Ethnic Politics, Hate Speech, and Access to Political Power in Nigeria

Christian Chukwuebuka Ezeibe & Okey Marcellus Ikeanyibe. Africa Today. Volume 63, Issue 4.  Summer 2017.

As constitutional and other structural reforms are intensified to reduce ethnic politics in some sub-Saharan African countries, political elites are exploiting new ways of accessing and consolidating their hold on political power by manipulating ethnicity. This article explores the import of hate speech in recent elections in Nigeria. Using primary and secondary data from Nigeria’s fourth democratic dispensation, the authors show that elites employ hate speech to curry favor along every possible line of diversity-such as ethnicity, geopolitical region, and religion-to retain or obtain political power. The study shows that hate speech has been elevated to the status of a political campaign strategy and suggests that serious checks and balances should be evolved to ensure the sustained reduction of ethnic politics so as to improve democratic consolidation. Part of these checks would be to enact laws that guard against the use of hate speech as a political campaign strategy.

Ethnic politics has become a relatively permanent feature of democracy in many nations of Africa, including Nigeria. A wave of democratization in the 1990s resulted in the spread of multiparty electoral competition and the emergence of democratic governance in which citizens enjoyed greater political liberties, but the level of democratization in most sub-Saharan African countries remains low (Cheeseman 2015a). Multiparty democratic practices in Africa have been dazzling and messy (Kayambazinthu and Moyo 2002). A key aspect of the mess is ethnic politics, which has continued to recur from time to time, despite its destructive roles. Democratization has continued to witness “widespread ethnic voting and the rise in exclusionary (and often violent) politics of belonging” (Lynch and Crawford 2011:275). Thus, while analysts admit that progress has been made since the third wave of democratization, ethnicity has continued to inhibit the flourishing of democracy (Diamond 2006; Huntington 1993; Schraeder 1995). Most postcolonial writers on African politics (Nnoli 2001, 2008; Sklar 1967) would blame ethnicity as the source of most democratic anomalies, including the devastating issue of electoral violence; others (Apter 1955; Lake and Rothchild 1996), however, believe that ethnicity, especially in Africa and other postcolonial states where it seems to be part of the state structure, is not an evil omen. Some of these scholars envisage Africa transformed from antagonistic and multitribal collectives to united and peaceful nations. In other words, such thinkers regard ethnic politics as a phase that would be overcome through the development of a knowledgeable elitist class and the subsequent convergence of its interests on the need to sustain national unity (Apter 1955). Some of these scholars justify their assertion on the development of a strong and independent middle class as an important ingredient for democratization (Van de Walle 2012). The middle class acts as the driver of democracy by demanding greater representation and accountability in return for taxes, forcing the ruling elite into a series of concessions that may benefit the lower classes in the long run (Cheeseman 2015b).

Decades after the application of various nation-building approaches in most African countries, including efforts to develop a pool of college elite and middle-class persons, these countries continue to relapse into ethnic divisions. Indeed, it is ironic that elites who are expected to save Africa from ethnic politics often exploit ethnicity for individual and collective gains. Frequently, elites contravene fundamental democratic principles and seek clandestine means to access political power. The use of hate speech as a campaign strategy is one form of elite manipulation of natural cleavages in a bid to acquire political power, and it has received little scholarly attention in the literature on African ethnic politics. Hate speech has become a strategic aspect of electioneering today, such that numerous election-related conflicts in Africa bear proximate connection to their use. This article examines the linkage between ethnic politics and hate speech as an instrument used to access political power in Nigeria’s recent elections. The key questions that the researchers address are: Why did the use of hate speech along ethnic and other divisive lines became increasingly relevant as a campaign strategy in the 2011 and 2015 general elections in Nigeria? What factors in the democratization process reignited the profuse use of hate speech along ethnic lines in the two elections? How did the use of hate speech affect the democratization process, especially the seemingly national consensus among some elites believed to have been achieved by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in its sixteen-year rule? What strategies promise better outcomes in managing ethnicity in such a multiethnic polity as Nigeria? The authors show that Nigerian political elites employ hate speech to curry favor along every possible line of diversity-such as ethnicity, geopolitical region, religion, and state of origin-to retain or obtain political power.

