A bill seeking to establish a National Electoral Offences Commission, which is under consideration by the National Assembly, has proposed to classify hate speech as an electoral offence that may attract a jail term of 10 years or a fine of N40m or both.
The House of Representatives’ Committee on Electoral Matters held a public hearing on the ‘Bill for an Act to Establish the National Electoral Offences Commission and for Related Matters 2022’ in Abuja on Tuesday.
Under Part IV of the bill, titled ‘Electoral Offences,’ Clause 32, which has an explanatory note “Prohibition of hate speech,” criminalises speeches that could spark violence.
The clause reads, “(1) A person who, in the course of politics or elections, uses or directs the use of threatening words, behaviour or action, or displays or directs the display of any written material which is threatening or incites violence, is guilty of an offence if — (a) he/she intends thereby to stir up ethnic, religious, or racial hatred, social or political insecurity or violence against anyone or group of persons; or (b) having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic, religious, or racial hatred or social or political insecurity or violence is likely to be stirred up thereby.
“Provided that nothing in this sub-clause shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different belief system to cease practising their belief system.
“Subjective descriptions of a person’s actions or behaviour, however abhorrent, crass or objectionable, may not be considered an attempt to spread hate unless the motive is clearly defined as such.
“(2) Any person who commits offence under sub-clause (1) of this clause shall be liable, on conviction, to imprisonment for a term of at least 10 years or a fine of at least N40,000,000, or both.”
INEC, IPAC’s support
At the public hearing, the Independent National Electoral Commission and the Inter-Party Advisory Committee, among others, backed the bill but the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission opposed it.
The INEC Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, in his remarks, urged the National Assembly to take a step further by creating a tribunal dedicated to electoral offences.
The National Chairman of IPAC, Yabagi Sani, in his presentation, noted that INEC and security agencies lack the capacity to prosecute electoral offences.
Sani said, “We welcome the development because we believe it will make a much organised space for no impunity as we observed today. And going forward, Nigeria will be respected in the comity of nations. We are ready to cooperate and ensure that this law is properly enforced.”
However, the EFCC expressed its opposition to the proposal in a presentation made by its Assistant Commander, Deborah Ademu-Eteh.
The anti-corruption agency pointed out that these offences are offences that the Nigeria Police Force, the Federal Ministry of Justice, the EFCC, the ICPC and INEC (in Section 145 of the Electoral Act, 2022) “are empowered under our extant laws to investigate and prosecute.”
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, while declaring the hearing open, said while the lawmakers acknowledge that even the recent governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun states signified a milestone in Nigeria’s democratic evolution, “there is no doubt that a lot of work still needs to be done to take the country to the point where elections are devoid of the usual challenges of violence, fraud and abuse of process.”
Gbajabiamila, who was represented by the Deputy Speaker, Ahmed Wase, noted that a review of past elections showed the need for the National Assembly to take necessary legislative steps toward addressing identified challenges and plugging the loopholes encountered with the conduct of elections.