Ojo Maduekwe writes that the proposed Hate Speech Bill may be used as a cover to attack Nigerians whose opinion or criticism of government officials and policies they find offensive
“God willing, by 2015, something will happen. They either conduct a free and fair election or they go a very disgraceful way. If what happened in 2011 should again happen in 2015, by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood.”
The above quote is credited to President Muhammadu Buhari in a widely reported speech by Lika Binniyat in a national newspaper on May 15, 2012. At the time of the quote, Buhari was a presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), and had lost the 2011 presidential election to the candidate of then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Goodluck Jonathan, in what was described as one of the fairest elections in Nigeria’s history.
The background to this Buhari statement is rooted in the sad event of the 2011 post election violence. Inspired by a litany of hate speeches from people such as the former Governor of old Kaduna State, Alhaji Lawan Kaita; Senator Shehu Sani, who at the time was a Kaduna based civil rights activist; and Dr. Junaidu Mohammed, as election results trickled in on April 17, 2011, seeing that their candidate had lost, supporters of Buhari took to the streets in protest. From the burning of tires, the protests later turned into sectarian and ethnic killings across the 12 northern states of Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Yobe, Gombe, Jigawa, Niger, Zamfara and Sokoto.
The protesters who were northerners, targeted those whom they thought to be Southerners. In return, in parts of states like Kano with areas that were populated by Southerns, there were reprisal attacks. By the third day, 800 people were killed.
It was this unfortunate event that Buhari was referring to in the opening quote. His then party, the CPC would later merge with the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and the new PDP – a faction of then ruling PDP to form the All Progressives Congress (APC). In what was seen as a historic event, the APC would go on to win the 2015 presidential election.
Political observers have rightly argued that the ruling APC rode to power on the back of hate speech. On July 7, 2014, a popular news magazine quoted the national leader, one of the key architects of the APC, and a former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, saying, “It is going to be rig and roast. We are prepared not to go to court but drive them out.”
Months building up to the 2015 presidential election, there had been talks on social media by supporters of the APC and Buhari of giving the candidate of the PDP, Goodluck Jonathan, the “Gbagbo Treatment”, in reference to the humiliating ousting of former Ivory Coast president, Laurent Gbagbo, who was president until his arrest in April 2011 by a faction of the country’s military four months after it was announced that he had lost reelection.
The first recorded evidence of a Gbagbo Treatment was muted by Olusegun Obasanjo in an interview with journalists in February 2015 in Abeokuta, Ogun State. As a former president under the PDP, Obasanjo used to be a supporter of the then PDP-led federal government, however, some months leading to the 2015 general election, he became a staunch critic of the Jonathan administration, and switched to backing Buhari and the APC.
In a veiled reference to what observers worried was the joker the APC was scheming should the 2015 presidential election go in the way of the PDP, Obasanjo noted that after Gbagbo lost a run-off election by eight percent, “he rebuffed all reasonable persuasion and pleading, unleashing horror instead until nemesis caught up with him. I believe that we may be seeing the repeat of Gbabgo or what I call Gbagbo saga here in Nigeria, I hope not.”
Everyone knows that the “Gbagbo saga” in Ivory Coast resulted in the humiliating ousting of the former president, and therefore, although he attempted to cleverly mask it, Obasanjo’s canvassing of the Gbagbo Treatment tied perfectly well into Tinubu’s outburst that “It is going to be rig and roast. We are prepared not to go to court but drive them out.”
Generally, especially during elections, politicians in Nigeria use hate speech as a divide and rule tactic, employing same before and during election campaigns to incite an already divided people for their profiting. Nigerians are witness to how it was hate speech that led to the 2011 post-election violence that killed 800 people across 12 northern states in a space of three days. And how in the build up to the 2015 elections, desperate to win the presidential election, the APC not only encouraged it, but also employed hate speech as an unstated party policy.
Late December 2014, at a news conference in Lagos that had the APCs who-is-who at the time in attendance, the then APC Presidential Campaign Organisation DG, and then governor of Rivers State, Chibuike Amaechi, endorsed the incidents of mutiny by some soldiers who had earlier protested the poor equipment in the fight against the Boko Haram insurgent group. During the incident, in flagrant disregard to their rules of operation, it was reported that the soldiers while protesting had fired gunshots into the air, creating panic in the process. Playing to the gallery, as it was the APC style, Amaechi rationalised the protest saying, “The soldiers have the right to protest for the federal government’s failure to fully equip them.”
It would be difficult for the APC to argue that the use of hate speech was not a strategy or policy of the party when in November 2014, its then Publicity Secretary, and now Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, said, “If the 2015 elections are rigged, the party will not recognize the outcome and will go ahead and form a parallel government.”
APC had recognised the importance of social media in helping them win the election; so every time party stakeholders like Tinubu and Mohammed made divisive comments, hundreds of their supporters on social media would disseminate the hateful comments on several social media platforms. More than any other party in the history of elections in Nigeria, the APC took advantage of the loosely regulated social media to incite Nigerians against the PDP, riding on the back of hate speech to claim victory in the hotly contested 2015 elections.