This article is based on field research by the two authors. We sourced empirical data from the 2011 and 2015 general elections in Nigeria. The study relies on in-depth interviews of five actors who are knowledgeable about the subject of the research, including a religious leader, an emir, a district head, and two leaders of civil society groups. The respondents were selected from conflict-prone cities in Kaduna, Kogi, Anambra, and Lagos states. The authors, who served as ad-hoc staff of the Independent National Electoral Commission during the 2007, 2011, and 2015 elections, sourced data for the study through participant-observation. Christian Chukwuebuka Ezeibe served as a poll clerk in the Roni local government in Jigawa state, while Okey Marcellus Ikeanyibe served as a ward collation officer in the Aguata local government in Anambra state during the 2007 presidential election. Ezeibe also served as a local government collation officer for the Udi and Agwu local governments in Enugu state for the 2011 and 2015 general elections, respectively. The authors content-analyzed media reports of hate speeches by Tell Magazine, Sahara Reporters, the Guardian, Vanguard, Leadership, ThisDay, Nations, and Premium Times over a period of five years, from 2010 to 2015.

The rest of the article is organized into five sections. The next section provides a theoretical framework, based on the nexus of ethnicity, the elite, and democratic politics. This is further contextualized to the Nigerian political scene in the following sections through a brief description of the underlying elite model and its relevance to the culture of political intolerance and ethnoreligious politics. This is followed by a section on the meaning of hate speech and the dimensions of usage, including accessing political power. Section four shows data on the use of hate speech in the 2011 and 2015 elections. The last section provides some concluding remarks.

Ethnicity and Democratic Politics: A Theoretical Framework

The concept of ethnicity has attracted scholarly attention, especially in relation to politics in most postcolonial states. The concept derives from the original Greek word ethnos, meaning ‘nation’. It may simply be defined as ‘racial status and distinctiveness’. Most postcolonial states in Africa were formed through the forceful unification of autonomous communities or ethnic nations into countries: “Europe’s new colonial territories enclosed hundreds of diverse and independent groups, with no common history, culture, language or religion” (Meredith 2011:2). It is not so much the diversity and the coexistence of different groups in a country that constitute the challenge of ethnicity (after all, no country is purely homogeneous): rather, it is the absence of a sense of common identity and national consciousness among the groups and the exploitation of existing primordial differences in the struggle for resources and other social interactions. In other words, ethnicity will have little relevance if there is no competition for resources, which creates conditions for ethnic rivalry and exploitation (Irobi 2013). Ethnicity constitutes an identity as defined by outsiders who do not belong to the group, or by insiders who belong to the same group. It generally becomes the basis of mobilizing group consciousness and solidarity, which in certain situations result in political activities (Kasfir 1977).

A key academic debate on ethnicity focuses on whether it will eventually disappear or its negative effects will be reduced: it is a critical factor in the politics of many postcolonial states, but it will disappear in due course (Apter 1955; Lake and Rothchild 1996). There is a consensus among many Marxist and non-Marxist scholars that it is a reflection of the isolation of communities from the ownership of the means of production, and that these are temporary factors, which will disappear over time (Irobi 2013; Karmis and Norman 2005; Kymlicka and Opalski 2001). While capitalist scholars argue that industrialization, urbanization, and the spread of modern education would reduce ethnic tendencies, Marxists are certain that socialism will mean the end of the ethnic tension and consciousness that existed in presocialist societies (Spiro 2007). The view that ethnicity is a problem that can be eliminated characterizes the modernization school of thought, a theoretical bent that encourages the implementation of assimilative programs. In most of Africa, this view formerly led and presently leads to authoritarian political approaches in the hope that authoritarians could weld various ethnic groups together and foster assimilation. Nevertheless, experience has not shown, even from the developed polities of Western democracies, that the achievement of democracy, economic prosperity, urbanization, and even the implementation of assimilation programs has not abetted ethnocultural mobilization (Kymlicka 2002).

