Mr. President: There Must Be Better Ways to Curb Hate Speeches

One of the best ways to reduce dissent and rebellion, which hate speeches epitomises is to govern equitably through respect for the rule of law and observance of equity and justice in a polity. Inability or failure of leaders to adhere to those simple tenets, breeds resentment. Citizens or people generally often harboured ill feelings towards their government when they reckon that they are being cheated or mistreated. But they never had easy access to the old media, which is structured, to vent their anger as they do now with the social or new media. And with social media now being the preferred means of disseminating and receiving news and analysis (Ask President Donald Trump of the United States of America whose favourite is Twitter), anybody can be a broadcaster and publisher of news and information, unmoderated.

It is also pertinent to point out that, from time immemorial, any innovation or progress in society creates disruption. So, it would help if we view fake news and hate speeches as the fallouts of the new media, just like loss of relevance of fossil fuel will soon be the casualty of the development and introduction of electric cars.

What l’m striving to convey is that Nigerian authorities must learn to understand that hate speeches and fake news are part of the changing dynamics of life and society and as such, they should rise to the occasion by being a step ahead of the restless youths. For example, a couple of weeks ago, a fake news report about President Muhammadu Buhari purportedly intending to embark on a trip to USA to show solidarity to President Trump over the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, appeared on the social media. Shortly after, Information Minister, Lai Mohamed, countered by stating that the news is false and it stopped trending with the matter settled. As the President prepares to attend the forthcoming United Nations, UN General Assembly meeting in New York, the news has been officially communicated. Without allowing any vacuum opportunity for rumour mongers to get the information twisted.

The inherent lesson in the foregoing narrative is that, if you don’t write your own story, somebody else will write it for you. And just in case you are beaten to it, counter it immediately with the ferocity that would overwhelm the alternative and fake newsmongers.

I’m of the view that desperate actions require dynamic responses, but not equally desperate reactions such as the introduction of draconian laws like the monitoring of hate speeches on social media and open display of force in the southeast by the military. So, the simple way to alleviate hate speeches in the social media lies in our information managers’ ability to be ahead of the game or even just a few steps behind the hate speech purveyors. Sadly, the reputation managers of those in authority are either ignorant of the power of communication intrinsic in engaging with the populace constantly to carry them along, or they have deliberately elected to treat citizens askance, hence the negative blowback on their principals.

Government would be playing the ostrich if it keeps pretending to be ignorant of the fact that the roots of hate speeches have become deeper and sturdier in recent times. Feigning ignorance would be egregious because there are clear manifestations in Nigerian society that confirm the existence of some deep unresolved political issues which have now crystallised into socioeconomic challenges. And there are two distinctive and pervasive factors that could be responsible for the present malady (1) Inequity (2) Lack of respect for the rule of law now palpable in Nigerian society.

To facilitate the sustainable and peaceful existence of any entity, be it corporate or sovereign, there are usually grand norms set to serve as guiding principles for progressive development. For corporate entities like Dangote Industries or Zenith Bank, this comes in the form of article and memo of understanding and Charters between the stakeholders – Internal stakeholders such as owners, employees and external stakeholders like customers/clients as well as regulators. For sovereign entities like the USA or Nigeria, the constitution is the desiderata or article of faith between the rulership and followership.

Inequity, characterised by implementation of agreement amongst stakeholders in breach, breeds disaffection. If not well managed, it could trigger resentment and then degenerate into angst, which first manifests as hate speeches, before escalating into more serious crisis such as protests, riots and other forms of conflicts.

By the same token, disrespect for the rule of law, which entails noncompliance with constitutional provisions by leaders resulting in infringements on the rights of individuals or groups in the agreement, also breeds contempt and dissent, which could be spewed out as hate speeches.

Evidently, the two malaise highlighted above are believed by many Nigerians to be overwhelmingly present in the polity and therefore the precipitate cause of the hate speeches currently bedevilling the polity and damaging the social fabric of Nigerian society and by extension  threatening to break the cords that bind us as a nation. That being the case, why don’t the authorities engage in environmental scanning in order to diagnose the origin of the issues birthing the hate speeches and the factors inspiring the crisis in order to arrest them? I’m convinced that it is the lack of deep introspection into the remote and immediate causes of the avalanche of hate speeches cascading down Nigerian landscape, which are clear evidence of negligence on the part of the relevant authorities, that’s the elephant in the room, which those in the corridors of power seem to be ignoring.

As the popular saying goes, there is no smoke without fire.

