Defamation Under the Nigerian Law: The Rumbling Call to Criminalize Hate -Speech

Evans Ufeli

There are two types of defamation, namely libel and slander. Libel is defamation in a permanent form, the most common being written or printed words contained in, for example, a Newspaper, a book, a letter or a notice. Defamation is also in permanent form if contained in a painting, cartoon, a photograph, a statue or a film. Also, by the defamation Law 1961, section 3, and the defamation Law 1959 section 3, defamatory words contained in a radio broadcast are also within the ambit of the sections, which define ‘words’ as including ‘pictures, visual images, gestures and other methods of signifying meaning.’

Slander is defamation in a transient form, most often through the medium of spoken words or gestures. It is sometimes said that libel is addressed to the eyes, whilst slander is addressed to the ear.


Historically, libel and slander were separate torts, but today they are treated as two aspect of the single tort of defamation and are generally governed by the same principles. They differ; however, in that whereas libel is always actionable per se, that is without the need to prove special (i.e. actual) damage, slander is not actionable per se except in certain cases.


This means that whenever a libel is published, the law will presume that damages has been caused to the plaintiff’s reputation and will award him general damages by way of compensation.


Slander as we have seen is generally not actionable per se. This means that no action will lie unless the plaintiff can prove he has suffered some actual loss, for example, that he has been dismissed from employment as a result of slander. However, slander is actionable per se in the following cases, and so will have the same effect as a libel.

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It is slander actionable per se to allege that the plaintiff has committed a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

Imputation of certain diseases

It is actionable per se to say that the plaintiff is infected with certain contagious or repulsive diseases, since this would tend to cause other persons to shun him or avoid him.

Imputation of unchastity or adultery

By section 1 of the slander of women act, section 5 (1) of the Defamation law, an imputation of unchastity or adultery concerning any woman or girl is actionable per se.

Imputation affecting professional business reputation

Examples of such statements are: that a surgeon is incompetent;

That a banker is fraudulent; that an engineer has no technique; that a lawyer knows no law; that a trader is insolvent.


In the case of slander which is not actionable per se the plaintiff cannot recover damages on account of his loss of reputation. He will be able to recover only if he can prove that he has suffered some “special (actual damages). “special damages here means loss of money or of some material or temporary advantage, such as loss of employment, loss of a client, refusal of credit, loss of hospitality of friend who had provided material things such as food, drink and shelter on previous occasion , loss of a prospective marriage and loss of consortium.


A defamation matter is defined in section 373 of the criminal code as a matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by injury to his reputation. Such matter may be expressed in spoken words or in words legibly marked on any substance whatever, or by any sign or object signifying such matter otherwise than by words and may be expressed either directly or by insinuation or irony. It is immaterial whether at the time of the publication of the defamatory matter, the person concerning whom such matter is published is living or dead.

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To impute immoral or obscene conduct to a person is defamatory of that person. To allege that he is a thief or to impute to him the commission of any offence is also defamatory. To allege that a person has planned to kill some named persons is defamatory. It seems that merely to publish that one owes money is not defamatory; though if an inability to repay is implied it becomes defamatory.

Evans Ufeli

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