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Death for ‘hate speech’? Nigerians are now ruled by fear

By Olu Fasan

Hate speech, Senate, Nigeria

LAST week, I wrote that this country, created on the basis of might is right, was still being run on the whims of its self-interested leaders, who exercise abusive power and control over the people.

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If that seems controversial, just consider how fear is increasingly used as a weapon of political control in this country. Truth is, politics of fear and erosion of freedoms are now prevalent in Nigeria, with arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions of ordinary citizens on trumped-up charges of treason for merely expressing unpalatable and offensive views.

A true democracy must tolerate open dissent and rabble-rousing. In several western countries, there are anarchist organisations, such as the Anarchist Federation in the UK, which openly calls for the abolition of governments. Provided their activities are peaceful, they are not arrested, or their offices and websites shut down, for espousing anarchism.

By contrast, in Nigeria, a political agitator and radical journalist, Omoyele Sowore, has been detained since August on treason charges for calling, without evidence of organising armed rebellion, for “Revolution Now”. Surely, a rabble-rousing comment but certainly not a treasonable offence in any genuine democracy and civilised society. Of course, with President Muhammadu Buhari using national security to justify trampling on the rule of law and individual liberties, Nigeria is more under a strongman rule than a true democracy.   Which brings us to the recent bill proposing a death penalty for so-called hate speech. Arbitrary arrests and detentions are bad enough, but death for “hate speech” is beyond the pale. Yet, on November 12, Senator Alihu Sabi Abdullahi, deputy chief whip of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, in the Senate, introduced a bill to establish a “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech”, under which anyone found guilty of making a “hate speech” would be jailed for five years or more, and if the speech leads to the death of another person, sentenced to death by hanging!

Here’s the first point. In a country where, as President Barack Obama wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope, there are two sets of rules “one for elites and one for ordinary people”, the Hate Speech bill is most certainly not aimed at the political elites, whose incitements during elections have led to the death of hundreds of Nigerians. It is interesting that the focus of the bill is on the dissemination of information through the social media, but more people have died in this country due to reckless and incendiary comments by politicians than anything ordinary Nigerians produced, published or broadcast on social media.

I mean, when over 800 people died in the North after the 2011 presidential election, whose comments allegedly triggered the violence? When the world turned, laser-focused, on Nigeria during the 2015 presidential election to prevent a post-election conflagration, whose inflammatory comments fuelled the tension? And who said during this year’s election that any foreign election observer who interfered in the election would “go back in body bags”? Were these ordinary Nigerians or the politicians? Of course, the politicians. Yet, although Nigeria, like every other country, has inchoate offences, such as incitement, in its criminal law, no politician has been prosecuted for inciting election violence.

So, the first point is that the bill is misguided and not aimed at the real peddlers of hatred in Nigeria – the politicians. The violence in last week’s Kogi and Bayelsa governorship elections, during which some people died, shows that the politicians, through incendiary comments and use of political thugs, have caused more deaths in this country than anything produced, published or broadcast by ordinary Nigerians on social media.

Of course, social media facilitates the spread of hate speech, but my point is that a bill that recommends death by hanging for anyone found guilty of causing the death of another through hate speech will never target the real culprits. Even Boko Haram and the killer herdsmen have political sponsors, but how many politicians have been arrested, let alone prosecuted, for peddling hatred or sponsoring violence? Truth is, in Nigeria, politicians literally get away with murders, and the so-called Hate Speech bill will not stop that!

Then, there is the technical point about what constitutes “hate” and when the offence could become a disguised attack on free speech. Many western countries have hate-crime laws, but the threshold for the offence is set so high to avoid it becoming a barrier to freedom of expression. Indeed, given the nebulousness of the offence and the possibility it could be used to abuse free speech, the US does not have hate speech laws, and US courts have repeatedly held that the criminalisation of hate speech violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.

Sadly, given the treatment of Sowore by this government, and even by the courts, there must be legitimate concerns that the Hate Speech bill, if it becomes law, would erode any constitutional right to freedom of expression in this county.

Which, finally, brings us to the more political point. The sponsor of the bill, Senator Abdullahi, said: “There has never been a time when Nigeria has been very fragile in terms of its unity than this period”. But it is utterly misguided to think that unity can be decreed by law rather engendered by creating a sense of inclusion and equal status in Nigeria.

Yet, President Buhari has refused to introduce political reforms to address the underlying causes of ethnic disharmony in this country. Instead, he is using arrests, detentions and military clampdowns to enforce unity, and now lawmakers from his party are proposing death by hanging. It is beyond belief! What’s more, the bill, if enacted, will create a climate of fear in Nigeria and erode fundamental freedoms. It mustn’t become law!

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