Not many Nigerians will pick bones with Senator Sabi Abdullahi (representing Niger North Senatorial district) for sponsoring a private bill aimed at 'prohibiting hate speeches and (for) other related matters'. Many discerning Nigerians have been alarmed at the crippling enthronement and insidious effects of hate speech on our body politics, since the acrimonious electioneering campaigns of 2007 presidential and National Assembly elections. The cancer of hate speech took an upswing to the dirty rafters in the actions and statements of political combatants in the civilian power-shift tsunami of 2015.
Four years after, the past-masters of hate speeches (as opposition guerrillas) have now seen the light, and are anxious that things should not be allowed to fester further. Today's leading lights of fake news and hate speeches are uncontrollable, unprincipled and inconsolably frustrated at the seeming absence of progress and prosperity in the efforts and policies of government. A heaving, restless volcano.
Apart from hate speech, the bill also seeks to clamp down on ethnic discrimination, ethnic harassment, discrimination by way of victimisation, and ethnic hatred, either committed as individuals or groups. While these insolent offences have sentences and fines upon conviction as 12 months and N2m and up to five years in prison or/and N10m fine; the special case of hate speech is given sledgehammer glove. The bill says: "Any person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable to life imprisonment and when the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging".
It is perhaps more ironic that the bill was masterminded by a lawmaker who served as spokesperson for the 8th Senate, and currently the Deputy Chief Whip. He is also proposing an independent commission with administrative, investigative and prosecutorial powers to deal with this menace.
We commend the sense of purpose and urgent desire to curb the nightmare and dangerous repercussions hate speeches and similar pernicious activities, mostly vented through the social media, can wreak on the fabrics of a delicately balanced structure like Nigeria. But any knee-jerk reaction to troubling circumstances will inevitably lead to greater misery and intolerable disaster in a nation rife with youth unrest, high unemployment, deepening gulf between government and its ordinary people who are disfigured by socio-economic discomfort and political disappointment.
What the Senate is risking with the hate speech bill may eventually be recorded in history as an affront on the people's rights to free speech and freedom of expression. It is quite easy to recall many other Acts, enactments and regulations in our statutes that can effectively serve the purpose of policing and convicting those who infringe on the rights of others, on the sick and narrow reason of race, ethnicity, tribe, sexual orientation, and so on.
The ridiculous disregard for human life that makes lawmakers feel comfortable to suggest death sentence or life imprisonment for admittedly highly inflammatory offences where mechanism for competent and transparent investigation, adjudication and prosecution has been very weak, is really troubling. We can generally admit that our law enforcement and judicial arbitration, even of common crimes and infractions, have not been seen or felt to be above reproach or beyond doubt. Now, we want to add a tinder box of emotionally charged offences where same political leaders take the lead in sowing divisions and derision within our diverse and potentially distrustful nationalities.
While we must always condemn and discipline purveyors of hate-filled, ethnic-biased vituperations, irrespective of the provocations or enabling circumstances, we must advise our lawmakers to rush slowly into a cul-de-sac legislation that will add to our misery, and further harshly project our fault-lines so irredeemably to the extent that the so-called prohibition bill could fast-track the disintegration of our already polarised country, much faster and more viciously than attempts by those we had assumed were enemies of Nigeria!
Before we move on, we ought to remind our lawmakers that the sole purpose of criminal law is not merely to punish offenders; it is imperative that deep within the punitive framing of the law should be clauses to aid redemptive, reforming and rehabilitating imperatives. Legislating punishment for its own sake, and in gloating satisfaction of thrashing perceived opponents, is essentially a crime against humanity. It is more profitable to increase the number of our citizens who walk across the notorious hate divides to cross into more wholesome and productive citizenship, than to merely expunge and expire undesirable elements from amongst us. Ditch the hate bill!