The Senate has reintroduced a bill it abandoned under pressure last year through which it sought to impose the death penalty on “any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person.”
The upper legislative chamber was last year forced to drop its first attempt to enact the law, following massive public outcry that ensued after The Guardian, in March 2018, exclusively reported that the lawmakers were desperate to pass the bill.
Tagged “National Commission For the Prohibition of Hate Speeches”, the bill is sponsored by the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Aliu Sabi (APC, Niger State).
It was the 12th item on the Order Paper yesterday and was granted automatic first reading on the floor of the Senate.
The death penalty is the most severe punishment provided by the bill which defines hate speech as a comment that insults people for their religion, ethnic and linguistic affiliation, among others.
It stipulates: “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.”
On offences like harassment on the basis of ethnicity, racial contempt, the bill proposes not less than five-year jail term or a fine of not less than N10 million or both.
“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.”
According to the bill, “Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in subsection (1)(a) or (b) of this Section if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect.
“A person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to an imprisonment fora term not less than five years, or to a fine of not less than ten million naira, or to both.”
The bill, according to its sponsor, is aimed at ensuring the elimination of all forms of hate speeches; promoting the elimination of all forms of hate speeches against persons or ethnic groups; as well as advising the Federal Government on the matter.
Other situations which the bill condemns are when “a person subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this Section where, on ethnic grounds, he unjustifiably engages in a conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating that other person’s dignity; or creating an intimidating, degrading, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment.”
The commission will be headed by an executive chairperson to be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the National Council of State, subject to the confirmation of at least two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.
Other functions of the commission include discouraging persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices through the use of hate speeches; promoting tolerance, understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life and encouraging full participation by all ethnic communities in social, economic, cultural and political life of other communities.
It is also to plan, supervise, coordinate and promote educational and training programmes to create public awareness, support, and advancement of peace and harmony among ethnic communities and racial groups.
But the planned law is already eliciting criticism from some quarters.
Former vice president and presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the February 23, election, Atiku Abubakar, cautioned the Senate against promulgating the anti-hate speech bill into law.
In a statement by his media Adviser, Paul Ibe, yesterday evening, Atiku noted that those now toying with the idea of an anti-hate speech bill, with punishment by death should exercise much caution.
“The contemplation of such laws is in itself not just hate speech, but an abuse of the legislative process that will violate Nigerians’ constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech.
“Those behind the bill should wake up to the fact that Nigeria’s democracy has survived its longest incarnation because those who governed this great nation between 1999 and 2015 never toyed with this most fundamental of freedoms. It is prudent to build upon the tolerance inherited from those years and not shrink the democratic space to satisfy personal and group interests” he advised.”
Chieftains of two socio-cultural groups particularly kicked against the plan to establish an agency for hate speech.
They urged Nigerians to resist every attempt by the Senate to aid the enclosure of the open space and turn Nigeria to a full-blown dictatorship.
Specifically, Yinka Odumakin, spokesman of the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural organization, Afenifere, said the Senate was aiding and abetting full-grown dictatorship in the country by wanting to take away the right of speech.
“The Senate is now behaving truly like a rubber stamp assembly. Of all the problems confronting Nigeria today, all they can be doing is to be thinking of establishing an agency for hate speech and the death penalty for offenders.
“What constitutes hate speech? It is a subjective interpretation according to the whims and caprices of those in power, so all they are trying to do with this bill is to cow people to submission and propose for execution those who disagree with the way the country is being run.
“The way our Senate is doing is making many of us who fought for democracy to ask: what did we fight against in the military rule that we are not witnessing in Nigeria today, especially with this kind of bill by the senate? Nigerians should resist this attempt to turn the country to a full-blown dictatorship.”
A Second Republic politician and chieftain of the Igbo socio-cultural group, Ohanaeze, Chief Guy Ikokwu, told The Guardian in a telephone interview that the law of libel and defamation was enough to handle hate speeches.
