Bayo Onanuga: The Roots Of Hate Speech, The Remedies

Bayo Onanuga: The Roots Of Hate Speech, The Remedies
  • PublishedMarch 8, 2018

Hate speech is a phenomenon we should be worried about as we move nearer another general election.

The Nigerian constitution guarantees the right of every Nigerian to freedom of speech and expression. Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution states it so clearly: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference.”

Similarly all the human rights charters to which our country is a signatory made similar provisions for freedom of expression.

Article XIX of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Article IX of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights provides that “Every individual shall have the right to receive information and the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”

‘Within the law’ proviso in the African charter underscores the fact that our freedom of expression is not absolute. It is moderated by other rules for the good and orderliness of our society.

Section 45 of the constitution expressly states that all the freedoms we enjoy from sections 38 to 44 are not absolute. 
It is in this lacuna of the law, of our freedom not being absolute, that resides hate speech, slander, libel and other excesses of freedom.

Today, our concern is hate speech and I must quickly add, fake news, both of which I must say have reached epidemic proportions in the past two years. Some of us are worried that at the rate purveyors and merchants of hate, fake and distorted news are going, there may not be a nation called Nigeria, very soon.

strong>The Meaning of Hate Speech

I will assume we all know what “Hate” means. It is the opposite of “Love”.

Hate speech “is a communication that expresses hatred for some group, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, religious, sexual orientation and others defining attributes of mankind.”

Hate speech and actions motivated by “hate” are crimes in Nigeria as defined by a plethora of laws.

According to Femi Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria, the penal laws in the country have taken care of the mischief which may be caused by reckless publications, such as hate speech.

In particular, offences which include criminal defamation, inciting statements, breach of the peace, criminal intimidation, publication of statement, rumour or report which may disturb public peace, false publication etc attract penalties by imprisonment or payment of fines. See sections 59-60, 373-381 of the Criminal Code (applicable in the southern states) and sections 391-40, 417-418 of the Penal Code (applicable in the northern states),”he wrote.

Section 417 of that penal code applicable in Northern Nigeria states “Whoever seeks to excite hatred or contempt against any class of persons in such away as to endanger the public peace shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine or with both.”

Section 418 also states, “Whoever circulates, publishes or reproduces any statement, rumour or report which he knows or has reason to believe to be false with intent to cause or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the public peace, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years or with fine or with both.”

Section 419 states that “Whoever has in his possession without lawful excuse, the proof of which shall lie on him, any book, pamphlet or paper, gramophone record, tape recording, drawing, printing, photography, cinema film or other visible or audible representation or reproduction, the publication or exhibition of which would constitute an offence under sections 416, 417 or 418, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both.”

There is also the Cyber Crime Prevention and Prohibition Act enacted in 2015, which deals with hate crimes, xenophobia, among others. Sections 24 and 26 are noteworthy.

Section 24 says (1) Any person who knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network that-

(a) is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character or causes any such message or matter to be so sent; or

(b) he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent: commits an offence under this Act and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of not more than N7,000,000.00 or imprisonment for a term of not more than 3 years or to both such fine and imprisonment.

(2) Any person who knowingly or intentionally transmits or causes the transmission of any communication through a computer system or network .

(a) to bully, threaten or harass another person, where such communication places another person in fear of death, violence or bodily harm or to another person;

(b) containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to harm the person of another, any demand or request for a ransom for the release of any kidnapped person, to extort from any person, firm, association or corporation, any money or other thing of value; or
(c) containing any threat to harm the property or reputation of the addressee or of another or the reputation of a deceased person or any threat to accuse the addressee or any other person of a crime, to extort from any person, firm, association, or corporation, any money or other thing of value: commits an offence under this Act and shall be liable on conviction.

