“Hate speech is, outside the law, speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation.”
I have listened to Pastor Bosun Emmanuel and read the thoughts of Mohammed Junaid, former member of the House of Representatives and delegate at the just concluded National Conference. I am also familiar with the views of Edwin Clark, Asari Dokubo et al and understand that what binds them is a disdain for people who are different from them. The differences that rankle are based on characteristics that ordinarily, few have any say or choice over i.e., ethnicity and culture and to a lesser degree, religion. That this distrust is born out of perception, observation and maybe even personal experience does not validate the distrust which is generously spread across entire collectives of people, all tarred with the same brush for the sins and/or indiscretions of a few.
So far, we have reportedly lost an estimated 13,000 lives and counting to the hate and intolerance of Jama’atu Ahlil Sunnah Diddaawati Wal Jihad a.ka. Boko Haram. And if we start the count from independence, then, in addition to those killed during the civil war, our death toll from intolerance could be over a million people; Maitasine, inter-ethnic fights, retaliatory attacks, mob attacks over perceived slights to religion and ethnicity.
Yet, instead of toning down the rhetoric and fiery words with which the media os bombarded with dedicated consistency, the closer we come to the general elections the more determined some people are to goad the other side into taking extreme positions. While it might be painful for some to listen to the steady stream of verbal abuse, the good news, for those who must see a positive in everything, is that in Nigeria fighting words are not new. In the aftermath of the Hausa Yoruba ethnic conflict in 2002, some of our leading politicians were using rhetoric as inflammatory as any that we hear today. Yet we are still here and still inflicting maximum damage on our sense of collective belonging and unity.
When will it end?
Unfortunately despite calls, Nigeria does not have any laws regulating hate speech. As jealously as we guard our freedom of expression and speech (with the sad exceptions where journalists are illegally detained, newspapers confiscated etc.) there must be a way to balance the value of letting empty words float around, easing the tension in the hearts and jaws of the pronouncers and arresting the words that present the trigger for ‘imminent danger and/violence’. Imminent violence is one of the very few exceptions the United States Supreme Court will allow as a reason to curtail the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, even when that speech is hateful and meets the criteria of causing emotional and psychological damage.
One would argue, though, that our tolerance for hateful speech should be much lower than that of the United States since their track record (at least since the civil rights movement) does not include the senseless murder of thousands of people specifically because of racial and/or religious differences.
We need more people calling out the ethnic and religious bigots amongst us, even those who are supposed to be revered and respected. Indeed, the more respected a person is, the heavier the burden of responsibility for being gentle and considerate with their words. If people are truly as worried as they profess to be about how heated the polity is getting, then we should start taking some of the most guilty to task for their utterances whether done from the safety of a pulpit or the comfort of a one-on-one interview.
After all we have gone through, particularly in the last 5 years with the insurgency and pockets of unrest, something has to change so that we can live in peace. What we need are our leaders telling us how well we live together and taking decisions to reinforce the message that together we stand. The power of the media has been underestimated. Years later we can still remember Andrew telling us “he’s checking out” and we still remember WAI. What we need is lots of reminders about what is good about ALL Nigerians. If a picture is worth a thousand words, those of us who want Nigeria to hang together, need to paint a picture of harmony and unity. We need to come together to force public officers to provide us with civil institutions where we can demand and receive justice. Promoting violence with hate speech is not the way and killing each other is not the solution.
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