In our series of letters from African journalists, novelist and writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani looks at the fine line between hate speech and harmless stereotypes in Nigeria.
The Nigerian parliament is considering a bill under which anyone found guilty of “hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction”.
The law also seeks the establishment of an “Independent National Commission for Hate Speech”, to enforce hate speech laws across the country, including jail terms and fines.
This is just the latest in a number of attempts to address what appears to be a rise in hate speech across Nigeria.
In a recent talk, titled, Hate Speech: Halting the Tide Before it is Too Late, the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, called for “an organised war against hate speech”.
Last year, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo likened hate speech to an act of terrorism.
“[The government has] drawn a line against hate speech,” he said. “It will not be tolerated, it will be taken as an act of terrorism and all the consequences will follow.”
And, while making references to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda which was fuelled by that country’s media, Nigeria’s Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed, said: “In Nigeria today, the hate being spewed on radio stations across the country is so alarming.
“If you tune into many radio stations, you will be shocked by the things being said, the careless incitement to violence and the level of insensitivity to the multi-religious, multi-ethnic nature of our country.”
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani:
“Nigerians have always derived entertainment from poking fun at each other’s differences.”
These respected political and traditional leaders have spoken well.
Nigeria has experienced numerous horrific cases of ethnic violence, from the pogrom in the run-up to the 1967 civil war, right up to the present day.
But, what exactly is “hate speech”? That part is still unclear.
And what better time to leave the public with no doubts whatsoever as now that the threat of death by hanging looms?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hate speech as “a speech or address inciting hatred or intolerance, esp. towards a particular social group on the basis of ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexuality, etc.”.
But, unlike many parts of the western world where the slightest expression of prejudice is anathema, Nigerians have always derived entertainment from poking fun at each other’s differences.
There are popular stereotypes about the three major ethnic groups—Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa—which everyone draws upon for fun.
‘Give me your knife Mr President’
Shortly after Muhammadu Buhari was elected as president of Nigeria, for example, he attended the anniversary celebration of one of the south-west states.
The master of ceremonies was a popular Nigerian comedian, Ali Baba. When it was time for the dignitaries present to cut the cake, a brief delay ensued while a knife for the proceedings was being sought.
Ali Baba then turned to President Buhari and said: “Mr president, please, give me your knife. I hear that all Hausa people carry knives with them.”
The entire audience, including the president, burst into wild laughter, as I did along with everyone else watching the event with me on the TV screen in a Hausa friend’s office.
Ali Baba, from the Niger Delta region, had drawn upon a popular stereotype of the Hausa ethnic group of northern Nigeria as ever-ready for a fight, with daggers concealed in their full and flowing robes.
But, his comment was not perceived as abusive.
Similarly, the Igbo of the south-east, like me, are often amused when people tease us about our supposed money-mindedness.
There is this popular joke about an Igbo child who continued to fail the most basic sums in his mathematics class.
But, when his teacher included dollar signs before the figures, the boy was suddenly able to add and subtract the most complex numbers with alacrity.
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The Yoruba of the south-west are teased for their two-facedness, a tendency to be fawning before you and scorning behind your back.
And any joke teller is guaranteed an instant laugh if he suddenly switches to a thick Yoruba accent, complete with the misplaced “h” sounds and the heavyweight tones.
There is a joke about a Yoruba girl who was shouting “Hamisu! Hamisu!” to her boyfriend.
He thought she was mistakenly calling the name of a secret lover, not knowing that she was actually telling him: “I miss you! I miss you!”
The same string of words can be considered hate speech in one context, and completely harmless – fun, even – in another.
Told in a different setting and with a different motive, Ali Baba’s words could easily fall into the realm of hate speech.
If hate speech in Nigeria is not clearly defined, someone somewhere may sometime someday, on a whim, decide that a crime has been committed in a similar situation, then decide to prosecute.
After all, we are talking about a country where cybercrime laws have been used to press charges against journalists who criticised politicians and businessmen online and on social media.
The tide of hate speech in Nigeria definitely needs to be stemmed. Peace and harmony among the country’s more than 300 ethnic groups is essential for the country to survive and thrive.
However, the dictionary definition of hate speech will not suffice when addressing the issue.
Bearing in mind that elections are coming up in less than a year and all sorts of creative means will likely be deployed to halt political opponents—including vague laws and bogus charges.
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