The increasing problem of hate speech in Nigeria
The hate speech bill in Nigeria has prescribed death by hanging for any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person. The bill—in early stages of becoming law—seeks the establishment of an independent commission to enforce hate speech laws across the country. For offenses such as harassment on grounds of ethnicity or race, the bill recommends that the offender be sentenced to “not less than a five-year jail term or a fine of not less than 10 million naira (about $277,000), or both.”
Offensive and hateful speech has been a challenge in Nigeria. If it has to do with the Nigerian Civil War, Igbo nationalists take offense with the rest of the country; if it is about Boko Haram and its alleged sponsors, self-appointed defenders of the North are up in arms with equally self-appointed defenders of the South; if it has to do with resource control and oil politics, the North squares off against the South. The Igbos and the Yoruba, rival major ethnic groups, frequently pick on each other.
Hate and offensive speech profiling reached a pinnacle in the country in June 2017, when a coalition of Northern youth groups issued a Kaduna Declaration which, apart from calling the Igbos unprintable names, gave all Igbos in the North three months (until October 1, 2017) to leave. The reaction stemmed from harsh pro-Biafra rhetoric of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra. While it is true that Nnamdi Kanu had engaged in a form of rhetoric offensive to many people, the quit notice given to the Igbos in the North triggered competitive quit notices to vacate.
Though the notices were later withdrawn, they led to palpable fears that the situation could degenerate to a Rwanda-like genocide unless the tide of free-flowing offensive and hate speech in the country was stemmed.
Impact of hate speech on society
In a heterogeneous and polarized country like Nigeria, hate speech threatens the nation-building process by widening the social distance among Nigerians, cementing existing distrust, and undermining national support. Hate speech can also negatively affect the economy. For instance, in the face of the quit notice given to the Igbos in northern Nigeria, some Igbo businessmen refused to entertain any credit request from customers, Igbos and non-Igbos alike, until after the October 1 deadline. Further, deposit money banks, already risk averse from high non-performing loans, became even more unwilling to lend during the quit notice period. The competitive quit notice, respectively given to the Igbos living in the North and the Northerners and Yorubas living in the Niger Delta, could curtail the willingness of Nigerians to invest in the regions other than their own because of the risk of future quit notices.
The Hate Speech Bill and its Critics
Several organizations such as the Ijaw Youth Council, the International Press Centre, and the Punch newspaper as well as eminent Nigerians such as Senator Shehu Sani have condemned the bill on several grounds:
Problem of definition
One of the criticisms is that the bill poorly defines hate speech, especially when differentiating between hate speech and offensive speech. Though hurtful, offensive speech is believed to be a protected freedom of expression, a critical component of a functioning democracy. Instead, the bill essentially regards even insulting or abusive speeches as hate speech, a vague and dangerous categorization. Defining hate speech in a way that delineates it from offensive speech has been a tall task for policymakers and academics around the world—including Susan Benesch at Harvard, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and many others. Some believe that the term “hate speech” should only be used for extreme cases such as speeches that explicitly call for the physical injury or extermination of certain people.
Attack on free speech
Another criticism of the bill is that it could provide a cover for the government to attack free speech, which in a democracy, is important both for prevalence of truth and for citizens to effectively participate in the democratic process. Hate speech laws have been used to suppress and punish left-wing viewpoints in Europe. Similarly, South Africa’s hate crimes bill has been criticized for being vulnerable to abuses that would undermine free speech.
Hate speech laws around the world
Apart from criticisms of the language of the bill, the effectiveness of such a law is questionable. In countries like France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, offensive and hate speeches are prohibited by law. In contrast, laws prohibiting hate speech are unconstitutional in the United States. In U.S. courts, even “fighting words,” categorically excluded from the protection of the First Amendment, are not easy to separate from hate speech.
But does hate speech occur less in countries that use the law to fight it than in countries that do not or do little? It is debatable, but clearly laws can sometimes exacerbate the problem. For example, in the Australian state of Victoria, the law banning incitement to religious hatred led to Christians and Muslims accusing each other of inciting hatred and bringing legal actions against each other, further inflaming community relations. Besides, even if the law is effective in curbing hate speech in countries where the basis of statehood has long been settled, we cannot assume that the same will apply in Nigeria where the country is extremely polarized and the basis of statehood remains contested. If influential and controversial Nigerian figures like Junaid Mohammed, Edwin Clark, Professor Ben Nwabueze, Gani Adams, Professor Ango Abdullahi, Asari Dokubo, and others who hold provocative views are convicted of hate speech in Nigeria, it would most likely further foment social unrest.
The Way Forward
A starting point is to recognize that the line between offensive and hate speech is often blurred. While proper hate speech—what I define as presenting “clear and imminent danger” of triggering violence—should be criminalized (but certainly not with death penalty), non-legal instruments would be more effective in a polarized society like Nigeria to deal with offensive and other hurtful speech forms. In this respect, a taxonomy of what constitutes hate and offensive speeches would be good foundation. Media organizations through their unions should then be urged to incorporate these as part of good journalistic practice and impose sanctions on erring members.
Perhaps one of the most effective ways of combating hate speech would be to marginalize purveyors of such speeches. In the U.K., while far-right, fascist parties like the British National Party and the racist ideas they support are not banned, mainstream British politician avoid associating openly with members of such parties. In Nigeria, on the other hand, offensive and hate speech mongers are often seen as regional and ethnic heroes.
Nigerians should also learn to laugh at themselves. This is already happening in some ways with the country’s comedians who dish out jokes breaking down the lines of ethnic and regional profiling, showing that every ethnic group is both a victim and a victimizer.
The National Orientation Agency—responsible for communicating government policy and promoting patriotism—in concert with civil society groups and community leaders, should also embark on a campaign against the use of hate speech. In the same vein, internet service providers should be encouraged to bring down blogs and websites they host which publish, promote, or provide unfettered space for the expression of hate and offensive speeches. Put simply, more than just changing the law, it will take efforts from all sections of society—government, media, business, community leaders, civil society, and more—to curb the influence of hate speech in Nigeria.
Note: Jideofor Adibe is an associate professor of political science at Nasarawa State University, Keffi, the founding editor of the quarterly academic journal African Renaissance, a weekly columnist with the Daily Trust, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, and the publisher of Adonis & Abbey Publishers, a London-based publisher of academic books and journals as well as the online newspaper, The News Chronicle. He can be reached at email@example.com.