By proposing the death penalty for “hate speech”, the Nigerian Senate, through possible restrictions on the kinds of conversation without which a democracy may not function properly, may itself be guilty of propagating “hate speech”. Against our nascent democracy!


“Hate speech”!

Almost out of thin air, and over the last two years, we have managed to create a controversy around this concept. In the effort to make sense of the different threads that have woven a patchy tapestry around the concept, two contexts offer a proximate explanation. First, is the fact that we are in the run up to the end of an election cycle. Given how poorly our elected officials (whether in the executive branch or the supposedly hallowed chambers of our legislatures) have performed since 2015, it is understandable that they might feel a need to create distractions that divert the electorate’s attention away from the more serious concerns about the proper husbandry of the economy. If this were the goal, the resulting intensity of the debate around free speech is a worthy outcome.

But there is a second, more honourable, possibility. And this is that a young democracy, concerned to take its cue from the practice in more advanced places, and seeing how much navel-gazing takes place in Europe and North America around this concept, may have concluded that its ability to carry on an equally intense discussion around the idea of “hate speech” could just drive it towards, or, better still, might be its coming-of-age moment. One could argue, by extension, that on the balance of evidence, the latter might be the more desirable driver of our ongoing debate around “hate speech”. If, for nothing else, because the former explanation would simply confirm the cynical manipulation of the public space that has since become the bane of the economy.

All this was before the Senate muddied the waters further. Or rather a bill making its way through the Senate threatened to change the terms of the debate fundamentally. Apparently, our distinguished senators propose to hang by their neck (or is it shoot at a firing squad) until pronounced dead, anyone found guilty of “hate speech”. Now, it is easy (even tempting) to include this denouement as part of the initial explanation of the hubbub around “hate speech” in the country. In which case, the Senate is simply looking for further distraction from its poor legislative record, thus far.

The possibility, however distant this might be, that our legislators may, indeed, imagine this bill their own contribution to the discussion by mankind of proper responses to “hate speech”, is worrisome and difficult to ignore. Currently, the only thing more disturbing than this possibility is the absence of a national consensus around what qualifies as “hate speech”. And this is not necessarily as bad as it sounds. Even in those places whose legal practices our legislations ape, the agreements around what qualifies as “hate speech” are often so broad as to be without meaning outside of clear historical contexts.

…anti-Semitic speech would be a crime in most European and North American countries. As would homophobic speech. Yet, neither would earn you as much as a ticking off in Nigeria. We, also do not have constitutionally protected groups, whose sensibilities would be reinforced behind a curtain of legislation designed to prevent hate speech directed at them.


In most such jurisdictions, in order to succeed to the “hate” noun, speech must be directed against an individual or group based on attributes that are specific to them. Again, it could be speech that invites violence against protected groups and individual members of such groups. Accordingly, anti-Semitic speech would be a crime in most European and North American countries. As would homophobic speech. Yet, neither would earn you as much as a ticking off in Nigeria. We, also do not have constitutionally protected groups, whose sensibilities would be reinforced behind a curtain of legislation designed to prevent hate speech directed at them.

The Igbos do, however, present an interesting proposition in this regard. From being called “Yanmiris”, now and again beheaded in the North, to being denied rental accommodation by landlords in Lagos, there just might exist a case for protecting the Igbos from “hate speech”. Additionally, anecdotal evidence would support the sense that the rest of the country still has a beef with the Igbos. And, who knows, the sense of marginalisation subscribed to by some in the South-East of the country may be mollified by such protection.

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The biggest let to this line of argument, though, is that the Igbos can look after themselves, and have continued to do so admirably well — and most Igbos might consider whatever benefits potential protection from possible “hate speech” offers part of a continuing refusal by the rest of the country to transact with them on equal terms. Besides, the pejorative epithets used across the country to describe other ethnic groups cut in many directions: “ndi ofe mmanu”; “kobokobo”; “gambari”, etc. Indeed, I was reminded that the bad blood that bank tellers in the country engender with bank customers, might just be good enough to ring-fence bank tellers with some form of anti-“hate speech” legislation — bank tellers are daily threatened with unspeakable harm by irate bank customers.

…“it is not the proper role of the (Nigerian State) to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive”. Of course, government “may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment…


All of which brings us to the question of how we perceive our democracy. In the end, a democracy is about the many freedoms the folks practicing it purport to aim at (and enjoy). Amongst these, the right of a people to constitute a government as part of the process of securing these freedoms, up to, and including the right to change or remove any government that becomes injurious to these freedoms, is arguably one of the most important. Within this context, none of the freedoms that a free people enjoy is more important than the right to express themselves, including the right to choose with whom they will associate.

If therefore, any society is to define a duty to protect certain of its myriad components from this free expression of ideas, it can only do so with extreme caution and great parsimony. Expressed differently, and to paraphrase the University of Chicago’s “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression”, “it is not the proper role of the (Nigerian State) to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive”. Of course, government “may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with” its functioning.

By proposing the death penalty for “hate speech”, the Nigerian Senate, through possible restrictions on the kinds of conversation without which a democracy may not function properly, may itself be guilty of propagating “hate speech”. Against our nascent democracy!

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.