Nigeria’s proposed Hate Speech Bill, which passed the first reading on the floor of the Senate last week, is both an ill-advised move that endangers the survival of democracy and a frivolous adventure to set up a needless agency.
This is the second time the bill is surfacing after it was brought to the National Assembly in 2018. This time, though, it was presented by the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Sabi, under the title, ‘National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches.’ If passed, the bill would only empower a new agency to prosecute offenders with sentences that may include execution. If such a law is promulgated, it would severely limit the freedom of speech and empower state officers to victimise innocent Nigerians who question them.
The Muhammadu Buhari administration’s infringement on freedom of expression is well-documented.
Journalists, for instance, are having tough times entertaining their rights as several of them have been detained by law enforcement agents since 2015. Jones Abiri, an editor at the Weekly Source, was detained for two years for doing his job. The government has equally defied numerous court orders to release the activist and former presidential candidate, Omoyele Sowore. State agents have also carried out several crackdowns on news organisations. Nigeria is violating press freedom despite its imprimatur to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides otherwise.
Whereas, in many of these cases, the government’s defense is that the rule of law may be subverted in the interest of national security.
The fact that the government is deliberately obtrusive to the rule of law calls to question its ability to manage a sensitive law such as the proposed Hate Speech Bill— if it passes.
More so, the other supposed intent of the bill to keep in check, activities that may ‘threaten’ inter-tribal tranquility would almost certainly be abused by unethical police officers.
In the proposed bill, an action would be considered a hate speech if 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 [sic] 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.
This provision stress that offenses like harassment on the basis of ethnicity and racial contempt may land the accused up to five years in jail or a fine no less than ₦10m – or both. And that “Any person who commits an offence [sic] 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.”
But the extent to which an expression is considered a hate speech is not even properly defined by the promoters of this bill. Who would determine what speech is a hate speech? And how would it be determined? These questions leave the law to the mercy of politicians who might exploit it to victimise their critics in the spirit of prosecuting hate speech.
The fact that a whole agency is being created—especially by a government that promised to cut down on the size of the government—to enforce the proposed law means that officers in that agency would—in a bid to maintain relevance; as Nigerian security officers are known for—would be all out to take down anyone that they deem to have violated the law. As such, the proposed bill would result in more harm than good for Nigerians.
The end of this bad idea of a bill would certainly be more subjugation of the freedom of expression. Not its protection.
Olumayowa Okediran is Managing Director of African Liberty and the Author of Navigate: A Prospection to Nigeria’s Future Till 2030