Trying to exemplify hate speeches in Nigeria today would simply amount to adding petrol to a raging inferno but there is hardly any disagreement that the incidence of hate speech has climbed through the roof top in the country. Enemy images of the Other, especially along ethnic and religious lines on the social media are simply unbelievable. It is now easy to understand why a thing like genocide happen and war too. The ground for such horrors is first made wet enough with hate speeches.
In one of Intervention’s earlier stories in which Dr Musa Aliyu, a Nigerian media academic at the University of Coventry in the UK was interviewed, he distinguished hate speech in Nigeria today from the hate speeches and enemy images that foregrounded the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example. His argument in the said interview is that hate speech in Nigeria today is still spontaneous and diffuse reaction aimed at provoking particular kind of disposition from the other as against hate speech level on the eve of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 he said was clearly articulated to produce the kind of response it did.As valid as that distinction is, it would seem the hate speech threshold today might be questioning that assumption. It is simply horrible and, as such constitutes a threat in every society.
As imprecise as what hate speeches are because it is always based on interpretations rather than anything objective, anti-hate speech actors put the threat from hate speeches in the fact that it can produce an all consuming consequence. So, NGOS and think tanks working on hate speeches would admonish even those with ideological reservations about the government in power to be concerned. In Nigeria, it is argued that much of the current incidence of hate speeches is ‘corruption fighting back’ and that they would evaporate as soon as ‘they’ succeed in discrediting Buhari and getting him out even if APC is still ruling. That could be true. But even if it is, the other side of the same truth is that hate speeches can reproduce the reality of the violence they infer or are interpreted to infer. Within the context of material poverty, decay of institutions and the complete fall back on religion for solution to day to day challenges among majority of Nigerians, words can easily transform into call for action. So, hate speeches in the Nigerian context is as real as the war that could follow. Those posting some of the stuff in the social media or some of the agitators involved in angry rhetoric in newspaper interviews are setting fire to a dry bush which they would not be in a position to stop when they might want to do so.
Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister for Information has just delivered a speech with the title “Hate Speech, Fake News and National Unity”. Although the examples he gave to illustrate hate speeches are generally considered the least threatening types, his speech captures government’s concern about the problem. It would, therefore, not be fair to say the government is not doing anything about hate speeches. Beyond such overt interventions, there must be a series of actions the intelligence community must be carrying out noiselessly within the logic of their trade, (or is it profession?). But if people and groups that no one can dismiss as ignorant are warning against the prospects of war in spite of such open and clandestine efforts, then it is time to ask about what might be happening regarding the governance of hate speeches in Nigeria.
Lai Mohammed’s belief in the aforementioned speech, particularly where he said that the campaign is a multi-million Naira project is that all these are political. By that, he meant that a campaign based on unleashing hate speeches has nothing to do with poor people but people of means, people seeking or challenging power through the power over interpretation of events. There is something truthful as well as surprising in that line of argument.
Nigeria might be a dysfunctional state but it is not a failed state. Central authority is not only intact, its instruments for normative and coercive power are substantially intact as well. For instance, between Friday and today, two service chiefs made vital pronouncements. Gen Buratai of the Army gave orders for the arrest of Boko Haram insurgency symbol, Abubakar Shekau. He wants this done within 40 days. Very few army chiefs would give such a categorical command in a war in which there is no ‘centre of gravity’ to destroy and then claim victory as the most sophisticated theorists of war knew it. Those who say that the Nigerian military can put so much at stake by such a deadline only because it has a history of crushing insurgencies on a West African scale might have a point there.
Beyond Buratai’s deadline on Shekau is even the more far reaching pronouncement by Sadiq Abubakar, Buratai’s counterpart in the Airforce, who declared that “No inch of Nigerian territory will be ceded to any individual or group of individuals”, adding that disgruntled elements calling for war do so “from balconies of their houses and from the comfort of their sitting rooms or when they are interacting with the press without the understanding of the tragic consequences of war”. These are weighty pronouncements with symbolic imports and practical consequences for national stability when analysed from the perspective that ‘speaking is doing’. It is words that give birth to action.
