Combatting the Hate Speech Virus



Two days before the return of his boss, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo made an important statement to which the government should do a quick follow-up. He told a meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC) that the government would treat hate speech as terrorism. The line has been drawn on hate speech, he said.

Those who might argue that Osinbajo was hyperbolic in drawing a legal equivalence between terrorism and hate speech should first ponder the bloody consequences of hate speech, which are comparable to those of terrorism. In fact, President Muhammadu Buhari himself seemed to be reinforcing the federal government position in his Monday broadcast when he said inter alia: “We shall not allow irresponsible elements to start trouble and when things get bad they run away and saddle others with the responsibility of bringing back order, if necessary with their blood.”

As an aside, the president’s speech could have been better constructed to effectively respond to the expectant mood of the nation amid a mounting, multi-dimensional crisis. Unfortunately, the broadcast was less than inspiring in the present circumstance. It could be short and yet imbued with a loud mobilising tone and tenor. Well, that is a matter to be explored another day as the focus today is on hate speech.

The official fury against terrorism, hate speech and other destructive activities is consistent with the plan that is afoot to criminalise hate speech in this land. There is already in place the Terrorism Act of 2011. The law against hate speech is probably being considered to support a legitimate war against the anti-social act. It is important that there should be a synchrony of purpose among the arms of government to rid the socio-political space of the virus spread by hate mongers.

By the way, the virus might have spread not for lack of legislations. The existing laws are treated with absolute contempt by the purveyors of hate speech. Without prejudice to the moves by government to put an anti-hate speech law in place the existing laws should also be enforced. For instance, a lot of the nonsense that circulates in the cyber space could be checked by the strict enforcement of the Cyber Crime Act of 2015. Section 26 of the Act stipulates a punishment of five-year imprisonment or a fine of N10 million for any one convicted of the offence of threatening violence or insulting people based on ethnic group, religion or race. The same Act also has provisions against cyber terrorism. Similarly, the existing laws of libel ought to be applied to those wilfully assassinating the characters of other persons exploiting the permissiveness of the Internet.

Combatting hate speech is doubtless an urgent thing to do given the nation’s poltical history. Nigeria cannot afford the luxury of waiting for the transition from the spewing of hate speech in the social arena to the mass action of hate crime offenders. A nation that has fought a civil war in which millions of lives were lost should not be toying with hate speech because of its highly destructive consequences. The wounds of the 1967-1970 war are still fresh from the tone of the current unstructured debate on the fate of the Nigerian federalism. Those who were born after the war are today dreaming of re-enacting history probably without a full understanding of the history.

By summoning memory, a lot of bitterness has been introduced into what should have otherwise been a constructive national conversation. So the lessons of the nation’s political history should be sobering enough at this moment. The danger of demonising a whole ethnic group or adherents of a faith is dangerous in the present Nigerian circumstance. A lot of blood has been shed as a result of these irresponsible acts. It is only reasonable to prevent further bloodshed. And this is far from being pacifist. It is only a humble call for reason. There is a difference between anarchy and revolution.

The empirical evidence of hate speech is not hard find in Nigeria. The fault lines of religion and ethnicity have become more sensitive in the increasingly fractious identity politics opportunistically played by the elite. The identities of religion, ethnicity and regionalism remain veritable weapons of manipulation by an elite that is averse to politics of ideas. Members of this elite suffer from abysmal lack of a sense of history. It is easy to blame and insult the other people belonging to a religion, ethnic group or region. Instead of debating strategic options for development, the elite would rather abuse the ethnic group or the faith of their opponents. That is why members of this elite seek elective offices but cleverly avoid debating issues of the material well being of the people. They turn the non-issues into the issues of election.

It is little surprise because policy debates require thinking for you to convince others about your perspectives; it does not require any intellect to rain curses and abuses on others. Street urchins do that daily. So the game is simple. Why bother about proffering logical alternatives to what is on offer when you can simply insult the ancestor of the other party to the debate and you would receive acclamation from those who ignorantly believe that you are advancing their ethnic or religious cause. That may explain the unrestrained pollution of the public sphere. Some elements are seemingly incapable of civilised conversations. They do not attack the ideas of their opponents; they would rather demonise them as northerner or southerner; Fulani or Igbo; Yoruba or Hausa; Christians or Muslims.

