“Time Bomb”: Violence and Dangerous Speech Threaten to Upend Nigerian Elections

In Nigeria, violence fueled by a powerful mix of Dangerous Speech and legitimate grievances is growing so much that the widely admired Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka recently warned of possible genocide, and the Minister of Information and Culture called hate speech and misinformation “a time bomb” that could tear the country apart.

Leaders of the groups in conflict – semi-nomadic herders, farmers, and separatists in the southeast – are warning of mass violence against their followers, and as smaller attacks have already become common, even false, exaggerated warnings ring true and may inspire preemptive violence.

Such rhetoric is more dangerous for another reason also: in only six months Nigeria will hold presidential elections, which themselves increase the risk of violence. So far, the government has responded to Dangerous Speech with dramatic statements – such as saying that hate speech constitutes terrorism or proposing that hate speech be punishable by death – not constructive policies.

Though the jihadist group Boko Haram are the Nigerian insurgents best known outside the country, they have been considerably weakened since 2016, and in recent months, another conflict has become Nigeria’s most lethal. Mostly-Muslim cattle herders of the Fulani ethnic group and mostly-Christian farmers in central and northern states, attacking each other over control of land for farming or grazing, have killed 1,300 people so far this year, and 300,000 people in the region have been displaced. Large numbers of the semi-nomadic herders fled their traditional northern lands which were becoming arid from overuse and climate change, and dangerous due to rural banditry and Boko Haram.[1] They moved south, but when those lands became overwhelmed by the inflow of herders and their cattle, farmers and herders began to fight. This year, attacks escalated dramatically, as armed militias took over in place of unorganized, reactive attacks.[2]

In numerous cases, speakers have accused other groups of planning mass displacements, systematic pogroms, or genocide, sometimes referring to memories of past atrocities.

  • In July 2017 a Fulani youth group referred to attacks on herder communities as part of “a coordinated agenda to wipe out our people systematically through ethnic cleansing.” [3]
  • In January 2018, James Ortese Ayatse, leader of the Tiv ethnic group, accused Fulani herdsmen of a “well-planned out and well-coordinated… genocide on the Tiv people.”[4]
  • A highly-regarded former lieutenant general named Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma asserted in March 2018 that the Nigerian military itself is in collusion with armed bandit groups aiming to commit ethnic cleansing in majority-Christian communities. “I urge all of you to be at alert and defend your country, defend your territory, defend your state,” he said, lest Nigeria face catastrophic destabilization and civil war, like Somalia since 1999.[5]
  • Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka warned in a statement issued in April 2018 that killings carried out by herders amount to “ethnic cleansing” which has “left the nation drowning in blood.”[6]

These statements are powerful. After all, to believe that your group may be annihilated by other human beings makes violence against them seem not only justified – it appears to be a necessary and even virtuous act of self-defense.[7]

In southeast Nigeria, another conflict has emerged involving the federal government and secessionist groups organized under the flag of the former Republic of Biafra. Between 1967 and 1970, Biafra was a secessionist state predominantly inhabited by members of the Igbo ethnic group. Its attempted separation resulted in a horrific civil war, during which a famine killed up to 2 million people. In recent years, pro-Biafrans have emerged again, attracting followers with rhetoric that ties present-day issues of underdevelopment, political alienation, and military violence to the legacy of a brutal war which devastated their would-be nation.

Their rhetoric has also featured typical characteristics of Dangerous Speech, such as dehumanization and calls to violence. Supporters of the Indigenous People of Biafra group (IPOB) have called Nigeria a “zoo” populated by “monkeys and baboons“ who must be eliminated in a war for independence.[8] Others accuse Nigeria of plotting to exterminate Igbo people in the southeast and elsewhere. For example, after the Nigerian military killed four IPOB members in an operation in 2017,[9] a leader within the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Samuel Edeson, claimed it was part of a secret effort to “complete the genocide they started in 1967.”[10]

That 2017 operation is one of several recent incidents during which the Nigerian military has clashed violently with secessionist groups. Amnesty International has criticized the government for one year-long campaign during which it claims the military committed “mass extrajudicial executions” of pro-Biafrans, including 60 whom soldiers killed during celebrations for Biafra Independence Day in 2016.[11]

