I am not a lawyer and I do not professtobe one. But today, I plan to dabble into this delicate and tricky terrain and to do this, I will simply rely on common sense to guide me.
On Tuesday, news filtered in, that the proposed hate speech bill which prescribes death sentence for offenders, had passed the first reading in the Senate. It was then that reality dawned on some of us that what we thought was impossible is gradually becoming a reality. Incidentally, those expected to speak out against the bill are quiet. Could it be that they are yet to fully understand its import or are still believing that the bill would eventually die before it becomes part of our law?
I want to assume that Nigerians are yet to fully understand the implications of the bill that seeks to rob us of our rights to free speech as citizens of this country. The most ignorant of the implications are the lawmakers themselves who could one day become victims.
In fact, I would have supported the idea of the bill if not that the ordinary Nigerian could also one day fall victim of the bill if it eventually finds its way into the nation’s law books.
Who are we really targeting with this bill? Is it the man on the street who daily labours to make a living or the politicians whose words are threat to peace and seurity? Who determines what constitutes hate speech and by the way; what really is hate speech? These are germane questions that should concern us all.
If the labour unions call Nigerians out to protest against inability to pay the minimum wages in the States, would that not be an instigation and an offence under the bill? What becomes of ethnic nationalities like Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), Afenifere, Yoruba Elders Forum, Arewa Youth Forum, Arewa Consultative Forum, Northern Elders Forum, Middle-belt Youth Forum, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Movement for the Actualisation of the Sover- eign State of Biafra (MASSOB), would they be able to protest or its leadership be able to issue statements without such statements being termed offensive and criminal in nature? Forget about MASSOB that has already been tagged an illegal association. Have we even tried to find out why some of these organisa- tions exist? They are outlets for people to express grievances, to speak against perceived injustice. They also provide feedback to political leadership as their exressions send sig- nals that all is not well and action should be taken. If these outlets are criminalized, then aren’t we then sitting of kegs of gunpowder. We have passed through this way before and we thought that has gone with that turbulent period of our history. We should be careful not to bring it back.
Still on hate speech, it is reasonable to as- sume that the ordinary Nigerian is not a purveyor of what has today been described as hate speech, they have no reason to be. That ordinary Nigerian prefers to live in harmony with his fellow Nigerian. He does not care whether you are Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, efik, Ikwerre or what have you, he only cares about the way you relate with him as human being. When you talk hate speech, it is the politician’s forte. They are the ones who use words to divide. They are the instigators of crisis through utterances and statements of virulent nature, which set off violence. This bill will only make the ordinary man a collateral victim of what he did not instigate.
What really constitutes the Hate Speech bill? Quoting The Cable news, ‘a person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and or visual which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior commits an offence if such person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circum- stances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or persons from such an ethnic group in Nigeria’. ‘Section 4(2) of the bill also provides that any person found to have committed this offence shall be liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished through death by hanging. Section 6(1) also provides certain other punishments as any person who knowingly utters words to incite feelings of contempt, hatred, hostility, violence or discrimination against any person, group or community on the basis of ethnicity or race, commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction be liable to imprisonment for a term not less than five years, or to a fine of not less than N10 million or both.’
The bill which provides for the establishment of a commission to be known as the Independent National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches, also states that not only an individual can be found guilty of the offence. Body of persons could also be found culpable. Where the body of persons is a corporate body, every director, trustee and other officers of that corporate body shall also be deemed to be guilty of that offence and where the body of persons is a firm, every partner of that firm shall also be deemed to be guilty of that offence.
From the foregoing, it stands to reason that Nigeria is getting into another phase that is antithetical to preservation of the individual freedom. The bill will eventually turn us into compliant, submissive and meek citizens. We would never be able to protest or protect our fundamental rights as such protest could be termed criminal.
Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Also Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Also Article 9 (1) of the African Charter on Hu- man and Peoples Rights also states that, ‘every individual shall have the right to receive information’ (2) ‘every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinion…’ Nigeria is a signatory to these two charters. How do we then reconcile the constitution and the charters in the light of the coming hate speech law? Social commentators should simply go on long holidays. Opinion writers are endangered. Media organisations must also watch it as their publications could be termed hate speech.
Democracy thrives in an atmosphere of freedom, freedom to express and debate issues of importance to the populace, the hate speech law will take this away. For the promoters of the bill, they will need to reconsider because it’s a bill that will come back to haunt them.
Indeed, this bill reminds me of what was said to have happened during the military era when President Olusegun Obasanjo was arrested by former military Head of State, General Sani Abacha for alleged coup plot. OBJ was starring death in the face when some Leaders of Thought felt the need to interfere and plead for him. Abacha was quoted to have said that he was not the one that made the law that prescribes death sentence for coup plotters, but Obasanjo himself.
I pray that our present crop of law makers would not have cause to rue this day too. That they would not also fall into the Obasanjo’s kind of situation who only escaped death by divine intervention. His story would then have been, ‘in loving memory of our dearly beloved.’ But he had a reprieve and later became a two-term president.
Prayerfully, I say the bill, if passed into law, is not made retroactive, else Omoyele Sowore is toast, as they say. May it never be his portion, amen.