The opposing perspective in this debate is that ethnicity is a natural phenomenon, which cannot easily give way. This perspective could be described as the primordial viewpoint. According to Nnoli, ” primordialists believe that the past histories and origins of African ethnic groups are of primary importance in predicting their contemporary political relevance, in contrast to other theorists who accord them secondary significance” (2008:37). For primordialists, ethnicity is inherent in culturally heterogeneous societies. Most scholars in this stream opt for political arrangements that recognize, accommodate, and manage ethnic diversity. One of the most effective mechanisms devised to accommodate ethnic and religious diversity is adopting a multicultural federal system that grants territorial autonomy to minority groups, and this has been successfully implemented in Western democracies such as Switzerland and Canada (Irobi 2013).

Neither of these theoretical perspectives offers a lasting solution in dealing with the challenges of ethnicity, but both provide important principles that could help in managing ethnicity and its effects on democracies. The development of an educated middle class has obvious beneficial effects in reducing ethnic hostility. Recognizing and managing ethnicity undoubtedly remain a politically expedient way to deal with it. Though it has not had unmitigated success, this approach better appreciates that diversity can be leveraged for greater benefits than assimilation: “the stability of ethnically divided societies is threatened not by communalism per se, but by the failure of national institutions to explicitly recognize and accommodate existing ethnic divisions and interests” (Nnoli 2008:37).

Nigeria adopted both approaches. It set up important programs to encourage assimilation, but it made an effort to recognize and manage ethnicity by accommodating existing ethnic divisions and interests. Often, more efforts seem to be directed toward assimilation. During the period of military rule, Nigeria’s federalism leaned toward an excessively powerful federal government, making access to power at the center the most cherished political goal for the elite. The country employs strategies that recognize differences such as the provision of a federal character principle in the constitution-a principle that most leaders violate when it does not suit them. For instance, the most critical factor that is investigated in this article is how discarding the political office-zoning arrangement by the PDP reignited hate speech along ethnic lines. The PDP, the ruling party from 1999 to 2015, recognized the necessity of alternating the presidency between the north and the south as a way to recognize and accommodate the primordiality of ethnicity and its effect on democratic politics. Nonadherence to this practice in the 2011 and 2015 general elections provided grounds for a relapse into intense ethnic politics, manifested through hate speech and acrimonious politicking that led to aggravated electoral violence.

The Nigerian Elite and the Culture of Political Intolerance

At the point of independence, the predation and ethnicity of the Nigerian state had taken shape, and the emerging elite conceived the nationalist struggle merely in terms of getting rid of alien rule and occupying exalted positions in high political offices, the civil service, and various vocations (Ikejiani-Clark 1996). No sooner had independence been won than the elite revealed its primordial inclinations and its disposition to use ethnic leanings to access political power and other resources, in what Richard Joseph (1991) has described as prebendalism, a concept used to qualify the genre of ethnicity where the use of ethnic solidarity to access power or resources does not necessarily lead to the betterment of the common members, but leads largely to the betterment of the elite. Similarly, Cheeseman (2006, 2015a) characterized African states at the advent of independence as neopatrimonialistic, centralized, and postcolonial because the elite thrived on ethnic support. These characterizations are crucial to understanding the context in which democracy emerged in most African countries (Cheeseman 2009). After independence, Nigeria increasingly became a neopatrimonial state, where ethnic politics helped maintain weak democratic institutions. The character of the state quickly transformed from a unity of nationalists against colonists to a dispersed unity along ethnic and religious cleavages; it largely accounted for the collapse of the first, second, and third republics. Though the nationalists were conscious of the necessity to fuse political and economic powers in the overall interest of the elite, ethnic and religious cleavages could not allow them to agree with one another on the modus operandi for socioeconomic and political processes:

