The right to speak is inalienable in democracy

We have recorded many instances where the present democratic governments in Nigeria, both at the federal and state levels, have attempted to gag citizens.

The federal government tested the waters last year when it classified certain forms of speech, especially ones critical of government, as hate speech. There is no law yet to back this up. Just this week, Nigerians were once again confronted with the story that the federal government, through its Minister of Information and Culture, has declared hate speech as act of terrorism.

One way of reacting to this is to question where the minister, if he is acting alone, or the federal government, if he is acting on its behalf, derives the powers to redefine terms whose meanings have been settled globally. All over the world, the word terrorism has specific action-markers, and I dare say that hate speech is not one of them and to decree it as one diminishes our democracy and dresses it with the gab of dictatorship.

Granted that hate speech could lead to violence among people, as Alhaji Lai Muhammed, the Honourable Minister, rightly argued, it amounts to oversimplification of serious matters for anyone to now assume that any action, including common insult, that could lead to violence is now an act of terrorism. If we pursue this line of argument to its logical conclusion, we may end up labelling almost every action of man on earth as terrorism since they have the potential to cause violence depending on how they rub off on the people they affect.

When citizens question the democratic dispositions of governments they do so pointing at this type of misstep by highly placed players in government. These players tend to be ignorant that as a game democracy comes with certain rules and just like in every game it is these rules that define the game of democracy.

Topmost among the democratic game rules is the right to speak. Indeed, the philosopher Foucault calls it the right to chatter and he did so in order to indicate that the democratic regime comes with the right of every person to say even stupid things. Thus, to accept democracy is to accept some of these things which may be considered its accompanying baggage.

Thus, how a government reacts to the stupid sayings of its subjects is a measure of its democratic standing. And the freedom which citizens possess to say anything, even nonsense, is the proof of democracy in any nation. What the angered operators of government who want to clamp down on citizens who speak their minds in manners unacceptable to them often forget is the fact that democracy properly defined is the rule by the same man who they want to clamp down.

When you canvass that he relinquishes his right to govern himself to you, you invariably pledge to henceforth manage his faults the same way he manages it. Everyone will end up in jail if they elect to be punished on the strength of what comes from their mouth.

I understand it when elected governments begin to envy tyrants and the absolute powers which they wield. Truly, it is only a tyrant that possesses the power to give personal meanings to words and have the entire subjects accept them without question. Such words as hate speech, thought crime, thought police, etc. have their origin in the repressive communist regime of Joseph Stalin. With his politburo, Stalin decreed offences into existence and have his subjects punished for them. We may point to the little man in North Korea as exemplifying this behaviour in the present time. And the fact that he could pull such a thing through is a major proof that what they have in that country is not a democracy. Of course, they make no pretence about this.

Instead of imposing meanings, democrats negotiate them. They do so through public debate and arguments held in the newspapers, television houses, radio stations, parliaments, academic symposiums, newspaper stands, beer parlours and salons. Of course, I do not live under the illusion that Alhaji Lai Muhammed meant those words criminalising hate speech as terrorism the way it was reported. Citizens who are ready to tear him apart for his words also tend to forget that like them, Alhaji Muhammed is also a participant in the democratic game. He too, like the rest of us, has the right to chatter.

It amounts to hypocrisy to accept this right for oneself and deny the same to other individuals, even if they are Lai Muhammed, simply because they are in government.

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