In the last few weeks, the unpopular issue of the bill on hate speech currently under consideration by the upper chamber of the National Assembly has been trending. The senate wants to take Nigeria to that point in life when people will be afraid to talk for fear of being branded apostles of hate speech. In their thinking, any Nigerian who says what those in power consider a hate speech will be hanged like a common criminal. This is the law they want to give Nigeria.
Expectedly, many Nigerians have risen to condemn the sponsors of the bill and have told them to drop the bill. From the Ijaw Youths Council to lawyers, students, human rights activists, journalists, the concern has been high and the consensus is that the bill is anti-people and should be thrown into the waste bin.
Mr Gbenro Olajuyigbe, Abuja based executive director of emergency and risk alert initiative was quoted as saying that if the senators were interested in ending hate speech, the best thing was for those in power to end what he calls hate governance.
“There is no secret weapon for battling vices. The best way to win the war is by creating an open society, ensuring entrance for all and providing exit door for those whose values run contrary to good conscience. We do not have to crush the vicious. We can take them to the threshing floor. Drive them through the mills and turn out better product molded with good input, using new standard of values and reformative laws. No law can decree love into existence. To end hate Speech, end hate Governance. Create just, equal and open society,” the activist had said.
Prof. Itse Sagay, Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption, PACAC, in talking about the issue said “the whole thing is irresponsible. I don't think it is all the senators that are in support of the bill, it could be only one senator.”
Prof. Joseph Abugu, a professor of Commercial and Industrial Law, University of Lagos, described the bill as a betrayal of people's trust. He said: “When government proposes draconian punishment for what one would otherwise consider menial offences, it is the first time of totalitarianism. It is unfortunate that this is coming from the Senate, which is supposed to be an appendage of the representative of the people. If the people's representatives now believe that by gagging the right to free speech is the best way to go, then we have a lot to worry for in this democracy.”
His position was corroborated by Chief Robert Clarke, SAN, who said the National Assembly would, with this bill, destroy the system more because “the National Assembly is trying to disrupt the system more than how they met it. Let me put it this way, it is an unnecessary exercise because if they go through that path, they are going to increase the hatred among the ethnic groups.”
Even when the bill is still receiving punches everywhere, in Akwa Ibom State, a member of the state house of assembly, Mr Otobong Ndem who is desperately desirous of returning to the hallowed chambers in 2019, has started testing the waters. Last week, he wrote to the state police commissioner, complaining that three of his constituents had committed an offence he considered to be hate speech and so should be arrested and taught serious lessons. The police fell into the trap and arrested the trio- Saviour Imukdudo, Victor Ufot and Fred Usen. They were to be arraigned on Wednesday. But whatever made the police to change their mind is not known.
But the unfolding scenario is a serious cause for concern. So, does it mean that if people criticize their representative for failing in his bid to represent them, then they have indulged in hate speech and so should be ready for the hangman? What actually did the Mkpat Enin legislator think when he wrote the letter to the police, alleging hate speech as the offence of the trio? Or is it that he does not know the real and implied meaning of hate speech?
According to Wikipedia, “Hate speech is a speech which attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. The Merriam-Webster defines hate speech as a “speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people. Speech that is intended to insult, offend, or intimidate a person because of some trait (as race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability).
While we do not doubt the powers and influence of the Akwa Ibom legislator to sometimes think that he could order God around, by virtue of his present position, we strongly are against the use of the police as an attack dog, to go after all those believed to be against his political dreams.
It was wrong and it remains very wrong for Ndon to use this crude approach in his efforts to whip all his constituents to line and compel them to either support him or remain silent. Democracy cannot thrive under this atmosphere. The Nigerian constitution allows the citizens the right to free speech. We believe that if Ndon felt offended by whatever his constituents said or wrote against him, the court would have been the proper place to approach, rather than arrogate to himself the powers to interpret what amounts to hate speech.
It is also our opinion that the police should refrain from allowing themselves to be used by politicians, no matter the offering. To do otherwise is to destroy the nation's democracy and that would be a disservice to those who staked their lives for the nation and the current democratic experiments.