In our series of letters from African journalists, novelist and writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani looks at the fine line between hate speech and harmless stereotypes in Nigeria.
The Nigerian parliament is considering a bill under which anyone found guilty of “hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction”.
The law also seeks the establishment of an “Independent National Commission for Hate Speech”, to enforce hate speech laws across the country, including jail terms and fines.
This is just the latest in a number of attempts to address what appears to be a rise in hate speech across Nigeria.
In a recent talk, titled, Hate Speech: Halting the Tide Before it is Too Late, the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, called for “an organised war against hate speech”.
Last year, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo likened hate speech to an act of terrorism.
“[The government has] drawn a line against hate speech,” he said. “It will not be tolerated, it will be taken as an act of terrorism and all the consequences will follow.”
And, while making references to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda which was fuelled by that country’s media, Nigeria’s Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed, said: “In Nigeria today, the hate being spewed on radio stations across the country is so alarming.
These respected political and traditional leaders have spoken well.
Nigeria has experienced numerous horrific cases of ethnic violence, from the pogrom in the run-up to the 1967 civil war, right up to the present day.
But, what exactly is “hate speech”? That part is still unclear.
And what better time to leave the public with no doubts whatsoever as now that the threat of death by hanging looms?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hate speech as “a speech or address inciting hatred or intolerance, esp. towards a particular social group on the basis of ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexuality, etc.”.
But, unlike many parts of the western world where the slightest expression of prejudice is anathema, Nigerians have always derived entertainment from poking fun at each other’s differences.
There are popular stereotypes about the three major ethnic groups—Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa—which everyone draws upon for fun.
‘Give me your knife Mr President’
Shortly after Muhammadu Buhari was elected as president of Nigeria, for example, he attended the anniversary celebration of one of the south-west states.
The master of ceremonies was a popular Nigerian comedian, Ali Baba. When it was time for the dignitaries present to cut the cake, a brief delay ensued while a knife for the proceedings was being sought.
Ali Baba then turned to President Buhari and said: “Mr president, please, give me your knife. I hear that all Hausa people carry knives with them.”
The entire audience, including the president, burst into wild laughter, as I did along with everyone else watching the event with me on the TV screen in a Hausa friend’s office.