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CATALYSIS

Making democracy work amid hate speech, increasing angst

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EVEN as the blind cannot see, they can explain whirlwind if they encounter it. When signs evolve into manifestations, they cease to be mere hints. There is tension in the air. Nigeria is at the precincts of a dire social situation. Our saving grace is that we are still in the budding stage of the emerging trend hence, we can nip it in the bud or manipulate the tender shoots to grow into a healthy plant.

  It is no longer news that across country, there are theatres of protest that exhibit orchestrated disaffection, angst and anomie. Someone would quickly conclude that the land is engulfed in crises. Many of which are man-made while some are caused by natural circumstances. Streets are charged by expressions of outcries over elections (be them of community leaders or of the leadership of public organisations and states).

There are vociferous protests on air in the media, in pubs, community squares, churches and mosques over almost everything, be it general internal security situations, office appointments or one policy or the other. There are so many  public hoots over all manner of developments by several bitterly agitated interest groups that it seems some folks now reason that they now have ample opportunities to exhibit some long-bottled acrimony over the nation state or that everybody is now being annoyed at the same time.

The streets are simmering in so many fronts in all parts of the nation, and all are venting without letting to the extent that even the most indifferent would find a need to show concern. Most vilified in the plethora of public opprobrium are government agencies and policies, then politicians and in just a few occasions, business firms. But the worse dimension of the trend is the emergence of unjustified ethnic exclusion and group stigmatisation to whip up public hatred against some innocent sections of the citizenry.

From nowhere, short films, parodies and  skewed viginettes pitching one Nigerian ethnicity against another are now emerging in startling numbers in social media. Producers of the contents consciously package them to spread messages that will create bad blood in one part of the country against their targeted section or sections of the society. They serve the pieces of hate communications in such sensational manner that they almost instantly sow fear, high suspicion and enmity in the mind of their receivers with an intent to reap from the crises that could ensue.   

Through WhatsApp, I recieved at least three of such intensely hate-ladden materials within the last five days. Nothing could move against logic in the contents! But it would take a very informed person or at least someone who is genuinely keen on verifying facts to unravel the lies from the pits of hell in the odious, deliberately obscured materials with spreading hatred as their core goal.

One was a WhatsApp video recording which featured a loquacious, boastful and crudely trash-talking young man in a white shirt boxed in one corner of an enclosure (with nothing in the plain background to indicate his location). In the video the man, possibly in his thirties or forties, dwelt garrulously on how Igbo and Hausa/Fulani people destroy and abuse Lagos. As one struggled through a harrowing 10-minute waste of time to survive the disgusting broadcast before dashing out to the loo to vomit, it became clear that he was actually ranting on Igbo nuisance in his Yoruba Lagos.

Not quite 24 hours after, an Edo-born pal and colleague of mine in Lagos forwarded a long WhatsApp text message with the title, ‘Who Handed Over Nigeria to the Fulani,?’ (sic). I tried to read the whole length but got pissed off. It was another disjointed conspiracy theory article spread on social media with the intention of showing the Yoruba that their enemy is Igbo and Fulani. Knowing my friend, a highly placed and influential journalist in a national newspaper, neither wrote nor could have encouraged the writing of such piece but angry with the message still, I replied him.

My words:

“I am miffed at the current rise in trend of cross-talks on ‘Yoruba this’, ‘Igbo that’, ‘Hausa/Fulani the other’ themes.

“This is how it started in the Rwanda of 1990 to 1994.

“Like play, like play, we will run ourselves into a boiling hole of uncontrollable social hatred and shit will spread.”

Kindly cope with informal language. It was a friend to friend exchange.

The Rwandan situation I referred to was the East African country’s civil war of October 1, 1990 to July 18, 1994 (the Rwanda Genocide) which had the nation-state’s two ethnicities, Hutu and Tutsi clash against each other. It was one of modern world’s most gory wars. Exchange of hate speech in the mass media fuelled and sustained the conflict. The media so spread and enshrined bad blood that pogroms even happened inside churches, schools and hospitals. To date, narratives of Rwanda civil war like the Holocaust of 1930s Germany and Eastern Europe still embarrass authorities of major Christian faiths.

I reminded my friend of the better not recalled Rwanda odium because both of us were practicing journalists when it happened, and none of us would want it repeated anywhere even in countries of our enemies. We witnessed an almost similar situation in Liberia and Sierra Leon of 1980s.

Upon reading my comment, my colleague replied thus: “Not my report oooo.” (inserting cartoon images of laughing faces).

“I know but it riles,” was my further comment.                

 It became clear to me that such social media exchanges were in vogue when, in one group WhatsApp platform, I encountered a piece entitled, ‘Was Zik Wrong in Rejecting Awo for Balewa in the Leadership Partnership of Nigeria After the 1959 Election Stalemate of the Three Contenders? The creative writer and media man who wrote the rippling somewhat like ‘throw-to-me-I-throw-at-you’ piece served a radically different perspective of the event in contradiction of the issues raised in ‘Who Handed Over Nigeria to the Fulani,?’ (earlier cited). It is such that anyone who seeks knowledge would ask: whose account is correct? That is a peculiar Nigerian doom – absence of sources for fact check which makes citizens of the country not know much of her civil war, half a century after.

There are a lot more of such troubling communications currently making the rounds. Though in one part they build gulf between Nigerian peoples instead of the badly needed bridges, the healthy part of them is that they remind us that when you fail to give the people facts of vital historical developments that are important to them, ahistoric historians, social manipulators and crises merchants will exploit the lacuna to cause trouble. Countries like Rwanda and Germany have moved on to higher economic success and ethnic harmony despite their bitterly fought wars because they creatively avoided the pitfall of making stories of their wars haunt them. They beat propagandists by declassifying information about the events, building monuments, galleries and museums, and establishing research faculties where young ones engage the events as references to the lowest level the nation can descend, and resolve ‘never again!’ The countries have creatively build nations where there are people who believe and are given no reason to doubt that they are bonafide citizens of the same nation as the people who were once their enemies in war through such a way they structure their politics, and use such ventures as the arts, sports, and communication for inclusive social reorientation and mobilisation.   

It is also worthy of note that the currently growing trend of extreme expressions on our streets and in our social media, though worrisome is evidence of the emergence and thrive of democratic culture. Freedom of expression is a hallmark of democracy. Placards, loud protests and even grandstanding and nauseating hoopla are not threats to the wellbeing of democratic societies. They are it’s traits.

Hence, it will be improper if not damning to attempt to react to the matter by pressing the ‘panic’ bottun. Some would suggest an invasion of the streets to disperse protests or placing gags for social media communication. These may bring short-term relief but long-term damnation. We just have to evolve creative democratic solutions like creation of institutional checks and incentives that would divert the frenzy and make the opportunists who ride on the odious developments know the harm they do to themselves too whenever they opt to sell their conscience and become vendors of hate speech and advocates of danger.    

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