“They should define what hate speech means and judge themselves if they have never hated anyone in their lives and if they were found guilty. They should be the first to judge themselves.
“Our law of libel and defamation of character is very clear, so why would they want to fund an agency and even go ahead executing people.
“The law is enough under the dispensation of the rule of law and liberal development. Our laws guarantee freedom of expression, the Senate cannot make any law outside the constitution. We are not under a military regime, we are in a federal republic. If they want anarchy instead of liberal democracy, they should pass the bill and let everyone know where the country stands. This is getting too much, we cannot continue like this.”
A senior advocate of Nigeria, Chief Mike Ozekhome, said: “A bill sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi, who incidentally was the spokesman for the Senate in the 8th National Assembly, is said to have passed the first reading. Part of the bizarre provisions in the said bill is the prescription of death penalty for makers of hate speech. What is hate speech by the way and who defines it? What is the true test of determining it? Is the test that of a government in power or that of the traumatised people or that of the National Assembly or the courts or the executive? Just who?
“I have not yet had the opportunity to read the bill and so do not yet have the details of this unusual bill seeking the death penalty (by hanging) on alleged hate speech. I pray this provision is not true. I pray it is a mere moonlight tale.
“This bill should be deleted immediately. It should immediately be aborted and killed as a malformed embryo at its second reading gestation stage before it is allowed to be delivered as a societal monster. I quickly warn that this maverick and intolerant government cannot be trusted by any sane person to fairly operate such a draconian piece of legislation introduced under a law that carries the death penalty for alleged hate speech.”
Ozekhome further queried: “When has merely made a speech under section 39 of the 1999 Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression become, not just treasonable felony (life imprisonment) but treason itself that is punishable with death?
“Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Nigeria is a signatory to this international instrument.”
According to the senior lawyer, “Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, also domesticated in Nigeria, reinforces this inalienable freedom that the NASS is attempting to derobe and destroy. The bill is an ill-intentioned, ill-conceived, ill-digested and dictatorial and absolutist piece of nonsensical legislation waiting to consume all of us.
“An obnoxious law such as this will further drive underground and into hiding, the opposition and genuine social critics who speak truth to power and criticise serial, opaque, anti-people, corrupt and high-handed polices of government. This government has been tested and known to be very allergic to constructive criticism.”
To him, “this is a government that listens to itself, sets its own examination questions, marks them by itself and awards marks to itself. Citizens’ opinion does not matter. That is why we have topmost government officials who shock the conscience of Nigerians and the world by saying, for example, that insecurity in Nigeria was exaggerated and that Nigerian roads were not as bad as we ‘falsely’ proclaimed. A government that incarcerates the Deji Adeyanjus, Omoyele Sowores and Chido Onumas of this world cannot be trusted to be a custodian and dispenser of justice under such an abhorrent law.”
Human rights lawyer, Chief Malcom Omirhobo, said: “The Senate introduction of a bill seeking to establish a Federal Government agency to check hate speech in the country shows how idle our lawmakers are and how they are prepared to waste public funds at the slightest opportunity.
“For crying out loud, we have enough agencies and laws in Nigeria to take care of hate speech. Our problem is not the availability of laws or agencies but the implementation and enforcement of the laws by the existing agencies.
“For whatever it is worth, the Senate had better know that the Nigerian constitution has a binding force on them and that any law they pass that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Nigerian constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression will be null and void to the extent of that inconsistency. We will not sit down mopping, we will challenge and resist it.”
A Kano-based lawyer, Abubakar Sani, however, said: “Much concern has been expressed about the prospect of curbing freedom of speech and expression by such a law, if enacted. The National Assembly has got that power because that fundamental right is not absolute, as it can be derogated from under Section 45 of the constitution. The only thing is that, if made by the National Assembly, it will be limited to Abuja in scope. Beyond the FCT, only state houses of Assembly are competent to enact such legislation. But, the key thing is that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute. It stops where the rights of others to their reputations start. “