The freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Nigerian constitution. That right guarantees every Nigerian to speak his mind on issues.
However, for a nation like Nigeria where different tongues and tribes were weaved to form a delicate country, an expression in one tongue can sometimes be interpreted to be an offence in another language.
This fact has been notably brought to fore with recent developments in the polity with various regional groups clamouring geo-political interests in acerbic words. Such words and communication have inevitably helped to pull the fabrics that hold the nation to its seams.
Perhaps it was in line with its constitutional responsibility of maintaining the territorial integrity of the nation that the army hierarchy disclosed that it had set up machinery to monitor what it described as hate speeches on social media.
Even before then, the Minister of Interior Affairs, Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau (retd.) disclosed that the Muhammadu Buhari led administration had initiated work on a bill to regulate hate speech.
Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, while holding forth as Acting President had also frowned at what he described as hate speech describing the phenomenon as tantamount to terrorism.
These developments have undoubtedly jolted the citizenry. Given the liberty Nigerians have recently come to enjoy on social media, the threat to monitor, gag or have Big Brother watch over what Nigerians do on social media has unnerved many.
Dr. Doyin Okupe –Spokesman to the President, 1999 to 2003; Senior Special Assistant to the President, 2011 to 2015, eminent politician, pro-democracy activist, medical doctor and businessman.
Dr. Okupe who became a pioneer member of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP in 1998, last July joined Accord, one of the country’s minor political parties.
Dr. Ona Ekhomu – Academician, businessman and cyber security expert, Dr. Ekhomu is currently the national president of the Association of Industrial Security and Safety Operators of Nigeria.
Mr. Richard Akinnola – Veteran Journalist, lawyer and media rights activist was a pioneer staff of Vanguard Newspapers and rose to be the News Editor of the newspaper. Mr. Akinnola is presently the publisher of Media Law Journal, works at the Media Law Centre and is patron of the Richard Aknnola Foundation, a registered charity focused on uplifting the welfare of widows of journalists among other interests.
Ms Ada Agina – Executive Director, Gender and Development Action, GADA, a civil society group focussed on gender rights advocacy, social justice and sustainable development in the country. Ms Agina-Ude, is a retired civil servant and a respected elder in civil rights advocacy.
Mr. Fred Nzeako –Lawyer and public affairs analyst. A First Class Economist graduate before turning his focus to law, Nzeako is the Principal Partner at FEO Nzeako and Associates, a Lagos based legal firm.
Mr. Ochereome Nnanna – Chairman of the Editorial Board, Vanguard is one of Nigeria’s leading columnists.
Aziken: The phrase hate speech has become a new phenomenon in the country with the administration and the National Assembly taking steps to criminalise what officials term as hate speech. But what exactly is hate speech?
Nzeako:Hate speech, for what it is, is when a speech is laced with hatred. When any action is laced with hatred, it becomes hate speech. If you want another definition of hate speech, you begin to look at speeches by individuals or groups that are aimed at disparaging, aimed at bringing down, aimed at exposing to danger anybody or a group of persons or species of people.
If the intent is to expose some persons to risk or to danger of any nature, it becomes hate speech even if what is said is true or false.
It has a very wide definition, and the definition varies from country to country, depending on the historical experience of that country. Some countries will tell you that hate speech is when there is racial discrimination, then it becomes hate speech. For a country that does not have such racial challenge, but has tribal challenge as in the case of Nigeria, our definition will eventually be laced with some tribal tones.
So, in effect, hate speech is any speech that is laced with intentions of hatred, with a view to hurting, disparaging, bringing down, exposing to risk or danger, any person or group of persons.
Agina:I cannot say that I know what hate speech is, especially in the context of the threat that is hanging on free speech in Nigeria. I will rather wait until there is an official definition of hate speech before I can make my own definition. However, I intend to slightly disagree with the lawyer (Nzeako) that it is any speech where the motive is to incite. There are many things you can say that may make one angry and may want to make one react violently. When the same thing is said to another, he or she may just laugh at it and then, move on. How do you now differentiate what hate speech is?
If somebody is a thief and I come out and say ‘this man is a thief,’ let us face facts, the man is a thief, because it will make one person angry and may make him react violently, does that make it hate speech?
