By Jide Oyewusi, an educationist, wrote from Lagos.
The controversy being generated by the proposed hate speech bill by Nigeria’s senate is well deserved and not surprising. If anything, by its desire to make hate speech a capital offence, one is left in no doubt that the senate is up to something very sinister. For while the stated offence in actual sense can be said to be dastardly and serious, the punishment being suggested for it is akin to aiming at a mosquito with a bullet. To start with, the proper definition of hate speech is shrouded in mystery, and being a new term emanating from Nigeria’s politicians, one may never know all the clauses that will be included or the criterion for determining what represents hate speech.
For instance, does it include fake news, or will constructive criticism of the government now mean one is gunning for trouble? And what then would be the beauty of democracy if or when citizens are denied the right to air their views about issues concerning them? So when Nigerians express some hidden fears about the proposed bill, such fear is not only justified but also necessary. Ignorance of the law is said to be no excuse, more so since once passed into law, it becomes binding on everybody.
But if one looks at the situation of things in the country generally, one may not blame those who feel that some law is put in place to check what is now being referred to as hate speech. The way and manner fake news and image-damaging information keep floating on social media calls for serious caution and concern.
Indeed as if Nigeria has suddenly entered the age of indecency and irresponsibility some people now secretly preoccupy themselves with items that are neither genuine nor true and then distribute the same to cause disaffection or panic or both. Perhaps because of the hidden-identity-advantage provided by social media, many now hide to perpetrate all manner of nonsense. Gone are the days when one could rely on information gathered from the media. The emergence of social media though can be said to be a blessing to humanity, has at the same time resulted in a hell of trash where some individuals concoct all manner of weird imagination and circulate the same for public consumption. What such gestures seek to achieve is difficult to ascertain but the spread is becoming highly alarming and worrisome, necessitating therefore that action is taken to checkmate the ugly trend.
Not quite long ago, the news was everywhere that Nigeria’s President had passed on, and an impostor from Sudan was in Aso rock. Because of insinuation that behind every rumour, there’s an element of truth, many people gave the story some benefit of the doubt, more so when some people considered as highly influential in the society threw their weight behind the nasty theory. Even up till now, so many Nigerians are still confused about what actually to believe, more so since those making such assertion are yet to refrain from reiterating it. What is the whole essence of wishing one’s leader dead if not arising from deep hatred? Apart from such sad fake news, so many disparaging writings about the same president appear almost everywhere on a daily basis masterminded by bad losers who have been up in arms ever since the loss of the 2015 election. To such a group of people, no matter whatever giant strides are being taken by the present government to revamp and reposition the economy among to nothing, and all wailing is about absolutely nothing happening in the polity. Later, the same president labeled as an impostor was declared as planning another marriage. And to convince whoever was skeptical about the false information, an invitation card surfaced on social media to make it real. Quite as expected, many people were taken in by it until the president himself came out to debunk it. So viewed against all these dastardly backgrounds, putting a bill in place to curtail such excesses cannot be said to be a bad idea.
But by thinking the offence should carry a capital punishment is totally off the mark. At most, it should not carry more than five years of prison sentence for whoever is found guilty, and that is basically to serve as a deterrent to others. All over the world, there are top efforts to abolish capital punishment irrespective of the crime committed. Because life is viewed as sacred and deserves to be treated as such, the new trend is to do away with the death sentence whatever the offence can be. Even in most cases where some accused persons have been sentenced to death especially in Nigeria, many are still on the death row with no one willing to sign their death warrant. And these are people who committed what could be regarded as heinous crimes against humanity, yet no one feels the urge to pay them back in their own coins. How much more to now prescribe death sentence for a case that is not as grievous.
Indeed the way the Senate has tended to handle the issue of hate speech is suspect. There is every likelihood that the senate may have some particular individuals or groups in mind before coming up with such a proposal.
If that is the case, then one can also accuse the Senate of trying to enact a hate bill to quell hate speech, something akin to a case of two wrongs. Because nothing short of deep hatred can propel such a thought as to feel that death is the only punishment befitting whoever is guilty of hate speech. Those who engage in what is labeled as hate speech may be doing so out of some psychological trauma from which they would be cured after spending some time in the gallows, and their ilks would learn some lessons in good manners from their travails. It can therefore be argued that just as whoever engages in hate speech is guilty of some misdemeanors, the senate itself cannot be absorbed from blame for trying to enact a bill out of an obvious deep-sealed hatred. It is also surprising that while the senate thinks it expedient to act swiftly on the hate speech bill, it has never, in all its years of existence, considered making any pronouncement or taking any action on the issue of corruption which has eaten very deeply into the nation’s fabric and which as a matter of fact remains the nation’s most insurmountable albatross.