Red Alert on Hate Speech Prevalence in Nigeria
Experts have put the level of hate speech phenomenon in and of Nigeria to be threatening for the country. They have argued Nigeria would be making a mistake by not formally confronting the hate speech phenomenon already. Nigerian academics both within and outside the country believe Nigeria should worry about the amount and intensity of sound bites, certain expressions and words conveying deep seated contempt, group profiling and character assassination deliberately aimed at Otherization. Otherization in this context means creating a distance between the writers or users of hate speech and the ethnic, religious and regional groups they refer to. Otherization is regarded as a major condition or justification for violence against those who would have been denoted in terms unworthy of dignified treatment. As such, hate speeches constitute an unfailing signal for large scale violence.
As far as Dr Musa Aliyu who teaches communication and conflict at the University of Coventry in the United Kingdom is concerned, the only difference between hate speech level on the eve of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and Nigeria today is that, in Rwanda, it was clearly articulated to produce the kind of response it did while that of Nigeria now is still spontaneous and diffuse reaction aimed at provoking particular kind of disposition from the other.
Dr Sola Olorunyomi who teaches language and conflict at the Peace and Strategic Studies at the University of Ibadan did not differ much from Aliyu. Olorunyomi who had much, much earlier on drawn attention to the silence of the leadership of the leading religious bodies in Nigeria in a previous outing told Intervention in a brief interview that, although he is not on much of the social media networks where bulk of hate speeches circulate, there is a problem with current level of civility in Nigeria. This, he says, manifests specifically from Nigeria’s inability to both, collectively and individually, enthrone and respect an inter-subjective space. We have not gotten used to where we frame differences as part of the human community rising as such, Dr. Olorunyomi said. It is such conception of difference that explains why some white people, for instance, would come out to fight for racial justice, he told Intervention.
Dr. Musa Aliyu describes the hate speech level as unprecedented, saying though that he does not know whether it has always been there and has just been made visible by the social media or it is a completely new thing among Nigerians. “But the way people comment on certain persons, groups and identities generally is unbelievable”, he says.
Intervention is deliberately not citing any specific examples of hate speeches in this story but while some of the expressions are products of joking relations, most others convey bitterness and explicit demonization of the Other, particularly along the ethno-religious and regional fault lines in Nigeria. And even social media platforms that might be considered elite domains are not free of words and expressions with implications for inter-group harmony. The horrific pictures of remains of burnt bodies common on websites, gory narratives emphasising “they” and “us” and similar binaries as well as particular way of invoking history have accentuated the prevalence in the current epoch.
The question as signposted by Dr Olorunyomi’s reminder to religious leaders but to which only the Catholics have replied him so far is whether the Nigerian State, the top echelon of the political leadership, the civil society and the traditional authority are not aware or do not see a threat in the level of hate speech. At the moment, only two civil society organisations are formally engaged with managing hate speeches. One is the Kano based Centre for Information Technology, (CITAD) which runs an observatory on online hate speeches while the other is the Abuja based Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, (SCDDD) which is interested in the regulatory dimension. Of course, universities and training institutions are, by implication, drawn into the management of hate speeches, especially those that offer formal training in Peace and Conflict Studies.
An important hint on the absence of the state in confronting the hate speech phenomenon beyond radio exhortations and preachy statesmanship might be what Dr. Mohammed Kuna, the Sociologist from the Usman Dan Fodio University in Sokoto has once called the erosion of the stateness of the state in Nigeria. Although Dr Kuna was addressing a completely different topic, what he called the dwindling capacity of the state to reify itself, especially in the rural areas is equally accepted as a key explanation for the absence of any formal engagement with hate speeches by the Nigerian State. There is a general belief that the Nigerian State is overwhelmed with particular reference to the new conception of power in which productive power has been rated higher in the management of society than coercive power based on the deployment of repressive state apparatus such as the armed forces, the police, prisons, etc. Though decisive, these are, however, only so when it comes to suppressing violent conflict. Productive power, on the other hand, works to secure consent in the larger society through the language game by which reality is constructed.
According to the leading scholars in this analysis of power, this meaning of the word productive comes from the word producere and which refers to making or rendering something visible rather than manufacturing anything material. Productive power has been rated higher in terms of the capacity to shape conflicts towards peace than coercive power ever since the spectacle of Boris Yelstin’s heroism in climbing the tanks with which the failed August 1991 coup in the defunct Soviet Union was being executed once troops refused orders to shoot him and the subsequent hysterical rally which followed. The language game was, therefore, a crucial part of the demise of the defunct Soviet Union spearheaded by Boris Yelstin as the iconic images of his exploits were beamed to the world from where History was being made. It all goes to show that it is not the falling of the tree in the forest which is real but what people say about the falling of the tree. In other words, it is not that the tree that fell in the forest when nobody was there is not real but that the reality of its fall lies in its construction by human agency.
The question regarding hate speech in the case of contemporary Nigeria is the undergrowth which structures the representation of the falling of the tree in the forest, the tree in this case, being the Nigerians and the Nigerian State. Some experts are of the view that the sentiments powering hate speeches regarding Nigeria cannot be dismissed as just a function of the power of the social media technology. They argue that some of the sentiments capture glaring failures of successive governments towards the citizens and the sentiments may thus be justified. What most analysts object to is what they see as hate speech deeply informed by the belief by some people till today that Nigeria should not be one country; that it is a colonial creation fusing different cultural groups together who have nothing to do with each other. Peculiar to hate speeches in Nigeria is, therefore, its tight association with the Nigerian ethno-regional flow.
The social media space is hardly amenable to control. Even more established state powers have not made a complete success of such approach. That raises the question of what options are open to Nigeria in confronting hate speech, considering that substantial part of it emanate from Nigerians in the Diaspora who are not, in most cases, the most empirically informed set of commentators on the country.
But Dr Olorunyomi suggests how government could come to grips with the challenge. There is a part of government strategy that has to be immediate, intermediate and long term, he said. The immediate is the need for the government to draw the connection between such speeches, criminality and culpability. That is to criminalise the act by drawing attention to the nexus between hate speeches and the consequences in the loss of human lives and property and, hence, the justification in applying appropriate sanction to people who engage in it. Critics note that the Nigerian State would find it difficult to do this because it never brings out the correct number of victims of violent conflicts, the very raw materials it would need to bring out the nexus in question should a violent conflict be traceable to a particular hate speech.
His intermediate strategy is for the government to start working with membership and leaders of groups that society relates to and respects. He believes that government’s ability to have contact with whomever it wants would take care of the contradiction whereby some of these groups expand their own space by the very act of a “we” versus “they” binary. On the long run, government should, according to Dr Olorunyomi, re-orientate society through curriculum development such that somewhere in whichever training anyone is going through any where in the country, he or she must come across a rejection of any summoning, no matter the source, which asks him or her to accept any reference that makes such a citizen dispensable and his or her life violate. This re-orientation should be such that applies to every sources that, in his own words, specifies any inflammatory or life-shortening words or phrases.
Diverse opinions have greeted this puzzle generally, from those who see the answer in moral persuasion to those who think the regulatory framework should be fine-tuned. The answer might not lie in one or the other but both and even more.