OUR supreme law, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended) guarantees every person freedom of speech. Section 39 (1) states: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”.
Freedom of speech is a founding principle of our civic and democratic tradition which predates our independence. It is a constitutional legacy that has made Nigeria one of the most vibrant polities such that, even in the throes of crushing colonial domination or military dictatorship, Nigerians and their media are culturally attuned to speaking out against stimuli that promote impunity or limit the rights of the citizenry.
It is in this light that moves being made by the Federal Government to clamp down on “hate speech” calls for caution. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, in reacting to the growing atmosphere of irresponsible utterances by groups and individuals on the state of our nation, threatened that the Federal Government would henceforth treat hate speech as “terrorism“.
Osinbajo hinged his assertion on the provisions of the Terrorism (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2013, which defines terrorism as an act deliberately designed with malice to damage the country or intimidate a population. The Act also prescribes death sentence where an act of terror results in loss of life. Already, the President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, has promised to fast-track the passage of Anti-Hate Speech Bill which is before the Senate.
We acknowledge the fact that the same provision of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech also grants the state the power to make laws that are reasonably justifiable in a democratic society to prevent its abuse. We agree that the calls for secession on the one hand, and quit notices to specified ethnic groups to leave the Federal Republic of Nigeria, accompanied with hate songs on the other, went way overboard on the scale of free speech.
We also believe that laws already exist to arrest such dangerous excesses. The only problem is that the law enforcement agencies had, sadly, fought shy of proactively implementing them, and when they do, we often see evidences of partial treatment. Many people have been allowed to get away with blue murder for too long, and this must stop before matters boil over and overwhelm the nation.
If Nigeria must join the many countries that have specifically made laws against hate speech, it must be done in such a way as never to interfere with the constitutional rights of the people to freedom of expression. We are convinced that mere replication of laws does not curb lawlessness, including hate speech. Zero tolerance to lawbreakers will solve the problem, but it must be done without impunity or partiality.