By Abdu Rafiu
The senators are reviving the controversial Bill on Hate Speech. Lai Mohammed, Information Minister first gave hints of it in 2017. Formal legislative steps were, however, taken in March last year, 2018, to put life into the bill and enact it into law. On finding that it was hot as red charcoal, smart guy Senate President Bukola Saraki quickly threw it out of the window. There was uproar across the land and Saraki knew the Senate could not successfully swim against the tide of public sentiments and opinion. Saraki had sufficient political education to know that Nigerians would not surrender their freedoms nor allow any abridgement of same.
The current set of senators seems determined to ram the obnoxious law down our throats. Captioned “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches,” the bill reads: “A person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, 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 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.”
Here are the consequences of what can be regarded as hate speech: “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 aspect of the bill that carries lighter punishment states as follows: “A person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to an imprisonment for a term not less than five years or to a fine of not less than N10 million, or both.”
The Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Aliu Sabi representing Niger State who brought the bill, states that it is aimed at eliminating all forms of hate speeches; promoting the elimination of all forms of hate speeches against persons or ethnic groups; as well as advising the Federal Government on the matter.
For the record, there is the need to state other aspects of the prospective draconian law so that Nigerians know the dragnet being prepared for them and in their name. For example, the bill goes further to state as follows: “a person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this section, where on ethnicity for purposes of this section where, on ethnic grounds, he unjustifiably engages in conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating that other person’s dignity; or creating an intimidating, degrading, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment.”
Politicians and those in authority have always been irritated by freedoms beginning with the freedom of speech. Once in power they hardly tolerate freedom of speech, of association, of movement in form of protest marches, and sometimes freedom of thought despite the clear declaration of the land’s law granting same. I do hope the lawyers will dust their wigs and gown to do battle. I note the media is already rolling up their sleeves as court of public opinion as defenders of liberty and freedom, to rise to what I see as a call to duty. I mention lawyers because ab initio I see the new bill being in conflict with the constitution, the land’s grundnnum. To alter any the provision of the document it must go round the states first by sensitizing the citizens to the imperative of the change, and then to the various houses of assembly in the land. With the rush the senators are giving to the law, they are not desirous of exposing the bill to public debate.
Yes, I say politicians have close to zero tolerance for freedom of speech with the inherent freedom of criticism it comes with. The curb they institute comes in different forms and disguises. The first assault came with the Newspapers Amendment Act of 1964, enacted by the Balewa Administration. That Act prohibited publications regarded as injurious even if they were true as long as they were embarrassing. On account of alleged violation of the Act, two notable journalists were sent to jail—Dapo Fatogun and Ayo Ojewumi, the irrepressible editor of the Nigerian Tribune. Under Gowon’s Decree 2, reporters were routinely invited to Obalende, to the E-Branch. Is it conceivable that Alhaji Babatunde Jose, chairman/managing director of the Daily Times, the biggest newspaper empire Africa South of the Sahara, and his deputy, Leban Omowale Namme, could be locked up, with their editors, Henry Odukomaiya and Segun Osoba—all stripped to their singlets and underwears? It happened. The embarrassed police constable on duty, a decent man, who could not bear seeing Jose being so humiliated, sought to prevail on him to put on his clothes at the risk of losing his job. When Jose said he did not want him to lose his job, he said he was ready to lose it. The Daily Times was shut down for about five days. That was in November 1969. There was an outcry all over the free world. The Daily Times’ offence: Campaign against corruption. LKJ, Lateef Jakande simply wrote to Inspector-General Kam Salem that instead of his men harassing his editors, it was he the police should come for.
The Newspapers Amendment Act after being shot down several times by our alert courts, it reincarnated 20 years later in the guise of Decree 4 of 1984. As it was with the Newspaper Amendment Act, the decree criminalized the publication of truth that embarrassed the government and its functionaries. The Buhari Military administration wasted no time in using it to encircle The Guardian. Two of the newspaper’s line editors, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, the news editor were each jailed for one year; the deputy editor was locked up at Awolowo for three days while the editor was asked to be reporting at Awolowo office of the then NSO. The newspaper was fined N50,000. The offence of the newspaper was that it published truth that embarrassed. The paper reported that Gen. Hannaniya was being posted to Britain as Nigeria’s High Commissioner and Col. Sanni Bello to Zimbabwe as our High Commissioner. Both were sent to their respective stations. Brig-General Tunde Idiagbon was later to say to The Guardian editors that the newspaper did not wait for the ambassadors to first present their credentials before rushing to press. Of course, he was told one of the rules of the practice of journalism: Government conceals, the press reveals! The travail of the newspaper continued for years. The newspaper was closed down twice, and the publisher shot in the most wicked act!
