A Round-table on “Curbing Hate Speech in Nigeria’s Public Space” at Veritas University, Abuja Wednesday turned out to be a dramatic, surprise-filled and stormier one than any other in the past two weeks when Nigeria has seemed to be at war with the phenomenon of hate speeches through numerous workshops, training sessions and media shows. Not only did Prof Mike Kwanashie, the university’s Vice-Chancellor dramatically censure himself for an infringement on protocol, the speakers who were utterly divided on the topic were united in imposing a class analysis on the concept of hate speech by saying that it is a sickness of the power elite who, instead of sanctioning themselves, were attempting to criminalise free speech and kill ‘the majesty of democracy’, to quote Mr Martins Oloja, Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian and the most forthright of the four speakers.
Although the speaker before Oloja took the position that Nigeria is at risk in terms of the fate that befell Rwanda in 1994 if Nigerians did not quickly replace hate with love, she it was whose assemblage of ‘the mothers of hate speeches’ from 2011 to 2016 gave the empirical proof for Oloja’s contention. Justina Mike Ngwobia, the Executive Director of Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Movement regaled the audience of mostly top bureaucrats, senior academics, politicians, security chiefs, traditional rulers, religious leaders and heads of (I)NGOs with quotations by Nigerian leaders – from incumbent president to National Chairmen of parties, governors, immediate past First lady, topmost traditional rulers across all parts of Nigeria – that, in her view, crossed the red lines in hate speeches. She posed the question of what options are open to a country whose power elite are also the ones who made each and every of such statements, the same power elite who make policies or who are supposed to make the country great.
Giving additional backing to her empirical reservoir of hate speeches, Mrs Ngwobia quoted Centre for Information Technology and Development, (CITAD)’s figure of 6258 cases of hate speeches on the internet for the first half of 2016 and how these are all based on religious, ethnic and political identities. Her take is that anything that could cause war must be avoided. Narratives which hold all Muslims to be terrorists or all Christians as infidels do not, therefore, find her favour. She spoke before Mr Oloja was given the floor to say that the debate on hate speeches in Nigeria has become toxic but that as a university, the session in Veritas must interrogate the concept towards a deeper meaning.
Providing such a deeper meaning, Oloja framed the current fixation on hate speeches as an attempt by state actors to criminalise free speech and assault the social media which he said has taken away the tyranny of the traditional media and the powerful people. Describing free speech as the most remarkable dividend of democracy, Oloja asserted that what the media does is not what politicians offered them as a free gift but what the constitution asks them to do, a reference to the section of the 1999 Constitution which asks the media to uphold Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy as enunciated in Chapter Two.
Dismissing the caution that free speech is not absolute, the Editor-in-Chief said the reason why people are angry is the irresponsibility of government, wondering if there are any governments genuinely serving the popular interest in Nigeria today.
For Oloja, there are, in fact, more hate speeches from our leaders, the counter to which he sees in the imperative for the people to speak truth to power because, as far as he is concerned, mediocrity in government is the contradiction. “This is the crux of the matter”, he said, point out the right of the people to be angry. “We have the right to be angry. We have the right to ask questions. They need to do something about poor governance”. His standpoint is informed by a belief that if leaders are not conforming to the rule book, they will get hate messages. He cannot understand how five persons could be condemned to death for killing a herdsman. “Do you want love notes from Christians?”, he asked.
Earlier on, Professor Mnguember Vicky Sylvester, one of the four speakers had argued how hate speeches extend beyond words to actions and how the conception of herdsmen violence as communal clashes is a hate speech; how non-consultation with farmers before major decisions affecting any groups such as the issue of ranches is also a hate speech as well as what she called appropriating of waterways, doing nothing about proliferation of arms; manipulation of religion or allowing a situation in which one tuber of yam now costs N1000 because farmers are no more going to the farm for fear of herdsmen. Specifying on the allocation of N176b in the 2018 budget for ranches, might be understood, the Professor of English wondered whether that meant government appropriating herders’ cattles or buying its own? Her conclusion is thus for government officials to curb their mouth as well as go beyond blame game to do what, for her, are the right things.
Even Barrister Clement Nwankwo restricted himself largely to the legalisms of hate speeches ended up throwing darts at people in power. Starting from the argument that there is a rising hate speech phenomenon, Nwankwo spoke to how this has been exacerbated by another rising phenomenon –poverty, saying that statistics have put Nigeria to be such a bastion of poverty.
