Both the proponents and opponents of the so-called Hate Speech Bill in the Nigerian Senate don’t seem to realize that the bill itself is fundamentally rooted in, and nurtured by, crass and deep-seated ignorance of the very meaning of “hate speech.”
Hate speech doesn’t mean speech that hurts the sensibilities of government officials. Nor does it mean any speech that incites and insults individuals. It simply means speech that besmirches—and incites violence against— a community of vulnerable and marginalized people who are easy targets because of their invariable group attributes such as their ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, racial identity, national origin, gender, age, physical and mental disability, etc.
That is why Encyclopedia Britannica, in common with most recognized authorities, defines hate speech as “speech or expression that denigrates a person or persons on the basis of (alleged) membership in a social group identified by attributes such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, physical or mental disability, and others.”
Since government officials aren’t vulnerable and marginalized people (they’re actually the very opposite of marginalized people) and don’t constitute a primordial community, they can’t be the victims of hate speech. Yet Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, the sponsor of the “hate speech” bill, recently told the news media that his sponsorship of the bill has exposed him and the bill itself to “hate speech” from Nigerians!
Although both of us share a common Borgu heritage, I don’t know Senator Abdullahi, but he is obviously an uneducated legislative thug who would do well to go back to school for his own good and so he would stop embarrassing our people. Criticizing a clueless, illiterate senator who wants to strangulate people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and constrict the discursive space isn’t, by the wildest stretch of fantasy, “hate speech.”
Senator Abdullahi also said his bill is designed to “seek justice for Aluu 4 and others.” But the “Aluu 4” murder doesn’t exemplify hate speech by any definition of the term. It was jungle justice. The victims weren’t murdered because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability.
Although I am a free speech advocate, I concede that there are groups of people in Nigeria who need hate speech protection. Here is an incomplete list of groups that are habitually the targets of hate speech in parts— or all— of Nigeria, which the bill doesn’t even address:
1. Homosexuals. There is no part of Nigeria where gays and lesbians aren’t subject to violent denunciations on social media, in the traditional media, and in quotidian dialogic spaces. In Europe where hate speech laws are codified, homosexuality is regarded as a “protected attribute,” and people who slur or incite violence against gays and lesbians can be charged with violating hate speech codes. Yet the very Nigerian Senate that is sponsoring a “hate speech” bill has criminalized homosexuality.
2. Shiites. This is perhaps the most vulnerable Muslim sect in the Muslim North. On social media and in mosques, Sunni Muslims perpetually direct wild, unrestrained hate speech against Shiites without any consequences.
They are indiscriminately murdered in the streets by both everyday Sunni fanatics and the government. Yet the Presidency, to which the current Senate is a shameful extension of, has officially labeled Shiites, who have been the victims of murderous persecution, a “terrorist” group.
3. “Fulani herdsmen.” Although the Global Terrorism Index has consistently ranked “Fulani extremists” as the “the fourth deadliest known terrorist group” in the world, most Fulani people are not terrorists, but Fulani people, particularly “Fulani herdsmen,” are stereotyped as inescapably violent and murderous, which exposes them to threats of indiscriminate mass murders in many parts of Nigeria.
The Global Terrorism Index’s 2019 report says, “There are an estimated 14 million Fulani in Nigeria.” It’s impossible for all 14 million Fulani in Nigeria to be terrorists. If that were true, almost everyone would be dead in Nigeria. Yet in 2017, Apostle Johnson Suleiman said, “And I told my people, any Fulani herdsman you see around you, kill him. I have told them in the church here that any Fulani herdsman that just entered by mistake, kill him, kill him! Cut his head!”
That was classic hate speech that could result in a “hate crime.” Being a “Fulani herdsman” does not invariably lead to being a terrorist. To kill someone who has not committed a crime, who just happens to belong to a primordial category of people who commit a crime, is quintessential hate crime. Plus, the vast majority of everyday Fulani herdsmen are poor, illiterate, marginal people whom people and governments habitually cheat and exploit.
4. Christians in the Muslim North. Christians are an endangered group in the Muslim North. They are periodically murdered by homicidal thugs at the slightest provocation. Over the years, certain Muslim preachers, particularly in Hausaphone Muslim northern Nigeria, have typecast Christians as expendable, murder-worthy, inhuman outsiders who are invariably enemies—and who can only be tolerated at best.
The murderous contempt for Christians in the Hausaphone Muslim North is encapsulated in the odious term “arne,” which means “pagan,” but which connotes much more than that. The term functions to denude the humanity of whomever it is directed at. It makes him or her the legitimate target of remorseless cruelty or murder, especially in moments of political or religious tension in the country. An informed and legitimate hate speech bill would protect Christian minorities in the Muslim North from rhetorical—and actual— violence.
5. “Hausas” in the South. In all of Southern Nigeria, Hausa people (which is linguistic shortcut for all northerners even though the North is home to more than half of Nigeria’s over 500 ethnic groups) are pigeonholed as stupid, unthinking automatons who are always roused to mindless violence, who are indistinguishable from cows.
“Aboki,” the Hausa word for friend, has now been misappropriated as a term of disesteem to slur northerners. So is “Mallam,” the Hausa domestication of the Arabic mu’alim, which means teacher, but which is deployed as a term of courtesy for any male Muslim. It is also usual to call northerners “maalu” (sometimes malu), the Yoruba word for cow.
The insults, in and of themselves, are not the issue. The issue is that they homogenize a vast and varied people and prime them for often retaliatory mass murders. When I was a reporter in Nigeria in 2000, I covered the retaliatory murders of northerners in the Southeast in response to the Sharia riots in Kaduna that year. It turned out that most of the “Hausa” people murdered there were, in fact, Christians from Benue and Kogi states who share common boundaries with many states in the Southeast.
The survivors I spoke with told me their entreaties that they were Christians who would have been murdered in Kaduna, along with Igbo people, had they lived there failed to persuade their tormentors. They were told that they were “abokis,” “mallams,” or “malos.”
6. Atheists and agnostics. Nigeria is a hypocritically hyper-religious society with an overabundance of toxic levels of intolerance for people who choose to question or depart from the orthodoxy of received spiritual wisdom. People who question or reject the idea that there is a God who supervises and regulates the affairs of human beings are often reviled and attacked in almost all parts of Nigeria.
For instance, in 2014, Nigeria attracted global attention—and ridicule—when an atheist by the name of Mubarak Bala was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Kano by his family for publicly renouncing his faith in Islam and God. After he was found to be of sound mind and released, he was welcomed by a steady stream of death threats.
As is now obvious, hate speech laws all over the world are enacted to protect weak, defenseless, and marginal social, religious, ethnic, cultural, etc. groups from the tyranny of dominant, mainstream groups. But Senator Abdullahi and his uninformed political bedfellows are more concerned about protecting oppressive, overpampered, corrupt, and unaccountable government officials from the searing scrutiny of the governed than protecting weak, marginal populations.