Nigerians have come out to condemn a bill by the Senate that seeks death by hanging for any person convicted of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person, saying it violates the constitutional right to freedom of expression.
On November 12, 2019, a bill titled “The National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches (Establishment, etc) Bill 2019,” which seeks for the establishment of a Commission to help investigate and prosecute offenders in Nigeria, among others things, passed through the First Reading in Nigeria’s upper legislative Chamber, the Senate.
The Bill defines an offender as “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 if such 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.”
It says: “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 bill sponsored by deputy Senate Whip, Sabi Abdullahi, says ethnic hatred means hatred against a group of persons from any ethnic group indigenous to Nigeria.
According to the Bill: “A person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this section where on ethnic grounds, he justifiably engages in a conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating that other person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment.
“Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in subsection (1) (a) or (b) of this section if, having regard to all circumstances, including in particular the perception of that person.
“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 10 years, or to a fine of not less than N10m, or to both.
“Any person who knowingly utters words to incite feelings of contempt, hatred, hostility, violence or discrimination against any person, group or community on the basis of ethnicity or race, commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than five years, or to a fine of not less than N10m or to both.
“A person victimises another if in any circumstance relevant for the purpose of this Act, the person does any act that is injurious to the wellbeing and esteem of another person by treating the person to less favourably than, in those circumstances.”
Reacting to the Bill, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) said that the newly introduced bill could not be justified in a democracy and cautioned the Senate to “tread carefully” with the bill.
In a statement issued on November 12, 2019 by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kunle Edun, the NBA reminded the Senate that section 39(3) of the Constitution had made it mandatory that no law could abrogate the rights of Nigerians to exercise their right to freedom of speech.
The Association said: “Section 39(3) of the Constitution makes it mandatory that no law can abrogate the rights of Nigerians to exercise their right to freedom of speech except if such law can be reasonably justified in a democratic society,” and asked: “Can a Hate Bill be reasonably justified in a democratic society?”
It pointed out that with the nation already grappling with wanton arrest and prosecution of citizens from treasonable felony after expressing their opinions, there might not be any guarantee that the bill, if signed into law, would not be used to harass those exercising their right to free speech.
It noted that while the right to freedom of expression was not absolute, there were enough laws in Nigeria to tackle the excesses.
Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, Nigeria’s former Vice-President, on his part said the bill was an abuse of the legislative process and that it would violate Nigerians’ constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech.
Alhaji Abubakar who spoke through Mr. Paul Ibe, his Media Adviser, advised that it was prudent to build upon the tolerance inherited from those years and not shrink the democratic space to satisfy personal and group interests.
He sounded a note of caution to “those now toying with the idea of an anti-hate Speech Bill, with punishment for supposed hate speech to be death by hanging,” warning that the contemplation of such laws is in itself not just hate speech, but an abuse of the legislative process that will violate Nigerians’ constitutionally guaranteed right to Freedom of Speech.
Sonnie Ekwowusi, legal practitioner, writer, columnist and a visiting member of THISDAY Editorial Board, in his reaction said the Hate Speech Bill lacks merit and therefore urged the Senate to dismiss it.
He pointed out that the bill has pitched the people of Nigeria in a complex web of deeper hatred with the Buhari government and expressed worry that the phrase “hate speech” is subject to multiple arbitrary interpretations.