Surreptitiously, the phrase, hate speech, has ominously crept into the nation’s lexicon transforming itself into a topic of national discourse to the point that it is equated with terrorism. The government is worried that, if not effectively checked, it could become a source of friction among the diverse ethnic groups in Nigeria. The issue is serious enough for the National Assembly to contemplate a legislation that will criminalise the act of indulging in hate speech. A school of thought has tended to distinguish between hateful speech which it admits is a real thing and hate speech perceived as an incoherent concept that confuses more than it clarifies. This position, obviously, sounds academic and unhelpful in the prevailing situation where the government, urging restraint, is determined to put out the spark before it becomes a conflagration.
The government is not alone in its apprehensions regarding the security implications of profiling based on tribe and or religion. Relying on experiences of the damage hate speech had done in places like Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and even in Nigeria, the administration has every reason to nip the obnoxious practice in the bud. Hate speech has been variously defined as speech which attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. In the law of some countries, hate speech is described as speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it incites violence or prejudicial action against a group, or individual on the basis of their membership of the group, or because it disparages or intimidates a group, or individual on the basis of their membership of the group.
In a recent debate, lawyers in the country were shown to be divided over the concept of freedom of speech as enshrined in the constitution vis-à-vis hate speech. Some argued that legislation on hate speech may be used to silence critics of social policies that have been poorly implemented. They also pointed out that there are existing laws against hate speech not to warrant fresh legislations on the matter. That school of thought suggested that when a conflict arises about which is more important—protecting community interests or safeguarding the rights of the individual—a balance must be found that protects the civil rights of all without limiting the civil liberties of the speaker. This, in our view, is the appropriate thing to do under normal circumstances.
Among the ethnic groups in the country, there are already the habit of referring each other in words that have pejorative connotations. But most have come to live with it and even use same jocularly in common conversations. But those are not the hate speech that reared its ugly head in the nation’s body polity recently. Hate speech came to the level of hateful speech that there were genuine fears of civil unrest if not outright violent conflict.
The nation came close to events preceding January 1966 that eventually led to a 30- month civil war. President Muhammadu Buhari, from his medical vacation in the United Kingdom, was convinced that some of those utterances had gone over the limits of what is acceptable- the national red line as it was defined. It was on the basis of this seeming threat to national security that he gave the marching orders to the service chiefs to restore normalcy.
In our opinion, the President’s reading of the national barometer as far as the subject is concerned, accurate as it is, justifies the decision to read the riot act. As referred above, the Rwandan genocide that pitched the Hutus against the Tutsis started with hate speech. We saw a similar situation in Kenya. In South Africa, it gave rise to a more serious problem – xenophobia. With those awful experiences in mind, it is appropriate to not just warn perpetrators to desist but do so decisively.
In Nigeria of today, there is, indeed, no reason to speak fighting words—those words without social value, directed to a specific individual, that would provoke a reasonable member of the group about whom the words are spoken. One way to deal effectively with hate speech is to create laws and policies that discourage bad behaviour. Another way is not to talk about it. Can a middle ground be found? Yes, in our view. We affirm strongly that government has the obligation to protect speech by disallowing laws that are too restrictive, yet it can also encourage individuals to respect each other. This is not to deny the urgency for new and more effective measures to address hate speech. The social media is one place to start.
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