Hate speech – Living in Denial?

Hate speech which attacks a person or a group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnicity, sex, disability or gender by using cruel and derogatory language, grabbed Nigerian headlines in 2017 when a coalition of Northern youth groups issued a “Kaduna Declaration” which called Igbos unprintable names and gave all of them in the North three months to flee.

Two years later the issue of “Hate Speech” is in the news again concerning government’s avowed intention to regulate comments on the social media. Spokespersons for the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) claim it’s a move designed to “further gag the media, subjugate Nigerians and curtail their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression”.

They complain that it’s a direct violation of statutory rules governing media practice and freedom of expression in Nigeria and that the classification of political comments as a “Class A” offence undermines democracy by attempting to silence dissenting public opinions. As far as the PDP is concerned the Constitution has made enough provision to guide media practice as well as the exercise of freedom of expression, therefore there should be apprehension that the directive is geared towards clearing the ground for the introduction of certain harsh unpopular policies. Unfortunately for the PDP and their posturing, the Governments of Abia State and Cross River State which are both led by their Party are exhibiting symptoms of the same anti freedom of expression syndrome.

Laws against hate speech fall into two categories; those intended to preserve public order, and those intended to preserve human dignity. In Nigeria the preservation of human dignity has never been a priority of government, consequently hate speech laws fall into the first category. They concern dealing with perceived threats to the nation building process caused by fermenting existing distrust. The problem with hate speech in Nigeria is its loose definition. There is ample room for political comments and opinions of Nigerians to be declared as “hate speech” designed to be hurtful, harmful or incite harm, or promote or propagate hatred simply because insults have become part and parcel of the way Nigerian English is spoken. “You are mad!”, “You must be stupid!”, or “Don’t mind the idiot!” are phrases which Nigerians use freely every day!

Even those in government are not immune as presidential spokespersons regularly rain insults upon opposition members. As a result, the manner in which either support for, or opposition to issues such as BIAFRA, RUGA or Resource Control is expressed will be hurtful to some group of Nigerians. On the face of it, it seems quite absurd that with all the existing laws on libel, sedition and treason, something which is written down can be referred to as hate “speech”! There is a palpable and perhaps justifiable fear that monitoring hate speech on the social media is a surreptitious attempt to silence all dissent. The underlying truth is that Nigerian political leaders are intolerant of dissenting voices and indeed the insults which come with the territory of leadership.  US President Donald Trump has been openly called everything from a racist to a fraudster but none of it is considered as hate speech because while it may be a threat to his continued stay in office, it isn’t a threat to either institutions of government or to the nation.

History has shown that in Nigeria ordinary citizens have never done anything to their leaders other than complain. In spite of all their insulting language they have never affected the core interests of those in government and there is really no reason to hound them down for expressing their frustrations. In practicing democracy Nigeria must strive to be a tolerant and secure society. Ironically while law abiding citizens who make negative comments and advocate different policies are placed under threat that the entire weight of the state and associated apparatuses will descend upon them, well-known dissenting groups are having a field day freely spreading their propaganda while slaughtering valiant Nigerian soldiers.

There is already a suspicion of bias in the application of hate speech law as certain well-known high-profile Nigerians appear to go about unmolested despite habitually spouting offensive and inflammatory rhetoric. Increasingly it appears as if opinions should only be expressed if the government of the day deems them permissible.

Nigerians have every right to be irate at the nation’s political leaders over their poor record of post-colonial governance. They deserve better. If expressing such an opinion crudely because of limited vocabulary is prosecuted as “hate speech” then government is in danger of losing perhaps the best means of gauging public opinion. Rather than an unenforceable ban on unspecified language in the social media, what should be focused on is the criminal behavior of incitement to violence or propaganda for war. In his Sept 24th address to the United Nations (UN), President Buhari said “freedom, tolerance and the rule of law are universal values and underline the best that the General Assembly represents” Government must do more to illustrate a firm commitment to freedom, tolerance, and the rule of law.

The freedom of expression given by the internet is a barometer of the deep divisions within the nation which hamper progress.  Banning such expressions could be a case of treating the symptom rather than the decease. Democracy isn’t only about elections. The question remains are Nigerians no longer at liberty to complain about a judiciary that fails to deliver justice, an ineffective overly-expensive legislature, or an uninspiring executive? When the spokesperson for the Conference of United Political Parties (CUPP) Ikenga Ugochinyere appears on social media accusing government of being ineffective in providing solutions to economic crisis, insecurity, and electoral reform is it hate speech or simply the truth?  Could it just be that all the unnecessary talk about banning hate speech in the social media is simply a matter of government living in denial of the consequences of poor governance?

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