It was widely reported in several media outlets that Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, had on 17 August 2017, at the security summit for members of National Economic Council, declared that hates speech would now be viewed as an act of terrorism. This author is very much aware that hate speeches or prejudicial statements or discourse can fuel discrimination and other human rights abuses. One cannot fail to mention the 1994 Rwanda genocide of the country’s Tutsi minority traceable to hate speeches encouraging people to attack perceived opponents. Julius Streicher was held liable by the Nuremberg Tribunal established in the wake of the Second World War for acts involving incitement to genocide. Streicher had been the publisher of the viciously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, which had energetically encouraged the German people to persecute and exterminate Jews.
However, the question remains as to whether the government is really sincere, willing and determined to act, and if Nigeria necessarily needs a law on hate speech before prosecuting people for utterances made so far that are inimical and damaging to national security and peaceful cohesion. By section 50(2) of the Criminal Code, the offence of sedition is aimed at protecting public peace by prohibiting any act or conduct which brings or tends to bring hatred or contempt to the person of the President or Governor of a State, or which excites disaffection against them, Federal or State Government or against the administration of justice or raise discontent or disaffection among the citizens or other inhabitants of Nigeria. It also covers the protection of government against malicious criticisms. These acts can be by words or publication.
Under section 51 (1) of the same code, the offence of sedition cover situations where any person does or attempts to do any preparation, or conspires with any person to do, any act with a seditious intention. It also includes when any person utters any seditious words or prints, publishes, sells, offers for sale, distributes or reproduces any seditious publication. Similarly, it is also punishable when a person imports any seditious publication unless he has no reason to believe that it is seditious. The punishment for sedition under the criminal code is for a first offence, imprisonment for two years or to a fine of N200 or to both, and for a subsequent offence, to imprisonment for three years. By section 416 of the Penal Code, punishment is up to seven years imprisonment or with fine, or both.
From the above, there exists a legal frame work to deal with the issues of hate speech without waiting for any special hate speech law to be passed or enacted. However, if there must be any legislation on hate speech, it should be clearly and narrowly drafted in order not to violate freedom of expression, and thereby become counterproductive. The law must clearly answer questions like, what is hate speech? What exactly should constitute hate speech? While without a doubt there may be a wide consensus about instances that should constitute hate speeches, there will also be cases the law must address, for example, use of coded or euphemistic speech to advocate hatred.
Although freedom of expression is guaranteed by section 39 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, excessive restrictions on freedom of expression may undermine many other human rights. This is particularly of concern especially when statements made by groups or individuals against activities of government or contrary to popular views or opinion may now be sanctioned under the guise of hate speech.
Interestingly, hate speeches, especially of the type currently being witnessed in Nigeria at the moment is a symptom. It is actually an outward and visible manifestation of something much deeper which by the way is intolerance. Government officials, political, religious and community leaders should learn to lead by example via promoting the values of equality, tolerance and diversity of opinions. A statement credited to a political office aspirant in the 2015 General Elections that “If what happened in 2011 (alleged rigging) should again happen in 2015, by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood.’’ is definitely, to say the least, completely out of place.
The implication here is that mere legal responses alone is no guarantee and is far from sufficient in itself to bring meaningful and productive changes in perceptions and mindsets. To adequately arrest the underlining causes of intolerance, a broader set of initiatives, policies and measures will be required. This, for example, should include dialogue across the intercultural or political divide. It should also include wider education and sensitization for tolerance and diversity.
Written by Nathan Idoko, Programme Officer (Accountability and Social Justice Programme) Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement (YIAGA)