By BANJI OJEWALE
When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers — Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish writer
IN Nineteen Eighty Four when we all stood in awe of Decree Four, to differ with the government and its officials was a dinner with agony. Nothing pleasant was served at the table. All those who fed there had deleterious tales, instead of stories of delicious meals. Some didn’t live to tell us their experiences at the feast. But others, like the two journalists with The Guardian newspaper, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, survived Decree Four.
It was a pyrrhic triumph, though, at the end of the day. For, the dragon military law had its way, savaging them by consigning them to prison term for news they reported. It also somehow cowed several more others and prevented them from talking about the excesses of their government and its officials. Instead they fled to the safety of such far-flung societies as Afghanistan to report events that related not to them and their country.
Now, nearly forty years after, Decree 4 is making a return in the name of a Hate Speech Bill. It is blandly called, National Cohesion and Integration Act, with the mandate to establish an Independent National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches. The bill, receiving Senate hearing and public opprobrium at the moment, recommends the death by hanging for the peddler or author of ‘hate speech’ that leads to loss of life.
The bill, sponsored by Senator Abdullahi Sabi of the ruling All Progressives Congress, passed its first reading on Tuesday, November 12, with provisions frighteningly at odds with a democratic setting such as ours.
The legislation proposes: “A person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and/or visual, which is threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, commits an offence, if such person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or person from such an ethnic group in Nigeria…
“Any person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging…
“A person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to an imprisonment for a term not less than five years, or to a fine of not less than ten million naira, or to both…”
Many Nigerians like senior lawyer and activist Femi Falana as well as Minister of State for Transport, Gbemisola Saraki, have addressed what they call the unconstitutionality of mothering a genocidal bill to tame the menace of ‘hate speech’ brewed in the shadow media in Nigeria.
And because it’s coming at a time government officials are threatening to drown the voice of this ‘new’ media, the whole nation believes there is something invidious about the bill given its sanguinary goal. Why would punishment for a hazy and amorphous concept of hate speech draw blood when, according to Saraki and Falana, “the Cybercrime Act had taken care of the entire fiats regarding hate speech by making stringent conditions, including fine and prison terms for offenders.” Falana has even gone ahead to insist that “the National Assembly has no power to enact a law on hate speech for the entire country.”
He says: “Under Section 4 of the Constitution, NASS can only legislate on matters in the exclusive and concurrent lists. I have looked at those lists. I have not found any one where the NASS has been empowered to make the law on hate speech. It is a state affair on residual list.”
Worried compatriots say what makes the proposed law dangerous and, therefore, unacceptable is that it would leave the definition of hate speech in the hands of a government that does not suffer free speech to exist.
That is a leap back into 1984. Is it a coincidence that what we witnessed then under the juggernaut of a military junta headed by Muhammadu Buhari is what is about to play out again decades after with the same Buhari in the saddle, but as an elected head of an elected government? Changed circumstances have not changed the man. Cucullus non facit monachum. The hood does not make the monk.
Laws that seek to introduce anti-free speech provisions outside what the constitution prescribes are the handiwork of failing and unpopular administrations, the landslide ‘victories’ their candidates and parties receive at the poll notwithstanding. They roll out decrees that attempt to smother dissent.
They are irascible when you point at their poor leadership and bad governance. You rattle them when you protest at their policies that have led to large pockets of desolate communities across the land. They fail to realize that that it is not hate speech in itself that destroys a society but corrupt, looting, non-performing governments. Such administrations give rise to what we call hate speech.
The citizen receiving the best of governance wouldn’t have cause to lambast that provider of his basic needs. Hate speeches are brewed by the cauldron of corruption. When state policies enable a few to corner and embezzle the resources of a nation, the society is denied such life-serving infrastructure as well-kitted hospitals, modern schools with properly motivated teachers, expansive roads without death traps, affordable and modern housing for an economically empowered citizenry etc.
These are the signs of a failing state which so-called hate speech authors attempt to draw attention to. That is what the lawmakers should decapitate, the system that allows official and unofficial corruption to thrive with impunity, not those who stand on rooftops condemning it. We need a fundamental change of attitude in the country.
But in Nigeria, the gods have a way of playing tricks on us. At the poll, we pray for a new set of rulers to displace those we’ve lived with for years. We wish to retire them as a punishment for their tragic misrule. To be sure, the deities grant our petition. But, alas, these strange gods don’t love us. Their answer to our days and hours of ceaseless prayer is the whiplash!