The current national debate on the twin bills before the National Assembly, one to ban and criminalise hate speech and the other to regulate the social media and make it less nasty and venomous have, in my view, proved the sage right again. One of the sages is on record as having said something about adversity which, like the toad, is nasty and venomous but which still has its good uses.
Like the venomous toad, the debate on the social media bill and hate speech, has many welcome features. It is prove positive that democracy is, at least for now, in full bloom. Freedom of expression, though abbreviated in some instances, is alive and kicking.
The proponents of the twin bills are digging in, and in making their points they get as much as they give in terms of ugly and adverse backlash. And the opponents are gaining in strength and national sympathy. That is what obtains in a healthy intellectual environment, in a market of place of ideas, in a democratic setup where freedom of expression should blossom; where multiplicity of ideas collide in the hope of getting some consensus.
Many analysts have made studied contributions to the debate. Armed with my severely limited knowledge of sociology and such other intellectual exertions, I make bold to join the fray today with the hope that we can pinpoint some factors that have the tendency of promoting hate speech in our society. Encyclopedia Britanic and other authorities have defined hate speech to mean any speech that is “abusive, or a threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation etc.”
Different countries have tried to add or subtract from this universal definition to domesticate it for local convenience. Victims of hate speech include marginalised minority groups who are invariably, almost inexorably, vulnerable and who need the protection of law against the tyranny of the majority. Drawing from this definition, one may surmise the factors that give rise to hate speech tendencies in the society.
Diverse groups that cohabit in a heterogeneous society like ours develop fault lines along ethnicity, religion and other cultural practices that would appear exclusively strange and odd. Such perceived oddities combine with ignorance to give birth to some identity and ethnic profiling which would tend to denigrate other groups associated with such practices.
Nigerians in their attempt to forge unity in diversity, deliberately or by default, helped to accentuate such differences which over time became unhealthy causing disharmony in relationships in the market place and other social gatherings.
The result is that prejudices became mutual with one group stereotyping the other vice versa. Even within the same cultural group, some sub-groups were stigmatised and treated as social inferiors, sub- humans one cannot associate with or even marry from. Caste systems grew out of this. Mercifully and with the influence of modern education and increased exposure through frequent interaction, some of these prejudices and stigmatisation have virtually disappeared.
But with modern politics and economic competition among different competing groups, Nigerians, especially the so-called elite, seem again to have revived and elevated some of these social differences to an art form. Religion and ethnicity have formed an unholy alliance to create the more modern factors that breed hatred and hate speeches without which the modern politician would have nothing to use against his opponent. Lacking the intellectual capacity to discuss issues and market oneself and one’s manifesto if any, the ethnic and religious bigots fall back on group support and religious identity for political gain.
In the process, this typical politician would have to emphasise the differences in relationship and widen the fault lines without which he can never hope to get the votes. Politicians wax hate-filled musical records to denigrate their opponents. They make mock coffins of their opponents to provoke hatred and inter-ethnic conflict.
The factors that seem to breed hate speech, the way other societies know them, are not strong enough in our environment to withstand the influence of modern education except where government policies are deliberately skewed to exclude on the basis of religion, ethnicity and other primordial considerations. A leadership that is not transparent, whose world view is insular and deadly restrictive, lacking the capacity to be fair to all manner of people, dispensing grace and justice without fear or favour is, by character, an embodiment of hate. Whatever such leadership does or fails to do, attracts odium, hatred, vile and intemperate criticism.
Donald Trump, the US president, easily comes to mind as one leader who nurses no qualms in attacking fellow citizens on the basis of religion, gender, ethnicity; hitting social migrants and people with disability. This quixotic modern day American wonder is the best example of a leader who attracts hate to himself but who, paradoxically, is the loudest opponent of what he calls hate speech and fake news.
Senator Abdullahi Sabi, the man who sponsored the hate speech bill should have concentrated his efforts at helping to eliminate the causes of hate speech instead of tackling the effects. Senator Sabi may not know that many Nigerian citizens still feel short-changed by governments through no fault of theirs, except perhaps that they were born in the wrong place and at the wrong time with wrong names and different political and ethnic identity to say nothing about their wrong tribal marks.
Nobody speaks for these marginalised groups. On their own, their voices are faint, frail and insignificant. If Senator Sabi’s hateful bill is passed into law, such marginalised victims of social inequality would suffer double jeopardy – they are deprived. But if they cry out loudly that they are being deprived by unfair government practices, they run the risk of life sentence for speaking with bile and anger against perceived injustice. They would be guilty of promoting hate speech.
If Senator Sabi had taken the trouble to expand his horizon a little bit, he would probably have discovered to his horror and even chagrin how some tin gods at the helm of affairs or near the corridors of power promote, not peace and social order, but hatred and violence. It is a matter of time before their fascist inclination is resisted if not by violence but by civil expression as in angry speech and writing. And that would be Senator Sabi’s definition of hate speech.
And since his colleagues in the Senate seem ready to humour him as they have humoured the proponent of the other silly but equally controversial social media bill by pushing it through all the processes in the hallowed chamber, Senator Sabi may have his day.
But that will be a terrible day for this country. Death by hanging for speaking truth to power? The hope of the common man and the hope of the generality of Nigerians is that President Muhammadu Buhari will find some good reasons to refuse to assent to the two bills when presented for his assent.
I am convinced that as a converted democrat, the president will be swayed by logic and the will of the people not the wily ways of the senators. The president, I believe, should be more interested in growing democracy and leaving a legacy that the world can be justly proud of, not lending his name to the two bills that are capable of truncating democracy.
As for the social media bill, there are enough laws in the book to check the excesses of the social media irritants, some of them who wish to parade themselves as journalists. But they are not. They have not gone through the mill, have not experienced the rigours of the profession; they are not bound by any known ethics. Publishing fiction is not journalism.
But the cure for their unprofessional intrusion into this noble profession is not a social media bill – not this pill with adverse side effects. Certainly not this blatant reincarnation of Decree 4, dressed elegantly in a democratic robe. The Cyber Crimes Act is an extant law and it has enough sharp teeth to deal with the social media sharks.