Sabi Abdulahi: The Man Who Hates Free Speech?

The National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill sponsored by Senator Sabi Abdulahi is being widely rejected by Nigerians because of its negative implication on freedom of speech, writes Shola Oyeyipo

Sectionalism, religious and political differences, tribal sentiments and all other such fault lines have combined to openly polarised Nigerians over the years, and rather than abate, the situation is getting worse with vituperative attacks now known as hate speech taking the centre stage.
It will not be incorrect to conclude that added to the continually deteriorating economic conditions and the haphazard political arrangements, the advent of modern means of communication, particularly the numerous social media platforms, is making it easy for people to go public with whatever impressions they have about anything, whether negative or positive.

Despite the fact that government at all levels, various groups and individuals have proffered series of solutions that have not effectively addressed the problem, a recent bill by Senator Sabi Abdullahi representing Niger North senatorial district, aimed at addressing hate speech and other social media attacks among Nigerians was not well received by the people.

Abdullahi, the deputy chief whip and former spokesperson for the 8th Senate, in the bill, ‘National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches (Est., etc) bill, 2019 (SB. 154)’, proposed that Nigeria needed to establish a commission specifically to deal with the problem of hate speech in the country.

“It is the right of a senator to sponsor a private member bill. We also have the executive bill but the hate speech bill before the Senate today is a private senator bill. Mr. President has nothing to do with it and it also has nothing to do with third term agenda,” said Akwashiki.
According to him, if passed into law without the death penalty, it is capable of ensuring justice for victims of hate speech and their families by ensuring that the perpetrators face the weight of the law as stipulated.

Just as the senate claimed out, Abdullahi too denied that the bill was part of President Buhari’s third term agenda, adding that the death penalty for anyone found culpable of using hate speech that leads to the death of another, is subject to amendment when the bill is eventually considered and goes through a public hearing.

He further claimed that perpetrators of hate speech are the ones frustrating the consideration of the bill by posing as advocates of free speech.
“In 2014, four University of Port Harcourt students were unjustly murdered in cold blood as a result of hate speech. So many others have died as a result of wrong accusations. It is time to put a stop to these gruesome killings through hate speech,” Abdullahi argued.

Despite the dangers of hate speech and the need to put a stop to it, Senator Abdulahi cannot pretend not to know that if the law sees the light of the day, it would easily become a handy weapon for the current government to put its perceived enemies behind bars and that will be the end of free speech in Africa’s most populous nation.

The bill has passed second reading though vehemently opposed by many Nigerians. This is particularly so because, among other things, it prescribed death by hanging for persons found guilty of any form of hate speech that leads to the death of another person.

Perhaps, the sponsor wanted to take a cue from the American Civil Rights Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. § 245(b)(2), which permits federal prosecution of anyone, who “willfully injures, intimidates or interferes with, or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with … any person because of his race, color, religion or national origin” or because of the victim’s attempt to engage in one of six types of federally-protected activities, such as attending school, patronizing a public place/facility, applying for employment, acting as a juror in a state court or voting.

Culpable persons face a fine or imprisonment of up to one year or both. If bodily injury results or if such acts of intimidation involve the use of firearms, explosives or fire, individuals can receive prison terms of up to 10 years, while crimes involving kidnapping, sexual assault, or murder can be punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.

Lawyers, human rights activists, and others considered the bill a deliberate attempt to trample on free speech in Nigeria; and a smokescreen for the ruling All Progressives Congress’ general intolerance for dissents and criticisms.
The likes of Prof. Wole Soyinka, Prof. Ernest Ojukwu (SAN), Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), Mr. Lawal Pedro (SAN), Mr. Chino Obiagwu (SAN), Prof. Sam Erugo Mond, Malachy Ugwummadu, Isa Sanusi, Clement Onwuenwunor, Tope Alabi and a long list of others contended that the proposed legislation was anti-people.

Similarly, Nigeria’s major opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party concluded that the bill was a bill, designed to Islamise the nation, alluding to a third term agenda.

Falana has vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the bill if it scales through at the National Assembly and is signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Aminu Tambuwal, the Sokoto State Governor and Vice-Chairman of Nigeria Governors’ Forum, speaking after their meeting in Abuja on Wednesday, said state governors did not disapprove of the bill.

The suspicion that the President Buhari-led government was behind the proposed legislation was heightened among many by the fact that the bill came shortly after a statement by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, alluding to the fact that the online media space in the country will soon be regulated.

The proposed law was set to pitch Nigerians against the lawmakers, so the acting spokesperson for the Senate, Senator Godiya Akwashiki, was quick to disown it just as the executive did.

Abdullahi is a curious legislator; he was instrumental in the proposed amendment to the Nigeria Press Council Act allegedly set in motion to address the scourge of fake news in the country.

The lawmaker had represented then-Senate President Bukola Saraki at a public hearing when he said the Red Chamber was advancing the empowerment of NPC to deal with adverse impacts of fake news on the polity and the potential of heightening tensions with regard to the various subnational conflict situations being experienced.

Arguing that a revived NPC would be in a special position to safeguard Nigeria’s democracy from both extremes of the media spectrum, he explained: “This is why we want to ensure that the guiding act endows the council with all the powers it requires to carry out its mandate without hindrance.

“To this end, the bill attempts to correct existing deficiencies, revolutionize the NPC and promote high ethical and professional standards for Nigerian journalists.”

But the country’s media owners led by Prince Nduka Obaigbena fought against the idea, describing it as draconian until it died a deserving death.
The lawmaker and his backers must, therefore, not lose sight of the fact that freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction.
While the Freedom of Information Act, which was designed to make governments accountable to the people has not been effective, it will not be surprising if the anti-free speech law quickly becomes a whip with which Nigerians with opposing views are flogged into submission or coercive quietness.

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