Under the Criminal Code Act( Laws of Nigeria, it is also provided in Section 88 that:

88A. (1) Any person who

(a) in any manner or form publishes or displays or offers to the public the pictorial representation of any person living or dead in a manner likely to provoke any section of the community; or

(b) publishes or circulates publications either in the form of newspapers, or leaflets, periodicals, pamphlets or posters, if such publications are likely to provoke or bring into disaffection any section of the community; or

(c) sings songs, plays any instrument or recording of sounds, or sells, lends, or lets on hire any record of sounds, the words of which are likely to provoke any section of the Community,

Shall be guilty of an offence for which he may he arrested without warrant by any police officer or member of the armed forces in uniform, and upon conviction shall be liable to a fine of one hundred naira or to imprisonment for a term of three months, or to both; and the court convicting may order confiscation of any material (including records) used for purposes contemplated by this section, and of any instrument used in connection therewith.

So the laws are available. Let the enforcers do their work.

In ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, Papa Nelson Mandela, the most inspiring African of the last century said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”.


In ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, Papa Nelson Mandela, the most inspiring African of the last century said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”.

I agree totally with Mandela. Hate is taught, it is learnt, it is passed down from generation to generation. It is taught by our parents, peer groups, ethnic associations and so on. Hate is passed on to us during our socialisation process, from infancy to adulthood.

Hate is most often embodied in stereotypes, which as defined by the dictionary is “a widely held but fixed and over simplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”. Oversimplified it says. It follows that stereotypes are not empirical. They are not facts. They are based on jaundiced views, incomplete experiences, generalisations.

And we are all forced to learn them growing up. Unfortunately, some people refused to shake them off, even after going to school and acquiring all the degrees.

How many of us remember the blockbuster novel entitled The Man, written by American writer, Irving Wallace? The book which was published in 1964, explored the socio-political consequences in then largely racist America when a Blackman, an African-American, in later political lexicon, became president by accident. I remember the debate in the book about whether a Blackman really measured up to a man.

Wallace, a great story teller, brought out most profoundly the parochialism of those who considered a Blackman, subhuman in this quote, which I believe also sums up, the way we form impressions and perceptions about the other people in our country, how we nurture the feelings of hate.

“For the middle majority of us all, knowledge of Negroes(I will use Blackman) firsthand is probably limited —-limited to the coloured cleaning woman, who comes twice a week; limited to the coloured baseball player who saves or loses a home game, limited to the garage mechanic or dime-store clerk or blues singer seen or heard on a Saturday night. To this white majority, the Blackman is as unknown as once was the heart of the Dark Continent of Africa.”

Similarly in Nigeria, we form impressions about an ethnic group, by the few members we interact with, a mere subset of a larger population. Often we are wrong. Unfortunately, we carry these perceptions into our graves.

As a child, growing up in a polygamous setting, I was told to be wary of the other ‘mothers’ in the family. Later, I was told to avoid the company of some peers because their parents are ‘bad or fetish’. At adulthood, I was set some redlines beyond which I could not cross to marry as an Ijebu man.

“Don’t marry an Egba woman. Egba women are bad”. As a man raised as a muslim, I also heard the warning: “Don’t marry a Christian, Christians are Kaffirs’.

I am sure all of us have been confronted with similar taboos. If one is Ibo, I’m sure you must have been told not to marry an Osu, even if the lady is the most beautiful woman in the world.

At election time, we are told: “Don’t vote for candidate X, because he is not from our tribe or a believer in our faith”. The purveyors of hate do not care if the candidate is the best in the pack. To them, he must be rejected on account of his tribe or religion or gender.

It was this kind of mindset that made Nigerians to reject Obafemi Awolowo several times at the polls, only for Odumegwu Ojukwu to describe Awolowo after Awolowo’s demise as “the best President Nigeria never had.”

n Nigeria stereotypes are also fanned and mined by politicians who want to grab power. To do so, they must exploit our suspicions, based on stereotypes; they must harvest our differences along religious, regional, ethnic and political divide.

We heard recently a politician who is in the running for Nigeria’s presidency, gleefully announcing his greatest credential: he is a pure Fulani, who speaks Fulfulde. He did not anchor his qualification on a manifesto that will solve Nigeria’s problems. He wants to win office by claiming racial supremacy.


As stated earlier, the Nigerian laws clearly provide sanctions for hate speech or actions motivated by hate. All we need to do is to enforce the laws.

