It was a meta-babble of some sort today as top flight professors, Heads of Departments of Mass Communication, legal practitioners, diverse activists and funders ignited an attempt at arriving at a nationally acceptable definition of hate or dangerous speech. They have been brought together in pursuit of the objective by the Kano based Centre for Information Technology and Development, (CITAD) whose Executive Director, Mallam Y. Z. Ya’u told the opening session of how though hate/dangerous speeches is now at the centre of multiple activism in the country, there is still no definition of it acceptable to everyone. That, he said, has meant different people defining it differently and producing differing ways of dealing with it.
Today’s meeting of the stake holders from the media, civil society, academia and government departments to deal with the theme, said the Executive Director, is the beginning of a journey, a journey he singled out MacArthur Foundation which he said had been supporting as for CITAD to have brought the hate speech phenomenon to the agenda of conflict management and stability in Nigeria.
Situating the hate/dangerous speech phenomenon in the keynote address, Prof Jibrin Ibrahim aka Jibo began by noting the two main problems in attendance. The first is hate speech being a matter of interpretation rather than of facts and the second being the way political leaders, the governors in particular, use hate speech to clamp those who criticise and expose their misuse of power into detention.
But he drew attention to the importance of the effort in the light of the impending General Elections, saying that hate speech itself is not what is new in Nigeria but how deeply used today. Elaborating, Jibo related how hate speech structured North-South misperception, particularly the efforts of southern political parties in trying to break the Middle Belt, Central Hausaland, (NEPU-Kano) and Kanuri/Bornu from the control of the defunct Northern People’s Congress, (NPC) in the 1952 election, for example. In response to that, the NPC resorted to using state structures to producing electoral outcomes as in the case of what electoral personnel in the Ministry of Internal Affairs did with election papers of those opposed to the NPC. His inference is that the situation has not changed dramatically today if the perception of the North as trying to block this or that group from power still persists.
He drew attention to the difficulty of a nationally acceptable definition of hate speech because what is hate speech is intermeshed with interpretation of history to produce mostly combustible narratives such as the construction of herdsmen violence as a mission to complete early 19th century Jihad. “What we couldn’t do in 1804 is what we have come to complete in 2018” is what he says a document given to the Nigerian Bar Association, (NBA) intervention team he was part of to Benue State could be read to mean. According to Jibo, when the team intervened in the conflict, the press statement that most popularised that sort of meaning of herdsmen violence could not be traced to any really existing text producers nor could the NBA find Fulanis in Benue anymore to give own version of the conflict. Yet, not only had the narrative triggered the killing of many Fulanis, it was also the same document that surfaced in the case of Plateau but from which Benue had been expunged and replaced with Plateau.
Moving on, the keynote speaker pointed out how narratives of Nigerian politics are narratives of marginalisation, disadvantages and discrimination, speech acts with implications. For him, the classic of hate speeches in the 2015 election remains the 50 minute documentary, “The Real Buhari” The complexity about the documentary, however, what happened when it was subjected to analysis through a Focus Group Discussion technique. The Focus Group turned out to be a divided house. While one group said the documentary was a repertoire of Buhari as Jihadist under whom Christians would not survive, the second group insisted it was just a tissue of lies or propaganda against Buhari. He told the story to illustrate the difficulty in defining hate speech although his argument is that anticipation of failure should not deter people from going ahead with the effort at arriving at a definition. The difficulty is compounded by the Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC) barring everyone from hate speech but without first defining what and when a speech is hateful and dangerous.
Jibo’s analysis is that the world is dealing with weaponization of falsehood comparable to the Hitler era constructivism about Jews destroying Germany before anybody knew if they were not killed off quickly enough. His comfort is that the American media is, according to him, critically unpacking Trump at every turn this time.