What this means is that there is, indeed, a central authority whose instruments of state power are sensitive to what is going on. The question then is why might the same Nigerian State be missing in the symbolic and practical actions in containing the challenge of hate speeches? Why has the state absconded and is rather trembling before its structural, institutional and discourse powers, leaving aside coercive power yet? Unfortunately, Lai Mohammed supplied all the evidence for these questions.
In 1987, a Nigerian academic researched and published a paper titled “Situational Interactions as an Instrument of Inter-Ethnic Tension Management in a Nigerian City”. It was published in the International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. In the interest of peace, the explosive stereotype of each other he found would not be cited here. What is at stake in mentioning the research here is the fact that hate speeches is nothing new in Nigeria as the Minister implied. It has always been the case. In fact, hate speeches gave birth to Nigeria if the statements about Nigeria by some of the leaders are re-appraised. It was hate speeches that led to the Nigerian Civil War. What is worrisome in the incidence of hate speeches is its correspondence with the depth of the crisis in the society. To separate the incidence from the context is, therefore, very dangerous.
Secondly, issues such as peace, security, development, national unity are, in the last instance, products of governance, of exercise of state power. This is in two senses. In the first sense, they reflect the perception of state power in terms of fairness and justice. In the second sense, they reflect the ability of state power to assert itself normatively first and coercively, should things come to that. As the Minister for Information, the normative dimension of the power to assert itself rests almost exclusively with Alhaji Lai Mohammed. We do not know the leverage he has or the resources at his disposal to do his job but the framework by which state power everywhere acquire that normative lethality is the language game. It is the only way by which the logic of government or of modern state power is made to look natural.
For those who may recall, the idea of state power is still one of the most suspected ideas around. It comes out most in the American idea of the minimum government. It is the suspicion of government that explains elections – the idea that no one is so good to be entrusted with power just like that. The state stands accused of what someone has called excessive pretensions, of claims to be able to do what it cannot do. But a survey of state power in September 1997 by The Economist showed in its own words that decade by decade over the course of this century and before, in war and in peace, in sickness, in health, government in the advanced industrial economies done nothing but grow. It came to this conclusion using the share of national income consumed by governments, only to find that this averaged 30 per cent in the rich industrial countries by 1960, climbed to 42½ per cent twenty years later and went up to 45% in the 1990s in spite of accelerating deregulation, technological advance and global economic integration. That is a paradox. How has this been possible?
A leading explanation for this has been the idea of discourse as a technology which has its mechanisms that produces the sort of truth that keep state power powerful as shown by The Economist’s survey above. Discourse or the language game is thus about operationalising the claim that there is a way of thinking about and doing power. That is power being a very different reality from any other aspect of human life which can only, therefore, survive on the creation and circulation of a particular type of truth different from truth in a business, civil society or religious organisation.
In not just a highly pluralistic but quasi-modern society such as Nigeria, hate speeches would not be such an absurdity. What would be absurd is if there are no hate speeches although not the type we have now which is not expression of difference but calls to war. What cures it is conceptual warfare, not ministerial lamentation or endless talkshop with so-called stakeholders who are themselves at a loss about what is going on. That is besides those that are implicated in hate speeches by acts of omission and commission or might even be profiting from it.
At the level of information management, the language game can be reduced to the ability to construct the standards in terms of what is acceptable and what is not. In short, a regime of truth! It is failure to do that which results in the Minister’s exasperation about hate speeches, the same hate speeches that his own overarching or superordinate discourse of Nigeria ought to have overwhelmed and chased into irrelevance in popular consciousness in the first case. All these realist language of national security, unity and lumping together of everyone who inscribes a different meaning to ministerial imprecision will not help anybody in the circumstance. The era of unproblematic notions of national security and related concepts has passed. This is a new era full of contestations in which the winner is, to borrow the definitive phrase, “those who weave the most compelling narrative”. This is what the world has seen in the variant of it the military institution across the world has utilised in what is now the notion of Revolution in Military Affairs, (RMA). It is not propaganda and it is not conventional PSYCHOP either. It is the management of meaning in postmodern warfare. Alhaji Lai is not a combatant at war but information as the battlespace is not exclusive to the military.