Junaid Mohammed, elder statesman and Second Republic House of Representatives member, in this interview with TEMIDAYO AKINSUYI, speaks on the controversy trailing the proposed death penalty for hate speech in the bill at the National Assembly and his statements on Igbo presidency which he said was misconstrued. Excerpts:
What is your take on the controversy trailing death sentence for anyone found guilty of hate speech?
First and foremost, the Bill and the senator who proposed it are ridiculous. One, it is very difficult even amongst speakers of English language to define what is called ‘hate’. Even if you are able to offer universally acceptable definition of hate, you cannot create a crime called hate speech and used the law that was supposed to be in the process of being crafted to punish people. If you do that, there is a likelihood that the same senators and people in government will use that definition to witch-hunt anybody they don’t like and punish him. You have to be very careful also about making punishment of any crime a capital punishment because that is the ultimate. If you deprive people of life, not to talk of property, then you have taken things to the extreme. In a democracy, no matter how imperfect it is, you don’t say an offence like hate speech is punishable by death.
That shows that the senators and some of them in the House of Representatives are reckless in their approach to what is called the rule of law. Even if you can prove it, because somebody has said something you don’t like, doesn’t mean that he deserves to die. We have to be careful about things we do.
A politician must also be aware and must be sensitive about the timing of passage of the law because public opinion changes. Sometimes, you can do certain things now and nothing happens, sometimes if you do it, you either get beaten up physically or the law can catch up with you. No serious country or politician can make what you call hate speech punishable by death. That to me is ridiculous and I won’t bother to answer the lawmaker who proposed it because he must be a junior politician. I am now 70 and I have been in politics for over 40 years. I know the value of life, nobody can tell me that for a statement that he categorised as hate speech, the punishment must be death. Clearly, these are small-time politicians attempting and trying to be big-time dictators. Even under the military rule, nobody said people should be killed for committing hate speech, because death sentence where it is allowed in any country is reserved for very exceptional offences and I believe it is not in our interest to allow some vindictive lawmakers to make this kind of vindictive legislation because you don’t like the idea of hate speech.
Some Nigerians have also accused you of hate speech over your comments about Igbos and the 2023 presidency. What is your take on that?
If they like, let them take me to court. I said I will never support them for presidency on the ground they are canvassing. They are saying they should be made President of Nigeria because they are Igbos. And I said no! We need to elevate the unity of Nigeria to a higher lever rather than make it a matter of tribal, cultural or religious convenience. I also said that I don’t support the idea of zoning or rotation. That has been my view since the Second Republic when I was elected as a federal lawmaker. Whether it is the Igbos or other ethnic groups that are doing that directly or indirectly in order to blackmail us to cede power to them and that is not okay by me. A lot of people agreed with what I said.
Many people don’t seem to know that I have a daughter who has an Igbo mother. She is here in Abuja doing her postgraduate degree at University of Abuja. My first wife is an Igbo woman and she is alive, she lives in Kaduna. So, you can see how people can go out and make reckless statements. I don’t like advertising my identity as far as Nigerian ethnic groups are concerned because I believe it is personal thing. Also, you can see how people can make ridiculous claims about somebody who has different political views from them, claiming I hate them.
Have you been personally confronted on this issue?
In Kano, some people have confronted me and say ‘why do I hate Igbos?’. My daughter is here in Abuja, she is staying with my younger brother but I am the one paying her school fees. If we go by the way we address ourselves, backbite about one another, insult ourselves, there will be no peace in this country. It is illogical to always accuse people of being against you without establishing the facts first. I believe because somebody holds a contrary opinion to yours doesn’t make him your enemy. I have a lot of people who don’t agree with my opinion, yet I don’t regard them as enemy. In fact, I don’t have enemy in politics. For most of my life, I have been in opposition in our politics. We should be careful about the statements we make.
Most of the people who are abusing me are people whom I have defended when I was in the National Assembly at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos but they now want to hide under that because they have a political agenda which is tribal. John Nwodo who is the President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo is a very good friend of mine. I recall years after I left the National Assembly, I used to send him Christmas and Easter greetings. The last text I sent to him was when he lost his wife who was an Appeal Court Judge. Anytime we see ourselves, we greet ourselves the way friends greet themselves. But now because he is pursuing a tribal agenda, they are calling us names. No matter what they do, I will not support a presidency based on ethnic, religion or culture. No way!