Tackling hate speech in Nigeria    

The recent spate of incidents in Nigeria involving both verbal and non-verbal expression of hatred has not just reignited a long-running debate in the history of free speech, but has left many people in the country feeling attacked, divided, and unsafe.

Utter free speech might be a nice idea, but in reality, a society in which a privileged group or a person can say things that threaten the safety and fundamental rights of less privileged groups is absolutely not a free society.

The suffering and hardship that the populace faces within the system are however so much that people are at their wits’ end, hate speeches are on the contrary not the solution to these challenges as we are all guilty in one way or the other for the decay within the system. It despondently appears the wind of hatred fuelled by stereotypes has continued to blow across the country unhindered, and the surge in hate incidents before and after the 2015 general elections wasn’t limited to words.

Unfortunately, the debate around free speech is usually skewed because our most vulnerable and marginalized groups very rarely access the kind of platforms that allow them to broadcast on the same level as the archetypical wealthy individuals. Hate speech is from the foregoing and all indications a complex problem, and with election coming up in 2019, it’s increasingly dangerous one.

Although courts are capable of objectively weighing evidence and applying criteria to ensure that legitimate free speech or merely offensive speech are not captured, tackling hate speech by and large requires outside the box and collaborative thinking from people with a range of perspectives on its causes, multipliers, and consequences.

And because hate speech is something that every society must take seriously, and not dismiss as something that might at worst hurt the feelings of some overly-sensitive liberals it is important for us to know what the concept is all about, causes, implications and the way forward.

Hate speech’ is an emotive concept which has no universally accepted definition in international human rights law. Many would claim they can identify it where they see it; however its characteristics are often elusive or contradictory. Meanwhile, hate speech involves more than simply indicating that you dislike someone.

It is also different from merely teasing or ridiculing someone, or shouting an ugly word at them in a single moment of anger or frustration. Hate speech consists of verbal and nonverbal expression that is used to demean, oppress, or promote violence against someone on the basis of their membership in a social or ethnic group.

Meanwhile, “Speech has been broadly defined as expression that includes, but is not limited to, what you wear, read, say, paint, perform, believe, protest, or even silently resist”. Speech can be an activity and “Speech activities include leafleting, picketing, symbolic acts, wearing armbands, demonstrations, speeches, forums, concerts, motion pictures, stage performances’, remaining silent, and so on” (FIRE).

Sometimes defined as speech that expresses or incites hatred toward people on the basis of some aspect of their identity; “hate speech” according to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, includes threats, incitement to hatred, contempt, discrimination or violence against members of a group on grounds of their race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.

It is a public expression of discrimination against a vulnerable group (based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc) and it is counter-productive not to criminalize it. A society that allows hate speech to go unpunished is one that tolerates discrimination and invites violence.

In any diverse multicultural setting, hate and dangerous speech over the air can be volatile and lead to violent conflict. This is because the broadcast media’s acquire legitimacy and authority over the content of messages relayed is often accepted as true. In this case, messages by practitioners of hate and dangerous speech can be assumed to embody legitimacy and authority. Secondly, the broadcast medium has a wide and instantaneous reach, making it an easy tool for mobilization (Ibrahim, 2017).

In any case, hate speech is created by people who are part of a majority population. Their messages typically are directed toward people who are part of a minority population. The targets of hate speech are chosen just because they belong to that particular group of people. The messages of hate also are designed to degrade or otherwise harm these targets for the same reason.

While you may believe that what you have said has been simply said to friends, this may not be the case. Making jokes about people’s sexuality, ethnicity, skin colour, religion, and a variety of other aspects can lead to normalizing negative aspects, which is another aspect of hate speech. It also reinforces stereotypes and prejudices, which are very difficult to overcome.

When stereotypes exist about groups of people, this creates tension between the people, particularly groups of people. Tension can lead to an even more serious situation in the future.

Our society is complicated, multi-faceted, has powerful groups and vulnerable groups, groups more and less susceptible to manipulation, and sometimes, in such a complex world, the rights that certain groups view as inalienable come into conflict. And of course, in an ideal society anyone can say what they want, but ideal worlds tend to be much more simplistic than the real thing.

