The opening clause of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as Amended) states that ‘Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state . . .’ and ‘accordingly, national integration shall be actively encouraged whilst discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties shall be prohibited.’
But these words, as potently binding as they are, may sound hollow in the ears of my countrymen and women who daily engage in the vile venture of perpetually probing the land for elements that bring disunity. Indeed, lingering economic crises and a set of complex political dynamics in the country are throwing up new challenges and threatening to unknot the delicately fragile unity and assumed social cohesion of Nigeria. Divisive discourses have taken over the air. Ethnic-oriented narratives like those perpetuated by groups like IPOB, MEND, Arewa, and other secessionist agitators are daily receiving fiery fervour. Rumours calculated at causing confusion and unleashing conflicts are becoming commonplace. The heightening wave of farmers-herders crises and brutal bandits have added new levels of hate and mutual enmity.
But even more frightening is the increasing spate of hate and dangerous speech that is occasioned by the alarming upsurge of intolerance, ethno-social tension, and mutual suspicion among Nigerians. Just take a look around you and glance back, you would perceive the putrid and malodorous odour of unbridled killings of Nigerians of various ethnic backgrounds at the hands of fellow Nigerians from different ethnic origins–be they bandits, kidnappers, herders, etc.
But what is hate or dangerous speech?
Hate speech is any speech act ‘that denigrates people on the basis of their membership in any group, such as an ethnic or religious group that has a reasonable chance of catalysing or amplifying violence by one group against another, given the circumstances in which it is made or disseminated’.
In other words, dangerous speech is any speech that is aimed at inciting the audience to denigrate others. In a book, Defusing Hate: A Strategic Communication Guide to Counteract Dangerous Speech, Rachel Brown (2016:7) defines dangerous speech as “speech that increases the risk for violence targeting certain people because of their membership in a group, such as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. It includes speech that qualifies as incitement and speech that makes incitement possible by conditioning its audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group.” So dangerous or hate speech always carries with it a measure of ‘potential to influence’ people to act in violent ways towards others. It has the potential to cultivate fear and hatred, and also to incite mass violence against persons and groups.
Hate speech thrives in instigating resentment towards others on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, geography and any other socially conceived parameters with the purpose of marginalising them, or placing them at some disadvantage that is contrary to the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the International Covenants on the Rights of People.
The Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), in a document, Engaging Stakeholders to Curb Hate and Dangerous Speech in Nigeria, stated that we can consider any speech dangerous if it insults people for their religion and abuses people for their ethnic or linguistic affiliation; if it expresses contempt against people because of their place of origin, or disparages or intimidates women or girls because of their gender. Speech is dangerous if it condones discriminatory assertions against people living with disabilities; and if it abuses or desecrates symbols of cultural or religious practices, or ridicules traditional or cultural institutions of other people, as well as if it deliberately spreads falsehood or rumours that demean or malign or ostracise other people on the basis of religion, ethnicity, gender or place of origin or the accident of one form of disability or the other.
Hate and dangerous speech is heavily associated with electioneering campaigns and utterances of politicians.
Elections in Nigeria still throw up a large dose of hate and dangerous speech among the political class and the followers of politicians. However, hate and dangerous speech has gained renewed momentum, expanding into the domain of everyday life and spreading like wildfire in the harmattan, into places of worship and community halls where religious and ethnic leaders have become merchants of mob rhetoric. In addition, the ethnic and religious leaders are now using the social media space to convey their ghastly cargoes and boost their profits and followership. Religion-based and ethnic related dangerous speeches now constitute, according to CITAD, over 80 per cent of social media content.
During the period June to December 2016, CITAD’s Hate Speech Monitoring Platform captured 6,258 items of hate and dangerous speeches. Religion was first with 2,603, ethnicity was second with 2,449.
Yunusa Ya’u, the Executive Director of CITAD, during an intervention on the preponderance of hate and dangerous speech in Nigeria, stated that hate speech persists because of the fertile atmosphere for the drivers of hate speech in the country. According to him, there is injustice and increasing poverty and hardship in the land. There is also what he described as the ‘increasing desperation by politicians to get into office’ which gives them the leeway of manipulating others and inciting them to violence. Ya’u also pinpointed the fact that everywhere in the country, you have unresolved conflicts. He says:
‘In this country, we have a culture in which each time there is conflict (either ethnic or religious), everybody talks about resolution [which never happens], but later everybody sweeps the matter under the carpet. So we never pursue conflicts to logical resolutions.
