The Nigerian rumour mill: a nation under siege?
23 February 2017: The distinction between freedom of expression and hate speech in Nigeria is blurred, and the country is under siege from disinformation, says Wale Adeboye. Combating hate speech in the media, on the internet and through religious and political leaders must be a high priority for atrocity prevention.
This opening lamentaion from Bayo Adeyinka, a Nigerian public commentator and blogger, sums up the present tempo of Nigeria. Being a Nigerian can be very complex. From the youth of the nation to adults, from leaders to followers, we are highly fragmented and perhaps dangerously divided as a people. Due to this disparity, Nigerians no longer trust one another. The Hausa man is wary of the Ibo, the Yoruba woman is suspicious of the Ijaw woman. People now live to take advantage of one another, thinking the failure of the other person is their turn to step into prominence and wealth.
What kind of a nation can develop in this atmosphere? What happens to people when it becomes normal to live with high levels of scepticism, uncertainty, rumour? The result will be contempt for one another, animosity, hatred and disdain. Little wonder that hate speech, as well as structural and physical violence persist in the country.
A nation under siege
Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, described the current Nigerian situation as that of a nation under siege of disinformation and fake news. While many Nigerians may not agree with Mohammed at all times, his argument of Nigeria under the siege of misinformation cannot be faulted. As he puts it: 'the dangerous trend of disinformation and fake news championed by social media could tear the fabric of society, if not checked.' About 50 per cent of what we read on social media is not true but unfortunately even when it is not credible, it goes viral and people believe the fake stories.
The rumours and hate speech of recent times in Nigeria have even lead to death wishes for President Buhari. Who wants him dead, and why? And what are the implications for crime, violence and atrocities in Nigeria of wanting the President dead?
The 2015 election eventually brought President Buhari to government. While the country has not descended into chaos, it is certainly not at peace. There is growing disappointment in the heart of the people, attributable to the high rate of inflation as well as increases in the cost of living.
Inflaming hatred for President Buhari are the growing concerns of perceived lopsided political appointments. By 2016, a year after President Buhari’s election, some Nigerians believed he had appointed more northern citizens compared with people from the south. This perception of political bias has increased disdain for his government. To members of the ruling party, such disdain is attributable to an opposition bent on discrediting the government. The opposition, on the other hand, says that citizens are tired with the current state of affairs.
As the blame game continues, more and more people seem to be feeding into either of the arguments. Within the sphere of nongovernmental organisations and the academic community, many attribute this situation to the growing problem of information mismanagement and growing rumour mills. Others suggest that it is due to social disintegration provoked by the last election.
Freedom of expression or hate speech?
How people understand ‘Nigeria’ depends on where they sit: government supporters or the opposition, Muslims or Christians, north or south, poor or rich. This is troubling, and a time bomb for atrocities. The uncertainties and unpredictability in people’s intentions provide a big challenge for atrocity prevention in Nigeria.
As the boundaries of trust between government and governed widen, through rumours and hate speech, there is growing concern for NGOs and civil society working on atrocity prevention. The need to understand the phenomenon of hate speech and its link to atrocity prevention through research is apt.
Christopher Tuckwood of the Sentinel Project, while commenting on the linkage between hate speech and atrocity crimes in Kenya said, ‘rumours spark unnecessary violent attacks. When people do not have a reliable source of information, many tend to believe rumours regardless of whether they are true or not.’ This is not just true for Kenya, it also depicts the dilemma of working on atrocity prevention in Nigeria.
Combating hate speech
Today more than ever, and with the election of President Buhari, local peacebuilders are playing their role by supporting their communities. Combating the spread of hate speech in the media and on the internet must be a high priority for atrocity prevention. In order not to stir up hostility, issues related to religion and faith must be approached carefully, as they are very sensitive in Nigeria. Involving more stakeholders in the combat against hate speech is another approach.
There is the need to train more journalists and social media activists for unbiased reporting as a preventive measure to reduce tensions in the society. Stakeholders like journalists and editors must learn to filter hate and rumours, while religious leaders and political party officials need to be trained and enlightened on the dangers of inflaming and instigating members to violence through hate speech and unfounded rumours. The police and state security officials must also learn how to professionally address rumourmongers and hate speech givers. We must handle these fears for a peaceful Nigeria.
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