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The anti-hate speech bill sponsored by Senator Sabi Abdullahi (Niger,APC), who is also the spokesperson of the upper legislative chamber, has attracted a barrage of criticisms. The bill seeks the establishment of an Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches to enforce hate speech laws across the country, and ensure the “elimination” of hate speech. It proposes some punitive measures for those who run foul of the law, but the part that has generated heated discussions among Nigerians, is where it proposes death by hanging for anyone found guilty for any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person.

For starters, the law is an overkill. I stand to be corrected, but i do not think that there is any country in the world where hate speech is a capital crime punishable by death. Not even in rogue regimes, dictatorships, and illiberal democracies - apology to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria - scattered around the world.

The million dollar question is “How do we define hate speech?”. I am not talking about the dictionary definition but the metrics that will be used to determine what constitutes hate speech. Does hate speech uttered by a member of a tribe against his own people constitute an offence under the proposed law? I ask because in recent times two prominent Igbo politicians have used derogatory words to describe their own people. Does this constitute hate speech? What about a scenario where a member of another tribe repeats exactly the same words used by these Igbo politicians, and it leads to a riot which results in loss of lives; can the “repeater” of the hate speech be prosecuted for committing a crime?

Every literate Nigerian knows that there is a difference between criticism and hatred. But i doubt if our politicians understand that. In Nigerian politics, there are blurred lines between criticism and hatred, and both are viewed as one and the same. This has birthed fears among the populace that the proposed law is an attempt to gag dissenting voices. Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State, recently pulled down the multi-million naira edifice belonging to the state chairman of a faction of the APC that opposes him. Beyond the gloat, triumphalism, and the threat to demolish another house belonging to a member of that faction, more worrying is what would happen to opponents of the governor when this bill eventually becomes law. The fears expressed by many that this is an attempt to stifle free speech is definitely not out of place. Apart from politicians, many non-state actors like journalists, activists, political commentators e.t.c would run the risk of going to the gallows anytime they criticize any government policy or official. Subsequently, Nigeria would return to the dark days of military rule where we had freedom of speech but not freedom after speech - apology to Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada.

I am not a Lawyer but i know that there are enough laws in our statue books that pertain to hate speech. Prominent among them is the 2011 Anti-Terrorism Act which clearly spells out hate speech offences with the requisite punitive measures for violators devoid of capital punishment. Why are we attempting to reinvent the wheel instead of focusing on the implementation of existing laws? Or is there something sinister in the details of the bill which Nigerians are yet to discover?

The creation of a commission for hate speech will increase the bureaucracy, increase our national wage bill, and create job for the “boys” which will make it open to bias as it will be infiltrated and controlled by the politicians, and used as a weapon of vendetta against their opponents.

Government should focus on healing the fault lines that divide our nation which is responsible for the rising wave of hate speech in the land. They should focus on the cause and not the actions alone. President Muhammadu Buhari should be just and fair to all the peoples of Nigeria irrespective of whether they voted for him or not especially in the area of appointments into political offices. Another thing he should also focus on is how to ameliorate the biting poverty in the land. It is a truism that “An hungry man is an angry man”. More true, is the fact that an angry man is liable to spew bile even when the occasion does not warrant it.

I am totally against hate speech most especially that which threatens the unity of the Nigerian state. But proposing a death sentence as punishment for offenders is akin to killing an housefly with a sledgehammer. Government should focus on what fuels hate speech and do the needful to stem this ugly trend in our society.

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