Enforcement, I must confess, may be an enormous task in the age of internet, digital communications and social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, WhatsApp.

But we must begin to control the epidemic of hate before it destroys our society. I will cite some examples of hate speeches tweeted by a former minister of Nigeria, that underscore the need for action.

Feb. 15, 2017:

`The Army shot a member of a vigilante group in Edo yesterday that had disarmed and apprehended a Fulani terrorist.They freed the terrorist and let him go home and when asked why they killed the vigilante they said it was a mistake. The soldier that shot the vigilante was Fulani’’.

*This story was debunked by the military. It didn’t happen the way it was presented.

Feb 16, 2018: This was directed to President Muhammad Buhari:

“After your Fulani terrorist herdsmen and brothers do this to our people on a daily basis all over the country you now have the nerve to talk about taking us to the “next level?” 

A vote for Buhari means a vote for genocide, mass murder and ethnic cleansing.’’

Feb. 12, 2018: Another Tweet

 “Fulani terrorists in Benue state removed the eyes, ears and nose of a police officer before slaughtering him. The cruelty and barbarity of these beasts is beyond what words can describe. This is the legacy of Buhari and all those that supported and assisted him to come to power’’.

A few days after these, seven men, said to belong to the Fulani ethnic stock were seized in Gboko and burnt alive.

These are just some examples of what this ex-minister has been circulating.

I am sure we all remember IPOB dishing out hate words, at its zenith, about other Nigerian groups, about the rest of us living in a Zoo, and so on.

We need to act to check unguarded writers such as that minister, when they cross the red line, because unchecked hate speeches or acts are capable of causing war, genocide or ethnic cleansing as we witnessed in Rwanda in 1994. Anti-Tutsi rhetorics by a Hutu President from early 1990s led to the genocide against Tutsi majority in 1994, during which between 500,000 to one million people died within four months.

The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed once declared hate speech as terrorism, concerned that Rwanda’s bad example could be replicated here, with the way hate warriors are executing their hate agenda.

The main platforms are the social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and some websites where disparaging posts, fake news, distorted news about other people are shared and published.

These social media platforms, being known for their relative anonymity, are used by hate groups to spread misinformation easily and disguising such as if they were generated from legitimate sources.

In fact, some unscrupulous users of such social media platforms manipulate known search engines to make their hate propaganda more accessible to a variety of audiences or receivers. Some have cloned websites such as the Vanguard newspapers, Punch, Huffington Post and others to spread hate.

As recently as May 31, 2016, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, jointly agreed to a European Union code of conduct obligating them to review “[the] majority of valid notifications for removal of illegal hate speech” posted on their services within 24 hours, to show the concern the world has for hate communication.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) also prohibits all incitement of racism.

The obvious remedy to this menace is to ensure a proper monitoring of the platforms and also ensuring that hate merchants are arrested and tried under the law.

Media owners and professionals should also join hands with the authorities to develop a classification of hate communication.

Community and religious leaders as well as civil society groups should work within their ranks to encourage love among various segments of the population.

On the government’s side, its organs such as the Press Council and National Broadcasting Commission should undertake massive campaigns against hate communication and blow the whistle when egregious wrongs are being committed.

Since the internet is a veritable source of the propagation of hate communication, the Nigerian Communications Commission has a role to perform to curtail infringements in cyberspace.

Internet service providers must as a rule block erring blogs and websites culpable in helping to spread hate communication.


If we act quickly, we shall be following in the footsteps of Germany.

From January 1 this year, a new German law named NetzDG that forces social media sites to delete offensive content came into effect.

The law requires platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to remove potentially illegal material within 24 hours of being notified or face fines of up to €50m.

The law is seen as the toughest clampdown on hate speech by a western government.

The regulatory agencies in Nigeria must act quickly and decisively before our country is torn apart by purveyors of hate.

I thank you all for listening and I wish you a very fruitful workshop.

*Excerpted from from a paper delivered at the THE WORKSHOP ON HATE COMMUNICATION IN NIGERIA: Identifying Its Roots and Remedies. The workshop was organised by Nigerian Press Council on 22 February 2018 in Abuja.

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