Situating hate speeches within this context, he nevertheless cautioned against use of certain vocabulary. You have to be careful so as not to be inciting against a certain people, he said, citing the phrase ‘Fulani herdsmen’ as an example, because, according to him, the operative word about hate speech is targeting. Targeting means a comment that is not fair because it is aimed at creating an image of a target on account of one particular attribute or another. Targeting, said the speaker, could occur even within one religion as when sects frame each other and so on.
Nwankwo did not contest that the constitution has express provision for free speech but he quickly added how the same constitution and other Nigerian codes outlaws anybody embarking on activities that incite sectional ill-feelings. Without contesting that there had been atrocities, relying on Amnesty International’s report that atrocities had reached a magnitude worth international inquisition in Nigeria, his question is whether that should be attributed to any group in a way that could provoke hate.
Turning to the media, Nwankwo took note of the tendency to super-impose pictures or transmit pictures of piles of bodies that have actually been lifted from atrocities in Somalia or Rwanda but presented as pictures of killings in Nigeria. “Nobody says those atrocities have not been committed here but are the pictures that of our own atrocities?” was how he posed the issue. His advice is for everyone to collate evidence of atrocities because there could come a time when they would be accounted for, hinting how President Buhari is the only world leader who has been invited to the 20th anniversary of the International Criminal Court, (ICC) at a time when atrocities have raised question of genocide.
The other side of his argument is the trend whereby governors track critics of their excesses up to getting them arrested and imprisoned. Mentioning a particular governor, the lawyer activist there can be no forgetting that citizens have the right to criticise or exercise such right.
What these standpoints translate to is where the speakers did not accept hate speech unproblematically but turned the table by interpreting it as something the power elite and people in power are guiltier. In fact, the audience, at a point, started listing examples of governmentese that they categorise as being in the status of hate speeches: ‘wailing wailers’, ‘disgruntled elements’, ‘charlatans’ and so on.
There was not only such a surprise, there was drama also. The drama occurred when Prof Mike Kwanashie, Vice-Chancellor of Veritas University, Abuja and Chief Host of the occasion censured himself for ‘overshooting’ the range for an opening remark. He meant that he was already going far into the issue beyond what an opening remark requires. He barred himself from talking again for the rest of the event and got an applause for that.
But he didn’t keep to that because, shortly afterwards, he was invited to the high table to unveil the maiden edition of the university’s Centre for Peace and Development, (CEPAD)’s journal. The centre had put together the Roundtable on curbing hate speeches and which, Dr Fr Innocent Jooji, the Director, said would be an annual event. The VC had to speak again, commending the centre for producing the journal and commending the journal to its potential readers.
While declaring open the Roundtable, Prof Kwanashie contended it is important for the intelligentsia to be aware of the phenomenon called social media and the implications of the capabilities it has bestowed whereby “everybody is now a journalist” and “can broadcast, write anything he or she decides to write”. Specifically addressing the speakers, Prof Kwanashie said: you are here to talk to academics who train students”.
His standpoint is that people should not forget that God gave them intellect which they are supposed to use to build rather than destroy. It is important to pause and reflect on how we are using our intellect, charged the VC who went on to assert that the ‘forwarded as received’ caveat that accompany social media texts does not exonerate anyone from complicity in the consequences of such texts. “By forwarding it, you have taken ownership”, said he before he discovered he was already entering into the sphere of the speakers and stopped.
It is not clear if Nigeria has exhausted exploring the hate speech phenomenon or has reached any consensus. As at the end of last week, the exploration of hate speeches had extended from the regulatory, media and even visual dimensions of it. Today’s discussion added the legal framework by which a speech could be determined to be hateful. That emphasis has been missing. What might be said to remain to be thoroughly explored is the global context of hate speech phenomenon in Nigeria. It would not be surprising if that is the topic of the next workshop or seminar or Round-table. The big question remains as to whether hate speech can be ever an uncontroversial topic when the meaning making process makes a hate speech claim the claim of the reader/viewer/listener rather than the guilt of the text producer. Or, is it the case that the law against hate speech has taken care of that? Can reliance on legalism provide a guarantee against the disturbing cycle of violence in Nigeria?