Although generally well received, the keynote address attracted questions from the session. One such question is whether hate speech can be defined out of the context of Nigeria’s cultural complexity. The questioner hinged his fears on how the Hausas in Shagamu, for example, do not normally take offence when called shara even as the use of the same word in a different context could provoke violence. Another contributor rejected the notion of difficulty in defining hate speech. For her, it is hate speech if you call a woman politician or an independent minded woman a prostitute just to denigrate her. Or if you say, “Katafawa?” or “Berom?” or imply that every Kanuri is a member of Boko Haram. Yet another contributor thought the emphasis on hate speech is a ploy by people who want to escape their discomfort with multiplicity of voices reflecting discursive power relations. And that, otherwise, the emphasis should not have been on hate speech but on legitimate enough state power that can construct consensus from such speeches. The speaker said such is what has happened in Rwanda where state power has been able to provide a new narrative of identity in a way that averts ‘the state of nature’ that philosophers such as Hobbes fear would result because of what Hobbes called ‘epistemological indeterminacy’. That, said the speaker, is what civil society is calling hate speech today. The speaker read Jibo’s narrative of the dynamics playing out in Benue State as a simplification of a much more complex development.
In responding to these and other questions, comments and observations on the keynote address, Prof Ibrahim agreed that complexity is not the reason there could not be a definition. He illustrated with how easy it is to identify hate speech when ‘Shiites’ and mainstream Muslims speak about Islam. But he disagreed that Benue anti-grazing law was not targeted at getting Fulanis out of the state because while ranching is logical, the permission required for that in the law compels a change of mode of livelihood on the part of the herders. In all cases, as far as he is concerned, the issue is whether a statement hurts, denigrates the Other in a way that could invite violence. He gave further examples that though illustrate the argument of his critics than support his case. One of his examples is how the word Mallam is a very positive recognition in northern Nigeria but the title reserved for migrant cum menial jobbers of Hausa-Fulani origin down south. The difference is that there is an undertone in the usage of the term in the south but that undertone is the meaning it has for northerners, showing the imperative for conceptual reconciliation of the difference in meaning at all times rather than laws which can never determine meanings which are always contingent.
An intervention from Mallam Y Z Ya’u came in. His argument is that the problem resides in literal reading of the word hate. It is for that reason that UNESCO has broadened it from hate speech to dangerous speech. The distinction, he said, is very important because it is not every hate speech that is dangerous or has the capacity to generate violence. The ground zero is a speech that denigrates but even what denigrates does not automatically activate people into violence. It requires an influential speaker for a speech to achieve that. In other words, while shop owners at Wuse Market in Abuja would simply ignore as a windbag someone they cannot place going there to give them directives, that would not be the case if a Bishop, a Wole Soyinka, a governor, an Imam or minister were to do that. The market would respond to the last set because they either admire them or respect them or fear them or perceive them to have the power to give effect to a pronouncement.
The second quality, according to Mallam Y Z is the element of a “Call to Action” in a speech or text. That is the statement must have something in it that is asking people to carry out a certain action if a particular thing had not been done by a certain date, time or place. Third is that the statement must relate to denigrating a group, not an individual. Interestingly, nobody asked him if the keynote speaker was then wrong to cite the documentary on Buhari as a case study in hate speech. But Y Z’s general submission is that unless a speech or action fits into these three, CITAD does not reckon with it as a dangerous speech. In fact, by his testimony, CITAD does not monitor hate speeches. Dangerous speeches are its focus of work.
But even the clarification attracted a critique. How can he talk about influence and influential speaker as a condition for hateful speech and violence without including the social media today, asked a lady participant whose point resonated with Prof Jibo’s similar illustration earlier. Jibo had said that a lone soul could quickly reach the 25 million Nigerians said to be on Facebook and do whatever damage he or she intends before anybody knows. Even if you trace him or her later, the damage would have been done. Even when Jibo had to leave, the debate continued as Professors Umaru Pate and Lai Oso of Bayero University, Kano and the Lagos State University took over. In the second section of this report, the focus will be on the funny and yet serious sessions that dominated the closing part of the engagement.