Opinion: Hate speech and governance style – By EZE ONYEKPERE
At a time other nations are planning and grappling with the uncertainties of a changing world, planning for the next 20 to 30 years, Nigeria is still locked down by internal strife and divisions. Many nations in Europe and Asia are now rolling out plans of a world not powered by fossil fuels with the mainstreaming of renewable and alternative energy forms. Many are reconciling their population with their available resources and mainstreaming reason and family planning in their economic management whilst building capacities in education, health and sciences to convert potential into real capacity in the not too distant future. In essence, the peoples of these nations see themselves as one and have gone through the rudimentary stage that we find ourselves since the days of independence in 1960.
My first proposition is that leadership leads and governs and sets the tone for the economic, legal, moral, political and social compass of the society. If leadership leads well, the society heads in the right direction. Citizens and organisational behavior, most times, are a reaction to the norms and qualities of leadership. In the Nigeria of today, the divisions and cracks are getting deeper because of the attitude, spoken words and body language of some of the leaders. The government is now worried and seems to be in the thick of combating hate speech. But wait a minute, when and how did this start? The challenge of uniting the country has always been there since independence, to the Civil War, the end of the war and governance since the 1970s.
Politics usually produces winners and losers. Winners emerge, not in the sense of persons who fought a war and defeated others; and losers, not in the sense of groups or individuals who lose their constitutional and citizens’ rights. It is only that a certain political disposition gains ascendancy until the next election when voters will once more be called upon to make a choice. In the run-up to the 2015 general elections, the polity was heated by political rhetoric and the expectation was that whoever emerged as President or indeed, at any level of governance, would make extra efforts to calm down frayed nerves, unite the country and move the nation forward in the quest for development. Shortly after the elections and swearing in of the President, Nigerians started hearing about the “97 per cent” and “five per cent” in terms of those who gave the President their votes and what they should expect out of federal governance. Thus, the first shot and warning to groups that gave the smaller percentage not to expect fairness was fired. Pray, President Muhammadu Buhari’s “97 per cent and five per cent” statement, was it freedom of expression as constitutionally recognised or was it a hate speech stating the intention to hurt a section of the population?
Then, the appointments into various official positions at the centre started coming. The 1999 Constitution makes it clear that the composition of government at any level should not be done in such a way that gives preponderance to any section of the population but gives a sense of belonging to all Nigerians so as to command their loyalty to government. The jury is still out whether the present Federal Government has adhered to that constitutional principle. In some instances, certain sections of the population are totally excluded from sensitive positions and the spirit of alienation set in. But the Federal Government failed to assuage these feelings and tensions continued to rise. This leads to the second proposition that lack of fairness in governance leads to people reacting in a way and manner that may sound divisive. Again pray, who takes the blame? The person(s) who made unfair decisions and took action, let us call it hate action, or the person(s) who reacted in what is now termed a hate speech. If we must criminalise hate speech, we must start by criminalising hate action or governance founded on hate and non-adherence to the rule of law and constitutionalism.
The constitution provides for equality before the law and the equal protection of the law for all citizens. But it seems these fundamental principles have been thrown overboard in Nigeria. We have Nnamdi Kanu of the Indigenous People of Biafra accused, inter alia, of having made hate speeches and the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, is moving to have his bail revoked. But when the Arewa youths threatened to evict residents from a section of the country in their region that could lead to mass murder and confiscation of properties of Nigerians of Igbo extraction, and even went as far as recording a song which has gone viral, the same Attorney General of the Federation lost his voice and stated that he could not arrest and prosecute them due to the security situation. Even the Minister of Interior, Lt Gen Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau (retd.), claimed that the advocates of mass murder were misquoted; indeed, he claimed they did not issue the threat. The Attorney General sees no security threat on the other side where he proposes that bail be revoked. When security issues and the administration of justice are reduced to such lowly levels of pedestrianism, the sources of hate and anger can easily be identified by any right thinking person.
By Section 42 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, “A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person:- (a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject; or (b) be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions”. What Malami proposes to do in respect of Kanu is directly a violation of the above constitutional provision. The fundamental tenet of justice is that like cases are treated alike. Otherwise, we have no claim to being a democratic and civilised people.
About five days ago, the media reported the Personal Assistant to President Buhari on Social Media, Lauretta Onochie, stating that it was time to dump Kanu to where he belonged, lock him up and throw the key into the Atlantic Ocean. Locking someone up and throwing away the key means being locked up for life – without trial and due process. Is this a civilised, friendly or hate speech? Do we take it that Onochie is speaking for her principal? By the time the authorities re-arrest Kanu as proposed while letting those instigating mass murder and confiscation of property free, the message is clearly sent that the rule of law is in bondage in Nigeria. May be, those who speak out against this lopsided law enforcement would have committed a crime and be deemed to have made hate speech.
President Buhari can reduce the tension in the land, show more fairness to Nigerians of all shades in his governance of the country, caution his appointees and this discourse about hate speech will gradually fade away. Insisting on re-arresting kanu will create more tension in the land. The ball is in the court of Mr. President.
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