Hate Speech’ And The Coming Hangman!

By Ikenga Chronicles November 26, 2019

Hate Speech’ And The Coming Hangman!

–Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

When governments betray enduring inability to solve some of the very basic needs of their people in order to end (or at least reduce) their pains and suffering, and if also the democratic character of the heads of such regimes have begun to badly wither, their impatience and irritation for dissenting views will start growing with incredible speed as they see that in the eyes and hearts of the citizenry, their esteem and appreciation are badly plummeting.

At such times, their desperation to gag the people will become so palpable. It might even degenerate to a stage when merely speaking about your pain and suffering could be viewed as “Hate Speech” – depending on who is interpreting your complaint. After all, by talking about the hardship in the land due to failed, misconceived policies, the collapse of infrastructure and lack of basic amenities, you are portraying the government as a failure; that could qualify as “Hate Speech,” and you could go in for it. So, to stay out of trouble, you just have to act a “good citizen” by keeping quiet and suffering in silence. You may never know, the hangman might be a yelling distance away! History is replete with examples!

Another possible scenario might be that plans are probably being perfected to unleash some very unpopular policies which will certainly provoke widespread rejection. So, a law needs to be in place to prevent such a reaction. A bill is, therefore, untidily knocked together by overzealous sympathisers in the legislature to seize the people’s voice and send their freedom of expression to the gallows. Could this really be the very trying situation that is about to embrace Nigerians today? Are more perilous times really here or unfolding?    

At a time Nigerians are consumed by intense worry that their freedom to express themselves as full citizens of this country is being brazenly being taken away from them, and the laws of the land are losing the capacity to protect them from the excesses of those in authority, a senator is sponsoring an outrageous bill that proposes harsh sentences, including death penalty and life imprisonment, for those found guilty of “hate speech”.

Entitled, “National Commission For the Prohibition of Hate Speeches”, the bill which was sponsored by the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Aliu Sabi (APC, Niger State), proposes that “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.”

According to Sabi’s bill, anybody who, in the opinion of the “Hate Speech Commission,” (I suppose) is found to have undertaken the following actions would be viewed as having indulged in “Hate Speech.”  He should be  “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 or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour commits an offence if such a 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.”

This bill clearly wants to kill and bury all forms of public criticism, especially, against public officials, in this country. How can a president or governor, for instance, who runs the country or state aground not attract abuse or insults from the people whose future he has callously mortgaged? Should such outpour of deserving public ridicule (which happens against erring public officers all over the world) not, by the provisions of this bill be categorised as “Hate Speech”?  And what if a public analyst takes up the matter and harshly criticises the public officer for abusing public trust; wouldn’t that, by the definitions of “hate speech” in this bill nail the patriotic commentator? And what if the corrupt public official arranges his tugs to unleash mayhem to protest his portrayal in the media, and in the process, a life is taken, wouldn’t that take a patriot to the gallows or give him a life imprisonment for lamenting the destruction of his country or state by a thieving public officer, while the wayward public officer retires to his palatial home to enjoy wine with his accomplices in misgovernance?

Indeed, not even Idi Amin, despite his horrible atrocities, could have conceived such a law for his country. We were all here when the members and officials of the party that formed the present government called President Goodluck Jonathan all sorts of ugly names that badly denigrated his character. And when he kept faith with the universal tenet of allowing people to enjoy their freedom of expression which is one of the most essential ingredients of democratic practice, some people called him a weakling. He was called “clueless,” “kindergarten president” and other diminishing names by the same people that are in power today.

But now, from these same people, an all-devouring monster called “hate speech” bill is coming out today to criminalise the very freedom they had enjoyed and utilised to get into power. Although, this is not a whole-scale assessment of the Jonathan regime, but one can only hope that it would occur to the ruling party that they would not be in office for ever. They should not create a monster that would turn around to consume them tomorrow. They met a free Nigeria, they should not be allowed to put her and her citizens in chains!  Nobody was compelled to seek a leadership position in a democratic setting, and whoever is unable to stand the heat that goes with it, can gently excuse himself from it.

Already, another bill has passed Second Reading in the senate which seeks to regulate the use of the social media by the citizens to express themselves and hold their leaders accountable. Informed citizens are suspecting that these draconian laws may be used to plant such deep fears in the people that they would now be compelled to suffer in silence instead of voicing out their feeling. Never mind that there are laws already in our status books with which people can seek redress if  citizens defame one another in the course of expressing themselves. The wounded person has the option of seeking redress, and a duly constituted court would now look into the various angles of the case and award appropriate judgment.

But, it does seem that, to the sponsors of these bills, the extant laws are incapable of achieving the “clamp down” and “quick kill” effect they appear to crave which will create so much fear and trepidation in the land and cow the people into silence, driving everyone into his or her hole. Nigerians are already lamenting that the present government is too large and unwieldy, with so many ministers, special assistants and advisers, many of which appear to have overlapping functions, whose sustenance is sucking the treasury dry. Is the senate going to pass a bill that seeks to further bloat the bureaucracy by setting up a commission for the prohibition of “hate speech”?

Another major fear is that if the senate passes this bill, it could easily become a crude tool in the hands of the agents of an intolerant government to deal ruthlessly with its critics and members of the opposition. Already, we have seen cases of journalists still being detained despite unambiguous court pronouncement ordering for their release. What has the senate said about this untoward situation? Why is there is such great interest in restricting people’s freedom than guaranteeing it.

In its editorial of November 21, 2019, PUNCH newspaper called on the Senate to “quash the bill immediately.” According to the newspaper, “lawmakers should aspire to take the country into the club of successful liberal democracies. It is only autocratic and theocratic states that criminalise free speech, Nigeria is neither. The space should be made more robust for popular participation, not restricted to shield temporary occupants of public office from criticism or alternative views. The country is floundering, wracked by insecurity, poverty, lack of infrastructure and functional social services; more than ever before, therefore, citizens need to be encouraged in this multinational and multicultural society to ventilate their views.”

Indeed, the most effective antidote to public criticisms is good and selfless governance that makes life easier for the populace. Repressive laws can only compound the problem and isolate Nigeria from the comity of cvilised nations.