‘And when you don’t satisfactorily resolve such conflicts, they go latent underground and people will be deploying inciting language including hate and dangerous speech as they start to mobilise for resumption of the conflict.’
Could this be why we have had a resurgence of hate speeches in the polity after the 2011 general elections? Up to now, the report and recommendations of the Sheik Lemu Committee set up to investigate the widespread violence which came in the aftermath of that election has not been looked into, seven years after.
According to Ya’u, our laws also seem inadequate in punishing hate speakers, thereby emboldening others to tow their path. Says he: ‘Hate speech thrives because nobody is banished for it, and it means you allow others to do it.’
In opening up the issue of increasing hate speech in the country, you must also take into account the stories and narratives of marginalisation across the country. Everybody talks about being marginalised. But we must concretely address these agitations or else we open the ground for an escalation of ethnic and religious violence. This is the trend that currently obtains in the country, especially in the southern region.
Overcoming Hate Speech
Susan Benesch, a law professor in the United States, developed a framework for identifying dangerous speech. This is important because we have to be able to know the indicators before formulating mitigation elements. So, for Susan Benesch, to rise to the level of dangerous speech, there are five indicators of which at least two must be present. First, there must be a powerful speaker with a high degree of influence, an audience that has grievances which the speaker can cultivate, and a speech act that must be understood as a call to violence. Within the scope of rising to the level of dangerous speech, the Nigerian context largely provides a social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for any of a variety of reasons, including long-standing competition between groups for resources, lack of lack of efforts to solve grievances or previous episodes of violence (to which Yunusa Ya’u made reference). Finally, there must be a means of dissemination that is influential in itself, because it is the sole or primary source of news for the relevant audience. This is why the ubiquity of social media helps to light the fire of hate and dangerous speech.
A cursory look at Benesch’s framework tells us that religious and ethnic leaders are at great advantage in flogging emotions and inciting mass action, especially on account of the nation’s delicate balance. This, therefore, throws up a challenge to all of us to make sure we guard our minds against agents of hate speech, especially as we attempt to prevent intergenerational transfer of hate speech to the children, whose fragile minds can be easily manipulated. Thus, to heal our land of such mind-set, we must all actively identify hate speech and counter it committedly. We must passionately raise awareness of the danger it poses and call the people to shun all shades of insult, prejudice, bigotry. and divisive expressions. As elections are fast approaching again, we must insist on bringing those who seek our votes to engage in intellectual debates, and ask critical questions which will put them on their toes. In this way, the political class will be more sensitive about deploying hate speech in their electioneering campaigns. Ultimately, we must identify and avoid ethnic and religious vendors of hate and dangerous speech.
The Place of Fact-Checking and Media and Information Literacy
A key tool for combating hate and dangerous speech is for all stakeholders, including the media, the society and individuals to see all information that we receive or spread out as having the potential to either damage or mend society. This understanding is extremely critical. We must understand the impact, and also internalise the fact that people who encounter the information we give out depend on it to form opinions, choices, and life decisions. Information impacts our attitude to, and perceptions of others. These decisions can be shaped, therefore, by the mood and mode of the information. And that every piece of information, data, or story that we reveal influences people and informs their actions. Such consciousness is, therefore, necessary for us to combat hate and dangerous speech.
Therefore, this is where fact-checking comes in.
Essentially, the basic focus of fact-checking is to accurately analyse statements made in public in order to correct public misperceptions and increase knowledge of important issues. So it is important for us all to seek to verify and evaluate the accuracy, sanctity and implication of information that we encounter in the media before we act on them.
In an article on Media and Information Literacy, Chido Onumah and Olunifesi Suraj affirm that we must use information to cultivate the competences of citizens to realise their rights. We must do this because it assists citizens (no matter their status and vocation) to become agents of change and thus, to encourage intercultural dialogue and understanding. This will also result in social cohesion and understanding. These are essential elements that will allow or compel them to filter, sieve all information that they come across as metrics necessary for their sanity, especially in this generation of massive information disorder.
The researcher produced this article per the Dubawa 2021 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with Splash fm to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.