For the Nigerian political elite, politics involves not the conciliation of competing demands arising from an examination of the various alternatives entailed by any course of political action, but the extraction of resources which can be used to satisfy elite demands and to buy political support. (Coleman 1986:62)

Ethnicity became an ideology for political and economic survival of the elite in the midst of scarce resources (Ake 1981). This is akin to what Cheeseman (2009) regards as elite’s use of political tribalism to mobilize support based on manipulating a community’s fear of exclusion from power and access to resources. During elections, mobilization of ethnic groups by political leaders became radicalized. During the nation’s First Republic, most political parties did not hide the centrality of ethnicity in their names. The three dominant ethnic groups-Hausa/Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba-converged in the three different major political parties: the Northern People’s Congress, the National Congress of Nigerian Citizens, and the Action Group, respectively. Other minority ethnic groups found reasons to form their own political parties, including the United Middle Belt Congress, the Midwest Democratic Front, and the Niger Delta Congress (Wantchekon 1999).

The use of regional or sectional names became reduced in the Second Republic (1979-1983), but each of the parties that contested the presidential election maintained dominance in its ethnic base. In 1983, the National Party of Nigeria maintained its lead in Northern Nigeria (mostly among Hausas), the Unity Party of Nigeria, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, won in Yoruba states in Western Nigeria, and the Nigerian People’s Party, led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, won in Igbo states of Eastern Nigeria. The ethnicization of politics gave rise to inter- and intraethnic conflicts, election violence, and civil war (Nwachukwu, Aghemalo, and Nwosu 2014). Reminiscing on this feature of the Nigerian state as it relates to elections, Jega (2012) avers that elections in Nigeria have a zero-sum character, leading to the negative mobilization of communal (ethnic) feeling by politicians. Thus, parties were formed along ethnic lines to exploit the benefits of ethnicity, religion, and similar patrimonial cleavages to gain political power.

Efforts have been made since the military era from the time of transition to the Second Republic in 1978 to abort the use of ethnicity in party formation. Consequently, attempts by the Murtala/Obasanjo military regime to create conditions for ensuring a politically stable Second Republic had to involve elements of the official regulation of political parties to use them as building blocks, rather than agents of political disintegration. “Subsequent military regimes also found it necessary to adopt and experiment with the policy of employing nationality-based political parties in their transition programmes as a way of facilitating national integration and political stability” (Ibodje and Dode 2007:119-20).

Despite the control in the registration of parties by the military and the nonuse of tribal and ethnic names for political parties, political elites did not cease to mobilize their supporters along ethnic lines and other primordial cleavages. This negative mobilization of the populace was based on the message “if the elections were free and fair, then our party should win.” The converse then was “if our party fails to win, then the elections were not free and fair.” In the Fourth Republic, the concern for forming parties with a national outlook received attention in sections 222 (e) and 223 (2b) of the 1999 constitution. These sections underscored the conditions for forming national parties by ensuring that key officials of each party come from various parts of the country. While most political parties of the Fourth Republic tried to circumvent the constitutional provisions by scouting for party officials and candidates from different parts of the country, they remained, in the main, ethnic in their electoral performance. Meanwhile, these and similar provisions have not contributed significantly in controlling the recourse to ethnicity. The concept of national parties merely added a swing to motive for party formation more toward the side of clientelism and the perception of political parties as instruments of elite access to political power. Thus, issues that could garner sentiments beyond one’s ethnic nationality became ready instruments for elections and winning political support (Gilens and Page 2014).

