There has been so much talk recently about the propriety of government clamping down on hate speech. Then Acting President threw the first salvo when he likened hate speech to terrorism vowing the government will no longer tolerate it. Sadly, Mr Osinbajo never defined what exactly he or the government meant by hate speech. But if Nigerians were worried as to what exactly the government means by ‘hate speech,’ they were to receive a precise definition from the Nigerian military, which, taking a cue from the Acting President, announced through its Director of Defence Information, Major General John Enenche, that it is creating ‘strategic media centres’ “to monitor social media in order to sieve and react to all anti-government, anti-military, and anti-security propaganda”. With this, the government can now conveniently lump any statement or criticism by group or person, which caused it consternation, into its amorphous definition of hate speech and promptly clamp down on such groups or persons.
Nigerians must not allow the government to turn the country into a police state.
If there is one thing history has taught us in Nigeria, it is that we must never allow the government to draw the borders of free speech. Knowing this administration for what it is and from the lessons of history, it will not be long before the government begins to clamp down on legitimate free speech and any iota of criticism. Already, state governors and senior government officials have been surreptitiously using the police to clamp down on their critics under many pretexts.
It is also clear that some people in the administration are threatened by the ubiquity and far-reaching effects of the social media and want to restrict or clamp down on it. Right from the inception of this administration, many efforts have been made to clamp down on the social media through the anti-social media bill currently before the Senate. Suffice to say the bill is as far reaching in what it seeks to achieve as Decree No 4 of 1984 that prohibited journalists from reporting anything that could embarrass the regime, even if it were true.
It is unfortunate that the APC, having greatly benefited from, and used the social media to great effect to vilify the past administration, got it voted out of power and won election on its platform, is now hell bent on taming that very medium. The party and its officials appear to have become fearful of the very medium they use to ride to power being used against them.
Curiously, even while the government claims to be against hate speech, it is actually harbouring and protecting those promoting hate speeches while brutally trying to suppress those legitimately seeking for self-determination. If the standard text-book definition of hate speech is speech which attacks a person or group based on identifiers such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender, it is curious to see the government persecuting those seeking for the actualisation of the state of Biafra (a peaceful movement) and seeking the re-arrest of Nnamdi Kanu while looking the other way while a motley of groups known as Arewa youths engage in hate speech and threatening an ethnic group with eviction from a particular section of the country.
Truth be told, the president has done much more to divide the country and promote hate speech by his seeming inability to treat all sections of the country fairly. Besides, his post-election utterances energised an otherwise suppressed feeling for self-determination.
We call on Nigerians, civil society and human rights groups to intensify campaigns and opposition to the obnoxious attempt to turn Nigeria into a police state. As the saying goes, vigilance is the price of liberty.