So, I think the government has a lot on its plate to give us a proper definition of hate speech and then whatever the sanctions are going to be. The lawyer mentioned other countries where there is racial discrimination but I like to know some of the countries that have made laws against hate speech, whether it is racial discrimination or anything that is intended to make somebody angry so that we can also compare it with whatever we are trying to tout as hate speech in Nigeria because it hate speech is hard to define.
This whole idea of hate speech started probably with Nnamdi Kanu, the head of IPOB, where he said on Radio Biafra that Nigeria is a zoo and that Biafra would be better than Nigeria because Nigeria is a zoo made up of animals. When I heard such a thing, I said to myself well his father is in Nigeria, his siblings are in Nigeria even if he (Kanu) is living in the United Kingdom. Then, his relatives, his cousins, and in-laws are all in Nigeria, maybe his people are also included among the animals in the zoo!
To me, that is a reaction, but to some people, it was hurtful enough to give orders for the Igbo to leave the North. So, to me what we call hate speech in Nigeria is still not clear because I also compared that with the reactions of the northern youths, who got together and said the Igbo must leave the north on a particular date or should face the consequence of not leaving their region.
That is incitement. To me, there is a clear difference between the quit notice and somebody saying that all Nigerians are animals and are living in a zoo. So, I think I will leave it at that.
Akinnola:I am starting with the definition of hate speech in Wikipedia which states that it is a speech which attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender.
So, as wide as this definition is, it is subject to various cultural values and laws for different countries; because in South Africa where they allow perhaps, lesbian or gay marriages if you call someone a gay, it is regarded as hate speech. But in Nigeria and because of our cultural values and by virtue of the value that we already have, that may not apply as hate speech.
I think it was the Vice President, then Acting President, who said that Nigeria might likely promulgate hate speech laws. But I think that perhaps, if we may have recourse to some existing laws in our statue books, perhaps, the new law may not be necessary because there are provisions in our criminal code which already seem to have dealt with that challenge. Like Section 42 and of course we have the publication of false news with the intent to cause fear and alarm to the public. Then, we have Section 86 of threatening violence. Anybody with intent to intimidate or annoy a person, then Section 88 (a) which is prohibiting breach of peace by offensive publication.
We also have Section 204 which prohibits insult to religion, which basically is hate speech. We have seen religious crises based on somebody desecrating allegedly the Quran that has led to religious crises. There is Section 375 which speaks against criminal defamation.
I know that in South Africa and Kenya, apart from constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of expression, they have taken legal steps to stem the tide of hate speeches. South Africa also promulgated the Promotion of Equity and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000.
To further strengthen this law, the South African government is in the process of passing a hate crime and hate speech bill. Then on the part of Kenya, after the 2007 political crisis that led to the death of over 1000 people, there was a new law on hate speech, that is the National Cohesion and Integration Act of 2008. I know that some politicians were put on trial in Kenya on the issue of hate speech.
If a new law is coming, it has to be well defined on what amounts to hate speech because the freedom of expression was not won on a platter of gold in Nigeria, but through various litigations. I envisage that such a law on hate speech is going to be contested in court on how to delineate what hate speech is.
For instance, slander is different from insult but if you insult someone, he or she may feel offended, but this may not amount to slander. So, that thin line has to be delineated, and this is a major challenge in the circumstance.
Again, we need to go back to the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Arthur Nwankwo versus the State. Arthur Nwankwo was convicted for sedition in Enugu and sentenced to one-year imprisonment, but he went to the Court of Appeal, and the Court of Appeal struck off part of that section as far as sedition is concerned. So, if you look at it via-a-vis what the Court of Appeal said in terms of Arthur Nwankwo’s case, it is not all criticism that amounts to hate speech even against those in government.
Okupe:I want to align myself, almost 100% with what the barrister has said defining hate speech. In the context of Nigeria, I agree with Ms. Agina entirely that this is an interesting country. There is need for a clear definition of what we agree to be hate speech. This is not a country that normally spends valuable time or cares so much about rights of people. We are not too bothered about preservation of rights, not recognising the fact that one of the pillars of democracy is the right of the citizen. This is important.
If you look at where we are coming from, in the UK, it is better for 100 thieves to escape than to jail one innocent person; but here in Nigeria, if you jail 95 thieves and they were not guilty, people will only feel sorry.
In that sense, we must agree, the government must come out, and it is not just government alone because governments come and governments go, we also must learn to do things for posterity in this country.
