Opinion: Hate speech leads to violence, death, destruction

“And must be investigated and prosecuted to deter would be copycats”, says Kelfala Torka.

It took unchecked radio and other broadcasts over Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) by the likes of Noel Hitimana and others to stoke years of cultivated hatred that led to the horrific deaths of close to a million Tutsis, moderate Hutus and non-Rwandans suspected of sympathising with the hated Tutsis in less than 100 days. Rwanda shows how hate speech leads to violence.

11 days ago on 18th July 2020 in Makeni, at least five youths were reportedly killed and many wounded when state security personnel allegedly opened fire on young people protesting the moving of a 1.65 mw thermal generator from their city to Lungi. People generally believe that a social media broadcast by the man comically referred to as “the unofficial opposition”, Adebayo, prompted the youths onto the streets on the night of Friday 17th July. The government of Sierra Leone has rightfully set up a Presidential Task Force to look into what led to these deaths and ways to ensure it is not repeated. Heads are surely expected to roll.

A day after the ‘Makeni Riot’ on 19th July 2020, an obnoxious audio message was released online by one ‘Peter Saffa’ denigrating the Fullahs as a people that, “practice witchcraft, perpetuate corruption and promote lawlessness”. The timing of this viral message, coming a day after Makeni, should not escape our notice. Wonderpolis.org describes ‘going viral’ as “sharing something via email or social media that spreads quickly to millions of people online”.

On Tuesday 28th July 2020, the Fullah Progressive Union put out a press release across major newspapers condemning Saffa’s audio message, calling it a “hate speech” with the “propensity to endanger the lives and properties of the Fullahs and all peace loving peoples of Sierra Leone”. In the Rwanda Genocide perpetrated by the Hutus against the Tutsis, moderate Hutus and others – from different races and countries – were also killed, and properties destroyed, using crude weapons such as “machetes, spears, nail-studded clubs, and other rudimentary weapons”, according to Kennedy Ndahiro, Editor of the New Times.

Speaking to a cross section of Fullahs and other Sierra Leonean men, the general consensus among them is that Sierra Leone is not at the point of Rwanda, yet, but that Rwanda didn’t happen overnight – it was stoked unchecked over the years stemming from European occupiers shifting the balance of power in favour of the minority Tutsis over the majority Hutus. “I don’t feel threatened. I never really think about it. I focus on my business and my family. I am not a tribalist; I am an individual that’s concerned with a cohesive society”, says Abubakar of Hamdalaye on Goderich street. Former Fullah chief aspirant Sheik Alimamy Njai Ali says people don’t hate Fullahs, or vice versa, that Saffa’s audio is a case of an individual or personal issue being generalised.

“This individual hates Fullahs. But he does not speak for the rest of Sierra Leoneans. Every tribe has good and bad individuals. Consequently, there are bad and good Fullahs. But he cannot say all Fullah people do so and so because of one Fullah person”. Sheik Njai Ali says no one is innocent, “not 100 percent or angels”. He sees himself as a Sierra Leonean that puts country over tribe, and calls on others to do likewise.

“This is what makes America great. There is racism there, but not tribalism. We all need to cool down and focus on building the country together”. Mr. Sello Barrie of Pottal Forex says across Africa progressive tribes are blamed for the country’s woes, and that these tribes are seen as “foreigners”. He says Fullah people are all over West Africa, even the world.

He says tribal issues in Sierra Leone take all forms. The Mendes are against the Temnes, this one against that one, all of which have led to Sierra Leone being as divided as it is today. Tribal issues go beyond Fullah people, we speak against each other openly, even as jokes, he says, adding this is what has led to all the issues the country is grappling with, including Fullah people accused of being witches, corrupt and lawless.  Sadly, he says, “When someone hates you, he hates you and all yours throughout. It is the same when someone loves you”. He suggests that people should travel to gain more exposure and see each other as one.

Fullah people are all over West Africa, and have made significant contributions to the economic progress of the region. The Founding Father of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was Fullah. Former Malian President, Amadou Toumani Toure – Fullah. Former CAF boss Issa Hayatou of Cameroon is Fullah. World renowned Senegalese musician Baba Maal is Fullah. Our Vice President Dr Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh is Fullah. If we as a people had elected APC, Chernor Maju Bah would have been our VP. There is indication and speculation that the leader of the official opposition in Parliament could be standard bearer next presidential offing.

So, what of Peter Saffa’s viral message?

“He is purposefully trying to stoke tribal divisions in Sierra Leone; and we should not encourage that. We have experienced war as a people. The international community is trying to encourage us and Liberia because as a people that have tasted war we are susceptible to repeating it. Germany did it for racial reasons mostly and look what happened there”, said Kelfala Torka. He says he sees himself as a Sierra Leonean first. He says the rule of law must act to prevent tribal issues being stoked at the detriment, including deaths and otherwise, of a particular tribe and those seen as sympathising with them. “If Rwanda was dealt with from the beginning, if Hitler was stopped at the beginning, and if all reports of past and current tribal or racial discrimination were dealt with and nipped at the bud, we wouldn’t have heard of their horrible details”.

Police Media One, ASP Brima Kamara, on his way out of his George Street office, obliged this query. He says Saffa cannot hide behind his audio message. He can be traced. He suggests the Fullah Progressive Union, or anyone, can submit the tape to the CID Cyber Unit, Pademba Road. A formal report would speak to the security implications of the message. A member of SLAJ says hate speech is now a civil matter. Although the recent repeal of Part 5 of the Public Order Act decriminalises libel and makes it a civil offence, the law is still there. He says if a case is instituted at CID, the accused gets a call to answer to the charge/s against him/her. The case can be taken to either the courts or the Independent Media Commission. This would send a strong message that Sierra Leone is focused on progress, not divisions with the potential to lead to tribal/civil unrest.

By Jerry Kai-Lewis