The government must be decisive in dealing with this potentially explosive issue

The climate of fear and anxiety is being heightened ahead of the October 1 deadline issued by a “Coalition of Northern Youths” to people of Igbo descent to leave the North. A song in Hausa trending on social media is not only belittling a people, it is designed to stir up hatred and put an ethnic group in harm’s way.

Voiced by an unidentified female artiste, with explicitly inciting lyrics, the song has for weeks been circulating in some states in the north. “The song is dangerous, inciting and capable of drawing the country into another civil war and we must act fast to stop it,” said the Foundation for Peace Professionals. “This is an emergency that must be taken with all seriousness.” Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar had a more graphic and weightier comparison in the 100-day Rwanda conflict which spread with staggering speed and brutality and led to the slaughter of some 800,000 people. “This song is reminiscent of the beginnings of the Rwanda Genocide. Nigerians need to be aware that the genocide was believed to have been ignited by a song titled ‘Nanga Abahutu’ (I hate Hutus),” said Atiku.

While we strongly condemn this latest effort at instigating violence in the country, we also worry that the security agencies are again treating in a cavalier manner an issue that could threaten our national security and the peaceful co-existence of the country. Last June when the Arewa Youths Coalition gave a three-month ultimatum to people of Igbo extraction to quit the north, the police took their time to respond, after an endless pressure from a bemused public. It was a confirmation that the security agencies are also part of the problem: not only do they discriminate in the choice of culprits regarding hate speech, they are never even-handed in the application of the law.

As at the time of going to press, months after members of this Arewa Youth group had been declared wanted, no arrest has been made even when some of them openly hobnob with public officials and appear on television to defend their stance. The lesson is clear: the failure to hold people to account embolden them to commit more crimes. The follow-up song with a hate and dangerous content must therefore be seen as a product of such impunity.

However, this should not be treated as an isolated incident. It is part of the suffused climate of fear, anxiety, hate and vitriol. In the last few months, various groups in major geopolitical centres across the country have been releasing to the public domain hateful communiques laced with threats of violence. Yet to the extent that freedom of expression, which democracy guarantees, does not include a license to plunge the nation into avoidable mayhem, the time has come to place a moratorium on hate speech in Nigeria.

The Minister of Interior, Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau (rtd.) hinted last week of a plan to enact a law to criminalise hate speech. Indeed, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an organ of the United Nations to which Nigeria is a signatory, requires states to prohibit hate speech. The challenge thus lies with the authorities to contain the antics of these unscrupulous hate-mongers.

Last week, the Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima, on behalf of the northern governors, hosted some members of the Arewa group on the need to withdraw their quit notice. “The governors feel there could be some irate youths who may be planning violence in any part of the north as soon as the ultimatum expires on October 1. That could lead to reprisals in the south and the entire country will be on fire.”

All factors considered, the government has no choice but to be decisive in dealing with a potentially explosive issue that threatens the peaceful co-existence of the country.