There was a government here before 2015, there was one before that one, and so, there will be one after this. It is not peculiar to this administration. There are over 25 countries in the world that have made specific laws against hate speech, in spite of their belief in freedom of speech and their adherence to same.
If all these 25 countries, where some of them are classified as highly civilized, feel there is a need for a law specifically to deal with hate speeches, I think the government is not wrong by trying to go along that line. I, as a politician and as somebody who has been in a government before now, I can say myself and the government I worked with to have been serious victims of hate speech. I am not partisan here.
I used to work, and I was paid to defend Goodluck Ebele Jonathan but that is something that has gone for about two years, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t think there is any personality in Nigeria that has suffered more than Goodluck Jonathan in terms of hate speech.
If we are talking about a law against hate speech, it is something that is welcome. It is something that we should do, and because it (hate speech) was done to Jonathan, it does not mean it should continue in perpetuity.
I have also heard people say that this government and its agents, Lai Mohammed and others were guilty of hate speech, but we must aspire to improve, we must aspire to be more civilised, we must aspire towards perfection. We must aspire towards creating a society that is civilised; it does not matter whether it is this government or another government. This government technically has two years to go except they are re-elected, so, it is not personal.
For me, it is too crucial for us to define hate speech and that definition must not reside in the purview of the government alone; the government is not the country. What I am trying to say is that knowledge does not reside in government alone. The government can provide the leadership because if there is no law, there is no offence. You cannot just come and say that there is hate speech, something nebulous. There must be a clear definition of hate speech as regards this country and this must be tested and put across to the National Assembly where it will be debated, and I will expect the National Assembly to take public memoranda so that Nigerians will agree.
If you say ‘Mr. President is a fool’, in our country, we don’t think that is a hate speech. If majority of us feel like that, then, so be it but in the United Kingdom, it may not be like that. So, what I am trying to say is that whatever definition we agree hate speech is, it must be something that the entire country will endorse so that nobody is going to ambush you.
Hate speech, from all I have read, is not just about criticism of government or policies. In fact, most criticism of policies of government cannot come under hate speech.
So, these are things we must agree on. I heard the Vice President say that hate speech will be equated as an act of terrorism and for me, that is very sad.
It cannot be with due respect. You cannot equate hate speech, as you commonly want to understand it, to be equal to a man who takes a bomb or gun and blows out communities or shoots people in mosques or in churches. They cannot be equated! That is, I think, taking it too far but it is understandable because if I go on air and say Igbo are nonentities and don’t deserve to live and anybody who sees them should kill them, that statement is very close to verbal terrorism, and that is what is behind the Vice President’s mind, but I think that will be too extreme.
We must not also give the impression that we want to suppress freedom of speech, but I have always believed, even before the consideration of the hate speech law, that every freedom comes with some sense of responsibility.
We must guarantee freedom of speech, we are a modern society, and the destiny of this nation is too great for us to be living in medieval times. We cannot afford that, but at the same time, we cannot encourage absolute recklessness.
Nnanna:In a nutshell, we are a democratic country and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees free speech. Free speech has long been established even before our independence, and that was on the grounds on which the early nationalists, who were mostly journalists; Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo. So, free speech is a given in the Nigerian political culture.
So, any attempt by anybody to try to clip the wings of free speech is against the Nigerian national convention, which is the constitution. But when we talk about free speech, we have to be mindful of what speech can be categorised into. We have acceptable speech, then, of course, we have objectionable speech, things you can say, but you are not supposed to say.
You have abominable speech, and these are things that you will say and people will ask you why you said it? There are such things, and they have been there since man was created.
Then, of course, you have what I can call punishable speech. Punishable speeches are speeches you make, and you face the wrath of the law, and I believe these are speeches bordering on libel; they are speeches bordering on sedition even though the law of sedition is no longer there.
For me, hate speech is any speech made targeting any human being or group of people with a view to dehumanising them and removing certain inalienable rights that the constitution has conferred on them. Either a right to live in any part of the country without hindrance, the right to life, the right to owning property, the right to free expression of their own aspiration.
For instance, if you say, you are tired of Nigeria, and you want to leave Nigeria, through peaceful means, in other words, if you want a referendum to leave Nigeria because you are tired of living in the country, that is not hate speech, it is free speech under the constitution, and it is permitted.