Controversy, questions over hate speech bills

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As President Muhammadu Buhari patiently awaits the social media and hate speech bills undergoing legislative processes in the National Assembly to get to his table for his final assent before they become laws in Nigeria, Nigerians have taken up the gauntlet to fight what they perceive as government’s move to suppress citizens’ inalienable rights to freedom of expression and speech.

For the government, the bills are good for the peaceful co-existence and survival of Nigeria as a country, and must eventually become laws. But, for many Nigerians, the bills when passed into law would shrink the democratic space, stifle the people’s freedom to challenge government’s bad policies, set the country backwards and ultimately midwife fascism and autocracy in the country; a situation they have vowed not to allow. The development has pitched the government against the people, with both sides flexing muscles and waiting for who blinks first.

Two senators representing Niger East and Niger North Senatorial Districts on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Mohammed Sani Musa and Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi have been in the news recently for initiating the bills to regulate the social media, and hate speech bills in Nigeria.

Senator Musa’s bill, which intends to regulate the social media, with the title, “Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation and Other Related Matters Bill”, successfully scaled through the second reading on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday, November 20, 2019.

However, his counterpart, Senator Abdullahi’s bill titled, “A Bill for an Act to Provide for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches and for Other Related Matters,” not only seeks to control hate speech; but also pushes to ensure that those who are found guilty of hate speech face death penalty.

What the two gentlemen saw as their own little contributions to deepening the democratic space as well as bringing about growth and development in Nigeria is today generating so much controversy, both within and outside the country, with a cross section of Nigerians stoutly rising against the bills, which they have plainly described as government’s subtle means to gag the media, suppress the citizens’ freedom of expression and silence any kind of opposition’s voice in Nigeria. Although, Musa who initiated the social media bill had explained that the intendment of the bill was not to stifle free speech, but to address a growing threat, which if left unchecked, could cause serious damage in the polity and disrupt peaceful coexistence, Nigerians are not prepared to accept his explanation.

Since the introduction of the bills, various schools of thought have emerged. There are some Nigerians who believe that the development simply means that government has failed to meet up with the citizens’ needs and aspirations. They argue that the bills, when passed into law, would ensure that even though Nigerians are not happy with the government and their political leaders, they cannot complain. This is because any attempt to complain would amount to breaking either of the two laws which could lead to long term imprisonment or even death, depending on which of the two laws is infringed upon.

Again, there are people who believe that the promoters of the bills and the government have ulterior motives, otherwise why would they be pushing for such laws when the constitution has more than enough laws to take care of libel, defamation and sedition, which are what the bills when passed into law seek to address.

However, there is another school of thought which holds that senators are dancing to the drumbeats of the executive arm of government led by President Buhari, who is rumoured to be nursing a third term ambition.

Last week, an APC chieftain in Ebonyi State, South East Nigeria, Mr. Charles Enya, had approached the court to plead that the aspect of the constitution which denies Buhari the right to contest for the presidency a third time should be expunged from the const

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