By Adewale Kupoluyi
A few weeks ago, the Federal Government, through the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, came up strongly against hate speeches in the country by linking it with terrorism. He described the practice of intimidating a population by words or speech is an act of terrorism, saying that such would no longer be tolerated. Although the Vice President did not mention any specific name or groups engaging in hate speeches, I do not think it is a difficult exercise to identify similar speeches in the polity in recent times that the he could be referring to.
As expected, the pronouncement by Professor Osinbajo has elicited many reactions; either in support and condemning the stance of the government on the debate on what really constitutes hate speeches, particularly on the social media. Many observers believe that developing such policies, against free speech by the citizenry, at this time was capable of limiting people’s ability to exercise their freedom of expression. While hate speech is not the same thing as freedom of speech or freedom of expression, constructive criticism of government activities should always be encouraged because it strengthens democracy. In other words, putting a government on its toes does not amount to the same thing as criticism of a certain religion, tribe or ethnic group. Government, as an entity is different from the individual, group or institutions found in a state.
Hate speech has been variously defined as speech, which attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, class or gender. It could also mean a speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display, which is forbidden in the sense that it incites violence or is a prejudicial action against a group or individual on the basis of their membership of the group, or it could simply be that it disparages or intimidates a group or individual on the basis of their membership of such group.
On the legality of the freedom of expression/opinion, Section 39 (1) of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution (As amended), allows every person to be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions, receive and impart information without interference; Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights also guarantees that everybody has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes freedom to hold opinions without any interference and to seek, receive, impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers; while Article IX of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights equally provides that every individual shall have the right to receive information, right to express and disseminate his opinions within the ambit of the law.
Because of the dimension that the issue is taking, the National Assembly is already working towards putting in place, a legislation that would criminalise the act of indulging in hate speeches. This move may not too much to make, going by the security implications of profiling based on tribe, ethnic or religion sentiments that hate speeches could promote in a highly pluralistic society like Nigeria. Not only that, sad tales of what happened to other nations should be worrisome, based on the experiences of the severe damage that hate speech had done in places like Rwanda and South Africa, which led to many years of deaths and disasters. It was the Rwandan genocide that pitched fellow Hutus against the Tutsis; an ugly carnage that started with hate speech while the xenophobic attacks in South Africa were fueled by inciting and provocative statements credited to some leaders in that country. Many Nigerians were killed in the sad occurrence.
Coming back home, hate speeches have been promoted to a worrisome level between youths in the Northern part and those from the South-East. This is in addition to the ongoing secession agitations that had heightened tension and threatened the peace of the country. When this is allowed to go on unabated, security of lives and property is compromised while capital flight becomes a major feature of the economy that drives away genuine investors from the nation, which seriously requires sound economic interventions to come out of present recession. At the rate at which hate speech is spreading across the country like wildfire, national unity and stability is being compromised. Under such circumstance, there can be no meaningful development because people are bound to coexist with suspicion.
In recent years, the country has had to contend with discordant tunes from various segments and that is the more reason why we should never allow this situation to degenerate any further, going by the horrific experiences of Nigeria’s First Republic that eventually culminated in the 1967-1970 Civil War; hence, promoters of hate speech across the country should have a retreat for a moment and deeply reflect and spend sobering time by pondering over what calamity would happen, if the nation boils beyond control.
We recall that the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) once ordered sit-at-home order that paralysed many states in the South-East; an action that drew quick reactions from the Arewa Youths Consultative Forum (AYCF), which in turn issued quit notice to Igbo resident and business persons in the North, asking them to quit the area, just as the Niger Delta militants from the South-South also gave a three-month notice to the Federal Government to return all oil blocs managed by northerners to the people of the oil producing states or face violent attacks on oil facilities. A South-West governor openly threatened to eliminate any herdsmen found trespassing in his state.
While it is understandable for any responsible government to accord security its top priority, hate speeches should be discouraged while freedom of expression and speech should be freely allowed. A more enduring approach to take is to actively create an environment that discourages hate speech, animosity and violence. There is need at this juncture to clarify that hate speech cannot be equated with criticism. It is normal for any party in power to feel the heat of criticism the more, which could change when it becomes the opposition party’s turn to rule.
As a way forward, the National Assembly and other agencies of government should evoke the existing legislation, to curb the increasing abuse of the social media, where such hate speeches are daily and freely communicated. A common trend, whereby the social media platforms are negatively used to advocate treason and violence, should be nipped in the bud without further delay. The government should devise a reliable means of countering the falsehood being peddled by hate speech mongers and put in place, programmes that are geared towards fostering unity and peace. Not only that, the media, traditional rulers, community leaders, religious leaders and education institutions should also work together to encourage Nigerians to engage more in the objective appraisal of events in the nation. By that, it would be possible to rescue Nigeria from the time bomb that can detonate through hate speeches.