Most Nigerians woke up on the morning of 3rd December 2019 to read a very curious news item, published on nearly all major newspapers. It was titled, ‘Hate speech bill impressive, US declares’. Apart from that title, there were others such as ‘US Envoy describes haste speech bill as an impressive piece of legislation’, ‘Hate speech bill impressive – US Embassy official’. All the reports ascribed that misleading opinion to a certain Jerry Howard, said to be ‘political officer’ to the US Embassy in Nigeria.
According to the reports, Mr. Howard had met with deputy chief whip of the senate Senator Aliyu Sabi AbdullahI, proponent of the hate speech bill. The reports also said that Mr. Howard visited the Nigerian Senator to try to understand the proposed Hate Speech Bill under consideration by the Nigerian senate. During the meeting, the reports quoted Mr. Howard to have said to Senator AbdullahI: You’ve thought it through. I was depending on the media for my education, and it was very misleading. You’ve done your research and it is very interesting…I’m very impressed with the research you’ve done on the bill. The media has had a field day with this, really’.
Other aspects of this report had it that Mr. Howard described the Nigerian media and public as being ‘hysterical’. Before the end of the meeting, Mr. Howard was also reported to have advised the Senator to talk with Civil Society Organisations and other stakeholders so as to ‘sell’ the Hate Speech Bill to them.
Most Nigerians had genuine fears that the government of Muhammadu Buhari appeared to want to gag them, and smuggle in his obnoxious decree 4 of 1984. Most kicked against it, and rightly so because there is already a trust deficit between the Nigerian people and the government of Muhammadu Buhari. And that was why, on reading that piece of news, splashed right across all major newspapers in Nigeria, and ascribed to a ‘US Envoy, Nigerians were shocked and upset at those comments ascribed to the US. First, we did not understand where Mr. Howard, the ‘US Envoy’ got the idea from that the bill was ‘impressive’ and that ‘research’ had been done on it. One very strong criticism of both the Hate Speech and Social Media Bills was that they may have been copied from Singapore to be foisted on Nigerians. There was reference to section 24 of the Cybercrimes Act 2015 which apparently addressed and allayed the fears that the proponents of both the Hate Speech and Social Media Bills had.
Because we had doubts that this fellow, the ‘US Envoy’ was indeed a representative of the US government, and because we consider ourselves a responsible media organisation based in the US and interested in giving out very credible, fair and balanced news to its readers, we sought clarification from the US Embassy in Nigeria as to how Mr. Howard arrived at the idea that the hate speech bill is an ‘impressive’ piece of well-researched legislation. To make this request, the US Embassy in Nigeria requests all those seeking an interview with them concerning issues such as this to use the press contact on their website. We filled that form that same day that the reports ascribed to the ‘US Envoy’ were published and requested the Embassy give us the opportunity to have an interview with Mr. Howard, with nearly three week-notice, and which expired 20th December, 2019.
While we waited for the US Embassy to respond to or schedule an interview with us concerning the position of the ‘US Envoy’, Omoyele Sowore, journalist and presidential candidate in the 2019 elections was arrested by Nigeria’s state security police. Within the period of his arrest and re-arrest in December, there have been responses on that matter by the US Department of State, and another from the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour via tweets. The response ascribed to Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member of the US Foreign Relations Committee was firm, loud and clear and much in the character of the US on issues related to the rule of law, fundamental human rights and a free press. ‘This blatant miscarriage of justice is symptomatic of closing political and media space in Nigeria…while we continue to seek immediate answers about Sowore’s treatment and conditions in jail, I will be further engaging directly with US Ambassador, Mary Beth Leonard, in Abuja to raise this case at the highest levels of the Nigerian government so that the Buhari administration gets the message that we are committed to defending Sowore’s rights and securing his release’, the US Senator Bob Menendez was quoted as saying.
In the light of the above, we are unable to understand why the US Embassy in Nigeria did not schedule an appointment to address our concerns concerning Mr. Howard’s position on the Hate Speech bill. We are an online newspaper based in the US, and our readership is in the thousands of Nigerians here in Nigeria and in the Diaspora. We respect our readership, and most of them, were curious to know how Mr. Howard of the US Embassy in Nigeria came about his position on the hate speech bill as being well-researched, and what he actually meant by the media and the Nigerian public being ‘hysterical’. If the Nigerian government, headed by a man with dictatorial tendencies, decides to use his cronies to pass hate speech and Social media bills into law, wouldn’t it be justified for Nigerians to be concerned and be ‘hysterical’ in their criticism of those proposed bills? If our being ‘hysterical’ is not justified, then there would be no need for the US House Democrats to have ‘hysterically’ put together two articles – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – for the impeachment of Mr. Donald Trump, US president.
In their disappointment with the position adopted by Mr. Howard, most Nigerians have referenced the Sowore saga as that that those obnoxious bills which Mr. Howard has endorsed seek to perpetrate. We are not sure Mr. Howard is aware that Nigeria just managed to survive the Abacha junta, of which the head of this administration was a part. One reason we were able to survive was that there were very coordinated, strong and firm responses from the US Ambassador at that time, a Walter Carrington, who spoke truth to power, and at a time when speaking out against the tyrannical tendencies of General Abacha meant instant death.
But indeed, we do believe that the position taken by the ‘US Envoy’, concerning proposed hate speech and Social Media bills does not reflect the position of the American government, and that was why we sought to meet with the ‘US Envoy’, and clarify issues, especially at an epoch where all manner of fakeness of news and impersonations abound.
But if indeed that position by the ‘US Envoy’ actually emanated from the US Embassy itself, it is indeed an unfortunate one, more so strengthened by the rebuff from the US Embassy concerning our request for an interview. If that is the case, we have no option but begin to assume that the US policy in Nigeria is one of double standards, more in tune with the protection of its own interests and that of its national (in this case Sowore Omoyele) as against that that helps the weak and hapless defend their rights and build strong institutions. That response from the ‘US Envoy’ seems to reinforce the idea that the US operates a curious system where it supports what it likes against what it is supposed to support.
We are still interested in speaking with Mr. Howard, ‘US Envoy’, to help allay the above fears. We want to find out how he came about his notion that Nigerians actually need a hate speech bill when there already exists a Cybercrimes Act, 2015. We are interested in knowing from Mr. Howard, ‘US Envoy’, if he has taken time to read the Cybercrimes Act 2015, and if he juxtaposed it with the ‘well-researched’ ingredients of the proposed Hate Speech Bill before the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Etemiku is deputy executive director of CERLSI, and special correspondent with www.alltimepost.com, US-based Nigerian online newspaper.