Some pro-Biafran speakers using Dangerous Speech may actually intend to initiate mass violence. For example, according to federal prosecutors, IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu was actively preparing for an uprising by attempting to import at least 2,600 rifles into Nigeria.[12]

Although in 2018 there have been fewer direct confrontations between pro-Biafrans and Nigerian security forces, there is yet a chance that 2019’s election will inspire protests, or even violence. Secessionist groups have been frustrated by a wave of arrests during mostly-peaceful civil disobedience events in recent months, provoking IPOB and MASSOB to announce plans to boycott the elections next year.[13] In their place, IPOB says it will initiate an independence referendum by the end of 2018, for which they claim they are printing 40 million paper ballots.[14] Another group, the Biafran National Youth League, has threatened violence against politicians campaigning in the southeast, saying “whoever speaks against us will be stoned.”[15]

The current administration has made clear that it views the spread of hateful and Dangerous Speech as a significant contributing factor to ongoing conflicts in Nigeria. Some of the rhetoric accompanying both the pastoral conflict and that of Biafran secessionists does appear to be dangerous, but as alarming as this rhetoric is, the government’s efforts to discourage harmful speech also raise significant concerns. For example, Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture who called hate speech a time bomb,[16] also declared that hate speech would be considered an act of terrorism as of February 2018,[17] echoing a statement by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in August 2017, who argued that the country’s laws on terrorism should be used to combat hate speech.[18]

In another extreme response, a bill introduced by a Nigerian senator would make hate speech punishable by death by hanging, if it is proven by a federal court to have led to someone else’s death.[19] And under the broad definition proposed by the bill’s sponsor, hate speech may include a wide variety of everyday expressions, from insult to dissent.

Abdullahi’s bill is very unlikely to pass, and the government is unlikely to enforce Mohammed’s declaration, but they may still have important reverberations. Critics argue that these examples are not good-faith efforts to discourage hate speech, but rather they are part of a much broader effort by the government to discourage or suppress political criticism. For those who look forward to challenging the current government in 2019, even the possibility that hate speech – as defined by government officials – could earn them steep fines or prison times could discourage criticism of the government.

Since independence, few transfers of state power in Nigeria have ever passed without some violence, and in 2019, it will likely take significant efforts by government and civil society to avoid following this unfortunate tradition. As escalating violence and Dangerous Speech continue to spread in multiple regions, some of the same social cleavages which have brought about tragedies in the past are again widening. The grievances expressed by conflicting groups are in many cases grounded in very real conditions – a factor which is unlikely to change within the few months before February. If the Nigerian government does not address the root causes which have led to conflict and inspired Dangerous Speech, and instead relies on repressive measures, it may give its opponents a decisive push toward mass violence.

[1] Chidi Oguamanam, “Nigeria faces new security threat fuelled by climate change and ethnicity,” The Conversation, May 12, 2016, https://theconversation.com/nigeria-faces-new-security-threat-fuelled-by-climate-change-and-ethnicity-58807

[2] “Stopping Nigeria’s Spiralling Farmer-Herder Violence,” International Crisis Group, July 26, 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/nigeria/262-stopping-nigerias-spiralling-farmer-herder-violence; Michael Olufemi Sodipo (founder, Peace Initiative Network; field researcher, the Nexus Fund) in discussion with the author, August 2018.

[3] Noah Ebije, “Numan killings: Fulani youths spit fire, demand justice,” Sun News, November 25, 2017, http://sunnewsonline.com/numan-killings-fulani-youths-spit-fire-demand-justice/

[4] Joseph Wantu, “Benue killings: It’s ethnic cleansing and genocide against Tiv nation, says Tor Tiv,” The Guardian, January 13, 2018, https://guardian.ng/saturday-magazine/benue-killings-its-ethnic-cleansing-and-genocide-against-tiv-nation-says-tor-tiv/

[5] Samuel Ogundipe, “Military, Police complicit in killings across Nigeria —T.Y. Danjuma,” Premium Times, March 24, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/262959-military-police-complicit-in-killings-across-nigeria-t-y-danjuma.html

[6] Ben Ezeamalu, “Nigeria sliding from ethnic cleansing to genocide – Soyinka,” Premium Times, April 30, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/266624-nigeria-sliding-from-ethnic-cleansing-to-genocide-soyinka.html

[7] This process of threat inversion is in some cases part of a rhetorical technique known as Accusation in a Mirror (AiM), with which a speaker can make violence seem necessary by convincing their audience that they face a mortal threat, which they can only fend off with violence. You can read more about AiM and other hallmarks of DS here or in the Dangerous Speech Project FAQ under “What is Dangerous Speech?”.

