In December 2003, the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda jailed several media executives on grounds of incitement and conspiracy to commit genocide and crimes against humanity. Specifically, the tribunal pointed out how the media executives caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians without firearms, machete or any physical weapons in actions through articles that created the psychological disposition favourable to genocide.
Nigeria is not Rwanda and nothing on the scale of genocide is observable on the horizon in Nigeria. But it is also important to note the observation of the Jos based Institute of Governance and Social Research that violent conflicts in different parts of the country, especially from 2001 to date, has changed the Nigerian State in profound ways since the end of the 20th Century. It specifically pointed out how those conflicts set neighbours, ethnic and religious groups against one another in violent encounters, each characterised by breach of all accepted rules of engagement in war such as targeting of civilians and non-civilians, including infants, for massacre because they belonged to the wrong group. The institute’s report under reference was compiled in 2010, meaning there is cause for concern with hate speeches in Nigeria since, according to the UN tribunal, hate speeches constitute the eve of dreadful conflicts.
It is against this background that the emergence of a small unit for monitoring and countering hate speech at the Centre for Information Technology and Development, (CITAD) in Kano should be worth our while. Supported by DFID’s Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme as well as MacArthur Foundation, the unit has already released two briefings on what we might call a Nigerians – on – Nigerians hate speech trends on the social media. Its broad take is worrisome. That can be summarised by the conclusion in its July briefing that the social media is a key driver of hate speech involving evidently inflammatory language use that would not be found in the otherwise most reckless newspapers. And the users are very well educated elements.
Hate speeches as the foremost driver of violent conflicts has not received commensurate institutional attention in Nigeria. It is not clear how well equipped the traditional conflict management institutions in Nigeria are in terms of functional mechanisms for monitoring and regulating hate speech trends. Courtesy of the CITAD hate speech monitoring, we now know that hate speeches came down immediately after the peace accord between the two political parties in the 2015 presidential contest but only to rise steeply again. Today, the trend is so high, indicating a high degree of intolerance of each other. The figures from the July briefing, for instance, shows 618 items conveying religious insensitivity, followed by 507 items on ethnicity, 192 items relating to Biafran agitation. Hate speeches around electoral realm is the least, obviously because there was no major contest of that nature in the month. The pattern for the previous month is the same except that ethnicity had higher score than religion but the two took more than 94% of the total for June 2016.
That is to say that, on the internet, many Nigerians have no inhibitions in using words with intention to insult, offend or convey maximum contempt for some other Nigerians, either along ethnic, religious or spatial lines. The implication is that when you call someone or some group a certain name, you are rationalising doing harm; the caller is consciously or otherwise distancing him or herself from responsibility for the humanity of the other person or group, making the target look deserving of being humiliated or killed or so. Language creates the enemy images which justifies attack, retaliation and vengeance, not the other way. There can be no retaliation if there is no such language. Those who write or utter such words might not connect themselves with the implications but ignorance of that does not exonerate them from liability as the UN Tribunal on Rwanda shows.
Those who are in the habit of dehumanizing or demonizing others must, therefore, know that they are walking on the wrong side of the law and they could end up at The Hague or a similar place. CITAD’ list of hate and dangerous speeches stretch from Insulting people’s religion; abusing people’s ethnic or linguistic affiliation; expressing contempt for people on the basis of their place of origin; disparaging or intimidating women or girls because of their gender; condoning discriminatory assertions against people living with disability. Others are abusing or desecrating symbols of cultural or religious practices; denigrating or otherwise ridiculing traditional or cultural institutions of other people; engaging in deliberate spread falsehood or rumours demeaning, maligning or ostracizing other people on the basis of identity such as religion, ethnicity, gender or place of origin or disability.
At the end of the day, it is back to the state. That is the Nigerian State, which has the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. CITAD would like the state to reify itself quickly in terms of dealing with the hardship that it says explains the recourse to perceive others as enemies. Governments should equally provide adequate information so that people would understand the true circumstances of all decisions taken. This is grounded on the analysis that, underlying the spread of hate speech in the country are the perception that the Government headed by a Hausa-Fulani/Muslim northerner is discriminating against the Igbos; the counter perception that certain sections of the country are unhappy with the outcome of the 2015 election and are extending the electoral contest by making it difficult for the government to settle down; resistance to the anti-corruption agenda of the government by those who will want do everything to scuttle it and the increasing economic hardship that has resulted from the collapse of national earnings and some decision of the Federal Government.
But the security agencies; INEC; religious and ethnic leaders; the media and the public are not left out in this call to action against hate speech as an actual as well as a potential driver of conflicts in the country. It would be interesting to see what the trend would show in the next few months.