The PDP built a strong alliance among the elite of various ethnic groups by including zoning and rotation of political offices among geopolitical and ethnic regions (People’s Democratic Party 1999, article 27). Its initial dominance was, therefore, built on clientielism, rather than ethnicity. Hence, it was regarded as a typical Nigerian party of the Fourth Republic (Akhaine 2011; Akhaine and Chizea 2011; Elischer 2008; Ezeibe, Abada, and Okeke 2016). Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner, was president of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. He was replaced by Musa Yar’Adua, a northerner, whose term ought to have lasted until 2015, but he died in 2010, and his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, replaced him. The PDP could not have been blamed for the decision, which was constitutionally supported, but the nomination of Jonathan as the party’s candidate in the 2011 presidential election divided the party and threatened national unity (Campbell 2010). This reignited ethnicity and created room for hate campaigns. Invariably, the split of the PDP into factions, which led many of its elected members to join the All Progressive Congress (APC), formed through the merger of certain existing parties, fulfilled a political agenda of power rotation and acquisition by elites that felt marginalized. Hate speech was readily employed as an instrument for ethnic, religious, and regional group mobilization.

The Meaning and Dimensions of Hate Speech

In contemporary multiracial, ethnic, and faith democracies, hate speech is often difficult to identify and prosecute because the line separating it from freedom of expression-a cornerstone of liberal democracy-is unclear. In a climate of ethnic animosity, statements of ethnic pride are indistinguishable from hate speech (Achebe 2006). However, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (2013:4) includes in hate speech all dissemination of ideas based on racial hatred, by whatever means; any incitement to hatred, contempt, or discrimination against members of a group on grounds of their race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin; threats of or incitement to violence against individuals or groups on these grounds; the expression of insults, ridicule, or slander of individuals or groups, or the justification of hatred, contempt, or discrimination on these grounds, when it clearly amounts to incitement to hatred or discrimination; and participation in organizations and activities that promote and incite racial discrimination. According to Neisser (1994), “hate speech refers to all verbal, written or symbolic communications that insult racial, ethnic and political groups, either by suggesting that they are inferior in some respect or they are not welcome for any other reasons.” Kayambazinthu and Moyo (2002) conceive hate speech as war waged on others by means of words that rob them of their dignity. In sum, hate speech is any speech, gesture, conduct, writing, or display that could incite people to violence or prejudicial action; essentially, it is aimed at incitement, discrimination, hatred, and violence (Rosenfeld 2003) and aims to construct, reconstruct, or politicize in-groups and out-groups. Thus, users politicize particular social differences, such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender to create an in-group and to characterize an out-group in negative and dehumanized terms. Hate speech can readily be used to reverse whatever progress is made in a democracy because it reenacts divisive features of a society, rather than unifying features. Its availability for desperate power seekers to usurp political power therefore casts doubt on the belief that developing a middle class could reduce the effect of ethnicity.

Hate speech has taken an extensive dimension in Africa because of poor regulations.1 It has become an important aspect of electioneering today, inspiring numerous election-related conflicts. For instance, all African national elections from 1990 to 2008 recorded varying degrees of violence resulting from series of dangerous utterances (Straus and Taylor 2012). In Nigeria, hate speech, mostly employed by the elite during electioneering campaigns, is a catalyst for electoral violence and other sectarian killings (Adibe 2015).

Hate Speech as an Instrument of Accessing Political Power in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic

The use of hate speech in Nigerian politics dates back to the First Republic, from 1960 to 1966, but it has become intensive since 2010, after the death of President Yar’Adua. The 2011 and 2015 general elections were held amid rising tensions between the north and the south because of what some northerners considered a lost chance for the presidency (Mwangi 2015). Hate speech was profusely deployed to reenergize ethnic and religious cleavages in these elections, as each of the major candidates-President Ebele Goodluck Jonathan from the south, and General Muhammadu Buhari (retired) from the north-received the highest votes in their respective ethnic regions (INEC 2015). Meanwhile, the issue of receiving more votes from each of the candidate’s ethnic regions is not so much what matters here, because this could be a recurring feature of most elections in Africa; rather, the events leading to 2011 and 2015 elections largely reduced the popularity of the PDP, which had come to be regarded as the biggest party in Africa.

