A bill to create a National Electoral Offenses Commission, which is pending in the National Assembly, has proposed classifying hate speech as an electoral offense that could result in a 10-year prison sentence or fine of N40 million, or both.

The House of Representatives Electoral Affairs Committee held a public hearing on the “National Electoral Offenses and Related Matters Commission Bill 2022” in Abuja on Tuesday.

In Part IV of the bill, titled “Election offences”, Article 32, which contains an explanatory note “Prohibition of hate speech”, criminalizes speech likely to trigger violence.

The clause reads: “(1) A person who, in connection with any policy or election, uses or directs the use of threatening words, behavior or actions, or displays or directs the posting of any written material threatening or inciting violence, is guilty of an offense if – (a) he/she intends to thereby stir up ethnic, religious or racial hatred, social or political insecurity or violence against a person or group of persons; or (b) taking into account all the circumstances, ethnic, religious or racial hatred or social or political insecurity or violence is likely to be fueled thereby.

“Provided that nothing in this Sub-Clause shall be read or given effect in a manner which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse particular beliefs or practices of their adherents, or any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or to proselytize or induce adherents of a different belief system to cease practicing their belief system.

“Subjective descriptions of a person’s actions or behavior, no matter how heinous, crass or reprehensible, cannot be considered an attempt to spread hatred unless the motive is clearly defined as such.

“(2) Any person who commits an offense under sub-paragraph (1) of this clause shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for not less than 10 years or to a fine of ‘at least 40,000,000 naira, or both.’

INEC, IPAC support

During the public hearing, the Independent National Electoral Commission and the Interparty Consultative Committee, among others, supported the bill, but the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission opposed it.

President of INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu

CENI President, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, in his address, urged the National Assembly to go further by creating a dedicated court for electoral crimes.

IPAC National Chairman Yabagi Sani in his presentation noted that INEC and security agencies do not have the capacity to prosecute electoral crimes.

Sani said, “We welcome the development because we believe it will create a well-organized space without impunity, as we have seen today. And in the future, Nigeria will be respected in the community of nations. We are ready to cooperate and ensure that this law is correctly applied.

However, the EFCC expressed its opposition to the proposal in a presentation made by its deputy commander, Deborah Ademu-Eteh.

The Anti-Corruption Agency has pointed out that these offenses are offenses that the Nigerian Police, Federal Ministry of Justice, EFCC, ICPC and INEC (under Section 145 of the Elections Act 2022) “are empowered under our existing laws to investigate and prosecute.”

Gbajabiamila speaks

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, while declaring the hearing open, said that while lawmakers recognize that even the recent gubernatorial elections in Ekiti and Osun states marked a milestone in Nigeria’s democratic evolution, “there is no doubt that a lot of work remains to be done to bring the country to the point where elections are devoid of the usual challenges of violence, fraud and abuse of process .

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila

Gbajabiamila, who was represented by the Vice-President, Ahmed Wase, noted that a review of past elections showed the need for the National Assembly to take the necessary legislative measures to address the challenges identified and address the gaps encountered in the conduct of elections.