We think that all Nigerians should take active interest in a bill working its way through the Senate which purports to impose the death penalty as remedy for hate speech, a non-descript malady which the bill has neither defined nor described. This new legislation appears like something taken out of the Middle Ages. The bill has already gone through its first reading, a fact which is shocking to many Nigerians who had imagined that a bill so out of sync with our history and democracy would not be contemplated by a member of the Nigerian Senate.
The bill is authored by a former Senate Spokesman, who is now the Deputy Whip, Alhaji Sabi Abdullahi. He has also led in pushing for the most obnoxious legislations presented at the Senate. The law is called the “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches (Establishment) bill 2019. Abdullahi has sponsored a similar bill in the Eighth Senate which prescribed, among others, death by hanging for anyone found guilty of the offence. According to the bill Abdullahi presented in the previous Senate, an offence is committed when “a person publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any materials, written, and or visual, which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, words or behaviour; commits an offence if such persons intends thereby to stir up ethnic tension, so having regard to all such circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or persons from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.”
Democratically elected members of parliament do not contemplate bills as sinister as this and it is raising ghosts of similar legal enormities of the past like the execution of the Ogoni Rights Leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his associates. So, this jaw-dropping bill has shocked Nigerians into realising how tenuous their freedoms are and how close we are to autocracy and dictatorship. It is no surprise, given our “make-believe” democracy, rigged elections, governmental impunity and cult of leadership, which have endangered democracy and the rule of law. The best legal minds have noted that it is impossible to enact this hate speech law without amending the Constitution with which the new law is in conflict. Indeed, the bill contradicts some of the entrenched human rights guarantees in the Constitution. Section 39 of the Constitution guarantees that “every Nigerian is entitled to freedom of expression including the freedom to hold opinion and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Section 22 is also emphatic that “the press, radio and television and other agencies of the mass media… shall uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the People.” Chief Ayo Adebanjo, leader of the Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, said last week he was speechless by the new bill. He is one of millions.
It is not merely that the death penalty has since gone out of fashion in the world, in the last 20 years, even internally, no one can remember when last a state governor signed a death warrant in Nigeria. Yet the Nigerian Senate is proposing a death penalty for speech. Worse, “hate” speech has never been a national problem in Nigeria since independence, to say nothing of a hate speech emergency deserving a death penalty.
Nigerians can identify overt attempts to constrain democracy and the rule of law. But we need to remind Nigerians that democracy dies in darkness especially when concerted efforts are being made to stifle the freedom of speech. It is truly shocking that such efforts are being made, in spite of Nigeria’s history. While the Senate may want to kill whatever is left of the robust debate the country used to have, Nigeria is already in the Red Zone of the Press Freedom Index. Reporters without Borders Freedom Index places Nigeria closest to the bottom among the countries that could be said to enjoy Press Freedom at 128 out of 180. We appeal to Nigerians to do more to encourage and widen our freedoms instead of constraining them. Those who sponsored the hate speech bill should do more to engage the social media and realise that freedom of the Press means freedom for the citizenry and that the best thing they can do with the hate speech bill is to drop it.