If the Federal Government has its way, hate speeches will henceforth be classified as terrorist activity and offenders will be punished by a proposed law of the land.
This view was expressed recently by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo when he declared open the security retreat of the National Economic Council in Abuja. Minister for the Interior, Lt. General Abdulrahman Dambazzau also expressed similar sentiments and assured the nation that the office of the Attorney-General would soon submit a bill to the National Assembly that aims to curtail hate speeches. This is understandable.
The last six months have seen an unusual increase in the number of provocative statements emanating from different sections of the country. Most of the hate speeches have been directed at ethnic groups and/or religion. Currently, there is an incendiary song against the Igbo in circulation on Social Media. In reaction to the activities of the Independent Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), some Arewa youngsters had given an ultimatum to Igbo resident in the north to leave the Northern region by October 1. Nnamdi Kanu, self-acclaimed leader of IPOB has also been making some inflammatory speeches about the Nigerian state. A Niger Delta group has also threatened non-indigenes living in that region to evacuate before October. There is enough reason therefore for the government to be worried about hate speeches. Such speeches are capable of destabilising the nation.
It may be academic to ask questions on how Nigeria suddenly degenerated into this quagmire. Different persons and groups seem to be contesting the very soul of the country. Promoting hate has suddenly become a fashionable phenomenon which everyone thought was over with the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. While some could be said to be mere posturing, others indeed seem to have nefarious intentions. There have also been loud and strident calls for the nation’s financial and political systems to be re-structured. As things stand, there are doubts whether the Federal Government has put enough security measures in place to ensure that Nigerians are free to pursue their dreams in any part of the country without let or hindrance.
Hate speeches are dangerous. Often, they start as an idea by one person or a group. Gradually through repetition and dissemination, the arcane view is reinforced and acted upon. That is the reason every hate speech must be taken seriously and dealt with according to extant laws. Sadly, there is no evidence that the youth groups which issued the deadly threat to Igbo citizens living in the North have been invited and queried by security forces. This has given impetus to more threats and counter-threats. The security forces should not give the impression that some persons are free to threaten the State without any consequences.
Beyond passing laws that will criminalise hate speeches, the government should not by design or default encourage extreme behaviour. The notion of the modern state is still in a flux, subject to tinkering as time and circumstances dictate. Even the Constitution of the United States of America, the bastion of democracy, has accepted 27 amendments over the years. There is nothing therefore sacrosanct in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that cannot and should not be exposed to debate. An atmosphere of peace and freedom to express views as enshrined in the constitution guarantees freedom of speech. But it does not encourage speeches that could inflame passions and lead to a breakdown of law and order.
Working in concert with the National Assembly, the Executive arm should submit anti-hate bills. When passed, that is, if current sections of the Constitution do not make such speeches offensive, they become the laws of the land. Cultural and political leaders should rein in their wards or followers and supporters during these trying days in the nation’s history. They should all remember that if there is an implosion there is no predicting the shape of events to come. The Rwanda example is a case in point. Also, when the Nigeria-Biafra War broke out in 1967, nobody predicted it would last 30 bloody months of waste and destruction of life and property. Opinion leaders should, therefore, rise to the occasion and ensure that such incendiary speeches are not allowed in the public space.
On its part, the Federal Government should take steps to douse tension in the land. In other words, the Federal Government should not make statements that could provoke or promote fears that the quasi-unitary government which is currently in operation and which under-develops the country is cast in stone.
Finally, hate speeches should strictly be outlawed. Leaders should be requested to appeal to their followers not to inflame passions as a conflagration will not benefit anybody. The government, however, should not misinterpret disagreement with its official position as being synonymous with hate. A fine line should be drawn between the divergence of opinion and hate speech. The overall interest and survival of the nation should be the primary concern of all stakeholders.