More than ever before, Nigerian discourses are rapidly migrating to what one might call the virtual public sphere. Spirited and occasionally transformative discourses about Nigerian politics, economics, and culture are now increasingly taking place on such Web sites as Facebook, Sahara Reporters, the Nigerian Village Square, and a whole host of other digital discursive arenas. It came as no surprise to me when I read sometime ago that almost 40 percent of Internet traffic from Africa's over 50 countries now originates in Nigeria.
We have outrivaled South Africa and the North African nations of Egypt and Tunisia in Internet use. Until this year, these countries had dominated the African presence on the Web. This is a good sign. Discursive democracy, which has been sorely lacking in our political culture, is taking roots. This is especially helped by the impersonality and anonymity of the Internet, which conduce to the bracketing of social status differentials, so that people at the lower end of the social scale can converse on equal terms with people at the upper end of the scale.
This all bodes well for deliberative democracy, except that the nature, tenor, and compass of most of the discussions that take place in digital Nigeria give cause for a little worry. Go to the comments page of a typical article in, say Sahara Reporters or the Nigerian Village Square, on any issue. You will be petrified by the unnervingly savage profusion of unspeakably raw, undiluted ethnic and religious chauvinism that pass for comments. The display of baleful and willful ignorance is often so thick you can cut it with a knife.
If readers don't agree with a writer's point of view - or, in fact, if they merely don't like his/her name! - they almost always ignore the substance of his argument and launch vicious attacks on his ethnicity, religion, and region. And, of course, they never forget to add that he or she is a paid hack of some politician. In the twisted opinion of much of the contemporary Nigerian Internet commentariat, no opinion is the product of any individual's independent analytical or discursive choice; it's always already inspired either by primordial loyalties or by pecuniary gratification - or both! The only "objective" and "balanced" opinions are those that reinforce and give comfort to the commenters' prejudices and biases. Although there are the occasional sane, measured, and thoughtful comments on articles and news stories, they are often, for the most part, drowned out by the primitive cacophony of rank ignorance and bigotry that now pass for "comments" on Nigerian-based Web sites.
Every issue is gazed at from the crude prism of Nigeria's primordial fault-lines, which have unfortunately been actively promoted and even sanctified by our backward ruling elites since Nigeria's founding. Calls for the dissolution of the country or for the excision of certain parts of the country from the union, or the belittling of whole peoples and cultures almost always accompany ANY Nigerian online discussion. In short, the quality of discourse is often so terrifyingly crude, so rhetorically violent, so destitute in basic conversational decorum you would think you are in some godforsaken cyber-jungle where wild, blood-thirsty animals are tearing each other apart with maniacal glee.
A friend once mentioned to me that if the comments people make on popular Nigerian cyber forums is a genuine reflection of what we think about the fascinating ethnic and religious tapestry that is Nigeria, then we have no business remaining as one country. While I understand the sentiment behind this point of view, I think it misses three crucial points.
First, there is something about anonymity that just brings out the beasts in people. People write mean-spirited and unmentionable things about other people that they can't say about them or to them if they were to meet physically. Anonymity frees people from the burden of responsibility, accountability, and restraint. This fact, to be fair, is true of most anonymous online discourses; it isn't exclusive to Nigeria, although a certain class of Nigerians would seem to be patenting hate and irresponsibility in online comments.
Second, for most of our life as a nation, we have been under totalitarian military governments whose hallmark had been the cruel, iron-clad strangulation of dissent and honest national conversation. The brief periods of civilian administrations we've had have not been qualitatively different. Plus, our national media formation is, for the most part, corrupt, compromised, closed, and obsessed with the petty squabbles of the ruling elite. So people have not had avenues to vent the pent-up anger, angst, and anxieties that have built up in their systems over the years. The Internet is now providing the platform for them to ventilate their suppressed frustrations. Perhaps, after a while, the undisguised rawness and vulgarity that characterize online comments on popular Nigerian online discussion forums will wane and rational, reasoned conversations and logical disputations would take place. I hope I am right.
Third, it appears that the poor and lowly taste of the comments in these forums is a reflection of the low quality of mind and immaturity of the people who participate in them. If mastery of basic grammar can be a reliable measure of educational attainment ( I know it not always is), then most of the commenters really sound barely educated. They come across as angry, ignorant, ill-mannered little terrors. It appears that mature, well-educated Nigerians have withdrawn from participating in these forums and just watch in amusement from the sidelines. I can bear testimony that when I started to actively participate in Nigerian online conversations in the early times, the quality of discourse was far superior to what obtains now. The incredible ignorance and viciousness that now pass for discussion on Nigerian online discussion boards is truly staggering.
I've stopped participating in popular online Nigerian conversations in the last one year. I have even stopped reading comments on my articles, which is sad because there are the occasional insightful comments, contestations, additions, suggestions, etc from a few thoughtful readers. But I can't subject myself to the torment of reading scorn-worthy, malicious illiteracy that I have chosen not to respond to because I want to read the occasional intelligent comment. That's why I include my email address in every of my posts. If people have something important to say, they will probably send it to my email. And since the email will hopefully bear the real names of the senders, they are likely to be more civil and more measured than they would be under the cloak of anonymity that the message boards give them.
After all is said and done, I don't advocate that anybody be banned or censured for the egregiousness of their comments. I think the key is to introduce some mechanism for people to be accountable for the comments that they make - such as registering their IP addresses and making them trackable. But if "virtual" Nigeria is a true reflection of the "real" Nigeria, then ours is a country where frighteningly naked hate and mutual suspicion and distrust reign supreme. Wise leaders would take a cue from this.