Everyone is talking about the Hate Speech Bill that was just tabled before the Senate. What is your take?
It was just tabled before the Senate and until it gets to second reading, we won’t be able to discuss the general principles. So until we get to that stage, I don’t know what is in that bill except, of course, all the speculations that people are making.
But we are beginning to see the highlights in the media which means there are copies of the bill already in circulation, and you received some visitors who came to your office to discuss issues surrounding the bill. So people already have an idea of what it is all about. Or are you saying we should dismiss what the people are saying about this particular bill?
No, we should not dismiss it. I agree that we already have insight into the bill. When the Leadership and Accountability Initiative visited us, what they told us is that this bill seeks to abrogate the rights of Nigerians. They cited Chapter Four of the Constitution, I think Sections 34 to 39, which gives you different rights that you have as a citizen of Nigeria. I think Section 39 talks about the right to hold opinion, freedom to disseminate information and to receive information, and the Leadership and Accountability Initiative members feel that, that right is going to be abrogated. I told them that, as far as I know, we won’t be part of the moves to abrogate the rights of Nigerians. Democracy implies freedoms. If you are a democrat, then you should allow people to hold their views and let their views be espoused. It is the contestation of ideas that makes democracy to thrive. A democracy in which you try to whip the people into a single line of thought isn’t democracy, it is autocracy. I don’t think we would go through what we went through and now return to authoritarian rule. I am an Igbo person and in my place we say “when you pass through the evil forest, you don’t expect that the demon will catch you anymore”. In essence, it is only when you are in the evil forest that the demon catches you and not when you have passed. We could not have done 20 years of democracy after the troubles we went through under military rule and we get to this point and somebody wants to circumscribe your rights, that should not happen.
You are the Minority Leader in the Senate and that makes you the voice of the opposition. Do you feel that free speech is under threat in Nigeria considering the bill in contention and the actions of the executive branch of government of recent?
Free speech has been under threat and it came from the fact that all of a sudden, people are being arrested for airing their opinions. The Minister of Information now said that they are going to amend the laws to circumscribe opinions aired on the social media. If we are not very careful, we may slip back into dark days of authoritarianism. And we are not going to allow that to happen. We couldn’t have passed the evil forest and the demon will catch us thereafter.
There are those who are saying the moves to curtail free speech couldn’t have come out of the blues. Let us look at Senator Sabi’s bill for instance which is very specific on hate speech. It doesn’t talk about social media. About two years ago, we had crisis pertaining to herdsmen/farmers conflicts in different parts of the country and some communities were threatened as a result. And there were agitations about secession. As a result, speech that is supposed to be free was weaponised. Consequently some people believe some measures should be taken so that people don’t speak carelessly and in a manner that threatens lives. What is your take on that?
In forming my thoughts on this question, I will like to read certain things to you to put what we are talking about in context. “Government that is unwilling to take responsibility for anything should not be counted upon”. “Government has responsibility to protect its citizens and not to engage in blame game”. “This President has now owned up to his globally acknowledged incompetence”. “Never in the history of any nation has incompetence and cluelessness been exhibited by any leader as being exhibited today by this government”. “This government is running this country aground with a combination of incompetence and corruption”. “The fact of this government, it has nothing to do with ethnicity but a manifestation of incompetence, cluelessness and inferiority complex”. These were the words of Lai Mohammed, the incumbent Minister of Information, between 2012 and 2014. I bet you that anyone who says any of these things if this bill is to become law, they will say it is hate speech and they will jail you. That is the reason I said that sometimes when you want to circumscribe people’s rights, you should also remember the past. If the Hate Speech Bill which stipulates death by hanging was in place between 2012 and 2014 when Lai Mohammed was making these acerbic statements against the Jonathan administration, do you think he will be alive today? So people should be careful when they go ahead… I can go ahead and quote so many things they said under the PDP government but nobody did anything to them and I am saying this very seriously.
I think you are answering a different question…
I am not answering a different question. I am putting things in context that the right to hold opinion is the inalienable right of every citizen of Nigerian, and when someone who used this shows up today and says you can’t do it, that tells you that they are driving us towards authoritarianism. And I am saying that everyone should wake up to the fact they don’t mean well for us. I know and I acknowledge that social media sometimes can be irritating, in fact, I suffered from it. Few months ago some people set up social media accounts and put my name and photograph there and they were communicating with people, “Pay money and get a job”. “Pay money and get contacts”. And some people fell for that scam.
That is the bad side of social media. But should I advocate that the perpetrators be hanged?
