By Mustapha Temidayo
Trust Nigeria: that well-hyped, well-crafted liberality, may well be well-shrouded, self-serving impunity!
After former CJN Walter Onnoghen’s scandal broke, what gored a SAN most was not a judicial high priest that allegedly smudged his immaculate cloak, but the “outrage” of docking a sitting CJN.
“How can they,” he fumed, “dock the CJN?”
“Why not?” Ripples countered. “Is he above the law?”
That brought the learned SAN thudding hard on grim reality. But it never cured him of his professional conceit that the CJN should be above the law — the same law that created his office and, by that special grace, vaulted him over and above every other citizen, when interpreting the law was the question.
That hubris all but played out thereafter, with the futile legal rally that the CJN should shun appearing before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, until its chairman read the riot act and things got rather nasty.
ASUU, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, just essayed its own grandstanding; pushing a divine right to decide how its employer must pay it, because thanks to “university autonomy”, its members are exceptional minds, too superior to be paid, from the same salary framework, as other plebs!
What’s that — liberal fascism?
A similar conceit is playing out in the media, regarding hate speech; and the clearly draconian bill, now in the mill, to stamp it out.
Forget the pro- and anti-hate speech bill arguments, the opening gambit by the ace democratic liberals and champions of free speech, would appear media exceptionalism — not unlike the legal exceptionalism that landed the former CJN in so much grief.
But again, beyond ideological passion, which many times is herd mentality rather than hard, rigorous reason, such exceptionalism is clearly illogical. You cannot claim because you distil free speech, you are free of the laws that guide that territory.
Even with celestial perfectness, isn’t order the first law in heaven? How much less then on earth, with folks’ penchant to bait the extreme?
Make no mistake: the hate speech bill is following all the wrong path, in tackling a serious problem. No matter how grievous a matter is — and hate speech is grievous — you don’t frame law, or any public policy, on sheer emotions.
If you did, you risked not giving it the full, rigorous and concentrated thinking it deserved, since anger or outrage tends to freeze your thinking. That is the flaw of the sponsor of that bill. His anger tends to consign it to death on arrival.
But that a bill’s sponsor is clinically challenged does not vitiate the need, nay the imperative, to deal with the problem. Indeed, resorting to media hysteria to push “free speech” at any cost, is no less critically challenged as the bill itself is.
There certainly can’t be free hate speech!
So, the drama playing out is emotion versus emotion: Sabi Abdullahi, senator and sponsor of the hate speech bill, is so incensed he wants to play the Nigerian modern day legislative Draco — death for hate speech, well, if it causes the death of another!
But his critics too are in a huff, too incensed by his draconian temper; puffing hot smoke, in a fit of democratic rage!
Both sides betray different sides of patriotic arrogance that leaves the pressing problem unsolved. That, for the polity, could be fatal. That is why there must be a third way, rooted in cold reason.
At the end of the day, the starting point is taking responsibility. That is trite in speech; as it is in every other sphere of life.
In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a voice in the epic poem grumbled that God ought to have willed Adam from straying from Eden and dooming mankind. But another voice countered: God has given Man free will. Still, however Man exercises this will, he must stand by the consequences. That also goes for free speech.
That is the point the willy-nilly champions of free speech are fleeing from, flaunting the rich lather of ideologue sentiments, hoping that would cover the void. It won’t — at least with the acute.
Indeed, taking responsibility for his freedom is what Man has fled from, since the fall of Adam.
Sigmund Freud, in psychoanalysis, demonstrates the uneasy balance between the “id” (the raw intent to do anything), the “ego” (the inherent check against raw intents) and the “super ego” (societal sanctions against misbehaviour, should self-restraint fail).
Even the Social Contract, the basic theory undergirding the pristine state, is also a bulwark against man’s seeming natural extremity, in his relationship with peers. The threat of the mighty crushing the weak made the state imperative — an agency to moderate behaviours and impose order.
But again, in a modern democratic state, the debate is not about free speech. That is settled, with any democratic constitution, worth its name.
What is not settled is possible abuse — by the state, particularly by its unscrupulous agents, pushing back the frontiers of citizen liberty. That appears the angst of the media and other free speech champions, in this present push, to tackle hate speech. That fear is real, particularly with Nigeria’s past nasty experience with military rule.
But ample abuse also comes from citizen beneficiaries, who hide behind free speech to press their democratic right of pushing out free hate speech!
That is clear from too many social media posts. That free speech champions are deliberately coy about this menace shows the deliberate fraud in their own impassioned campaigns, for the so-called “free society”. That is nothing but tragic romance — at least from the Rwanda experience.
Rwanda! Had the Rwandan genocide of 1994 come some 20 years later, Ripples wagers, with the present social media penetration, Rwanda would perhaps have become the first modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah — completely razed by hate, if not by sexual decadence.
Which country could have survived the Rwanda “cut down the tall trees!”, pass through the cold and ubiquitous social media, and yet live to tell the tale?
Just as well: Rwandans appear less gung-ho about democratic rights, which President Paul Kagame abuses with gusto! Hutu-on-Tutsi hate, which snowballed into genocide, left a harsh existential mark: you must be alive, before claiming democratic rights!
Still, many in the Nigerian rights lobby still tingle with philosophical anarchy — limitless rights and zero government control — much as the English metaphysical poet, John Donne, announced his triumphant shutting out of the sun, “with a mere wink”, in his poem “Sun Rising”.
Intellectual anarchy is gripping and exciting. It makes the mind soar! But physical anarchy is sobering stuff: the unbridled push of rights that alters the societal balance and peaks in avoidable tragedy. That starts with hate speech.
Hate speech is an existential menace. Not even media hysteria can wish away that acute danger. Which is why the state and the rights lobby must partner to get rid of it.
The earlier both sides quit grandstanding and got to serious business, the better for everyone.
At least, Nigeria has Rwanda’s experience to learn from.