By Tonnie Iredia

Hate speech, Senate, Nigeria

Just before assurances were made by Senate President Ahmed Lawan that the Senate will not pass anti-people laws, the Hate speech bill had on its own suffered a major credibility deficit. Last week, its sponsor, Senator Sani Abdullahi issued a statement purporting to have received support from an official of the American Embassy in Nigeria.

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In fact, a photograph of the Senator and the Embassy official was published to give credence to the alleged US support. The diplomat was reportedly persuaded by the Senator into believing that the bill was a welcome development in Nigeria adding that the unnecessary controversy surrounding the bill was the making of the media. The statement was however silent on how soon the diplomat would recommend the “beneficial” bill to his own country. Or is what is good for Nigeria not good for the US ?
If the truth must be told, the claim by the Senator of enjoying American support is ludicrous because it is Nigerians whom the bill would affect that should be enlightened and persuaded and not Americans who ordinarily, would not dissipate their energies on making new laws for subjects already covered by their constitution. In the US, the settled law is that “nothing shall be done to abridge the freedom of speech and of the press.” Even for President Donald Trump, tampering with freedom of speech is a-no-go-area, let alone a staff of the US Embassy in Nigeria. The exogenous claim by Senator Abdullahi to an American endorsement of his antiquated bill confirms the argument of some of his colleagues that he was alone in his quest to curtail our people’s fundamental right. His argument that Section 45 of our constitution allows for the curtailment of freedom is also overtaken by the existence of the laws of defamation and that of cyber crimes which had long suffocated whatever space the section initially opened for regulation. It is really hard to buy the senator’s frivolous lawmaking obsession.

We however support President Buhari’s call a few days ago for attitudinal change in the country. In truth, many Nigerians particularly, politicians are fond of making statements that can instigate avoidable crisis-a habit that any right thinking citizen should deprecate. The reason many people are against the hate speech bill is not only because it replicates existing laws, but also because of the fear that its implementation will as usual be unjust as we see it happening in some states now, where people are brutalized and incarcerated for criticizing a governor without regards for the truth and public gain inherent in the criticism.
It is also true that some citizens are genuinely frustrated by unkind public policies and our nation’s stunted growth which greatly infuriate and incite them to engage in hate speeches

To change this attitude, two things must be done. The first is to rejig our governance framework with ample social justice. The second is to employ public enlightenment strategies to highlight the dire consequences of intemperate language. To enact uncivilized laws as a panacea is a futile reversion to military rule in which every infraction attracts a decree.
For example, at a point during military rule, we had a decree compelling citizens to clean their environment one Saturday every month. Defaulters were usually summarily arrested for moving about instead of “enjoying”a forced holiday supposedly dedicated to environmental sanitation. No one, at the time, imagined the futility of a one-day clean up in a month. Even successive military leaders did not consider the irrationality of making people imbibe a mundane sermon of living in dirt every other day except the last Saturday of the month. What about other days? Everyone forgot the old culture of civic education which was also part of school curricula. We shelved the use of sanitary inspectors visiting different locations DAILY to give awards to the neatest communities which made people embrace constant cleaning. Thus, regimented environmental sanitation was obviously a misplaced public policy. In the same way, rather than teach our people the virtues of decency in communal interactions, and indeed, respect for the cornerstone of African tradition of being our neighbours’ keepers, some admirers of military rule in our Senate think the best way to compel good living is to churn out barbaric legal provisions to whip people into line.

Just as public enlightenment campaigns can serve as a better remedy to our care-free living standard of filth and squalor, so can they effortlessly end reckless, false and injurious statements that can dismember a nation. But public enlightenment as presently half-heartedly and intermittently done can hardly help us. The campaign against hate speech and all forms of unwholesome behaviour ought to be steadfast, continuous and vigorous. It can neither be an ad hoc affair nor can it be over regulated. The nation probably had this in mind when it established in 1993, a relevant societal institution- the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to undertake value re-orientation of the polity.

Honestly, our people needed and still need to be taught, counseled and converted to embrace value reorientation recognizing the values of brotherhood, patriotism and national integration. We need to learn right from birth, the tenets of the rule of law and the need to abide by societal norms, guidelines and regulations. Traffic congestion for instance which is usually caused by too many vehicles elsewhere, is in our clime, exacerbated by poor driving habits. In same manner, disregard for public buildings, structures, offices and their operatives has left us static and stagnant in growth and development. Proper civic education is no doubt what can best propel our citizens to avoid extra-judicial self-help when aggrieved and follow the due process of law in their day to day activities.

We can hardly achieve the type of orientation we desire if our legislators allocate meager funds to organizations like our Orientation Agency while bogus sums are put aside for imaginary salaries and allowances to serving political office holders and humongous pensions to their predecessors.

How to mobilize our citizens to be positive contributors to national development by shunning avoidable criminal tendencies is what should be our goal now and not the use of bad laws like the ill-fated hate speech bill.

Effective mobilization for national unity can easily be enhanced if other similar institutions such as the Federal Character Commission (FCC) and the National Youth Service Corps ( NYSC)can play the ideal role of national unity for which they were established. Painfully, both the FCC and the NYSC have since drastically diluted the modalities designed by their founders for their operations. Legislators whose oversight functions would have redressed the situation appear to prefer proposing draconian laws as if they are oblivious of the usefulness of strong institutions

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