Few weeks ago, the Vice President of Nigeria, Prof Yemi Osinbajo declared that henceforth, the Federal Government of Nigeria will classify hate speech as specie of Terrorism and offenders will be charged under the Terrorism Prevention Act, as amended.
He said the intimidation of a population by words or speech is an act of terrorism and will no longer be tolerated by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration. He warned that the government intends to take the matter seriously. Albeit, the Defence Headquarters has however denied reports that the military is monitoring hate speech promoters in order to arrest them.
Examining Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution which provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference.” Similarly, Article XIX of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” By the same token, Article IX of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights provides that “Every individual shall have the right to receive information and the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”
Beyond passing laws that will criminalise hate speeches, the government should not by design or default encourage extreme behaviour. The notion of the modern state is still in a flux, subject to tinkering as time and circumstances dictate. Even the Constitution of the United States of America, the bastion of democracy, has accepted 27 amendments over the years.
There is nothing therefore sacrosanct in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that cannot and should not be exposed to debate. An atmosphere of peace and freedom to express views as enshrined in the constitution guarantees freedom of speech. But it does not encourage speeches that could inflame passions and lead to a breakdown of law and order.
However, there is an urgent need to develop, in conjunction with critical organs of the society such as media owners and practitioners, taxonomy of what constitutes hate speech. Media houses through their unions should incorporate these as part of good journalism practice and impose sanctions on erring members who publish or broadcast hate speech-laden materials.
The National Orientation Agency, in concert with civil society groups and community leaders, should also embark on a campaign against the use of hate speech. In the same vein, Internet Service providers should be encouraged to bring down blogs and websites they host which publish, promote or give unfettered space for the expression of free speech.
Above all it should be impressed upon the political leadership at all levels that a deep distrust of the government is at the heart of the sort of free speech jurisprudence you have in the United States and that Nigerians have the same level of distrust of their governments.