The 9th Senate of the National Assembly appears set for a showdown with civil society and the human rights community following the re-introduction of the bill seeking to criminalise hate speech.
The highpoint of this bill, which has passed the first reading, is the proposal for death by hanging if found guilty of hate speech.
However, social critics and human rights activists have risen in total condemnation of the bill, urging the senate not to aid and abate the foisting of dictatorship and stifling of human rights.
They described the bill as an aberration and an outright contravention of the provisions of the provisions of the 1999 constitution as amended.
The bill titled; National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill 2019 was re-introduced by the Deputy Senate Whip , Sabi Abdullahi (APC,Niger State) ,is seeking death by hanging penalty to check mate offenders.
The capital punishment recommended by the bill targeted at comments that insults people for their religion ,ethnicity ,linguistic affiliation and among others.
The bill reads in part, “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.
“On offences like harassment on the basis of ethnicity, racial contempt, the bill proposes not less than five-year jail term or a fine of not less than N10 million or both.
“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 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.”
Furthermore, “Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in subsection (1)(a) or (b) of this Section if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect.
“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 ten million Naira, or to both.”
The Bill also recommended the establishment of a commission whose primary responsibility will be the implementation of the law when it comes into effect. it proposed that the commission shall be headed by an executive chairperson who would be appointed by the President through the National Council of State and confirmed by the National Assembly.
The responsibilities of the commission would include; discouraging persons, institutions ,political parties ,associations from promoting discriminatory practices using hate speech. understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life and encouraging full participation by all ethnic communities in social, economic, cultural and political life of other communities.
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The bill, when passed into law will also plan, supervise, coordinate and promote educational training programmes to create public awareness, support, and advancement of peace and harmony among ethnic communities and racial groups.
ATIKU, OTHERS CRITICISE THE ANTI-HATE SPEECH BILL
However, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar has alerted the senate to exercise caution against signing the anti-hate speech bill into law, saying that contemplation of such laws in itself is an abuse of the legislative process that will violate Nigerians’ fundamental human rights to freedom of speech.
He added, “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.
“Those behind the bill should wake up to the fact that Nigeria’s democracy has survived its longest incarnation because those who governed this great nation between 1999 and 2015 never toyed with this most fundamental of freedoms. It is prudent to build upon the tolerance inherited from those years and not shrink the democratic space to satisfy personal and group interests.”
Yinka Odumakin, a chieftain of pan Yoruba socio-cultural organisation ,Afenifere kicked against the plan to pass such anti- human rights’ bill, noting that the senate was aiding and abetting full-blown dictatorship in Nigeria by indirectly taking away the right of speech.
“The Senate is now behaving truly like a rubber stamp assembly and making many of us who fought for democracy to ask: what did we fight against during the military rule that we are not witnessing in Nigeria today, especially with this kind of bill by the senate? Nigerians should resist this attempt to turn the country to a full-blown dictatorship,” he said.
Chief Guy Ikokwu who was a second republic politician and a member of Ohanaeze ndi igbo lend his voice in the issue saying that the libel law and defamation was enough to handle hate speeches.
He added that “our laws guarantee freedom of expression, the Senate cannot make any law outside the constitution. We are not under a military regime, we are in a federal republic. If they want anarchy instead of liberal democracy, they should pass the bill and let everyone know where the country stands. This is getting too much, we cannot continue like this.”
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN),Mike Ozekhome, said that the anti- hate speech was a mere moonlight tale, noting that the bill should be immediately be deleted and aborted as a malformed embryo at its second reading, before it is allowed to be delivered as a societal monster.
He further warned that “this maverick and intolerant government cannot be trusted by any sane person to fairly operate such a draconian piece of legislation introduced under a law that carries the death penalty for alleged hate speech.”
However, a Kano-based lawyer, Abubakar Sani, on the contrary said that fundamental right is not absolute which stops where the rights of others to their reputation start.