Nigeria, Hate Speech Bills and a Dying Democracy

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(file photo).

With a Hate Speech Bill and a shrinking democratic space, Nigerian lawmakers have become no different from the country's military rule which saw dictatorship thrive. The final breath of democracy in Nigeria is being killed by Nigerian lawmakers, and Nigerians run the risk of losing what is left of their freedom if they continue to sit in silence.

Democracy in Nigeria has been difficult to sustain. Barely a decade after gaining independence, the country was thrown into its first military coup in 1966, setting up a series of coups and dictatorships that would mould the country into an inefficient entity grappling with corruption and waste of resources.

The existence of a military dictatorship that kept on having an unhealthy interaction with civilian leadership has not helped the growth of democracy. Controversial questions have been posed because of Nigeria's complex political environment. Was military dictatorship a good proposition or maybe a civilian rule was a better option? It's not surprising that some among the Nigerian population would prefer a military rule to a civilian rule. The reason for such a preference being that the toughness of what a military regime would bring; discipline and order, are what is seen as lacking in a civilian rule. These are also the reasons why Muhammadu Buhari, in 1984 came with War Against Indiscipline, "a controlled mass mobilization corrective response to social maladjustment within the country."

When Buhari left power, the civic space Nigerians had managed to conquer for themselves had been shrunk. In 2019, the leopard has not changed its spots. But prior to Buhari's democratic ascension to power, former President Olusegun Obasanjo was also a former head of state who positioned himself as a democratic ruler and employed technocrats as his ministers, but he also kept a leash on Nigerians, and heavily curtailed freedoms. President Obasanjo will be infamously remembered for his onslaught on the people of Odi in 1999 and Zaki-Biam in 2001.

The violence of the state against the people of Nigeria has been an ongoing trend since the Asaba Massacre in Delta State in 1967. Nigerians understand the use of violence not just in military regimes but also in seemingly democratic and civilian rule. President Buhari has also showed a potential to clamp down on anyone who stands against his rule in Nigeria, from activists to civilians.

Positioned as a 'reformed democrat,' President Buhari's army used live bullets in its confrontation with the Shia Muslims who protested in Abuja, Nigeria. Another protest by activists demanding the release of former presidential contestant Yele Sowore resulted in live bullets and teargas being used demonstrators. Nigeria's Senate and House of Assembly did not condemn such violence used on protesters.

Nigerian lawmakers, among the highest paid in the world have been silent on other cogent issues affecting the Nigerian populace like killings and extortion by the Nigerian Police branch called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). A demand for police reformation has been ignored. Young people have been killed and harassed by the police for using iPhones or driving good cars.

Since Nigeria's 1999 democratic dispensation, democracy has not flourished. Social media's democratisation of information has led to Nigerian lawmakers putting forth a bill, which borrows heavily from the Singaporean parliament asking for death penalty for hate speech.

While corruption and other offences don't carry similar harsh sentences, Nigerian lawmakers, many of whom don't like to be challenged, have seen this bill as a tool to curb the little freedom many Nigerians enjoy. Unfortunately, the protest against this bill has only led to online squirm and the bill itself has gone into the second reading.

The democratic space in Nigeria continues to shrink, and Nigerians run the risk of losing what is left of their freedom if they sit in silence.

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