This is why the Dangerous Speech Project, which studies dangerous speech and how to prevent violence by counteracting it contend that; “Inflammatory public speech rises steadily before outbreaks of mass violence, suggesting that it is a precursor or even a prerequisite for violence, which makes sense: groups of killers do not form spontaneously.”

And some historical support for this claim includes – when Jews were called rats and vermin by Nazis before the Holocaust and Tutsi people were called cockroaches by the Hutu before the horrendous 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Hutu extremists were for example able to incite genocide in Rwanda in part because years of propaganda had influenced Hutus to view Tutsis as less than human and so dangerous that they must be eliminated from the country.”

In fact hate speech have in other countries led to violence and death of innocent citizens, and this explains why many liberal democracies from Canada to Denmark, Germany, India, south Africa, and the USA, enacted hate speech or hate crime laws. They believed that the social, economic and political consequences of hate speech are too obvious for any society with a sense of self-preservation to ignore, especially those with such diverse social cultural, and religious orientations as Nigeria.

The U.S. Department of Justice however warns that hate crimes, more than any other crime, can trigger community conflict, civil disturbances, and even riots. For all their “patriotic” rhetoric, hate groups and their imitators are really trying to divide us; their views are fundamentally anti-democratic.

The Department also warned that the smallest hint of hate should be taken seriously, even what appears to be simple name-calling. Slurs often escalate to harassment, harassment to threats, and threats to physical violence. True patriots fight hate, don’t wait to fight hate.

The glorification of hatred is though often predicated on a foundation of fear-induced ignorance venomous to haters and those they believe they hate, those who cosset in hate speech defend their actions constitutionally. In many countries, the right to free speech is guaranteed under the constitution; it is a right that should not be used to discriminate, abuse or undermine other people.

Many people do misuse the rights that they have in a democratic society and it can often hurt others in many ways. Although freedom of expression should be respected, hate speech is a form of discrimination that should not be allowed.

Although many believes that to prevent dangerous speech, perpetrators must be held accountable”, we always run the risk of giving over to the emotional sensibilities of the victims and restricting freedom of expression to save them from discrimination rather than bodily harm.

It is difficult to draw boundaries on what should and should not be allowed, and Benesch’s variables do help, but in order to protect the ideals of freedom of expression, it is essential that these boundaries are agreed upon soon, before the slippery slope continues.

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There is however unenthusiastically in Nigeria today sudden increase of wittiness that symbolizes hate speech and fake news, and while the most widespread employed has been in the social media; these ugly trends have penetrated the print and broadcast media. And because of their greater reach, judgment and prospective for provoking reactions, hate and dangerous speeches in the print and broadcast media are much more dangerous in an already polarized and sharply divided society than elsewhere.

Though the political arena of the Second Republic for example, 1979 to 1983 was highly charged as a result of hate speeches, thereby polarizing the nation, those hate speeches which were freely published in the newspapers and the electronic media equally divided several families, students in the higher institutions and market women.

The Nigerian constitution “Section 39(1) of the 1999” though guarantees the right of every Nigerian to freedom of speech and expression, the federal government is jolted and visibly worried by this monster and this explains why Professor Yemi Osibanjo, when he was the Acting President, raised alarm as hate speeches started escalating with lightening speed, thus increasing the burden of governing a nation bedeviled by various malice.

Against this background, the Federal Government moved swiftly to warn peddlers of hate speech with laws that will penalize culprits. The federal government moved a step forward contending that the proposed legislation will declare offenders as terrorists. The Interior Minister, Lt. General Abdulrahman Dambazzau, also threatened offenders that punitive measures will be taken against them once the Bill on the subject matter sails through the National Assembly.

Though prior to the 2015 general elections, hate speech and fake news had not been considered as a national problem in Nigeria, as the 2015 elections were approaching the trends  became very serious problem as it got to unprecedented heights. The electioneering campaigns spread hate speech and used foul language on leading broadcast stations and some national newspapers. Injurious jingles, documentaries and write ups against the leading opposition presidential candidate came into view over and over again as advertisements in desecration of the basic professional etiquettes and provisions of the Advertising Code.

