Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria, addresses the European Parliament on democracy in Nigeria. Image Credit: UN Multimedia.
"The level of hatred in Nigeria is assuming an alarming dimension and may soon get to a tipping point"
"The level of hatred in Nigeria is assuming an alarming dimension and may soon get to a tipping point. We spill bile daily on social media. People are stereotyped: Igbos are supposed to be tricksters. Yorubas are supposed to be traitors. Hausas/Fulanis are religious fundamentalists. Ijaws can only be militants. There is the worst of profiling going on among citizens. We have left the hatred of the system and we now hate and loathe ourselves. We used to think (President) Jonathan was the problem. Now, we have seen another problem in President Buhari. Instead of fixing the system, we are fixated on the people. This issue has become a serious cankerworm with citizens anxiously awaiting the news of the death of their President."

This opening lamentaion from Bayo Adeyinka, a Nigerian public commentator and blogger, sums up the present tempo of Nigeria. Being a Nigerian can be very complex. From the youth of the nation to adults, from leaders to followers, we are highly fragmented and perhaps dangerously divided as a people. Due to this disparity, Nigerians no longer trust one another. The Hausa man is wary of the Ibo, the Yoruba woman is suspicious of the Ijaw woman. People now live to take advantage of one another, thinking the failure of the other person is their turn to step into prominence and wealth.

What kind of a nation can develop in this atmosphere? What happens to people when it becomes normal to live with high levels of scepticism, uncertainty, rumour? The result will be contempt for one another, animosity, hatred and disdain. Little wonder that hate speech, as well as structural and physical violence persist in the country.

A nation under siege 

Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, described the current Nigerian situation as that of a nation under siege of disinformation and fake news. While many Nigerians may not agree with Mohammed at all times, his argument of Nigeria under the siege of misinformation cannot be faulted. As he puts it: 'the dangerous trend of disinformation and fake news championed by social media could tear the fabric of society, if not checked.' About 50 per cent of what we read on social media is not true but unfortunately even when it is not credible, it goes viral and people believe the fake stories.

The rumours and hate speech of recent times in Nigeria have even lead to death wishes for President Buhari. Who wants him dead, and why? And what are the implications for crime, violence and atrocities in Nigeria of wanting the President dead?

Growing concerns 

The country has not descended into chaos, but it is certainly not at peace
President Buhari’s road to Aso Rock - the unofficial name of the Nigerian State House and Presidential Complex - was marred with political and religious bickering. Many considered Buhari’s desire to contest the elected Presidency unacceptable because he was a former military dictator.  Since 2003, this notion pitted Buhari’s presidential ambition, a northerner, against the predominantly southern Christians. Nonetheless, Buhari’s profile rose in the north. His popularity among northern youth was so strong that Buhari’s defeat in the 2011 elections left many of his supporters feeling cheated. Following the election, violence erupted. Although Buhari was not particularly linked to it, the post election violence eventually turning into sectarian killings in many northern states, killing over 800 people across the country and making the election one of Nigeria’s bloodiest polls.

The 2015 election eventually brought President Buhari to government. While the country has not descended into chaos, it is certainly not at peace. There is growing disappointment in the heart of the people, attributable to the high rate of inflation as well as increases in the cost of living.

Inflaming hatred for President Buhari are the growing concerns of perceived lopsided political appointments. By 2016, a year after President Buhari’s election, some Nigerians believed he had appointed more northern citizens compared with people from the south. This perception of political bias has increased disdain for his government. To members of the ruling party, such disdain is attributable to an opposition bent on discrediting the government. The opposition, on the other hand, says that citizens are tired with the current state of affairs.

As the blame game continues, more and more people seem to be feeding into either of the arguments. Within the sphere of nongovernmental organisations and the academic community, many attribute this situation to the growing problem of information mismanagement and growing rumour mills. Others suggest that it is due to social disintegration provoked by the last election.

Freedom of expression or hate speech? 

Many do not understand the difference between freedom of expression and hate speech
Societies must have unrestrained freedom of expression. However, citizens must be wary of expressions that can lead to the transmission of violent statements in public discourse. Many citizens of Nigeria, including public speakers and commentators, do not understand the difference between freedom of expression and hate speech, and use stereotypes, clichés, ad hominem attack and dehumanising metaphors against one another. This makes the job of preventing conflict and violence in Nigeria, including atrocity prevention, much more difficult.

How people understand ‘Nigeria’ depends on where they sit: government supporters or the opposition, Muslims or Christians, north or south, poor or rich. This is troubling, and a time bomb for atrocities. The uncertainties and unpredictability in people’s intentions provide a big challenge for atrocity prevention in Nigeria.

As the boundaries of trust between government and governed widen, through rumours and hate speech, there is growing concern for NGOs and civil society working on atrocity prevention. The need to understand the phenomenon of hate speech and its link to atrocity prevention through research is apt.

Christopher Tuckwood of the Sentinel Project, while commenting on the linkage between hate speech and atrocity crimes in Kenya said, ‘rumours spark unnecessary violent attacks. When people do not have a reliable source of information, many tend to believe rumours regardless of whether they are true or not.’ This is not just true for Kenya, it also depicts the dilemma of working on atrocity prevention in Nigeria.

Combating hate speech 

Peacebuilders are under intense pressure to prevent violence
Ethnic, political and religious tensions embedded in rumours and hate speech under President Buhari’s government continue to put local and international peacebuilders under intense pressure to prevent large scale violence in Nigeria. While hate speech and rumour mills in Nigeria are not new, the situation is growing with new venom and the platforms of rumour/hate dissemination are growing at an alarming rate.

Today more than ever, and with the election of President Buhari, local peacebuilders are playing their role by supporting their communities. Combating the spread of hate speech in the media and on the internet must be a high priority for atrocity prevention. In order not to stir up hostility, issues related to religion and faith must be approached carefully, as they are very sensitive in Nigeria. Involving more stakeholders in the combat against hate speech is another approach.

There is the need to train more journalists and social media activists for unbiased reporting as a preventive measure to reduce tensions in the society. Stakeholders like journalists and editors must learn to filter hate and rumours, while religious leaders and political party officials need to be trained and enlightened on the dangers of inflaming and instigating members to violence through hate speech and unfounded rumours. The police and state security officials must also learn how to professionally address rumourmongers and hate speech givers. We must handle these fears for a peaceful Nigeria.