The chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, Chidi Odinkalu, has declared unlawful and a breach of the Electoral Act the advert by governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State published in some newspapers on Monday suggesting that the candidate of the All Progressive Congress, APC, might die in office if elected as president.
The rights commission chief equally said that the sermon delivered by Ejike Mbaka, a Catholic Reverend Father and founder of Adoration Ministries, in December, 2014, denouncing President Goodluck Jonathan and asking Nigerians to vote for Buhari was a breach of the law.
Odinkalu who spoke at a roundtable in Abuja on hate speech and the coming general elections organised by the NHRC, said the advert by Fayose, which suggested that Buhari was sick and could die in office if elected as president like some former Nigerian heads of state whose pictures were depicted, constituted hate speech and is capable of inciting people to violence.
He said the advert was particularly distasteful and capable of fomenting violence because it was directed at persons who all come from a section of the country
The NHRC boss observed that one of the former heads of state mentioned in the advert, Murtala Mohammed, did not die from any illness while in office as insinuated in the advert but was assassinated, adding that such negative reference was unfair to his wife and children.
On the sermon in which Mbaka criticised President Jonathan and described his administration as a failure and endorsed Buhari, Odinkalu said that the priest breached Section 95 sub section 3 (b) of the Electoral Act which preclude anybody from using the pulpit to propagate a politically partisan message.
Section 95 subsection 3 (b) states that places designated for religious worship, police stations and public offices shall not be used “to promote, propagate or attack political parties, candidates, their programmes or ideology.”
The rights commission chairman, a professor of Law, said that Mbaka breached the law twice, first, in October, 2014 before First Lady Patience Jonathan when he endorsed the President and in December, last year, when he recanted and threw his weight behind Buhari.
“Father Mbaka breached the Electoral Act not once but twice. Because he is a Catholic priest does not mean he is above the law,” Odinkalu said, while cautioning people in position of influence to be cautious about the comments they make regarding the elections.
He said that hate speech was dangerous and capable of throwing the country, once again, into a violent uproar after the general election scheduled for February, if steps are not taken to curb the trend whereby politicians and their followers employ inciting comments that are meant to elicit hatred for opponents.
Taking a look back at the 2011 election, Odinkalu observed that the violence which erupted after the election was predictable but caught everyone, including the government and security agencies by surprise.
He said the purpose of the roundtable was to chart a programme of action that would help reduce the incidence of hate speech as Nigerians prepare for the election and announced the setting up of an Election Violence Incident Centre domiciled in the NHRC which would help track incidents of hate speech wherever they occur.
He said that the commission would monitor and document all incidents of hate and inciting speech and would ensure that perpetrators are indicted; assuring that the agency had the tools it can deploy to ensure indictment.
In his own comments, the executive secretary of the NHRC, Bem Angwe, observed that the media would play a critical role reducing the incidence of hate speech.
Angwe observed that media practitioners last year drew up a Nigerian Media Code for Election Coverage and urged journalists and media owners to ensure that they adhere to the code.
The director of monitoring at the commission, Tony Ojukwu, said that the aim of the forum was not only to ultimately reduce the incidence of hate speech but also to generate a compendium of hate speeches and the people who make them.
He said that it was also important in documenting the incidents to make public the perpetrators of hate speeches and ensure that they are not only indicted but made to face the law no matter how highly placed.
He said that the process of monitoring would be pushed by the NHRC, civil society groups and media houses and practitioners.
Ojukwu said that the commission would deploy staff in its 23 offices across the country and that between now and June it would have set up the election violence incident centre, a pre-election advisory board as well as a post-election report.
Participants at the round table agreed that the media plays a critical role in preventing the publication and spread of hate speech but also said that regulatory authorities, security agencies, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, politicians and political parties have to be included in the process to ensure success of the initiative.