance, there are things we have brought up in this National Assembly to help the people. What’s the level of support? Let’s face the reality. Even in states where things are working, somebody can incite. Lagos is a classical example where someone will just incite other people to violence. Is that not hate speech? The Alu 4, for instance, was a case of hate speech. This Bill is about incitement to hostilities.
When you sponsored this Bill in March last year, this same clause on death by hanging was the main issue. When you were representing the Bill, why didn’t you expunge it?
I don’t want to go into that. We have passed that stage and there are other provisions that can make the Bill better. There is still an opportunity to go in and add value to it.
Former presidents, governors, fellow lawmakers and critical stakeholders have all kicked against this Bill. Will you bow to pressure and drop this Bill?
I am still in the process of presenting this Bill for a second reading. These are opinions. These are statements. I respect their views. But I have a view too and I will pursue it to a logical conclusion. If it doesn’t work, so be it.
Do you have the support of the leadership of the Senate?
Can we just leave out the leadership? They’re leaders and they’re also senators. They can come in and sponsor their own bills. I am sponsoring a bill as a senator not because I am the Deputy Chief Whip. It is my right to do so. We will take it through the process. When it’s time to debate it, every senator will be given the opportunity to do so. You people just put emphasis on death by hanging and sensationalise it. We have passed through that. I have provided tools and processes that will enable the Commission truly independent. We don’t want anybody with affiliation to government to be a member. If you have an affiliation to a political party, you can’t be a member. There are many Nigerians that can fit into this criteria. They’ll be appointed by the Council of State. They’re to help in bringing peace and reconciliation to the land.
Politicians are usually at the centre of promotion of hate speech, especially during campaigns. In a situation where a sitting governor incites the people against his opponent, what happens since he enjoys immunity?
Even with immunity, a governor who keeps committing an offence, the law is clear. It doesn’t stop investigations of the person…
But you can’t prosecute a sitting governor…
Even if you can’t prosecute because he has an immunity, you can wait until he leaves office. That has happened. The processes the Commission will put in place will guide against these things. If we get the right people, they will do their best. Through engagements, they can avoid these things.
Majority of those who allegedly peddle fake news on social media or promote hate speech don’t reside in Nigeria. How can a Commission based in Nigeria handle such an issue?
If there is a process of engagement, you can’t incite anyone. That will be the major thrust of what the Commission will do. If you’re able to identify critical groups and engage them, we will guide against these things.