The 2015 general election was among Nigeria’s most divisive in history. When hate speech peaked during campaign for the 2015 presidential election, the APC excused it as a means via which Nigerians were expressing their displeasure of the Jonathan-led PDP government which had become unpopular. Thinking that Jonathan would refuse to relinquish power, they were willing to milk the barrage of hate speech on social media and traditional media, and had rationalised any idea to curb the menace as an attack on free speech.
When the military under Jonathan, following “intelligence reports” that some people wanted to use some newspapers as vehicles to convey “materials with grave security implications across the country”, had seized and in some cases destroyed newspapers belonging to select media houses, the APC was quick to tag that action as a war on the media. While the then government was worried about the media’s too much focus on Boko Haram, Mohammed had pontificated that any over-reporting of the group was only a mirror of the society.
It did not come as a surprise that the APC saw nothing wrong with the over-reporting, and in some instances, the misinformation of the activities of the terrorist group, because it favoured their projection of the Jonathan administration as incompetent and unfit to lead Nigerians. Just as the accusation of the over-reporting of Boko Haram profited the APC, the party’s candidate, Buhari, also profited from the insecurity when he described military actions against Boko Haram members as an attack on the entire northern region.
Based on these incidents, political observers have argued that the ruling APC does not have the moral right to address the issue of hate speech. When the party was still scheming to lead the country, social media was a favourite tool for its mass criticism of the party in power, and in the dissemination of propaganda materials. However, two years after winning the 2015 elections, it began toying with the idea of clamping down on social media.
Recently the Minister of Information and Culture, Mohammed, said the plans by the federal government to regulate the social media was already underway and there was no going back. The Deputy Senate Whip and sponsor of the bill, Senator Aliyu Abdullahi Sabi, has himself justified the proposed death penalty, saying that there’s no going back on the bill. Known as ‘A Bill for an Act to Provide for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches and for Other Related Matters,’ it carries an altruistic toga of national cohesion and integration by outlawing unfair discrimination, hate speeches and to provide for establishment of powers and functions of an Independent National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches.
Defined by the United Nations as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or group on the basis of who they are, in other words based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor”, there’s a thin line between the enforcement of hate speech and infringement of a person’s freedom of speech.
In extreme instances, hate speech has led to the death of persons. Again, we make reference to the 2011 post election violence where 800 people were killed. Months and weeks leading up to the election, there were several recorded hate speeches that characterised campaigns. For example, Alhaji Lawan Kaita, was quoted in 2010 as saying, “The North would make the country ungovernable if President Goodluck Jonathan wins the 2011 polls”, and Dr. Junaidu Mohammed said, “It must be a Northerner or no Nigeria…”
So, the danger of hate speech has been well catalogued for Nigerians to see. As stated earlier, the problem, however, with trying to regulate the social media is that there’s a thin line between that and trampling on people’s right to free speech. Several commentators on the controversial social media bill being sponsored by Senator Sabi Abudllahi, such as associate professor of Political Science at Nasarawa State University, Jideofor Adibe, have stressed the ambiguity of the bill to clearly differentiate hate speech from offensive speech.
According to Adibe, as a result of this failure to clearly define hate speech in a manner that distinguishes it from offensive speech, the bill is being criticised as capable of giving agents of the government and public officials in general the cover to attack Nigerians whose opinion or criticism of government officials and policies they find offensive.
Other critics such as director of the International Press Centre, Lanre Arogundade, considers the bill as a waste of Nigeria’s resources, and a duplication of already existing laws.
Speaking in an interview with Arise TV, Mr. Arogundade said, “the fact that our senate wants to establish a national commission for the prohibition of whatever they call hate speech, and my first instinct would be to say that this will be an absolute waste of public resources,” asking that Nigeria’s national broadcasting policy be amended instead in such a way as to accommodate the regulation of the internet and social media use.
During a courtesy visit to the Minister of Information and Culture, Mohammed, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), the umbrella body for journalists in Nigeria, in an address by its president, Chris Isiguzo, stated that “the NUJ will not support this bill which if ultimately passed could be used to silence the media and perceived political opponents.”
The general outcry against the bill is the death sentence attached to it. Both the UN and the United Kingdom have opposed the inclusion of the death penalty. So, a provision in the bill was made for death sentence by hanging for any person found guilty of hate speech that results in the death of another person. Justification for this criticism has its root in the argument that the promoters of the bill failed to clearly define hate speech.
Also, the critics are of the opinion that the provision for death sentence should be removed from the bill, proposing other measures to curb the menace. Rather than condemning hate speech merchants to death, the burden should be placed on the social media platforms used in expressing hate speech. Focus should be on self-regulation by social media platforms, the adoption of codes of conduct accompanied by sanctions for non-compliance. Adibe in his opinion published by the Brookings Institution, suggests that a list of what constitutes hate and offensive speeches be incorporated by media organisations as “part of good journalistic practice”, with sanctions imposed on erring organisations.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), while acknowledging hate speech as an extreme form of intolerance which contributes to hate crime, believes that “criminal sanctions should be used as a measure of last resort”, and that “a balance must be kept between fighting hate speech on the one hand, and safeguarding freedom of speech on the other.” According to the organisation, restrictions on hate speech should not be misused to suppress criticism of official policies, political opposition or religious beliefs.