Senate’s Controversial Hate Speech Bill and House’s Minority Leadership Crisis

0

The nation’s political space was last week heated by the re-introduction of the Hate Speech Bill at the Senate even as crisis had begun to loom within the opposition in the House of Representatives, report Deji Elumoye and Adedayo Akinwale

In the last few weeks, some of the bills passed by the Eighth National Assembly but declined assent by President Muhammadu Buhari are now being reintroduced on the floor of the Senate.

Two of such bills sponsored by two Senators from Niger State were Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019 sponsored by Senator Mohammed Musa and the Hate Speech Bill sponsored by the Deputy Minority Whip, Senator Sabi Abdullahi. They were both read at plenary before passing through the first reading last Tuesday.

Abdullahi had first sponsored the bill during the Eighth Senate, when he served as the spokesman of the upper legislative chamber. Interestingly, the sponsor of the bill was absent on the day the bill was reintroduced on the floor of the Senate possibly, because he knew what the reaction of the public to the bill would be.

The 26-page bill stipulates various jail terms including death by hanging by violators of the provisions of the bill cited as Independent National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches (Est, etc) Bill 2019 (SB.154).

Part 2 of the bill talks about the discrimination that the bill applies to include ethnic discrimination, hate speech, harassment on the basis of ethnicity, offence of ethnic or racial contempt, discrimination by way of victimisation and offences by body of persons.

Part 2(4) of the bill which stipulates ultimate penalty of death by hanging for violators of hate speech states that, “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 behavior 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 person from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.

“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.”

The two bills elicited a lot of reaction from the main opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Senators as well as the general public.

Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, stressed the readiness of PDP Senators to resist any anti-human rights Bill presented before the upper legislative chamber.

Referring to the bill entitled ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019’ and proposes a three-year jail term for anyone involved in the abuse of social media, which passed through the first reading at the Senate penultimate week, Senator Abaribe, averred that there were already laws that deal with the issue of regulating social media use that the proposed law seeks to achieve.

Urging Nigerians to respect the rights of others while expressing their views, he said, “There is no speed with which this Bill is being passed. The first reading of a Bill is automatic. We can’t make a comment on what is still in the first stage.

“What I can say is that this Senate can’t be a party to removing the rights of Nigerians under any circumstance. Section 39 of the Constitution talks about our freedom as citizens. The 9th Senate will not abridge your rights. I don’t think Nigerians, who fought and paid the supreme to entrench this democracy will easily give it away and make us go back to the dark days. Rest assured that when we get to that point, we will stand for the people. Every Bill that passes here must pass through the rigors to ensure that it protects the rights of over 200 million Nigerians.

“We have a plethora of laws that can be used to drive the question of driving a free society. While social media can be good, it can also be bad. I am a victim of social media. As much as there is freedom, yours stops where another person’s own starts. We urge Nigerians not to propagate falsehood or fake news. Our job is to guarantee the freedoms and rights of both sides,” the Minority Leader stated.

In its reaction to the Hate Speech Bill, a Pan Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere has asked Nigerians to resist any attempt by the National Assembly to shut down the democratic space.

The group’s spokesman, Yinka Odumakin, enjoined Nigerians to resist the attempt “by a rubber stamp assembly that wants to shut down the democratic space that we fought to have, wondering “who determines what constitutes hate speech? It would be a whimsical and capricious enforcement to cow or eliminate those who disagree with the administration”.

He added that, “Daily, we are forced to ask: what did we fight against about military rule that we are not experiencing today? The Senate is now behaving like a front for a brutal dictatorship by proposing a legislation that was unheard of even under the Nazis”.

By the time the two bills go for second reading and debated by Senators, one will be able to have a clearer picture of whether the Bill’s will proceed to the next stage, which is public hearing where stakeholders like civil society groups and media bodies who have been critical of the two bills will have the opportunity to ventilate their opposition to the Bills.

However, at the House of Representatives, hope that the crisis rocking the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) over the leadership of the minority caucus of the party was subsiding appears forlorn.

If anything, statement issued by the National Publicity Secretary of they party, Kola Ologbodiyan, endorsing Kingsley Chinda, Chukwuka Onyema, Yakubu Barde and Muriano Ajibola, as Caucus Leader, Deputy Caucus Leader, Caucus Whip, and Caucus Deputy Whip respectively showed that the party leadership was far from backtracking on installing their choice persons as Minority leaders of the House by every means possible.

Trouble started, when the PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, and National Secretary, Senator Umar Tsauri, wrote a letter dated 21st June 2019 to Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, appointing the aforementioned names as leaders of the minority caucus.

