Social media is fast becoming a tool for national disunity in Nigeria. The country's leaders must respond by condemning hate speech and making greater efforts to bring Nigerians together.

On 21 August, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari addressed the nation for the first time after more than 100 days of medical leave in London. In the five-minute address, Buhari expressed distress over the growing amount of hate speech, “especially in the social media,” saying it had “crossed our national red lines by daring to question our collective existence as a nation.” Buhari stressed that Nigeria’s unity was “settled and not negotiable.”

Two days later, the director of defence information of the Nigerian Army, Major General John Enenche, expressed worry over “anti-government and anti-military information” on social media, which he said was “capable of jeopardizing the unity of the country.” Earlier, the then acting president, Yemi Osibanjo, decried the growing amount of inflammatory speech, saying it was “a species of terrorism” and citing Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide.

Hate speech is not new to Nigeria. The country is perhaps the only nation that has survived a civil war but had its corporate existence publicly attacked with such vehemence by its own politicians, journalists, and academics. Politicians started questioning Nigerian nationhood even before the ink with which Nigeria’s independence was signed in 1960 was dry; earlier, critics had called the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates of Nigeria the mistake of 1914. This dispute culminated in a 30-month civil war that led to the deaths of tens of thousands and millions of pounds’ worth of property losses from 1967 to 1970. There was also the abortive Orkar coup in 1990, when Major Gideon Orkar announced the dismemberment of Nigeria by excising five states in the north. Even though the country survived these crises, inciting speech did not stop, despite efforts at forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Academics, especially historians, did not help the situation. Some of them presented the 1914 amalgamation of Nigeria by its British colonial masters as an amalgam of two monolithic and mutually exclusive entities: a Muslim north and a Christian south. The country’s media did not help matters, either; it is also divided into north and south, with each pushing a regional agenda or at least doing very little to bring the country together.         

What social media did, however, was to afford hate groups an opportunity to spread their hate without restraint. With the growth of the Internet and the freedom of publication it offers, provocative speech assumed unprecedented proportions. People spreading hate now have the liberty to publish whatever they want, because they are the authors, editors, and producers of their content; all they need to circumvent conventional media, which may filter their content, is an account and data. Promoters of hate speech can therefore publish content that can never appear in conventional media.

Some Nigerians from both parts of the country take to social media platforms to malign each other by using unprintable names and issuing jaw-dropping threats. From the south, these attacks are spearheaded by the separatist group Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, led by Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian. Kanu’s group has constantly vilified Nigerians from the north and southwest and vowed not to stop until it has destroyed Nigeria. He has also called on his supporters to boycott elections in the country. Kanu, who is standing trial for treason, uploaded a video in which he inaugurated a secret army he called the Biafra Secret Service (BSS). The BSS aims to “gather intelligence” and restore and defend Biafra. Even though the group says it is a peaceful organisation, it has told reporters that it is ready to use violence if that is its only option.

Northern youths on social media have long been observing these developments, with little or no collective response. In June, some youths from the north, under the aegis of the self-styled Arewa (northern) youth groups, made what came to be known as the Kaduna Declaration, in which they gave Igbos living in the north an ultimatum of 1 October 2017 to quit the region in preparation for breakup. This declaration, which went viral on social media, attracted national outrage and drew insults, name-calling, and disparaging statements. As if to add insult to injury, a Hausa song maligning Igbos and calling for violence against them was uploaded onto social media platforms in July.

The susceptibility of the Internet to exploitation by terror and hate groups is not in doubt. With the freedom offered by the Internet, regional and tribal relations are becoming messier by the day in the most populous black-majority nation on earth. Social media makes tracking suspects difficult as some people use fake names and false addresses. This, in addition to the country’s weak security and judicial systems, makes social media a free space for terrorists, hate groups, and cyber criminals. These platforms, which were initially conceived of as vehicles for social cohesion, are fast turning into tools for national disunity.

Abuja did not mince its words in condemning this sad development. The president indicated that Nigeria would take measures to regulate hate speech, especially on social media. The presidency indicated that it was taking steps to legislate against hate speech and set up a special court to try people charged with that offence. However, this move has been condemned by members of the opposition People’s Democratic Party and by some legal experts as a smokescreen to subvert democracy and the Nigerian constitution.

There has always been a debate on hate speech, freedom of speech, and hate legislation. What is unarguable is that an unrestrained right to disparage, attack, and vilify individuals or groups because of their social affiliations is counterproductive to peace and co-existence in every society and must be checked. While attempts to muzzle opposition should not be supported, a fair law legislating against hate speech in the interest of peaceful co-existence and public order would not be out of place or against the constitution of Nigeria. Even though the constitution guarantees the right to free speech and a free press, that right is not absolute. Free speech may be restrained for the purposes of public interest, public order, or public safety or to allow others to enjoy their rights under the constitution. Furthermore, Abuja could make good use of criminal provisions already in place, such as laws against treason, the incitement of public disturbance, defamation, and the desecration of religious objects and the provisions of the 2011 Terrorism (Prevention) Act and its 2013 amendment that deal with hate speech.

What is worrying is the military’s indication that it has started monitoring “anti-government” and “anti-military” information on social media. This move is alarming not only because the terms are problematic and may lead to the silencing of critics but also because the militarisation of this issue will further impede the civil liberties of citizens. It is this kind of handling of Boko Haram that put Nigeria in its current mess. The government must stop the monitoring of people on social media, especially by the military.

There is a limit to what the law can do, however. Schools need to religiously push for national integration by inculcating a spirit of national unity through their civil education curricula. The national orientation agency, the federal body responsible for promoting patriotism, national unity, and the development of society, and its counterparts at the state level have a big role to play in revamping their current programmes and introducing new ones to bring Nigerian youths together. The media must stop promoting sectionalism and tribalism and work towards increasing understanding between southerners and northerners – or rather, between Nigerians generally.

More importantly, political, religious, traditional, and tribal leaders must speak up against hate speech, especially when such speech comes from their groups, and make efforts to bring the country together. Reticence by these leaders may be mistaken for endorsement of hate groups and their messages, not only by those groups but also by their victims, who may in turn resort to retaliation. In other words, all Nigerians must collectively kill hate speech as they collectively protect free speech.