Other prejudiced and social problems evidently pushed it to the back burner. It is like according to Agbese (2017), we failed to recognize its potential for evil early enough because we have always tended to treat ethnic and religious slurs as bad jokes or benign insults. Except in isolated cases, they did not generally merit the resort to clubs and cudgels to make some heads bleed. After all, every ethnic group in the country engages in ethnic profiling and uses unflattering nick names for other ethnic groups (Ibid).

For the danger inherent in hate speech, such as is already causing tensions across the country in respect of quit notice and partial withdrawal of quit notice to members of other communities, people mandated to manage public order have good reasons to discourage the vendors of hate speech. Nnamdi Kanu, leader of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) is popular for such speeches.

He had threatened the Nigerian government as well as the nation’s unity in his quest for Biafra. The Arewa Youth also made a hate speech recently when they ordered the Igbo out of their region; same with the Niger Delta militants who asked the Hausa and Yoruba to leave their region, and each occasion has their peculiar reasons.

The Arewa youth for instance asked the Igbo to leave because they say Nnamdi Kanu has been a major threat to the nation’s peaceful co-existence. In the case of the Niger Delta militants, theirs was in response to the quit notice the Arewa youth issued to the Igbo.

The Nigerian Constitution however states that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference.”

Similarly, all the human rights charters to which the country is a signatory made alike provisions for freedom of expression. Dangerous Speech Project however believes that countering hate speech must not impinge on freedom of speech, and so careful efforts must be made to distinguish it from speech that is merely distasteful.

It poses grave dangers for the cohesion of a democratic society, the protection of human rights and the rule of law. If left unaddressed, it can lead to acts of violence and conflict on a wider scale. In this sense hate speech is an extreme form of intolerance which contributes to hate crime.

By the same token, we have no other country apart from Nigeria. If we set it on fire we shall be consumed by the flame of dishonor. The Kenyan violence and Rwandan crisis which later became genocide started with hate speeches. Sang’s radio station RTLM, gained an audience of four and half million quotidian Kenyan listeners.

Identifying hate speech, the law of some countries describes hate speech as speech, gesture or conduct, writing or display that incites violence or prejudicial against a protected group or individual on the basis of their membership of the group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected group.

The law may though identify a protected group by certain characteristics, but the most useful for determining whether or not a speech can be considered dangerous is Susan Benesch’s framework on dangerous speech.

The following is however the framework developed by Benesch for identifying when speech stops being merely offensive and becomes dangerous: (1) a powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience; (2) the audience has grievances and fears that the speaker can cultivate; (3) a speech act that is clearly understood as a call to violence; (4) a social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for any of a variety of reasons, including long standing competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances or previous episodes of violence; (5) a means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example, because it is the sole or primary source of news for the relevant audience.

Inside the Nigerian political space, hate speeches by individuals or groups have been assumed to be symptoms of the general level of frustration and despondency that pervade the country.

Everybody including the rich, poor, literate, illiterate, etc is allegedly frustrated for one reason or the other. Specifically, the following amongst several others have been said to be responsible for hate speech and the mess we have found ourselves in today: Digital age – The digital age has in no small measure helped to grow the monsters called hate speech and ‘fake news,’ thus causing so much rage and fanning embers of war.

Hate speech from all accounts has been with us for a very long time now; it is just that in those days the influence was limited and restricted to beer parlours, buses, universities, etc. But social media came and changed all that. When you make a hate speech, and you are nobody, and nobody is going to publish that but now with social media, once you have a phone, whatever you say can be read nationwide and beyond.

That is what has magnified what already existed, and it has since moved into an un-imaginable measure (Ibid).

Perceived Marginalization – Much of the hate speech arises from perceptions associated with action or inaction of government. All sections of Nigerians according to Ibrahim (2012) feel marginalized and that no group or zone has a monopoly of the perception of marginalization. In the recent past, there have been strident cries of marginalization leading to demands for Biafra in addition to other modes of agitation against Nigeria in the Niger Delta and in the North East.

