Nigeria: Hate Speech Bill Lacks Merit

20 November 2019
opinion

Sonnie Ekwowusi urges the Senate to dismiss the bill.

The Hate Speech Bill lacks merit. Therefore it should be dismissed by the Senate. To start with, the bill, which was apparently designed to curb hate speech on social media, is generating so much hate speech at the moment on social media. The bill has pitched the people of Nigeria in a complex web of deeper hatred with the Buhari government. The bill stirs up public hatred against the members of the National Assembly. In the last one week or so on the various social media the people have been kicking and cursing the sponsors of the bill.

The people cannot understand why a government that cannot impose a death penalty on murderous herdsmen, murderous bandits and murderous kidnappers could suddenly turn round and begin to impose a death penalty on ordinary Nigerians for exercising their civil right to free speech as guaranteed in our 1999 Constitution and the Freedom of Information Act. The people are saying that it is unconscionable that a government which has imposed economic hardship on the people by shutting down the trade borders where the essential food item such as rice are brought into Nigeria can at the same time impose a death penalty on the same people for exercising their God-given right to freedom of expression.

The worrisome aspect of the anti-free speech bill is that the phrase "hate speech" is subject to multiple arbitrary interpretations. For example, whereas Mr. President could travel abroad and tell the whole world that the Nigerian youths are lazy and useless and it would not be construed as a "hate speech". But when the same youths take to the social media in protest against the comment, they could be arrested and sentenced to death for uttering "hate speech" against Mr. President. Therefore the hate speech bill really lacks merit and should be dismissed.

By his nature, man is not obliged to like everything that he sees, knows or torches. Man is not an animal governed by its instincts. Man is governed by his will and intelligence. Therefore he is free to like or dislike anything. In other words, you cannot force me to like you or like your policy especially when your policy is useless and counter-productive. The Senate was historically designed to add wisdom and prudence to the public order as well as promote peace. But the Nigerian Senate is now behaving as if it is a harbinger of hatred and rancor no thanks to the hate speech bill currently pending in the Senate. Sincerely speaking, the anti-free speech bill is repugnant to good conscience. It is a public scandal. Weighed against the background of extant laws in Nigeria the bill is otiose and superfluous. The bill is simply dangerous. It is a recipe for unleashing the most pervasive totalitarianism in the land. More importantly, the anti-free speech bill portrays Nigeria before the outside world as a country occupying the lowest lung of human civilization.

Therefore the only reasonable option open to the Senate at the moment is to dismiss the bill. If President Buhari and his handlers are angry that the people are laughing at them on social media then they should start discharging their duties diligently and responsibly. After all public approbation is earned not imposed. If the Buhari government wants high public rating then it should excel in governance. What the government cannot do is to try to gag or muzzle public speech on social media. In any case, it is even impossible for the government to gag or muzzle the social media. We now live in an age of supersonic technological communication.

The days of gate-keeping in communication are over. We now live in a whistle blowing age in which nothing happens outside the public purview anymore. Even what you utter in your bedroom today could be broadcast to the whole world tomorrow. The walls have ears. For example, the feud between Aisha Buhari and Aso Villa cabal was already in the public domain even before the Presidency came out to deny it and later admitted it. In the U.S. the information that sparked off President Trump's impeachment trial came from a certain yet-to-be-identified whistleblower. And till date President Trump and his men have not been able to identify the whistleblower. Neither have they passed a death sentence on the whistleblower. In fact, since President Trump came to power, the leftist media such as The New York Times has been hurling unprintable insults at Trump. Yet Trump has not dispatched his security operatives to shut down or revoke the licence of the New York Times or sentenced the editors to death. This is the beauty of true democracy. You can see that we still have a .long way to go in Nigeria.

Perhaps the foremost and most profound reason why the Hate Speech Bill is unmeritorious is that it fragrantly violates the right to freedom of thought, conscience and right to freedom of expression and right to receive and impart information as guaranteed in sections 38(1) and 39 (1) (2) of the 1999 Constitution. In constitutional democracy, even as we understand it in Nigeria today, the citizens including members of the opposition enjoy certain basic rights. One of these basic rights is the right of the citizens to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the performance of their political leaders.

Going by this right, the people have a right to hold, for instance, the view that President Buhari has failed to live up to popular expectation in the last four and half years. Granted, no right is absolute. That is why section 45(1) of the same 1999 Constitution has explicitly provided that the aforesaid rights guaranteed under sections 38(1) and 39 (1)(2) "shall not invalidate any law reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health". Besides the aforesaid provisions, there are copious laws in Nigeria already dealing with hate speech (slander) or hate writings (libel). Therefore there is no need for the National Assembly to enact another "hate speech" law in Nigeria at the moment.

Finally, the purpose of human intellect is to know the truth of things. This truth remains unchanged even in a culture or philosophical atmosphere that is saturated by the denial of the truth. Must the truth offend? I don't think so. Therefore we must seek the truth. The most dangerous public crime, in the view of many, is the claim that truth doesn't exist or cannot be known. Indeed, the truth exists. Truth telling is not a hate speech. In fact, it is a hate speech to brand truth telling as a hate speech. Those branding the speeches of others as hate speech forget that they are reveling in the most hateful speeches.

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