First it was the CyberCrime Act of 2015. Then, it was a newfound obsession with fake news that was used to justify social media censorship. And now, our government has found a new and even more creative way to undermine our freedoms: hate speech.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, defended this pattern of increasingly repressive policies by claiming that “purveyors of fake news and hate speech” would not go unpunished. Needless to say, hateful rhetoric is harmful and dangerous and liable to cause death
and destruction. As a result, any responsible government must keep it in check. However, the truth of the matter is that the incumbent party is merely using national security as an excuse to
target its most outspoken critics.
One of such example is the unlawful detention of human rights activist and founder of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore. Sowore is currently being detained by the Department of State Services for organising a peaceful protest. Worse still, the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja has imposed an extortionate ₦100m bail with two sureties on Sowore’s freedom, both of whom have to be landowners and residents in Abuja. All of this is based on allegations that Sowore was in contact with unnamed foreign actors with intent to destabilize Nigeria. Sowore’s case is just the latest and most disheartening in a recent trend of activists, journalists, and social media commentators being erroneously arrested by the government for “hate speech” or “treason” when exercising their constitutional rights to free speech.
If one were to take a closer look at the pattern of criticism and arrest, it becomes clear that the federal government is applying a rather generous definition of these terms in order to silence any of those who oppose it.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, treason refers to “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance”. Hate speech is speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people. Therefore, any statement which holds the government accountable for its failures and demands the dramatic overhaul our country needs to reach its full potential is neither hate speech nor treason. Treason cannot result from subversive speech and written content unless this content overtly calls for an end to the government. Sowore and other activists seek reform, not anarchy.
Furthermore, the government is not a particular group of people, but an institution. It is therefore impossible to disseminate hate speech against the government. In light of all of this, our so-called Federal Republic is no different from the military dictatorships which preceded it. Even the oppressive leaders are the same.
One could argue that this vile perversion of the basic principles of democracy are to be expected. After all, we put an ex-dictator in Aso Rock this year for a second term. How could we expect such a politician to even know what democracy means?
Funmilayo Adetokunbo A-A, a political and International Affairs Analyst, writes from Somerset, England, United Kingdom.