By Chris Akiri
THE fiendish spirit of divisiveness is on the prowl in the Nigerian nation-space. Everywhere you go, you can hear deprecatory protests against marginalization, against the corporate existence of Nigeria, against inequity, social injustice, ethnical and religious intolerance, against the unhindered ravages of Fulani herdsmen and hues and cries for the restructuring of the Federation or even the outright balkanization of Nigeria as a country. These protests are given a common-on fillip by the philippics of the educated elite and the dichotomous diatribes of the proletariat, otherwise known as “hate speech”, ensconcing fissiparous tendencies, anti-group invectives and the germs of inter-tribal violence and even secessionist inclinations in their overt articulations. This is the untoward flicker of schismatic light which the Federal Government, with the aid of the Legislature, wants to snuff out before it snowballs into a conflagration. Good.
I am, however, in the grip of gnawing fears about the executive-driven Hate-Speech Bill, which is not unlikely to be signed into law, with efficient speed, by the Executive, its author. The bridle on the eruption and wildfire spread of hate speeches, which must include hate songs, such as was recently intuited and sung by one bucolic lady in the North to disparage the Igbo and to arrogate the Niger Delta oil to the North, must be applied. But is such a law not likely to trample upon the citizens’ fundamental human rights as enshrined in sections 22 and 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Cap. 10, LFN, 1990), in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), etc. with regard to the freedom of expression? Will this prospective law not muzzle free speech, criticism and dissentient views of the government, particularly in socio-political and economic milieux in which rank injustice, inequity, howling nepotism, naked favouritism, cronyism on stilts, barefaced nonfeasance, malfeasance and misfeasance reign supreme?
A corpus of questions has been thrown up by the proposed law: first, will the ruling party not use this prospective law to hound members of the Opposition into extinction, considering that even the ongoing “war” against corruption is patently targeted at the opponents of the ruling party? Secondly, if the Hate Speech Bill is passed into law, and anyone is accused of a hate speech or song, what newfangled legal name would be given to the offence: felony, treasonable felony, slander, libel or terrorism which, under the provisions of section 33 (1) (a) of the Terrorism Act, 2011, an accused found guilty thereunder, “is liable to life imprisonment or to a fine of not less N150 million”?
Thirdly, how will a hate speech be determined? Fourthly, will this law be targeted at the common man in the society only or at the bourgeoisie as well? Fifthly, will the Hate Speech Law be powerful enough to look the northern elders and the Arewa youths straight in the face or is it intended only for the Niger Delta militants and Nnamdi Kanu and his group? Sixthly, if someone, for example, complains bitterly about the gruesome murder of a Gideon Akaluka or of a Madam Agbahime, whose murderers were either disingenuously not identified or identified and freed, would such a complainant be charged with a hate speech? Or, seventhly, when Fulani herdsmen brazenly enter into someone else’s farmland against all the principles of Ryland’s vs. Fletcher, destroying all his crops, killing the farm owner and raping his wife into the bargain, and the relations of the victim kick up a shindy, using caustic language against the ethnic nationality of the murderous criminals, would such “hate speakers” be accused of an offence?
I have a hunch that a Hate Speech Law would introduce military rigorism and authoritarianism into the body politic and definitely erode the citizens’ fundamental human rights. The way out of hate speeches and songs, I am persuaded, is good governance. The President should steer clear of military language and take the entire nation as his own constituency, to start with. The nation’s economy is in dire straits; this calls for a definite action plan aimed at the restoration of the glorious days when each region was self-sufficient and not a leech on the centre, no thanks to the notorious section 162 of the 1999 Constitution; the country’s economy remains a mono-cultural economy in spite of the threats from the European and American worlds that it would be an offence, in the foreseeable future, for any vehicle-manufacturing company to produce any petroleum-oil-using vehicles; the infrastructural facilities in the country are either decayed or putrefying; the internecine feud in the ruling party is a clog in the wheel of good governance; the educational system is in the doldrums; the health sector is in shambles, which is why President Muhammadu Buhari has to shuttle between Abuja and London, in search of treatment, even though there are countless, highly qualified medical practitioners in Nigeria. The Grade A roads in Nigeria are death-traps; staple foods are priced beyond the reach of the common man; the Naira-Dollar exchange rate is in the firmaments; these days, suicide has become a fashionable escape from grinding poverty…
One big problem with Nigeria is that its leaders junket round the civilized world, see and enjoy beautiful facilities, drive, or are driven, on apian ways, stay in ten-star hotels (if there are, gamboling where the angels fear to tread), go to well-equipped hospitals in the UK, America, Germany, India, etc., and put their children in choice schools in those countries, then return to facilities-deficit Nigeria to live in their posh edifices, ride in their flashy cars and fly in their jets, leaving the very bad roads for Frank Fanon’s wretched of the earth! These are more dangerous pockets of war (the whys and wherefores of Nigeria’s regression) than hate speech!
Nigeria has all the resources (human, mineral and material) to be a super power! These same leaders brazenly, and with aplomb, intone the indivisibility and inviolability of Nigeria as though Nigeria stood on a more solid substructure than the British Empire, India before 1948, Yugoslavia, before it balkanized into ethnic lines and Sudan, before South Sudan was born. It is high time the Nigerian government trod on the path of civilization: organized a plebiscite to determine the wish of the people concerning, for example, restructuring of the country, as was done in Brexit and in the referendum to determine whether or not Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and shunned militaristic threats of blood!
Barrister Akiri writes from Lagos