A recent bill, which passed through first reading in the Senate, has stirred controversy for recommending death sentence or life imprisonment for hate speech mongers. Damilola Oyedele writes
On February 28, 2018, a bill, named “National Hate Speech Commission Establishment Bill” scaled through first reading on the floor of the Senate. In normal circumstances, the first reading of bills does not catch attention, but in this instance, the seemingly frivolous title of the bill caught attention of nearly everyone.
Was it a bill seeking establishment of yet another commission? Apparently it was beyond that. Digging further showed that it was not a frivolous one, but a bill that should concern every well-meaning Nigerian, either positively or negatively.
It particularly drew attention, because the All Progressives Congress, with its seeming intolerance for criticism of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, particularly on social media, has been throwing the word ‘hate speech’ around.
The long title of the bill is: “An Act of the National Assembly to Promote National Cohesion and Integration by Outlawing Unfair Discrimination, Hate Speeches and to Provide for the Establishment, Powers and Functions of the Independent National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches and for Purposes Connected Therewith.”
It is sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (Niger APC), who is also the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Publicity.
Defining Hate Speech
While the speech did not specifically define hate speech, it defined a monger of the potential crime as “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 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 persons from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.”
For such monger, the bill recommends that the person shall be “liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging.”
In simpler words, where the communication (either by words or action) of one person, incites violence, which causes loss of life or lives to another, or other persons, the monger shall be liable to death by hanging.
The bill goes further and stipulates penalties for discrimination or harassment on the basis of ethnicity.
“For the purpose of this Act, a person discriminates against another person if on ethnic grounds, the person without any lawful justification, treats another Nigerian citizen less favourably than he treats or he would treat other persons, from his ethnic or another ethnic group and/or that on grounds of ethnicity, a person puts another person at a particular disadvantage, when compared with other persons from other ethnic nationality of Nigeria.
“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 (a) violating that other person’s dignity or (b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment,” it provides.
Such offender shall be liable on conviction to an imprisonment for a term not less than five years, or to a fine of not less than N10,000, according to the bill.
It stimulates further that a “person victimises another if in any circumstances relevant for the purpose of the Act, the person does any act that is injurious to the wellbeing and esteem of another person, by treating the person less favourably than, in those circumstances, such person treats or would treat other persons.”
The bill would find a person guilty of ethnic or racial contempt if the person knowingly utters words to incite feelings of contempt, hatred, hostility, violence or discrimination against any person, group or community on the basis of ethnicity or race, commits an offence.
Establishment of Commission
As implied by the ‘short title’, the bill would see to the establishment of yet another Commission named Independent National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches.
It would be saddled with the responsibility to investigate complaints of ethnic or racial discrimination and make recommendation to the Attorney General, the Human Rights Commission and other relevant authorities on measures to be taken, where such complaints are valid.
It would also discourage persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices through the use of hate speeches, and promote tolerance among all regardless of affiliations.
Defending the bill which has drawn outrage from Nigerians, Abdullahi, speaking to THISDAY, said a country like Rwanda did not pay attention to the utterance of some citizens, which led to genocide.
“Even World War II, it was the kind of things people talked about that led to some people being targeted for extermination,” he said. According to him, “The biggest challenge about hate speech is the fact that it is usually along two prominent lines. Nigeria is so prominent with it: religion and ethnicity. Go back into history and crisis of this country, you will realise that it is one person saying something bad, that leads to another person reacting, and before you know it, inflames anger and people will get killed, people lose their property and people go through all kinds of horrendous treatments,” he added.
Abdullahi noted that Kenya, as a way to deal with pre and post-election crises, has established a similar commission which helped to mediate in the recent issues which escalated tensions after Raila Odinga declared himself president despite losing election.
“That should have been a treasonable felony,” Abdullahi said and added that the commission intervened such that Odinga has abandoned his ‘presidency’.
The proposed commission, if established, would therefore play mediatory role of promoting arbitration, conciliation, mediation and similar forms of dispute resolution mechanisms in order to secure and enhance tolerance, Abdullahi said.
But are there no existing laws that target discriminations and incitement to violence in Nigeria already?
“Yes, there are laws on defamation of character, public order and disorder, so many other laws like that. Why did they not stop these?” he queried.
He also clarifies that it has nothing to do with the APC’s seeming notion about hate speech.
“If you form yourself as a body for example, if you want to talk in respect of any issue in the polity, do not tag a particular group. Talk on the subject matter and do not try to make it appear as if a particular group is at fault. We must begin to place premium on lives. Let us not think that when a life is lost, it is inconsequential. It is inconsequential because you did not empathise,” Abdullahi said.