I will be surprised if all these are lost on Lai Mohammed whose first degree was in mass communications before reading law.
I have gone down memory lane so that Nigerians would know what they are unsuspectingly getting into. The indefatigable and erudite Bishop of Sokoto, the Most Rev. Matthew Kuka, said the other day that the only dividend of democracy is freedom. He said the distinguishing difference between a democratic administration and a military regime is freedom. He went on to say that military provided infrastructure, built roads, set up river basin authorities and built dams etc. They built refineries and more which are what the civilian administrations are also doing. No administration has matched Gowon in the building of infrastructures, opening up the country, for example.
Let’s consider this scenario if Ahmad Lawan/ Abdullahi Sabi law were in place when Peter Pan (Peter Enahoro) wrote the following in 1979: “Once upon a time, in the early 60s, Jaja Wachukwu, Nigerian Foreign Minister led his country’s delegation to the United Nations-sponsored world disarmament talks in Geneva. The cold war was at its fiercest, the international atmosphere bleak with the looming possibility of the bitter ideological conflict, exploding into a shooting war.
“There was some relief in the fact that both sides acknowledged that in the age of atomic bombs, there would be no victors in a shooting war and that only the scarred and mutilated survivors of a hideous holocaust would be around to inherit a devastated world poisoned by deadly dust clouds.
“In their bewilderment to arrest the on-rush towards mutual annihilation, the big boys sought the support of the newly-independent African and Asian states to vindicate their opposing belligerency. It was a brief and fascinating period during which the new nations were rewarded with the myth that they were the harbinger of a new moral code that would protect the weak from the strong and even the strong from the strong.
“Jaja Wachukwu as the Foreign Minister of the most populous and potentially the most powerful state in Africa was met at Geneva Airport by a corps of newsmen whose number if not quality would have satisfied the pride of the representatives of a nation with military capability to win World War Three single handed.
“What original ideas did he have to put to the disarmament commission? He was asked. Jaja Wachukwu thrust out his chin and delivered a memorable onslaught: ’Gentlemen’, he said expansively. ”I can assure you, I have come to Geneva with an empty mind.’
“We have since forgiven Jaja Wachukwu, for what difference would it have made if he had arrived in Geneva brimming with an overflowing mind? The Africans were invited to make up the numbers!”
Under the new Bill Peter Pan would have been marked for hanging, or made to end up as a lifer or be fined N10million.
What would happen were Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today to be Nigerian newspapers with Ahmad Lawan and Abdullahi Sabi law ? Hear them:
Washington Post wrote: “It’s beyond debate that Donald Trump is unfit to be President.” It went on: “Even if Trump manages to conduct himself ‘presidentially’ for an hour and a half, that could not undo the many many instances…in which he has insulted, acted out, lied and countenanced violence beyond even some of the most rough and tumble precedents of modern American politics.”
USA TODAY: “Resist the siren song of a dangerous demagogue. By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump.”
Chicago Sun-Times: ‘…the best way to avert a train wreck is to wave a warning flag as soon as possible.”
New York Times: “The Republican Party’s trek into the darkness took a fateful step in Indiana on Tuesday.’’ In the editorial captioned: “Why Donald Trump should not be President,” the newspaper said “:…the reality-star turned GOP candidate’s views are matters of dangerous impulse and criminal powering rather than thoughtful politics. He has attracted throngs of Americans who ascribe higher purpose than he has demonstrated in a freewheeling campaign marked by bursts of false and outrageous allegations, personal insults, xenophobic nationalism, unapologetic sexism and positions that shift according to his audience and his whims… His right to spew nonsense is protected by the constitution, but the public doesn’t have to swallow it.”
These are just a few of samples of how the media functions. The major newspapers as in the foregoing rose against the election of Mr. Trump in 2016. Up till today, they have not let up.
The Nigerian constitution gives the media a clearly stated role. It is to hold the government accountable to the people. This is the role against which the senators are rising by their bill. It may require restating that free speech is not a civic right but an inalienable human right that cannot be tampered with. There are enough laws in our books to deal with errant media organizations and journalists. President Jonathan said it to the whole world that he was the most abused, criticized and insulted President in the whole world. It is the age-long media culture of a free society Buhari and the legislators took advantage of to get to power. They should not be allowed to shrink it. It is amazing that it is a law such as this that the Senate considers the nation’s priority at this time in the face of daunting problems and difficulties in the land. The Lawan/ Sabi Bill must be spiked and thrown into the waste bin.