On 15 January 2013 Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the irrepressible and talkative Governor of the Central Bank once again chose to stir the hornet’s nest by calling for the proscription of ethno-religious groups in the country. Speaking at an inter-faith dinner organized by the Northern Reawakening Forum (NRF) in Abuja, Mallam Sanusi was quoted by the Vanguard of 16 January 2013 as saying: “I almost didn’t want to attend this occasion because I am opposed to regional, ethnic and religious groupings in this country. In fact, I would like the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Jamatul Nasril Islam (JNI), Afenifere and all such other groups to be banned.”
There are three fundamental issues here: the first is whether it should be seen as an act of courage or betrayal on the part of Mallam Sanusi to use a platform offered to him by NRF to tell them to their face that they they are part of the civil society nuisance groups in the country that ought not be allowed to exist. The second is whether as CBN Governor he should be called to order for his penchant for making political speeches. The third is the relevance of Sanusi’s call for these groups to be banned, which is my only concern in this piece.
As should be expected, Sanusi has been taken on by various interests, including the associations he called to be banned. My personal opinion is that the attacks on Mallam Sanusi have been as simplistic as Sanusi’s call for these groups to be banned. In fact on this issue, Mallam Sanusi seems to be nearer the truth than his traducers because his call mirrors current concerns among some theorists of democracy of the potential of groups such as those he mentioned to aggravate the structures of conflict in deeply divided multi-ethnic societies, especially those with fragile economies, where the nation building process has either remained in a state of flux or completely stalled. My friend, Kenneth Omeje, a professor of international relations at United States International University, Nairobi, Kenya has called this ‘democratic-conflict’ theory. This is the crux of the issue raised by Mallam Sanusi. Aside from the inherent contradiction in a very conservative banker being a radical system critic, I believe that Sanusi’s position on this issue has been largely misunderstood. I shall return to this later.
There are three major criticisms of Sanusi’s call: one is that the constitution of the country guarantees freedom of speech and association, the other is that the associations he called to be banned are ‘countervailing’, meaning they could actually be helping to stabilize the polity through a sort of balance of fear or balance of threats. This is another way of saying that these groups actually help to restrain one ethnic or religious group from attacking another or carrying out acts that will undermine others because of the fear of reprisals – not necessarily physically. The other criticism of Sanusi’s call for the banning of ethno-religious groups is that these groups are part of the civil society and that their vibrancy is often a good indication of the strength of a nation’s democracy.
In free speech jurisprudence, freedom of expression, (even as indulged by the ethno-religious groups Sanusi mentioned), usually enjoys a high level of protection in several advanced democracies. In the UK for instance, long before the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) was incorporated into its laws by the Human Rights Act 1998, freedom of speech was regarded as such an important right that government had to produce strong evidence to justify restraints on its exercise. In the US, the First Amendment explicitly provides that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.”
There are four principal arguments for a free speech principle: its importance in discovering the truth, as an integral aspect of each person’s right to self development and fulfillment, its importance in citizen participation in democracy and more importantly the deep suspicion of government. Aside from these, there are those who have drawn an organic and seemingly universal connection between neo-liberal democracy and sustainable peace. The argument here is that liberal democracy promotes an enduring peace based on accountable government and the tendency towards shared libertarian values both within and amongst states. The belief is that because democracy is based on popular vote, the rule of law and an accountable government, democracies are unlikely to go to war with each other because the government, mindful of the feeling of the electorate, is likely to have a vested interest in exploring non-violent options to resolve any dispute. Proponents of this view will always find rationalization for the ‘unjust’ wars waged by stronger states against the weaker ones.
But how do the various theories of democracy and their relationship to peace and nation-building play out in Africa, which since the late 1980s has witnessed various forms of democratic transitions? No one in his or her right mind will recommend a return to Africa’s inglorious past with its authoritarian impulses. But has democracy really facilitated the nation-building process, which in my opinion, is the fundamental problem facing many countries in the continent? Or has it empowered groups such as those mentioned by Mallam Sanusi to aggravate the crisis in the nation-building process by politicising the we-they dichotomy? What is the nexus between a noble role for them such as in articulating and aggregating the interest of their members and their aggressive politicisation of their supposed marginalisation as a strategy for recruiting and retaining members?
In our type of societies, where there is a deep institutionalised memory of hurt and unfair treatment by virtually all the ethnic and religious groups, the type of groups that Mallam Sanusi mentioned often turn themselves into ‘ethno/religious watchers’ on who has got what from the state and who is being marginalized and by whom. Any comment made by one group triggers a reaction from others, often deepening the distrust among such groups. In this sense, these groups could be said to negate the goal of nation-building as they often engage in shouting matches with their counterparts from other parts of the country. And in these shouting matches, hate speeches and occasionally violence are readily deployed or caused to be deployed by the more fanatical members of the in-group. This is the danger posed by these groups in our country despite their potential for more constructive roles in deepening our democracy. It is in this sense that Mallam Sanusi’s call for them to be banned must be located. I strongly share his views about the menace these groups could cause. His panacea of banning them, however, I will distance myself from.
Even in the more mature democracies, dealing with hate groups is often problematic. A good example here is the Ku Klux Klan – one of the worst purveyors of racial hatred in the USA. In a landmark case, Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the arrest of an Ohio Klansman named Clarence Brandenburg on criminal syndicalism charges based on a KKK speech that recommended overthrowing the government was overturned in a ruling that has protected rascals of all political persuasions ever since. In a unanimous judgment, Justice William Brennan argued that “the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Even what constitutes ‘incitement’ could be contentious. As argued in another landmark case in that country (Gitlow v New York ): “Every idea is an incitement…. The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker’s enthusiasm for the result”. In other words, if we ban ethno-religious groups, we are not only inviting dictatorship but a police state since any speech could always be construed as an incitement.
What is perhaps needed by the various ethno religious groups is a form of self censorship by an umbrella group created by these groups themselves.