Several issues helped intensify ethnic politics and the onslaught on the PDP, which had become a rallying point for most of the country’s elite before these elections. Notable among the issues was the zoning of the presidency to the north. Most prominent northern politicians, including Vice President Atiku Abubakar (1999-2007), had called for the presidency to rotate to the north in the 2015 election. President Jonathan secured his place on the PDP ticket for the 2011 election because he promised the northern elite that he would be in office for only one term, from 2011 to 2015 (Egbosiuba 2014). Despite this concession to some northern elites, especially those in the PDP, the 2011 election involved a lot of hate speech along ethnic lines. The post 2011 election violence was mainly against the southerners in the north, followed by a reprisal attack in some parts of the south. Political leaders’ hateful utterances to win elections rekindled the culture of intolerance among ethnic and religious groups. Importantly, the use of hate speech became intensive as soon as elections approached, and it waned thereafter. An emir in Kaduna observes “After President Jonathan won the 2011 presidential election, the use of hate speech stopped. Many political elite[s] across ethnic, regional, and religious groups were placated with political appointments and federal government contracts while the masses remain[ed] poor.”

In addition to calls for the presidency to return to the north in the pre2015 election, a major factor was the preelection scheming of nine northern PDP governors and their supporters for replacing Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, then the chair of the PDP. The resolve to remove him by most of the northern PDP governors, scores of senators, and members of the House of Representatives, including Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, its speaker, was informed by the conviction that Tukur had been imposed on the PDP by Jonathan for the purpose of helping him secure the PDP’s presidential nomination for the 2015 election (Egbosiuba 2014). The northern members of the PDP initially thought they could defeat Jonathan in a free and fair primary election, but his selection of Tukur made them feel that they could not defeat him. They were certain that Tukur would secure the votes for Jonathan and therefore called for his removal. Even when Bamanga Tukur was removed as the PDP chair, most northern PDP elites defected to the APC with a single objective: to install a northern president.

After the PDP adopted Jonathan as its sole candidate for the 2015 election, some aggrieved members made efforts to weaken the party, which experienced a massive defection of its elected members in the National Assembly to the strongest opposition party, symbolizing the forceful rotation of presidency to the north. The elites understood these political gimmicks and therefore resorted to hate speech along ethnic and other divisive lines. Tables A and B summarize a number of these hate speeches. Table A captures speeches by pro-Buhari elites who wanted a northern presidency, and table B collates speeches credited to pro-Jonathan elites, who favored southern continuity in the presidency. In the twelve months preceding the 2011 general elections, Alhaji Lawan Kaita remarked, “Anything short of a northern president is tantamount to stealing our presidency.” Dr. Junaidu Mohammed said, “It must be a northerner or no Nigeria.” These statements were used to describe the north as an in-group that should take the presidency, no matter the odds. In 2014, the Northern Elders’ Forum portrayed the supporters of Jonathan and the PDP as enemies of the north.

Some of the hate speeches meant to malign the north to win the sympathy of the south are contained in table B. For instance, Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who hails from the Niger Delta, obviously in support of his kinsman, President Jonathan, warned that there would be no peace anywhere in the country if Jonathan were not elected. Indeed, the delta and the southeast, which clearly supported Jonathan, incubated the resurgence of militancy and self-determination by groups such as the Independent Peoples of Biafra and the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra. Jonathan’s wife was neck-deep in hate speech to ensure that her husband retained political power. During the presidential campaign in Calabar, Cross River state in the Niger Delta, she mocked the popular Almajiris in the north with her speeches that “we are not like people from that part of the country who give birth to uncountable children that they dump in streets.” She also encouraged PDP supporters in the Niger Delta region to stone anybody that talked about change-the campaign slogan of the APC, an opposition party. Corroborating the above, a league of former delta militants remarked that if Jonathan lost political power to the north, the people of the region would take back their crude oil, the mainstay of the Nigerian economy (Eziokwu 2015). In response to the hate speeches credited to the former first lady and the league of former delta militants, the head of Arewa People’s Forum remarked, “The use of hate speeches during electioneering campaigns by family and friends of President Jonathan is an indication of desperation to retain the presidency in the south.”

