The latest addition to our Nation’s bourgeoning political lexicon is hate speech. Recently, it has gained albeit bemused currency with its origin giving reason for the amusement. Head or tail, hate speech has come to occupy a place in the polity including the Nation’s statutes book.

Hate, as a lexical item, implies intense hostility and aversion. Psychologists posit that it derives from anger or sense of injury opining that they easily morph into extreme dislike or disgust. Hate speech therefore, as a by-product of a feeling of extreme enmity, is intended to insult, offend or disparage a person(s) owing to political affiliation, religion, race, origin, disability or any other classification that is representative of a human group.

In times past, what is today construed as hate speech was hurled freely as political weapon. Speeches that accursed leadership were seen to be normal. In the run up to the 2015 general election, then President Goodluck Jonathan became the butt of such intense verbal attacks that he himself stated that he would go down in history as the most abused President that Nigeria has ever had. Indeed, the vituperations extended from him to the wife, family members and his Niger Delta compatriots. One can recall how the likes of the irrepressible octogenarian, Chief Edwin Clarke, a minister in the First Republic and Alhaji Asari Dokubo, a Niger Delta enfant terrible had to join the fray in defense of Jonathan and the Niger Delta.

Well, hate speech continued to gnaw at public sensibilities and the polity until recently when it developed more malignant variants. The APC led government which saw virulent abuse of individuals and groups as normal in the political chess board has suddenly come face to face with rude reality and the adverse consequence of such action. Now at the receiving end, the APC led administration seems determined to bring to an end the use of a weapon that so generously served their cause and brought them to power. It is a case of different strokes for different folks.

Concerns related to hate speech was first raised by the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo on August 17, 2017, while addressing the National Economic Council in Abuja. The Vice President announced that government had “drawn a line against hate speech; it will not be tolerated; it will be taken as an act of terrorism and all of the consequences will follow it”. Osinbajo further said that “hate speech is a specie of terrorism”. According to him, “terrorism as it is defined popularly is the unlawful use of violence or intimidation against individuals or groups especially for political ends”.

Unwittingly, the minister of interior, General Abdulrahman Dambazzau (rtd.) gave vent to claims by a section of the public that the orchestration of hate speech with the intent of criminalizing it is a selfish agenda of the APC to save its administration from being criticized or demonized. They argue that the party by such action has depicted itself as intolerant, thus working against democratic ethos. General Dambazzau had during his interaction with the media at the end of a meeting of the leadership of APC stated that “a draft bill to the Ministry of Justice on hate speech which will go as an executive bill after passing through the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation to the National Assembly” was already in the offing.

Many believe that government’s sudden awakening to the so called hate speech is not in line with national mood, but only to satiate the ego of APC and circumscribe those who would wish to pick holes in the governance style of the ruling party. Those who toe that line of thinking also lay claim to the fact that no new law is actually needed to deal with hate speech as such provisions are already extant in the statutes book of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Such persons observe that Nigeria’s Terrorism (Prevention) Act of 2011, as amended in 2013, prohibits among many things, acts that “seriously intimidate a population”. This is said to include acts that “incite, promise or induce any other person by any means whatsoever to commit any act of terrorism”. This position of the law in this regard is complemented with that of the Electoral Act which prohibits the use of “abusive language directly or indirectly, likely to injure religious, ethnic, tribal or sectional feelings”. The scope of this Act is expanded to include the use of “abusive, intemperate or slanderous or base language to provoke violent reaction or emotions”. Analysts therefore conclude that “incitement to hate is a crime under both the criminal and penal codes”.

Government’s frenzy in seeking new statutes to tackle hate speech may also be a result of the phenomenal dimension hate speech has taken. In recent times, mutual suspicion across tribes and ethnic groups, religious intolerance, “do or die” politics that has bred widespread agitations and corruption have enervated our sense of nationalism and foisted a collateral damage on nationhood.

Today, a once united nation has been ruthlessly torn apart by politics and shared into camps in the semblance of the partitioning of Africa. In the various camps which are either ethnic inspired or privation driven have arisen intense agitations that threaten the sovereignty of the Nation. Not long ago was the Niger Delta Avengers which militant agitation did incalculable damage to the economy culminating in our collective hardship as activities in the oil sector, the nation’s income earner were forcibly halted. The case of IPOB led by the recalcitrant Nnamdi Kanu and the AREWA Youth’s quit notice to the Ibos are obviously the reasons for the federal government’s renewed onslaught in tackling hate speech. It is believed that if hate and hostility had not built so grievously, the agitations would not have reached such a crescendo.

But it is obvious that Nigerians still believe in Nigeria. It is also clear that certain actions or inactions on the part of the Nation’s leadership have created the veritable ground for these agitations to fester. For the various groups to be divorced of the siege mentality to which they are currently being held captive, the leadership of the country must show a clear and unambiguous willingness to commence dialogue. The need for a national conversation cannot be wished away. It is both a social and moral imperative that also requires the urgency of now. It should be a conversation that would address all matters, especially the ones that border on justice, equity and fair-play. It is a known fact that these decimals have since been in flight in our Nation. Indeed, no nation can achieve meaningful progress with these elements absent.

There is also the need for attitudinal change or put differently, change of orientation on the part of Nigerians. We tend to emphasize things that divide us instead of identifying and emphasizing the gains of our diversity. Nigeria is indeed a great Nation with the diversity serving as an inherent advantage. But unfortunately, Nigerians having been failed by successive leaders believe that the Nation can never rise beyond its bigoted self. But Nigerians must be reminded that our visionary forebears midwifed a Nigeria that stood up for Nigerians. They envisioned and laid the foundation for an egalitarian Nigeria; a Nigeria of fiscal federalism; Nigeria where a Nigerian was free to live freely on any part of the Nigerian soil, a Nigeria that had television station before France, Italy and other European countries; a Nigeria that gave all hope; a Nigeria that gave all justice; a Nigeria where ethnic labels were not considerations in decisions. How we lost all these leaves us in a quandary. But when we return to the above status-quo and learn to love and trust one another; when we show a determined willingness to build a Nigeria that we would all be proud of, the hate bombs that surround us today would be diffused and we would return to those glorious days of peace and harmony in our dear Nation.

By Joe Iniodu – public affairs analyst

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