The example I gave is very different. For the purpose of this discussion, I will like to separate two issues. There is the Social Media Bill which the Minister of Information proposes and talks about the regulation of the social media. There is the other which is the Hate Speech Bill proposed by Senator Sabi. The Sabi bill came against the backdrop of the herders/farmers clashes which had very strong ethnic coloration. On the other hand, there were secession agitations which led to the proscription of IPoB (Indigenous Peoples of Biafra). In one particular instance, some ‘northern youths’ said a particular ethnic group should leave their part of the country. Those things had the capacity to fuel crisis and tensions, and some people feel they amount to hate speeches that should attract severe punishment. Do you share that view or we have enough laws to punish such utterances?
Simply put, we have more than enough laws to deal with issues of that nature. If someone like me come out on television to say something I shouldn’t, the laws that are available…even the Criminal Code has a Section, I think Section 59, where issues like that can be tackled. Criminal Code spells out jail sentences for such misdemeanours. We have the Broadcasting Organisation Act. We have the Cyber Crimes Act. We have so many legislations already in place. The question to ask is, why are the people behind these bills not making use of the laws currently available but want to bring draconian Acts? If I go on the social media to say all the people who are not Igbo should be killed, you can’t say it is different from when I come on television here and make the same statement. Both statements are the same. The point is that we should be careful so that we don’t throw away the baby with the bath water. What I am saying in effect is that the laws are already there. Let me go back to what you said. A few people came in public and said “we had to send some people away from our region”. They didn’t hide. Did you hear that they were arrested and charged to court for sedition? This means they were, so to say, protected. But a few people in IPoB came out to say “we want to leave Nigeria” and then they were quickly found and tried. That is the point we are making. Why are we leaving the big oak in front of us but looking for the speck in other peoples’ eyes? It is this treatment of Nigerians in different ways that scares people that if this bill is allowed to pass, it may be targeted at some people, and not just a law made to affect everybody. If a government that is even handed proposes this kind of bill (Hate Speech Bill), maybe people would have said we should let it be. But once you find that people are not treated equally, people are treated based on where they come from or ethnic leaning or religious inclination, then fear comes in that some people are being targeted.
I see your point but is it bad enough that we throw away the baby with bath water?
I throw the question back to you. What is democracy after all if I can’t hold my views and you can’t hold your views? In every democracy, you have people at the fringe. You have people that are extremists, but most of us are in the middle. And anyone at the fringe who breaks the law, apply the law as it is. It is what is going on today, and what is making those of us in the vanguard of protecting democracy scared is that we do not see from government and those who want to apply the proposed law an evenness, a sincerity of purpose in making sure that if you commit an offence, you pay for it under the laws of the land as it is. And like I said earlier, there are enough laws. Anyone who tells you that we don’t have enough laws is not being sincere. We know that society evolves, changes, and as you have new communication tools, you may need to adjust. But we have the Cyber Crimes Act. If you use your computer to do anything that is wrong including maligning people and all of that, that is already covered by the Act. Why do you have to bring another law? We have the Criminal Code that covers incitement or sedition. So why do we need another law? Why do you need to create a commission? You bring someone and make him an ombudsman. Where will he come from that everyone will trust him? Will he come from the moon? He will come from somewhere and some people from the other side will say he came and they want to oppress us. We should not inflame our situation further.
Can laws help us achieve ethnic harmony?
No. The best thing that will help us to achieve ethnic harmony is that whoever is the President, whoever is the governor, whoever is the local government chairman, whoever is the senator, whoever is the House of Reps member, whoever is the judge, you should have one thing at the back of your mind: Justice. Be fair to everyone. That is all that the people need to see and there will be harmony. If someone from my village and I am a judge and because he is from my village I set him free, and another person from another village commits the same offence and comes before me and I sentence him to death as is being proposed, how then can anyone think there will be harmony? Harmony does not happen by making laws. Harmony happens when you act in the interest of all. If you don’t have equity in the way you treat your people, you will always have disharmony. The laws are there. It is the application of the laws already there that matters. And I will give you one instance. The people that used my name on the social media to defraud, their victims sent to me the bank account details they used. I wrote the DSS and the police and submitted the facts for investigation. Weeks later the DSS wrote me to say the suspects had been traced to Port Harcourt and that investigation was continuing. It is more than one month now and I haven’t heard from them. The police didn’t even acknowledge my letter not to talk of investigating the case. I am not happy and I am sure that is how so many Nigerians feel.
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