Examples of hate speech were uttered along various religious divides. Nigeria is divided between predominantly northern Muslims and southern Christians. President Jonathan attracted the support of most southerners, while General Buhari attracted the support of most northerners. Hence, it was a huge challenge for the APC to avoid a presidential ticket with two Muslims running for president and vice president, as most of the party’s potential flag-bearers were Muslims. The PDP had actually capitalized on this campaign strategy, but the wise counsel of Femi Fani Kayode to the APC was that all the clever rationalizations and justifications in the world for presenting a Muslim-Muslim ticket would not enable the APC to escape censure (Adoyo 2014). However, the APC’s decision to search for a Christian to run for vice president did not prevent hate speech to arouse religious sentiments. Sheik Ima Sadiq, a Muslim scholar and Buhari supporter, took to Twitter to urge Muslims to vote for Buhari, saying it would be “sinful to support a non-Muslim.” The Constitution does not prohibit political parties from fielding people of the same faith as president and vice president in an election. In fact, the most cherished election-one that was annulled by the military government of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida in 1993-was won by a Muslim duo: Moshood Abiola and Baba Gana Kingibe (Adoyo 2014). Another faith-based presidential ticket fielded by a political party that did not constitute a political issue at the time was the Awolowo-Umeadi ticket under the Unity Party of Nigeria of the Second Republic, from 1979 to 1983. They did not win the election, but religion was not a key political instrument for the elite then. In the 2011 and 2015 elections, we found that religion was used as an instrument of mobilization and access to power. The imam of Lokoja Central Mosque observed that “most clerics in Nigeria today used their podium to campaign for their favorite political candidates during elections, sometimes employing hate speech without minding its repercussions in this life and the life after.”

A number of the elite have successfully employed hate speech to access or consolidate political power. For instance, Peter Ayodele Fayose favored President Jonathan’s continuity and remarked that Buhari would likely die in office if elected, as some former military heads of state from northern Nigeria benefitted from President Jonathan and the PDP winning the gubernatorial race in Ekiti state. Governor Fayose is from the southwest, where most politicians aligned themselves with the APC to secure a change of government. Recently, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation terminated N9.3 billion surveillance contracts awarded by President Jonathan to some former delta militants, including Mujaheed Asari-Dokubo, who employed hate speech during the 2015 general election (News Editor of Street Journal 2015).

For the elite who wanted a northern presidency, such as Lai Mohammed, the APC would have formed a parallel government if the 2015 elections had been rigged; however, after Buhari won the election, Lai Mohammed was rewarded with a ministerial position. The southeast representative of the Alliance for Credible Election remarked, “Lai Mohammed, who was the publicity secretary of APC during the 2015 general election, has been compensated with an appointment as the Minister of Information and Communication by President Buhari, whom he painted as Mr. Clean and others as corrupt and evil.” Similarly, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the national leader of the APC and a former governor of Lagos state, made an in-group of APC supporters, urging them to avoid exploring the option of judicial redress if they lost to the PDP (an out-group). Calls for APC supporters to take the law into their own hands, should they lose the election, have paid off: Asiwaju Bola Tinubu could have joined the APC vice-presidential ticket as Buhari’s running mate, but he preferred to support his loyalists and relatives. For instance, Professor Yemi Osibanjo, the current vice president of Nigeria, was the commissioner for justice in Lagos state during Tinubu’s administration as governor. Recently, President Buhari appointed Sunday Dare, the media aide to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, as the executive commissioner of Stakeholders Management. Similarly, the chair of the Academic Staff Union of Universities in Lagos state observes, “After the 2015 governorship election, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode has also appointed Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s sister-in-law and nephew, namely Lola Akande and Deji Tinubu respectively, as commissioners in Lagos state.” Though Buhari, a northerner, had contested and won the 2015 election, and had indeed made most appointments, especially of the security agencies, from the north (Baiyewu 2016; Onwuka 2016), he is still disliked by northerners who feel unaccommodated in the power shift. Shema Ibrahim, a former governor of Kastina state, a northerner and a Muslim, described those who were not supporting the PDP and its candidate as cockroaches (table B). It is ironic that among those already withdrawing support for Buhari for the 2019 election is Junaidu Mohammed, who fired the first salvo about a northern presidency during an interview with the Guardian, on November 2, 2010. He hinted that the north would not support Buhari for the 2019 election. He described the political officeholders under Buhari as power-hungry, nepotistic, hypocritical, and corruption-ridden (Weekly Post NG 2016). One lesson derivable from these points is that ethnic, regional, or religious differences do not matter so much, but the elites emphasize the divisions to mobilize a pliable population for their political gains.