Unemployment – Previous governments’ failure to create jobs for the youths, create an enabling environment for entrepreneurship, expand the scope of vocational training centers and create new ones to absorb the ever-growing youth population who cannot be absorbed into tertiary institutions of learning; and the seeming hopelessness and difficulty in having gainful employment, the number of people looking for employment and the number looking for assistance bears testimony to the hate speech in the country.

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Other than the fact that the Nigerian economy is not creating new jobs, the few existing jobs are being lost by factory closures arising from high cost of production.

Poverty – The poverty data released by the National Bureau of Statistics recently suggested that 112 million Nigerians are poor going by the economic situation in the country in 2011. While 100 million are in absolute poverty, 12.6 million are moderately poor (Omoh Gabriel, 2012).

The widespread poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor in Nigeria are responsible for the violence that is tearing the nation apart. Beside the fact that a good number of people cannot afford three meals a day, they cannot meet their basic healthcare needs and that of their family members and dependants. They cannot have enough money to buy basic medicines and many are jobless.

The struggle to produce leaders – The struggle to produce leaders like President or governor and the consequences is that after the election, the only issue on the table is not policy or performance but power shift to other geopolitical zones. Elections should therefore be about democracy and not about who will be the person in charge.

Impunity – Individuals inciting hate crimes are emboldened and may even ramp up their rhetoric. People commit a crime in this country without being punished, and everybody has referenced that here. If you can commit a crime and get away with it, then you won’t bother about the consequences, you just get away with it. In fact, we are status drunk in this country, and we don’t even know what to do with the status.

Polarization of the country – Nigeria is a synthesis of more than 300 ethnic tribes and for some reasons known to them these peoples hasn’t found a way to co-exist peacefully, despite having lived together for decades. Most people to start with, pledge allegiance to their tribe before admitting they’re Nigerians, as a result, square pegs have gone into round holes and needless squabbles have degenerated into full-blown war between communities. Tribalism reigns in Nigeria and it plays a great part in the country’s current quagmire. The country is thus Nigeria is polarized along ethnic, regional and religious lines and editors, reporters and owners of the news media belong to the various sides of the divide. “The problem we are facing is that we now have a high turnout of local champions whose easy route to fame is to denigrate and abuse other tribes and spew out hate speeches in order to whip up emotions of people of their tribes.”

Corruption – Corruption is a massive problem Nigeria has been fighting with since independence. This trend by all accounts started with government officials and has gradually eaten deep into every other area of the economy. It’s very rare to see a government official who isn’t corrupt nowadays. And today Nigeria’s corrupt elites are witnessing what some of them have never experienced in the nation’s political history. The anti-corruption crusade of the present government hence took them aback making them unable to continue their habitual lavish style of living, hence, uncomfortable with every action and inaction of the government. Politically exposed persons seeking to prevent their trial for corruption are often those behind hate speeches in the country.

Political arrogance – is a manifestation of politically arrogant behaviours by those who believe ultimately that their views and thus their politics is superior and more connect than that of their political opponents. Political arrogance has become the consequential act of participation in political debate rather than the accidental result of deliberately sought after political aggrandizement. Political arrogance has become a symptom of rather than being caused by contemporary politics. The direct result is an increasing negative public perception of the role and perception and motivation of politicians in twenty first century democracies in particular.

Xenophobia – is a mental disorder in which the affected individual experiences an extreme fear upon meeting a stranger, inside a particular country. In extreme cases, this initial fear can sometimes be expressed by verbal or physical assault, but the more common response is for the affected individual to remove themselves from the situation due to their discomfort. The issue of the 1990 coup of Orkar and his group is a good example, because they tried to say a particular section of Nigeria should go up North and belong to Chad, Niger and the rest of them while the South should remain with the middle belt.

Illiteracy – The Nigerian education system which produced world renowned scholars in the past has now become a shadow of itself. The rot in the nation’s education system has reached such a deplorable proportion that if not properly addressed now subsequent generations of Nigerians will continue to suffer its consequences. At present, the Federal Government has confirmed that Nigeria occupies first position on the table of countries with high number of out-of-school children in the world with a population between 10.5 – 13.5million children.

