With the primary elections concluded and the names of candidates of all political parties for the 2019 general election published, the stage is now set for full-blown electioneering. By next month, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will blow the whistle for political parties to begin their campaigns.
For a general poll that would mark the first attempt by a former ruling party, now relegated to the opposition, to stage a comeback in the country’s political history, there is no doubt that the campaigns will be robust. As date for the commencement of electioneering draws closer, it is not rare in Nigeria to see the danger hate speech portends becoming more apparent.
Looking at the political landscape, one can say that the political atmosphere is already tense, with the nation’s fault lines manifesting. Instead of debates that should inform the public about the general interest of Nigerians, statements containing intolerant ideas intended to spread division are being made here and there.
More disturbing are the violent clashes among supporters of the leading political parties in different parts of the country. There are instances where some politicians have even encouraged their supporters to attack opponents. All of these are still happening on a relatively low scale. We are still some distance away from the level of ferocity that characterised the 2015 polls and we hope it will not get to that.
But from the way things are going, it could get worse as the elections inch closer, all of which have given vent to calls for issue-based campaign. It is disturbing that the generalised verbal attacks and vituperations that characterised past campaigns were more like beer parlour arguments. For 2019, politicians should get down to the practical question of how to implement their parties’ manifestoes.
How can this be achieved? The guidelines on political rallies and campaigns issued by INEC offers the only attempt at mandating decency in speech during electioneering. Paragraph 25 (b) of the guidelines provides that campaigns shall be in compliance with all extant laws, regulations and codes, including the code of conduct for political parties as well as codes issued by media regulators like the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and shall be based on issues as contained in the manifesto and constitution of the party.
Issue-based campaign is the perfect antithesis of hate speech. It entails that politicians centre their conversations on their views and plans on matters, which have been issues of controversy in the country. Instead of mudslinging, bigotry and insults, politicians are expected to campaign around various questions of public policy.
Issue-based campaigns should lead to issue-based voting where voters compare the ideologies of candidates in order to decide whom to vote. The Electoral Act 2010 contains detailed provisions specifically proscribing politically motivated hate speech. Section 95 of the Act stipulates that “no political campaign or slogan shall be tainted with abusive language directly or indirectly likely to injure religious, ethnic, tribal or sectional feelings. Abusive, intemperate, slanderous or base language or insinuations or innuendoes designed or likely to provoke violent reaction or emotions shall not be employed or used in political campaigns.”
Section 102 of the same Electoral Act further states that “any candidate, person or association who engages in campaigning or broadcasting based on religious, tribal, or sectional reason for the purpose of promoting or opposing a particular political party or the election of a particular candidate, is guilty of an offence under this Act and on conviction shall be liable to a maximum fine of N1,000,000 or imprisonment for 12 months, or both”.
In addition to these laws, there are several international statutes containing related provisions. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), acceded to by the Nigerian Government in July 1993, states that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
The lack of legislation explicitly directing issue-based campaigns in Nigeria is probably the result of the rights to free speech and expression guaranteed by the Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Constitutionally protected freedom of expression connotes the liberty of every person to openly discuss issues, hold opinions and impart ideas without restrictions, restraint or fear of punishment.
However, as a newspaper, we envisage a political scenario where the contestants would engage in robust campaigns without them or their supporters trading insults ahead of the 2019 polls. Candidates should hinge their campaigns on issues rather than resorting to insulting one another. Nigerians should unite and ensure that they reject candidates who have no clear-cut programmes, or manifesto, at the forthcoming polls.
It is time the country’s democracy moved from being nascent to a developed one and politicians must be seen to grow in that line. This entails that political parties must keep to the rule of law in their campaign as outlined by the Electoral Act. The 2019 campaigns should be devoid of abuse and defamation of character.
Besides, candidates must ensure that their promises are achievable because Nigerians are maturing very fast and they are beginning to see through the shenanigans of their political leaders.
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