Hate speech, though it ignores the basic tenets of democracy and elections, which should allow electorates to make choices based on their perception of the candidates’ capabilities, was widely heard in Nigeria during the 2011 and 2015 general elections. Ethnicity is meant to deceive voters into believing that a president from their in-group would deliver more social services to them than a president from the out-group. During the 2011 and 2015 general elections, elites employed hate speech in favor of a northern presidency or the retention of political power in the delta. This is akin to the politics of prebendalism (Joseph 1991), whereby elites exploit ethnicity not necessarily for the group’s interest, but for advancing their own interests. After elections are won and lost, the consequences of hate speech-such as violence, divisions, and hardship-threaten the public while the elite are rewarded with political appointments. The massaging of in-group sentiments and the employment of hate speech during political elections are not peculiar to Nigeria: the experiences of most African countries, including Ethiopia (Spiro 2007) and Kenya (Branch and Cheeseman 2006, 2009), are illustrative.

Concluding Remarks

Nigeria’s traditional ethnic intolerance provides ample grounds for the manipulative use of hate speech in the pursuit of political power. The PDP’s abrogation of its zoning formula allowed the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, to continue in power after Yar’Adua’s death, and it allowed him to vie for the presidency when the party’s nominee would ordinarily have been a northerner. This, in turn, led to an intensification of the use of hate speech along ethnic lines. Despite the adoption of assimilative programs, such as the constitutional requirement for the formation of nationality parties, the recourse to ethnic politics remains critical for clinching political power.

In line with the primordial theory of ethnicity, we submit that ethnic influences can persist, especially where groups perceive marginalization, and any effort to overlook the heterogeneity of Nigeria in a power struggle is unlikely to foster the desired unity in the country. This is because the elite, in their pursuit of political power and other resources, will always exploit divisive social features. Thus, any hope for the eventual disappearance of ethnicity in Nigeria, as modernization theorists argue, may be premature; after all, ethnicity has not disappeared among even the developed Western democracies (Kymlicka 2002). With this in mind, we suggest that ethnicity could be better addressed by providing and sustaining political arrangements, such as the zoning of political offices, that recognize and accommodate ethnic diversity.

In the Nigerian case investigated in this study, the zoning arrangement for political positions adopted by the PDP was helpful in unifying elites from various ethnic and regional groups until the usurpation of the northern presidential term by a southerner became an issue in the two most recent presidential elections, when elites used hate speech to strengthen their in-group identity and raise out-group suspicion by using the technique of accusation in the mirror. Hate speech became a tool readily available to reinvigorate ethnicity and other divisions. So far, hate speech is not currently regulated in Nigeria, as none of its users has been prosecuted. The nation’s Electoral Act should therefore be amended to address the use of language that harps on divisive features of the country in electoral campaigns. Above all, political arrangements that clearly articulate power sharing among major divisions in the country should be adopted.