Besides, the bitter experiences of other lands should be lessons for Nigeria. After all, hate speech has historically been a global problem. The Nazi propaganda machine prepared the ground for the Holocaust with hate speech directed at the Jews. One streak that runs through the history of War II is the power of the word. The Nazi propagandist machine first demonised the Jews before the executioners took over the job of murdering over six million people. There was a transition from the word to action when some Joseph Goebbels of this world were at the work perpetrating infamy. In that period of transition some public intellectuals became complicit either by silence or rationalisation of the absurd. Some German scientists went to the laboratory to devise their own rationalisation with the science of eugenics. Unfortunately, this is the line that some public intellectuals appear to be taking in Nigeria today. A less talked about part of the tragedy of the present situation is that Nigeria is busy incubating and nursing its own brands of Joseph Goebels waving their destructive flags as ethnic champions and defenders of their faiths.

These are the people that Buhari rightly called “irresponsible.” That is why the role of the public intellectuals should be interrogated in the Nigerian context. The matter is made worse by the fact that some of these intellectuals are among the hordes of Internet warriors on the prowl in the cyber space 24 hours of the day. The Tutsis first became the target of hate speech in the media orchestrated by the Hutu extremists. The 1994 Rwandan genocide shocked the world, coming almost 50 years after World War II.

The consequence was the murder of over a million persons in a population of 7.3 million in 100 days. Despite the exemplary recovery efforts under the leadership of Paul Kagame, Rwanda cannot be said to have fully come to terms with the lethal legacy of the bloodletting. Where the wounds have healed, the scars remain stubbornly prominent in the nation’s history. The dialectic of history and memory is uniquely being played in that country that has since attracted global interest. More recently, the bloodletting that happened during the 2007 General Election in Kenya was preceded by deadly activities of the merchants of hate playing one ethnic group against the other.

The battle against hate speech is today being fought on the streets of the United States after centuries of democratic practice. America has an unresolved race question exacerbated now by the emergence of Trumpism, which provides a flourishing atmosphere for hate speech. The lesson to be learnt is the role of leadership in either fostering or curbing hate speech. The United States is lucky that the larger section of the mainstream media is decidedly against hate speech.

Another possible lesson to be learnt from the American experience is the manner in which the judicial system has seemingly frustrated the sanction on hate speech. Some lawyers and judges insist that despite the lethal consequences of hate speech, the crime should be written off as free speech. Such a proposition diminishes our common humanity. It does not reckon with the freedom of dignity of the victims of hate speech and protection from the violence of the mob. Those who like to contest this position should think of the psychology of the black kids bullied in American schools by children from white supremacist homes. So the advocacy for men and women of goodwill in the Nigerian context should be that hate speech should not be equated with free speech.

In the Nigerian situation, religion and ethnicity are too inflammable to be fuels in the hands of those who make hate speech instead of reasoned arguments. If a political figure pushes a policy idea, which you oppose, free speech allows you to criticise him and his idea as combatively as you can. However, you should not have the freedom to push the issue aside and demonise the religion, region, ethnic group or gender of the political figure. It simply offends reason to resort to such a crude culture of debate as you could be severely critical without infecting the arena of debate with the virus of hate speech. There is always the room for civilised conversations.

Perhaps, the absurdity of declaring hate speech as free speech could be more obvious if a parallel is drawn with a virus infecting the human body. Just as history has shown that the social virus of hate speech could lead to disaster so is it undeniable that the biological virus could also cause an epidemic, if not a pandemic. Now invoking the principle of freedom of speech to rationalise hate speech is akin to invoking freedom of movement for a population infected with the Ebola virus, for instance. Such an argument would make no sense not only to professional virologists, but also to the society as a systemic whole.

It is essential for the health of the larger society to quarantine the infected persons with the virus as part of the effort to stamp it out. It would be irresponsible of the authorities to grant an infected person the freedom to move round and infect the community. The consequences would be disastrous. So no one should have the freedom to make hate speech. Maybe the law that is said to be in the works should draw the clear boundaries between hate speech and free speech.
Ultimately, the antidote to the virus of hate speech should be composed of more than legal ingredients. No nation has developed a vaccine to combat the hate speech virus with only laws.

Like the medical opportunistic infections, hate speech makers are bloody opportunists. They sometimes feed on the undeniable flaws in the system. Beyond legislations the government should manage this political economy efficiently such that irrespective of ethnicity, region or religion all would have access to equity, justice, freedom and social protection with the Nigerian federation. Furthermore, in the strategic war against hate speech there must be a battle for the minds. To borrow from the preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. The campaign against hate speech should be intensified nationally. The public sphere should be restored as the arena of reasoned, vigorous and civil discussions.