[8] “If They Fail To Give Us Biafra, Somalia Will Look Like A Paradise – Nnamdi Kanu,” SaharaTV video, 13:34, March 26, 2014, http://saharareporters.tv/if-they-fail-to-give-us-biafra-somalia-will-look-like-a-paradise-nnamdi-kanu/; Tim Tochukwu, “Nigeria, The West African Zoo,” Radio Biafra, http://radiobiafra.co/nigeria-the-west-african-zoo

[9] Conflicting numbers place the casualties between 4 dead and 15 dead, with more injuries.

[10] Ihuoma Chiedozie, “Buhari’s govt wants to kill Kanu, complete 1967 genocide — MASSOB,” PUNCH, September 17, 2017, https://punchng.com/buharis-govt-wants-to-kill-kanu-complete-1967-genocide-massob/

[11] “Nigeria: At least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra activists killed in chilling crackdown,” Amnesty International, November 24, 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/11/peaceful-pro-biafra-activists-killed-in-chilling-crackdown/

[12] Bello Shittu, “Nnamdi Kanu imported 2,671 seized rifles to destabilise Nigeria – federal govt,” Today, November 15, 2017, https://www.today.ng/news/nigeria/nnamdi-kanu-imported-2671-seized-rifles-destabilise-nigeria-federal-govt-32987

[13] “’22’ Arrested In Enugu For Trying To Hoist Biafran Flag At State House,” Sahara Reporters, May 31, 2018, http://saharareporters.com/2018/05/31/22-arrested-enugu-trying-hoist-biafran-flag-state-house; James Eze, “Biafra: Over 100 arrested as security agencies disrupt MASSOB rallies in South-east, Rivers,” Premium Times, May 23, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/269436-biafra-over-100-arrested-as-security-agencies-disrupt-massob-rallies-in-south-east-rivers.html; James Eze, “Police arrest leader of pro-Biafra group, 20 others,” Premium Times, May 30, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/regional/ssouth-east/270386-police-arrest-leader-of-pro-biafra-group-20-others.html; Okechukwu Maduabuchi, “IPOB: No amount of coalition against APC will stop President Buhari in 2019,” Today NG, July 18, 2018, https://www.today.ng/news/nigeria/ipob-amount-coalition-apc-president-buhari-2019-134164; Dennis Agbo “MASSOB urges South, M-Belt to boycott 2019 polls,” Vanguard, July 25, 2018, https://www.vanguardngr.com/2018/07/massob-urges-south-m-belt-to-boycott-2019-polls/

[14] Ihuoma Chiedozie, “Biafra: IPOB plans referendum, prints ballot papers,” PUNCH, June 20, 2018, https://punchng.com/biafra-ipob-plans-referendum-prints-ballot-papers/

[15] John Owen Nwachukwu, “Why we’ll become violent ahead of 2019 election – Biafra group,” Daily Post, July 20, 2018, http://dailypost.ng/2018/07/20/well-become-violent-ahead-2019-election-biafra-group/

[16] Samson Toromade, “Fake news, hate speech is time bomb in multi-ethnic, religious Nigeria,” Pulse, July 13, 2018, https://www.pulse.ng/news/local/fake-news-hate-speech-is-time-bomb-lai-mohammed-id8614558.html

[17] Murtala Adewale, “Nigeria declares hate speech as act of terrorism,” The Guardian, February 20, 2018, https://guardian.ng/news/nigeria-declares-hate-speech-as-act-of-terrorism/

[18] Shakirudeen Taiwo, “Hate speech is now an act of terrorism – Nigerian government,” Business Insider by Pulse, February 21, 2018, https://www.pulse.ng/bi/politics/hate-speech-is-now-an-act-of-terrorism-nigerian-government-id8017448.html

[19] Ameh Comrade Godwin, “Hate speech offenders to die by hanging – Nigeria Senate’s new bill,” Daily Post, March 1, 2018, http://dailypost.ng/2018/03/01/hate-speech-offenders-die-hanging-nigeria-senates-new-bill/