But in a joint letter to the Speaker dated 2nd July 2019, over 100 out of the 147 opposition members stated that they had elected Ndudi Elumelu, Toby Okechukwu, Gideon Gwani and Adesegun Adekoya, as Minority Leader, Deputy Minority Leader, Minority Whip and Deputy Minority Whip, accordingly, pursuant to Order 7 Rule 8 of the House.

Attempt by the party’s appointees to snatch the mace as the Speaker announced the names of Elumelu and three others resulted in a fracas, although the Speaker quickly announced the names nevertheless and immediately adjourned plenary.

While some members of the PDP National Working Committee (NWC) met and suspended Elumelu and five others for a month over their inability to appear before the NWC, Chinda, Onyema, Barde, and Ajibola began to parade themselves as Caucus Leader, Deputy Caucus Leader, Caucus Whip, and Deputy Caucus Whip, respectively.

This has however earned them a probe by the House, when Hon. Ben Ibakpa, at the plenary recently accused them of impersonating House Minority leadership, issuing statements, and “misleading the general public and causing confusion and disaffection in the House of Representatives”.

According to him, “This is a gross abuse of our collective and individual privileges. This violates Section 24, Legislative Houses (Powers and Privileges) Act, Cap L.12, Laws of Federation of Nigeria, 2004 as well extant provisions of the Standing Orders of this House”,

In what observers see as a reaction to the probe, the statement by Ologbondiyan, insisted that Chinda and the three others remained the Caucus Leaders of the PDP in the House pending the resolution of the crisis. It also insisted that Elumelu and five others remained suspended.

“The suspension placed on some PDP members, who connived with others to supplant the Party decision with regards to the party’s position in the House is subsisting and has not been lifted. The suspended members of the party cannot therefore conduct any business of the party at whatever level until disciplinary measures have been concluded.

“The National Working Committee (NWC) in its wisdom, and consistent with its position on the matter, which has not changed, directed that the affairs of the PDP Caucus of the House of Representatives be organised and managed by: Hon. Kingsley Chinda, Hon. Yakubu Barde, Hon. Chukwuka Onyema and Hon. Muraina Ajibola.”

Reacting, Elumelu’s Special Adviser (Legal), Oyorima Idahosa, described the continued suspension and alleged disloyalty of his principal and others as “completely against the principle of democracy, rule of law and fairness upon which the PDP is founded.

“By parliamentary rules, persons so elected become the leaders of the party caucuses in the legislature. While the party can guide their elected members through the zoning of various minority leadership offices, it is not in the place of the party, by the provisions of the Constitution, House Standing Rule, and parliamentary traditions, to appoint or foist Minority or Majority Caucus leadership on its members”.

Elumelu recalled that a similar attempt by the All Progressives Congress (APC) to foist leadership of the Majority Caucus on the National Assembly in 2015 could not stand as such obnoxious action was vehemently resisted by the Senate, which stuck to the list of elected leaders of the Majority Caucus submitted by APC Senators.

He wondered why PDP and its chairman, Secondus, who was the Acting National Chairman at the time, would turn round to commit the same impunity and meddlesomeness in the internal affairs of the parliament that they strongly criticised the APC for.

Elumelu, called on the party to weigh its actions and not allow certain individuals with vested personal interests to destroy the reputation and democratic foundations of the PDP, a party Nigerians look up to for direction at a time like this.

Analysts believe that the failure of the PDP NWC to consider reports of the various committees it set up to look into this matter was a major factor prolonging the crisis.

It is appalling that the same party, which set up three committees led by Senator Iyorchia Ayu, Senator Adolphus Wabara and Chief Tom Ikimi respectively, and mandated them to turn in their reports on the House Minority Caucus leadership in two-weeks has not deemed it necessary to consider the reports more than four months after.

A PDP chieftain who prefers anonymity said it was “disconcerting to hear Governor Nyesom Wike described such a Committee of eminent and accomplished party leaders and statesmen as the most corrupt in PDP’s history, which might have informed why Secondus has refused to tender the report for consideration.”

A public affairs analyst, Dr. Okey Ikechukwu, on his part, said the party leadership failed to manage events well, noting that the fact that Elumelu was still standing meant he had the backing of strong forces. He blamed the party for washing its dirty linings in public.

Political observers warned that the worsening crisis, if not stemmed immediately, could sound the end of the PDP. But with the main opposition party are brazenly supporting illegality in the House, it is indeed a clear indication that Nigerians cannot find solace in the party if they decide to discard the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2023.

The PDP has the choice of putting its house in order, reposition, and possibly take power. It also the party’s choice to allow the party fizzle into oblivion. And how it handles the House crisis will certainly determine its future.