As political campaigns for the 2019 general elections officially begin, Nigerian politicians are criss-crossing the country to sell their ideas and programmes to the electorate.
In the heat of the campaigns, the politicians may speak in ways likely to disrupt existing societal norms. Such talks are classified as hate speech as they either set groups against one another or evoke unpleasant feelings among some members of the society.
In the weeks before now, Nigerians had heard such speeches from political gladiators. Social media platforms have helped to amplify fake news and hate speech and some traditional media groups are trying to match them in this regard.
The freedom of expression is guaranteed in Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution but such freedom carries responsibilities.
For a nation like Nigeria where different tongues and tribes form one country, an expression in one tongue can be interpreted to be offensive in another language.
Critics of hate speech suggest that machinery should be set up to monitor what is commonly seen and read as hate speech.
Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, while holding the forte as Acting President, last year, described hate speech as an act tantamount to terrorism.
Given the liberty Nigerians have recently come to enjoy on social media, the government’s plan to regulate the social media has unnerved many.
The Minister of Interior Affairs, Lt.-Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau, says that the present administration has initiated work on a bill to regulate hate speech.
But what exactly is hate speech? How has the political class promoted hate speech?
Ada Agina, Executive Director, Gender and Development Action, says the phrase, hate speech, has become a new phenomenon in the country with the administration and the National Assembly taking steps to check it.
Ms Agina says hate speech is when a speech is laced with hatred.
“When any action is laced with hatred, it becomes hate speech.
“If you want another definition of hate speech, you begin to look at speeches by individuals, political leaders or groups that are aimed at disparaging, bringing down, or exposing to danger anybody or a group of persons or species of people.
She says, government has a lot on its plate to give us a proper definition of hate speech and whatever the sanctions are going to be, and must also be fully implemented.
For Richard Akinnola, a journalist, lawyer and media rights activist, defining hate speech is difficult.
But he notes Wikipedia definition of hate speech as attack on a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender.
He says as wide as this definition is, it is subject to various cultural values and laws for different countries.
Mr Akinnola says we should redefine what amounts to hate speech, because “ freedom of expression was not won on a platter in Nigeria.’’
He says Nigeria has enough laws to curtail hate speech and punish offenders.
“In Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria deals with the publication of false news with the intent to cause fear and alarm to the public.
“Then, we have Section 86 dealing with threatening violence. Anybody with intent to intimidate or annoy a person, then Section 88 (a) which is prohibiting breach of peace by offensive publication.
“We also have Section 204 which prohibits insult to religion, which basically is hate speech. We have seen religious crises based on somebody allegedly desecrating the Qur’an that has led to religious crises.
“I know that in South Africa and Kenya, apart from constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of expression, have taken legal steps to stem the tide of hate speeches,’’ Mr Akinola said.
According to him, making a law against hate speech is not new.
“South Africa also promulgated the Promotion of Equity and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000.
To further strengthen this law, the South African government is in the process of passing a hate crime and hate speech bill.
“On the part of Kenya, after the 2007 political crisis that led to the death of over 1,000 people, there was a new law on hate speech that is the National Cohesion and Integration Act of 2008.
“I know that some politicians were put on trial in Kenya on the issue of hate speech,’’ Mr Akinnola says.
He notes that slander is different from insult, pointing out that insult may be offensive be not necessarily slanderous.
On his part, Dr Doyin Okupe, a former spokesman for former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, says there is a need for clear understanding of what constituted hate speech.
Mr Okupe noted that some 25 countries have made laws against hate speech, in spite of their belief in freedom of speech.
“If all these 25 countries, where some of them are classified as highly civilised, feel there is a need for a law specifically to deal with hate speech, I think the government is not wrong trying to go along the same line.
“For me, it is too crucial for us to define hate speech, government must provide leadership because “if there is no law, there is no offence.
“I heard the vice-president say that hate speech will be equated to an act of terrorism and for me that is very excessive.
“You cannot equate hate speech, as you commonly want to understand it, to be equal to a man who takes a bomb or gun and blows out communities or shoots people in mosques or in churches.
“For me, hate speech is any speech made targeting any human being or group of people with a view to dehumanising them and removing certain inalienable rights that the constitution has conferred on them,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, Prof. Osita O Osita, the Director-General of Institute of Peace and conflict Resolution, has called on Nigeria’s political elite to stem the spread of hate speech and falsehood through grassroots campaigns.
Mr Osita says: “The spread of falsehood and hate speech via social media platform is creating and digging imaginary fault lines between people and communities, undermining human respect, safety and dignity across the country.
“With regards to what is happening about the hate speech, we have done a lot of background work to ensure that peace reign in all parts of the country.’’
The good news is that the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, has promised that to monitor the campaigns and threatened to invoke the law against those who violate the rules.
As politicians campaign for votes in the 2019 general elections, Nigerians expect maturity from them. They want discussion on issues, not name calling or acts capable of destroying the society.