In the more than 10 years I have been writing this column, I have never ceded it to anyone. Yet, I have just done that in this column for President Muhammadu Buhari. It is not just because he is our President, it is also that the matter is grave, literally grave.You see, I came upon a letter from the President to the Deputy Chief Whip, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, the sponsor of the Hate Speech Bill. In the letter, Buhari abjures the bill that he himself had a hand in developing.
Now, in this age of fake news, I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this letter. You have to read it and decide. In any case, even if it turns out to be fake, savour it anyway. With the Hate Speech and social media bills about to be passed, this may be the last time you get to indulge in something fake. Here then is the president’s letter:
Dear Senator Sabi Abdullahi:
I woke up this morning in total distress. No, it has nothing to do with my frailty and chronic illness. It had to do with a nightmarish dream I had last night that caused me to wake up with palpitation and cold sweat.The dream began with me heading to Aso Rock in the late morning and noticing an oddity. The usually bustling route was desolate. Curious, I asked the driver to take a detour into town. Even there, only now and then did a car whiz by. When we eventually ran into a pedestrian, we stopped to ask him where the rest of Abujans were. Rather than respond, he stared blankly at us. We couldn’t tell whether he was transfixed by fear or whether he was just deaf and dumb.
We cruised further around town. Again, it was the same. A whizzing car here and a zombie-like pedestrian there.To get a better sense of what was going on, I asked to be driven to nearby Kaduna. The traffic was uncharacteristically sparse. Here and there we ran into some bandits, who were readily neutralised by my security personnel. You have to excuse the word neutralised. It is a carryover from my military days. We never killed, we just neutralised.
In any case, once in town, we found that the situation in Kaduna was a little better than that of Abuja, but not by much. I was getting quite concerned. I decided to make one more stop to check. I was flown to Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and bustling city. There, what I saw truly horrified me. Lagos was even more desolate than Abuja.It was then that I started calling my ministers, the Inspector-General of Police, and the Army Chief of Staff. I couldn’t get through to anyone. After several tries, I was able to get through to Lai Mohammed, my information minister. The explanation he offered horrified me: the Hate Speech Bill had become law and, one by one, almost all Nigerians had been executed. It was at this point that I was jolted from the dream, drenched in sweat as my heart throbbed.
Even though it might not seem so to many, I really love Nigeria. That’s why even at an advanced age and with a feeble health, I tried several times to be elected before finally succeeding. Even my draconian rule during my tenure as a military head of state was meant well.So, Mr. Deputy Chief Whip, I don’t want to be a part of anything that will bring this country to ruin. That’s why I have been cautious even on something dear to my heart: the advancement of my fellow Fulani. Whenever, my policies in this regard have provoked national outrage, I have backtracked—at least somewhat.
It is also the reason that my second-tenure’s cabinet includes a disproportionate number of the Igbo. It is my way of making up for past slights, my way of saying to those who want to secede, please don’t go. We want you and we need you.So then, Mr. Deputy Chief Whip, though I had supported the Hate Speech Bill all along, I am now pleading with you to withdraw it. If you don’t and it gets to my desk, I will veto it or just let it die there
I realise that my nightmare was just a dream. Even then it has made me aware that the death penalty for hate speech is the kind of medicine that would inflict more damage than the illness it is supposed to cure.In any case, I recall from my childhood seeing parents flogging their children and telling them, “If you cry I will flog you more.”And, sure enough, the children cried and the parents flogged them even harder. It is the height of unreasonableness to flog a child and insist that he not cry.
As the government, much of the blame rests on us. Corruption and ineptitude continue to bedevil our delivery of good governance. Despite my efforts, Nigeria continues to rank about the same on Transparency International’s index of corruption, and that’s very high. So, the death penalty may be more appropriate for those of us who defraud our people than for those who speak out in frustration.A final point is that I have a legacy to worry about. Since becoming president in 2015, I have tried to shed my image as a despot. Even before I was elected, I admonished the press to stop referring to me as General Buhari. I hate that title. I hate anything that reminds me and fellow Nigerians of the 1984 Buhari. And that includes the Hate Speech Bill.
As part of my transition from a military dictator to an elected president, I was tutored on the finer points of free expression. I was told of one John Stuart Mill, a British libertarian philosopher, who argued that the best way to fight falsehood is to counter it with truth. I know, of course, that that is idealistic, that certain falsehoods cause irreparable damage.Even then, I am guided by the saying that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cannot hurt me.” Well, actually, words can—and do—hurt. But as grown men and women in a democracy, we should be able to take it. When we can’t take it, we should seek to combat it by other means short of the gallows.