Ignorance – The word ignorant is an adjective that describes a person in the state of being unaware, and can describe individuals who deliberately ignore or disregard important information or facts, or individuals who are unaware of important information or facts. Ignorance can appear in three different types: factual ignorance (absence of knowledge of some fact), objectual ignorance (unacquaintance with some object), and technical ignorance (absence of knowledge of how to do something). Remaining in a state of ignorance can lead to serious economic downfalls, relationship crises, legal issues, and more. It is important for human survival to be knowledgeable on different topics. For example, one must be aware of ways to prevent certain diseases, avoid certain poisonous foods, avoid war, etc (Nottelmann, Nikolaj, 2015).

On the consequences, hate speech is believed to be dangerous because words have power and can influence others to act. Words have always been a catalyst for civil discord, and today hate speech is increasingly prevalent, tearing apart the fabric of our communities in ever more violent and destructive ways.  The World War II, Rwandan 1994 genocide, and the Kenyans’ 2007 political violence are nevertheless nasty reminders that the unrestrained speech has huge tendency for visiting malevolence and repugnance on mankind.

One consequence of hate speech is economy – money is a coward, it runs away from violence and instability. Investments, local or foreign, will take flight away from the presence of war and violence.
Another consequence is that they serve as a distraction at best. As we are finding out every day, we are unable to come together as one to find joint solutions to the myriad of problems afflicting the country because of distrust.  And the more we wallow in hate speeches and self loathing, the worse our situation will become.

Another major consequence of hate speech is the effect that it can have on a victim’s mental health, as many of those who are victims of hate speech may self harm, or become suicidal, their confidence and self esteem may be affected.
A more serious consequence however, is on the emotional level. We have had so many years of inter-tribal marriages that this new doctrine of East is good and West is bad or vice versa can only scramble the lives of the products of these liaisons.

The gravest by far of the consequences is the possibility of war. Students of history or indeed, anybody who has ever witnessed war will attest to the fact that war has no redeeming feature. War consumes and destroys. Both the victor and vanquished will forever bear the scars of war. And many of the young ones who are propagating hate speeches and romanticizing war today will be the first casualties.

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Hate speech also promotes division and intolerance; it harms and marginalizes the vulnerable groups it targets. Free speech is exercised largely by the privileged at the expense of the unprivileged that do not have a level ground on which to respond.

Science backs up the idea that speech can cause deeper wounds at both societal and personal levels than hurt feelings. Neurological and sociological research has proven that hate speech leads to ‘a dehumanizing effect’ which lessens our empathy for other people.
There is also evidence that hate speech victims are more likely to commit suicide, and that it causes what scientists call a dehumanization effect which makes it easier to us to justify suffering and harm caused to another human being.

In conclusion, hate speech from all accounts is a bad thing that has caused a lot of havoc in our communities. Fundamentally, the boundaries between hate or dangerous speech and freedom of speech are not too clear; it is therefore necessary for us to protect both freedom of expression and to prevent violence. There is no skepticism that the boundary of freedom owned by a person couldn’t hinder the freedom of other people, because there are freedoms to do things; and there are freedoms from things. When our right to speak our mind encroaches on someone’s freedom from fear, or on someone’s right to feel safe in their community, then that freedom is expected not to stand unregulated in any group that wishes to create a safe and respectful society for its members. We cannot build a reverent atmosphere in the country if citizens from marginalized groups feel that the government condones acts of violence against them.

Hate speech is destructive to society and to its victims. Enduring hatred over years can limit people’s opportunities, isolate them socially, push them into poverty, lead to loss of self-esteem and depression, and endanger their health and safety. It is wrong to diminish the dignity and lives of some people just so others can freely spout hate against them. Hate speech has contributed to increased tensions in Nigeria during a time of bloodshed and violence not seen since Nigeria’s civil war. It is therefore the duty of the Nigerian government, “to do everything in its power to protect her citizens and avert another spate of useless killings, and to listen to all aggrieved segments in a constructive and productive manner.”

