OrderPaperToday – I was seated in the Senate Press Centre of the National Assembly where a group of Senators from the Committee on ICT and Cybercrime had just finished briefing journalists.
However, just one man in the room caught my attention all afternoon, merely for his dressing!
I spent considerable time gazing at a man traditionally dressed in a wrapper (usually reserved for women in most parts of Nigeria). It was an interesting sight for me, perhaps because I grew up in Northern Nigeria where such appearance is a rarity and will be considered an abnormality.
The man I saw wasn’t a village chief; I was seated before a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I did not know his name or where he came from, as I was new to the National Assembly surroundings. Nevertheless, I made up my mind to engage him in a chat. No, I was not going to talk about his dressing; I wanted to discuss an important matter, Hate Speech!
This was 31st October, 2017, long before the Senate decided to introduce its controversial Hate Speech Bill.
However, even back then, the term “hate speech” was becoming prominent in the public discussion space and I instinctively knew that it was just a matter of time before the Nigerian Legislature would jump on the trend and propose a law relating to it. I was right!
Months later, Senator Sabi Abdullahi introduced the Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches (Establishment, etc) Bill, 2018. The bill generated public outcry as many feared it was a ploy to curb freedom speech of citizens, especially in the online space. The bill eventually fizzled out in June, 2018 after failing to make it to the third reading.
However, the bill has bounced back in recent weeks as the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill. It has generated an even bigger outcry this time around with the spotlight on death by hanging as one of the penalties for engaging in hate speech amongst other severe punishments contained in the bill.
According to the bill, hate speech occurs when a person “uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provided, 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.”
The bill further adds that anyone who violates this provision “shall be liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging.”
There have been protests by Civil Society Organisations and criticisms from prominent Nigerians, including a former military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, who hails from the home state of the bill’s sponsor.
Nevertheless, the senator in the eye of the storm, Sabi Abdullahi, remains defiant and has promised to pursue the passage of the controversial bill, albeit to soft pedal on the death penalty.
Back to my encounter with the “wrapper tying” senator in 2017; Senator Foster Ogola is his name and he represented Bayelsa West in the Senate from 2015 to 2019.
When I asked for his thoughts on hate speech in Nigeria, he told me that the blame laid more with the leadership of the country which was becoming allergic to criticism and suggested that any law to restrict freedom of expression under the guise of curbing hate speech would amount to dictatorship.
His words,“It is dictatorship, all this gagging of people from expressing their mind is dictatorship. Again, freedom of speech should have responsibility attached to it. Hate speech is an outcome of the leadership of the country. The moment you have no space to accommodate contending views or dissenting views then you bread hate speech; that is where hate speech is coming from.
“Dictatorship, autocracy, militocracy breed hate speech – hate speech cannot come on its own. You can make a caricature of a government, governor or president, it does not mean hate speech; you are expressing artistically, linguistically, socially, the misdemeanours, the things that are not supposed to be that are going on condoned,” Ogola added.
I then asked how we could tackle hate speech without infringing on the rights of citizens and he had this to say, “Hate speech should not be condoned but again the government at the centre should do everything to run a socially, economically, and culturally inclusive government. When that is done, hate speech will disappear on its own”.
This discussion took place exactly 742 days before the Hate Speech Bill was reintroduced in the Senate where Ogola is no longer a member.
However, his words could perhaps serve as a food for thought for the present National Assembly as it considers the controversial bill before it.
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