• Saturday, December 02, 2023
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BusinessDay

Nigeria’s hate speech law: A tool to silence victims of organised violence

hate speech

Over the past five years, Nigeria has been a macabre theatre of organised violence. In a report titled Nigeria: The Harvest of Death, Amnesty International paints a Hobbesian picture of terrorist-induced carnage in Nigeria. Yet, the government has failed to hold perpetrators of the appalling killings to account. Instead, it introduced a hate speech law on the wrong-headed assumption that terrorists are driven primarily by speeches rather than by deep-rooted beliefs and ideology.

Even worse, the hate speech law is based on the perverse idea of moral equivalence. It treats victims of terrorist attacks as if they are not different from the terrorists. For instance, to date, the hate speech law has not caught any known sympathiser of Boko Haram or the marauding herdsmen but has been invoked against the media and individuals who postulate about those behind the terrorist groups and their motivations.

Recently, the Department of State Services (DSS), invited Obadiah Mailafia, former deputy governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, for “questioning” after he told a radio station that “one of the northern governors is the commander of Boko Haram.” In tow, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, NBC, slammed a N5m fine on the radio station (Nigeria Info 99.3 FM), for giving its platform to Mailafia “to promote unverifiable and inciting views.”

The government knows, of course, that the hate speech penalty will do absolutely nothing to deter Boko Haram or the killer-herdsmen from their terrorist activities. Indeed, the hate speech law is not aimed at the terrorist groups or their sponsors. Does anyone think that terrorists and their sponsors would be deterred by a fine of N5m? Absolutely not, they raise and spend billions for their cause.

So, who is the hate speech code aimed at? Well, it is aimed at victims of the terrorist groups who want to speak out. It is an attempt to intimidate and silence people like Mailafia, whose communities in Southern Kaduna or in the Middle Belt, have faced genocidal attacks from insurgents and armed bandits.

Of course, the hate speech law is also aimed at the media, to intimidate and stop them from ventilating the anger and frustrations of victims of terrorist attacks who have been denied protection and justice by the state. Recently, the hate speech penalty was increased from N500,000 to N5m.

According to the Director-General of the NBC, Armstrong Idachaba, the increase was “to serve as a deterrent to erring practitioners against misconduct, especially hate, violence and spread of fake news.” But who decides who is an “erring practitioner”?

The Board of NBC is said to have declared the N5m fine on Nigeria Info 99.3 illegal. If so, it shows that the NBC lacks judgement and cannot be trusted to administer the code. But, more importantly, the NBC should not be intimidating the media, which, in a democracy, has a duty to give voice to even controversial views. Putting the media under a cloud of fear is incompatible with democratic norms. Secondly, you cannot have a situation in a democracy where oppressed people cannot speak out.

The DSS said it would “not stand idly and watch disgruntled and aggrieved elements take laws into their own hands.” But victims of organised violence, who are denied protection and justice by the State, will be “disgruntled” and “aggrieved”, and have the right to tell the world their stories. If the State fails to protect and give justice to victims of violence, and then denies them a voice, the inevitable conclusion is that it is complicit in the violence.

Which brings us to Mailafia’s allegation. He said that some terrorists told him that “one of the northern governors is the commander of Boko Haram in Nigeria.” He did not name any of the 19 northern governors, leaving the “culprit” to speculation. He subsequently said he got the information from “some Fulani traders” in a market.

For me, given that he named no governor, there is nothing outlandish about the comment. Why? Well, because all major terrorist organisations in the world have financial backers and political patrons. If powerful people are not behind them, providing them with sophisticated weaponry, they can’t withstand the State for long; they would easily be crushed by the State’s superior firepower. The reason a terrorist group lasts long is because it has powerful backers, sometimes within government, who fund and arm them. The State can also give passive support to a terrorist group by turning a blind eye to their activities.

So, who is the hate speech code aimed at? Well, it is aimed at victims of the terrorist groups who want to speak out.

 

Now, given the seeming indestructibility of Boko Haram and the killer-herdsmen, whose attacks are well-planned, organised and systematic, with sophisticated weaponry, such as machine guns, AK47s, rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenades, according to an Amnesty International report, Nigerians are entitled to ask: Who are behind them? Nigerians have a right to know their financial backers and political sponsors, and the ideology that sustains them, Mailafia was, therefore, right to air a national concern.

Of course, he was not the first to say that powerful political forces are behind the terrorist groups. Former President,Olusegun Obasanjo once described Boko Haram’s agenda as the “Fulanisation” and “Islamisation” of Nigeria, and in March 2018, Theophilus Danjuma, former chief of army staff and defence minister, told the Middle-Belt people to “protect” themselves, saying: “The armed forces are not neutral. They collude with the armed bandits. They facilitate their movements, they cover them”!

Some commentators described Mailafia’s comment as a “conspiracy theory.” But what is their own theory? If Mailafia’s theory of political sponsorship of Boko Haram is flawed, if Obasanjo’s thesis of Fulanisation and Islamisation is wrong and if Danjuma’s postulation about the military’s collusion in ethnic cleansing is outlandish, what is the correct theory?

Certainly, the cause of the herdsmen’s genocidal attacks cannot simply be desertification and competition for resources. The struggle for grazing routes and water by the nomadic herdsmen is not a credible explanation for the thousands they have killed or displaced and the hundreds of villages they have destroyed.

The herdsmen’s attacks on farmers are not only well planned and coordinated, with the use of sophisticated weaponry, they are often carried out with cattle nowhere in sight. So, as Lord Alton said in a UK House of Lords debate, the narrative that the attacks are herder-farmer clashes is inadequate.

There is a strong ethno-religious dimension to them. Indeed, in 2018, the House of Representatives declared the killings in Plateau State to be a genocide. So, why is it hate speech to ask who are behind genocides?

And what theory explains the fact that the military is offensively and defensively too weak to confront Boko Haram’s spread and daringness? How could Boko Haram, supposedly “technically defeated” since 2015, overrun an army base in 2018, “leaving hundreds of soldiers unaccounted for”?

Of course, one plausible theory is that all this is happening because Nigeria is a failed or fragile state; that it is too ill-equipped to respond effectively to organised non-state violence. But while the failed or fragile state theory is valid, it cannot explain or excuse the serious ethno-religious dimensions of the Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen attacks. And it cannot explain the state’s seeming passive support for the insurgents.

For instance, when the Kaduna State governor, Nasir el Rufai, who secured a second term on a Muslim-Muslim ticket in a religiously divided state, decided to turn Christian communities into Muslim-led emirates, he laid his government open to accusation of complicity in the state’s ethno-religious violence.

A hate speech law that then aims to intimidate and silence people like Mailafia, whose communities in southern Kaduna or elsewhere are victims of organised violence and denied protection and justice, must count as an instrument of oppression by a complicit State!