The anti-hate speech bill sponsored by Senator Sabi Abdullahi of the Niger APC, who is also the spokesperson of the upper legislative chamber, has attracted a barrage of criticisms. The bill seeks the establishment of an Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches to enforce hate speech laws across the country, and ensure the “elimination” of hate speech.
It proposes some punitive measures for those who run afoul of the law but the part that has generated heated discussions among Nigerians, is where it proposes death by hanging for anyone found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person.
For starters, the law is overkill. I stand to be corrected, but I do not think that there is any country in the world where hate speech is a capital crime punishable by death. Not even in rogue regimes, dictatorships and illiberal democracies – apology to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria – scattered around the world.
The million dollar question is how do we define hate speech? I am not talking about the dictionary definition but the metrics that will be used to determine what constitutes hate speech. Does hate speech uttered by a member of a tribe against his own people constitute an offence under the proposed law? I ask because in recent times two prominent Igbo politicians have used derogatory words to describe their own people. Does this constitute hate speech? What about a scenario where a member of another tribe repeats exactly the same words used by these Igbo politicians, and it leads to a riot, which results in loss of lives; can the “repeater” of the hate speech be prosecuted for committing a crime?
Every literate Nigerian knows that there is a difference between criticism and hatred. But I doubt if our politicians understand that. In Nigerian politics, there are blurred lines between criticism and hatred, and both are viewed as one and the same. This has birthed fears among the populace that the proposed law is an attempt to gag dissenting voices.
The fear expressed by many that this is an attempt to stifle free speech is definitely not out of place. Apart from politicians, many non-state actors like journalists, activists, political commentators e.t.c would run the risk of going to the gallows anytime they criticize any government policy or official. Subsequently, Nigeria would return to the dark days of military rule where we had freedom of speech but not freedom after speech – apology to Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada.
Government should focus on healing the fault lines that divide our nation which is responsible for the rising wave of hate speech in the land. They should focus on the cause and not the actions alone. President Muhammadu Buhari should be just and fair to all the peoples of Nigeria irrespective of whether they voted for him or not especially in the area of appointments into political offices.
I am totally against hate speech most especially that which threatens the unity of the Nigerian state. But proposing a death sentence as punishment for offenders is akin to killing a housefly with a sledgehammer. Government should focus on what fuels hate speech and do the needful to stem this ugly trend in our society.
Peter Ovie Akus