Having spotted the smoke, further interrogation via diligent search could have resulted in identifying the underlying fire, but the authorities are aiming to fight the smoke, not the fire, as the monitoring of social media platforms with a view to criminalising hate speeches clearly indicate. Why can’t Aso Rock identify the cause of the smoke, which is fire, and then seek to quench it? As a nation, we obviously can’t remain stranded by the mendaciousness of the concerned authorities on the matter. So, as the conscience of the people, it behoves us to seek solutions to challenges in our society by trying to get to the root cause of the imbroglio. And the  easiest culprit that a plethora of pundits have referenced is President Buhari’s comment during a question and answer forum in the USA after he won the 2015 presidential election. Since we’re all familiar with the details of the faux pax, it is not worth being dwelt on in this piece. Nevertheless, most analysts are unanimous in the belief that the innocuous comment is the trigger for the resentment manifesting as hate speeches between the 97% who voted for Mr. President and are being presumably favoured and the 5% who did not, and are ostensibly being marginalised. If that is indeed the case, instead of gagging those who are irked by the utterance and are therefore venting their spleen via hate speeches precipitated by the unfortunate and unsavoury comment, how about the Presidency explaining what President Buhari really meant when he made that plain speaking, but polarising statement? Is it not possible that Mr. President’s quip, which is now being tagged a Freudian slip, might have been taken out of context? Secondly, as a human being, President Buhari must have been miffed by the ascetic comments on the social media platforms about his health challenges by antagonists when he was observing a medical holiday in London, United Kingdom. In his typical wry humour (remember ‘ my wife belongs to the other room’ joke in Germany?) he mocked those who were antagonising him, by reminding them that they are still stranded in London, while he has since returned home to Nigeria. Mr. President’s resort to humour as response to his traducers suggested to me that he might have taken the mockery about his health with equanimity. But the exchange of barbs and slurs between the pro and anti Buhari combatants has followed the same pattern of the 97% who voted for Mr. President and are being buffeted, versus the 5% that failed to vote for him and consequently are being marginalised.

So unsurprisingly and sadly, the whole shenanigan narrows down to the youths of the east who on one hand, feel aggrieved and are against President Buhari, and on the other hand, northern youths who are  in support of President Buhari and are pitted against those robbing their idol in the wrong side. By and large, what the foregoing narrative indicates is that President Buhari might have inadvertently been the source of the hullaballoo which started with an innocuous comment in faraway USA that got distilled into the struggle for the state of Biafra by the lgbo and inspired the Arewa youth’s quit notice to the easterners.

In that context, the blame for the nihilist tendencies now rife in Nigeria stems from the very visceral and partisan 2015 presidential campaign. The foregoing observation is underscored by the fact that, two years post election, rather than the frosty relationship between the north and south thawing, antagonists and protagonists have dug in and hate has become more entrenched by being the norm rather than exception.

Oddly enough, no significant attempts to reconcile those who voted for or against President Buhari  and the ruling party has been carried out, and that’s disheartening.

Assuming the analogy above is correct, and it is accepted as the crux of the matter, and l’m convinced that it is, would there not have been need for the thorny issues, which are obviously known to most Nigerians (leadership and followership), to be addressed pragmatically, dispassionately and dexterously? Disappointingly, the political leadership seem to have chosen to live in denial because instead of backing down from the tried and failed polarising attitude of fighting fire with fire, which is currently leading to perdition, while the symptoms of rebellion, such as hate speeches on social media, are being sanctioned by the authorities. Worse still, an overwhelming military force is being applied to quell civil crisis which is an anathema in a democratic environment. This is even more telling and dangerous as it is being done with the aggression that can be equated to treating a patient with a headache (which may be signifying the early stage of a stroke or heart attack) with the maximum dose of tuberculosis medication, which would instantly kill rather than save the patient.

The ideal remedy would have been to quickly diagnose the underlying ailment and administer appropriate medications like anti high blood pressure drugs to save the patient’s life.

As Bono, a former member of the famous musical group U2 once posited, “No matter how good you are, there is always one person who hates you for no good reason”.

Understandably, Mr. President might have been incensed by the assassination of his character online by some youths and the sabre-rattling by dissenters and wants to curb it hence his seeming acquiescence with the freedom of speech and fundamental human rights breaching policy of criminalising hate speeches being driven by the military. Be that as it may, authorities should take cognisance of the fact that Nigeria’s statues books have designated character assassination and protests as civil offenses and therefore only punishable under the defamation and character defamation as well as public disturbance act. The intentions of President Buhari in authorising the military to engage in naked display of force through its Python Dance ll to intimidate IPOB, might have been made as a human who is hurt and may therefore be ordinarily justifiable. But Mr. President is not just a mere mortal, but the leader of Nigeria who by his exalted position in a democratic government is compelled to be absorbent of mischief from rambunctious and irreverent citizens who have an axe or two to grind with him.

Adjunct to that is the fact that we must be mindful of the conventional wisdom which states that the road to disaster is full of good intentions. The obnoxious Decree 4, which muzzled the press and resulted in the imprisonment of journalists, Nduka lrabor and Tunde Thompson of The Guardian newspaper during then Army General Buhari’s reign as military head of state (1983-1985) remains a blithe on Mr. President’s otherwise excellent and integrity laden resumé. The fact that Decree 4 was triggered by a similar incident of journalists reporting true, but unofficial news about some Supreme Military Council members, makes it all the more poignant and frightening to me. This is because the recent decision for the military to police the Internet for hate speeches on the Internet can be interpreted as history repeating itself via another military intervention in a democratic setting in Nigeria, albeit now being effected in the cyberspace.