We differ on how to tackle it. Legal instruments against hate speech are though entirely necessary for maintaining respect and dignity among the citizens, other government policies to this end are as well required to achieve the desired results; but hate speech laws address a problem after it has happened. We therefore believe that it better to eradicate hate before it’s expressed. Suppressing hate speech by use of the criminal law is, at best, a short-term fix. A better solution is education against hateful ideas. People aren’t born hateful. They become hateful. Education can prevent hate. Prevention is better than punishment.

he following are some of the recommendations for us as a nation bring down to to the barest minimum the levels of hate speech and fake news because no country can develop where the people lack love for one another and patriotism for the country: both the government and society therefore need to verify the root causes of the rise in expression of prejudice and intolerance in the country, with a view to fighting it headlong to a logical conclusion; there also the need for the government to solve the problem of the common man (basic amenities) which is education, transportation, health, housing, electricity and water as the common man does not have problem anyone.

There is the need for media organizations to discharge their responsibilities in accordance with the dictates of their guiding codes to check the alarming rate of hate speech and fake news; the government should as well put in place measures to encourage mass literacy to counter the negative side of the digital age, instead of making stringent laws that might interfere with democratic practices and to promote peaceful co-existence among the different groups in Nigeria and strengthening the unity of the country; set up an avenue for confidence building where every tribe and ethnic group can be convinced that we need this nation as much as this nation needs us. It is this confidence that is going down that has given rise to hate speech.

Political solution as against legal solution can arrest this problem.

The government should furthermore lead in promoting equity and social justice among the many ethnic groups in the country, a deliberate approach to institute justice and fair play can take us away from sliding into anarchy given the turn of events in the recent past; Nurture a polity in which individuals and groups can disagree without being offensive; Learn from your mistakes, accept that it is your responsibility not to hurt others. No one wants to be the person responsible for endangering someone’s mental health, or for lowering their confidence and self esteem; promote works that encourage peace and tolerance. The National Orientation Agency must intensify its efforts of re-orientating the people to discourage mutual distrust among Nigerians. The Federal Government must attend to the different agitation in the country and increase efforts to provide basic amenities to people.

The government should also not forget that these are trying times and must therefore come up with policies and programme that are designed to ameliorate the suffering of the people; the government should restructure what is not right in our polity and re-evaluate our individual character; attacking one another based on our differences is like mocking God or condemning His work, we must be tolerant; the Federal Government must in alliance of social networks, leaders of thought, scientists, organizations, corporations, and other commit to a macro-global strategy of achieving peace through free speech and open source technology; encourage conflict sensitive reporting and multicultural awareness campaigns as conflict sensitive reporting will help dispel the ‘us’ against ‘them’ fallacy.

Journalists should be taught conflict sensitive reporting skills. Multicultural awareness campaigns should emphasize knowledge about and respect for diversity of cultures and traditions.

Encourage victims and witnesses to report hate speech related crimes. Hate speech remains largely invisible because many victims do not know where to report the cases or even understand that they are victims of hate speech; end impunity against hate crimes – impunity against hate crimes can be tackled by establishing monitoring and evaluation units in news rooms. These units would then be tasked with monitoring hate speech trends, compiling reports and bringing these to the attention of key institutions and the civil society; Speak with caution because even if someone forgives harsh words you’ve spoken, they may be too harmful to ever forget them. Don’t leave a legacy of pain and regret of things you never should have said.

Awareness must be raised on the political, social and cultural rights of individuals and groups, including freedom of speech, and the responsibilities and social implications that come with press freedom. Journalists must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to be able to identify hate speech and to counteract hate speech messages; make sure that all content related policies and practices, including those on ‘hate speech,’ are elaborated and implemented through transparent processes, which are open to meaningful participation from civil society organizations and all relevant stakeholders; jointly with civil society organizations, media actors, academics and other relevant stakeholders, explore possibilities for creation of new mechanisms of independent self-regulation and the development of a charter of ethics for social media; and finally, there is the need for media houses to discharge their responsibilities in accordance with the dictates of their guiding codes to check the alarming rate of hate speech and fake news.

Dr Mohammed writes from Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution, Abuja.


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