By Bayo Oluwasanmi
I have two predictions to make: before you’re through with this piece, the federal and state governments of Nigeria may issue a decree against hate speech. The authorities, its agents, and some Nigerians would call for my head for circulating hate speech.
At the last meeting of the National Economic Council in Abuja, the Buhari led federal government and the various state governments proposed a new law which will categorize hate speech as “terrorism.” It was agreed at the meeting that a special court be established for the arrest and prosecution of purveyors of hate speeches. To be sure, the hate speech law is fueled by withering criticisms of Nigerians against propaganda, lies, unrest, crisis, chaos, unfulfilled promises and socioeconomic problems that continue to plague Buhari administration. It’s no surprise that the government would dress criticisms as “hate speech” in order to silent its harshest critics.
As former military head of state, President Muhammadu Buhari was widely unpopular for his Decree 4, a draconian piece of legislation that allowed the government to imprison any journalist who embarrassed the country’s military leaders – a nebulous charge that was frequently invoked to muzzle the press and civil society during the 18-month rule of Buhari, now a professed “converted democrat.” Buhari, as a former military man showed little tolerance for dissenting voices the last time he was in power as a dictator.
He has “a career of gross abuses of power and blatant rights of the Nigerian citizenry.” He clamped down on the press with the infamous Decree 4, he closed down newspapers, arrested and jailed many journalists such as Ndukar Irabor and Tunde Thompson of the Guardian newspaper on stories that were factual. He told Nigerian journalists then that it did not matter whether the story reported was true or not, if his regime didn’t like it, the writer would go to jail.
Tai Solarin, Nigeria’s moral power house, social critic, crusader, and humanist extra ordinary, was the only one bold enough to dare Buhari and the only one left to speak for the voiceless. As he stood at Dugbe market junction in Ibadan, distributing leaflets detailing the various atrocities of Buhari, he was arrested and jailed. In prison, he was denied his traditional agbo that has proved effective in the treatment of his asthma. Three youths were executed on the orders of Buhari under the retroactive Decree 20. The names of the three youths should jolt your memory: Lawal Ojuolape (30), Bernard Ogedengbe (29), and Bartholomew Owoh (26).
When he dislodged President Shehu Shagari from power, he kept him in an executive mansion while his Igbo vice-president Alex Ekwueme was locked up in Kirikiri prison. Buhari ordered the arrest of septuagenarian Chief Adekunle Ajasin. Chief Ajasin was arraigned and tried before the Buhari Kangaroo Tribunal. Chief Ajasin was acquitted. He re-arrested and retried Ajasin. Again the tribunal acquitted him of all charges of corruption. He refused to release Ajasin, instead he was detained indefinitely. Ambrose Ali was tried for an underdeveloped plot of land and was jailed 75 years with heavy torture that led to his blindness and death. Jim Nwobodo and Lateef Kayode Jakande were jailed 100 years for stealing nothing.
There ‘s no need for new laws against hate speech. We have enough laws to deal with hate speech crimes: sections 59-60, 373-381 of the Criminal Code (applicable to the southern states) and sections 391-40, 417-418 of the Penal Code (applicable in the northern states). The Cyber Crime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc.) Act, 2015 enacted by the National Assembly deals with the use of social media to promote bigotry and hatred in society. Sections 24 and 26 of he Act provides for the following: “24. (1): Any person who knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network that – (a) is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character or causes any message or matter to be so sent; or (b) he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent: commits an offense under this Act and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of not more than N7,000,000.00 or imprisonment for a term of not more than 3 years or to both such fine and imprisonment. (2) Any person who knowingly or intentionally transmits or causes the transmission of any communication through a computer system or network – (a) totally threaten or harass another person, where such communication places another person in fear of death, violence or bodily harm or to another person. Violation of this Act will attract imprisonment for aterm of 10 years and/or a minimum fine of N25,000,000.00
The hate speech law is to restrict or abridge free speech of Nigerians. It’s a law based on viewpoint, an egregious form of content discrimination which is presumptively unconstitutional. The Constitution does not entrust freedom of speech to government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society. It cannot be stressed enough that speeches that governments or their agents, and enemies of free speech view as offensive are protected not just against outright prohibition, but also against lesser restrictions.
Buhari government equates disagreement with its official position on issues as being synonymous with hate, and has failed to draw a line between divergence of opinions and hate speech. The call for restructure, call for devolution of power, call for a new constitution, agitation for creation of Oduduwa and Biafra Republics, debate on the unfinished business on Nigeria’s unity, discussions where the country is headed and similar hot button issues that have lately engaged Nigerians like never before, no doubt, question the legitimacy and relevance of “government of change.”
I see the campaign mounted by the government for hate speech law as a deflection or diversion from serious national issues that cry for urgent solutions, viz: restructure, job creation, creation of state and local government police, a leaner and effective federal government, healthcare, education, housing, judicial reforms, creation of corruption courts, internal security, and many more. The idea that the Buhari administration wants to restrict or abbreviate speech expressing ideas that are critical of his regime as offensive and criminal, strikes at the heart of freedom of speech. I believe the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought that we hate. Hate speech law is resurrection of Decree 4. It won’t fly!