By Benedicta Egbo
NIGERIA is a complex multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious society and, arguably, diversity is one of the globally recognised markers of its identity.
Paradoxically, the country has not been able to manage its diversity effectively since independence. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is plagued by seemingly intractable inter-ethnic and religious tensions that threaten national unity, security, peaceful co-existence and the country’s overall stability and development.
Indeed, more often than not, inter-group relations are arbitrated through the prism of biased linguistic, ethnic and religious divides that have, for all practical purposes, degraded the quality of inter-group interactions in the country.
Ironically, while Nigerians have faced discrimination, xenophobic attacks and killings outside the country such as those that recently occurred in South Africa, the country’s major challenge is intra – or within country xenophobia – the unfounded and irrational fear of “strangers”, other people, cultures or religion.
Xenophobia within the country has, in turn, resulted in many internal conflicts that have, concomitantly, created thousands of Nigerian refugees within their own country- an unacceptable and previously unimaginable phenomenon.
Given this state of affairs, it is rather perplexing that the National Assembly would devote its time and attention to the so-called hate speech and social media bills which critics – including legal luminaries, academics, journalists, politicians and civil society organisations, all agree are unnecessary given that extant law in both the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and the Cybercrimes Act, 2015 already address the issue and, clearly stipulate penalties for abuses in both the conventional and social media.
Additionally, as pundits have also pointed out, the hate speech bill and its draconian punishment is an infringement on the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech within the framework of Nigeria’s liberal democracy. To be sure, every responsible government has a right to be concerned about excesses and abuses in the various sectors of society, including conventional and social media.
However, the proposed hate speech and social media bills seem to be replications of existing laws. Moreover, in addition to curtailing freedom of expression, they contravene the principles of critical national introspection. Unquestionably, constructive criticism and diversity of thought are necessary conditions for sustainable democracy.
That said, what does Nigeria need given the increasing tendency towards intolerance and toxic inter-group relations within the country? As a matter of urgency, Nigeria needs a robust Diversity Bill to establish the legislative framework for promoting mutual respect, inter-ethnic, intercultural and religious tolerance in the country.
The Bill should also mandate just and inclusive governance as well as legislate penalties for contraventions of the law. Perhaps even more important, the Bill should promote diversity as a national asset and not a liability. Indeed, given rising and potentially combustible inter-group tensions in the country, the Diversity Bill ought to be one of the legislative priorities of the current National Assembly.
Although the 1999 Constitution recognises the country’s diversity (within the framework of national unity and federal character), the Diversity Bill proposed here would simultaneously complement and transcend the diversity-related sections and clauses in the Constitution. Components of the Bill should include a clause that would establish a Ministry of Diversity (and Multiculturalism) in the country. Different from the directorate of National Orientation, the new ministry would, among other responsibilities, be charged with the following:
*Developing specific policies and strategies for promoting tolerance, national unity and peace;
*Working in partnership with both the executive and legislative branches of government, develop inclusive and equity-oriented social policies for various sectors of the Nigerian society;
*Working in tandem with the Ministry of Education, develop and integrate mandatory diversity (and intercultural) literacy, peace and civic education programmes into the school curriculum at the first two tiers of the education system;
*Developing strategies and policies for addressing the concerns of socially and politically excluded and marginalised groups in the country in consultation with key stakeholders
The current National Orientation Agency, as well as the directorate of the National Youth Service Corps (which has been one of Nigeria’s success stories with regards to promoting diversity, national unity and peace), can also be integrated into the new Ministry of Diversity (and Multiculturalism).
Those who may query the need for enacting a Diversity Bill (and there are bound be quite a few), should look no further than the escalating violence and insecurity in the country, the increasing rate of ethnic tensions, the ideological shift towards regionalism and, the increasing advocacy for true federalism within the country’s geopolitical architecture. Indeed, the propositions that are discussed here are grounded in the recognition that Nigeria is at a cross-roads for reasons that are, in many ways, related to the dysfunctional handling of its demographic diversity.
It is, however, worth pointing out that while diversity has its inherent challenges, it remains, incontestably, one of Nigeria’s greatest strengths and conduit to socio-economic prosperity.
This is the general perception of diversity in many climes even in immigrant-receiving Western countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, the United States, France, etc., which have, with varying degrees of success, developed progressive and inclusive diversity policies.
Most of these countries are considerably less diverse than Nigeria, but they prioritise diversity as a strength that can be leveraged for the economic and socio-political benefit of their societies.
My overall contention here is that in the final analysis, Nigeria’s immense promise as a prosperous nation-state can only be achieved when the country (especially its leadership and the political class in general), is able to manage its diversity effectively for the common good. The time to act is now.