In the light of the foregoing, my unsolicited advice to Aso Rock is that at a very politically volatile period like this, it is wise to be less emotional and more pragmatic in policy formulation and implementation as any failure in decision making process could easily become a lightening rod for crisis of unpredictable dimension. So, the obnoxious policy of engaging the military to monitor and treat as criminals purveyors of so-called hate speeches online, which is currently inchoate, should be reversed because it is clearly an ill wind which blows no one any good in a nascent democracy such as the one we are currently enjoying in Nigeria. For the sake of emphasis, the obnoxious army clamp down on hate speeches on online platforms and the current military siege on lPOB in the southeast, particularly the invasion of Abia State under the guise of operation Python Dance ll, which is an equivalent to what the USA does around the North Korea to cow her and Russia is currently doing around Crimea to frighten their neighbours who are USA allies, is both odious and inglorious as it portrays Nigeria as a despotic state.

Correct me if l’m wrong, but l’m yet to see an internal military exercise in a liberal democracy conducted to intimidate fellow citizens whom the sweat of their brow also goes towards paying the salaries and procurement of the hardware that is being used to bully them.

According to Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) youth unemployment in Nigeria has reached a historical high point.

Drawing from the aphorism, the Idle hand is the devils workshop, Nigerian youths from both the north and south, who constitute half of Nigeria’s population estimated to be 180 million, are idle. If the leadership is aspiring to sleep with both eyes closed, it must find productive ways to harness the boundless energy of our youths.

So, in my view, one of the solutions to youths restiveness on the Internet and clannish agitations may be the creation of employment which incidentally is associated with good governance. Since the jobs are  obviously lacking, the blame for youth idleness once again tilts more towards government which is currently grappling with an unbalanced budget and double digit inflation. What this implies is that the panacea for hate speeches and rising tension ethnic related conflicts lies at the door steps of government. So it must find an innovative and sustainable remedy. But rather than hold itself responsible for the malaise and thus seek pragmatic solutions, authorities have as usual chosen the easy way out – clamp down on the youths who are cursing themselves out for lack of positive civic and cultural orientation and clobber agitators.

Mr. President, there must be better ways of curbing hate speeches and reducing the tension in the polity. We only need to be more creative.

For instance, Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohamed, recently triggered, although inadvertently, a firestorm of debate on social media when he stated during an interview with CNN’s Richard Quest that Senegalese make the best jollof rice. The Nigerian youths that are idle owing to lack of employment (11.1 million, NBS 2012 figures) and therefore have a lot of time on their hands, created a frenzy on the Internet, debating the veracity of the claim. That was a positive distraction.

How about creating another social media buzz about the tourism potentials of Nigeria, which still remains untapped, to keep the restless youths engaged? Something like “Nigeria has more and better tourist sites than Kenya and South Africa” can animate the youths who have enormous idle time to surf the Internet due to joblessness which is due to no fault of theirs.

How many northern youths know of Ogbunike caves, Obudu cattle ranch, the Calabar slave caravan, the Lander Brothers anchorage, the Bini moat, Ikogisi warm springs or Badagry slave post? By the same token, how many southern youths have visited Yankari Game Reserve, Gurara waterfalls, Mambila Plateau or Kano dye pits and the site of Bauchi brass works and Nok culture? This is not an indictment but, the Information and Culture as well as as Youths and Sports ministries are obviously punching below their weights with respect to engaging our youths productively. In an interview in his country home after Sallah prayers last Friday, President Buhari reportedly eulogised the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme, which was introduced in 1973 for national integration. Incidentally, l had made references to the NYSC scheme in my last article titled “Threat to national unity: Let’s celebrate what binds us”. In the article, l argued that being one of the policies that helped glue Nigeria together since amalgamation in 1914 and after attaining Independence in 1960, NYSC should have been strengthened by succeeding administrations after its founding in 1973.

But after about 44 years of NYSC nothing has been done to consolidate the scheme, neither has anything been done to fashion out new national integration policies. Instead, the ones instituted by leaders past such as the Unity Schools initiative and the Federal Character principle, which prompted the establishment of colleges in the six geographical regions to integrate young minds across Nigeria and the Federal Character Commission (FCC), aimed at creating ethnic balance in appointments into Federal Government positions, are withering and disintegrating.

Arising from the foregoing, Mr. President, my layman knowledge of development strategy persuades me that our youths are not the problem in Nigeria, per se, but visionless leadership in the past few decades. Therefore, my take on the vexed issue of hate speeches trending on the Internet by our youths and the not so youthful as well as the resort to military force to quell agitation is that: when our youths are productively engaged and Nigeria is governed equitably, hate speeches will die a natural death, period!

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