A different version of this article first appeared on this page on October 30, 2010 with the title "What Virtual Nigeria Says about Real Nigeria."
More than ever before, Nigerian discourses are rapidly migrating to what one might call the cyberian public sphere. Spirited and occasionally transformative discourses about Nigerian politics, economics, and culture are now increasingly taking place on such websites as Facebook, Twitter, Sahara Reporters, the Nigerian Village Square, Premium Times, and a whole host of other digital discursive arenas. It came as no surprise to me when I read sometime in 2010 that almost 40 percent of Internet traffic from Africa's over 50 countries now originates from Nigeria.
Nigeria has outrivaled South Africa and the North African nations of Egypt and Tunisia in Internet usage. Until 2010, 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, 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 cyber Nigeria (or cyberia) give cause for a little worry. Go to the comments page of a typical article in, say Sahara Reporters or Premium Times, on any issue. You'd be petrified by the unnervingly savage profusion of unspeakably raw, undiluted ethnic and religious chauvinism that pass for "comments."
In the twisted opinions of much of the Nigerian Internet commentariat, no opinion is ever 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 often 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 usually, for the most part, drowned out by the primitive cacophony of rank ignorance and bigotry that now pass for "comments" on Nigerian-based websites.
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 elite 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'd 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 are a genuine reflection of what they really 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 from the totalitarian military regimes they succeeded. 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 Nigerian online platforms is a reflection of the low quality of the minds of the people who participate in them. If mastery of basic grammar is a reliable measure of educational attainment (I know it is not always), then most of the commenters really sound barely educated; they come across as ignorant, angry, ill-mannered little terrors. It appears that mature, well-educated Nigerians have withdrawn from participating in these forums and just watch in amusement and bemusement from the sidelines. I can bear testimony that when I started to actively participate in Nigerian online conversations in the early 2000s, the quality of discourse was far superior to what obtains now. The breathtakingly staggering ignorance and viciousness that now pass for discussion on Nigerian online discussion boards are relatively recent.
I've stopped participating in popular online Nigerian conversations in the last four years. I have even stopped sharing my articles outside of my blog, which is sad because there are the occasional insightful comments, contestations, additions, suggestions, etc. that one gets from a few thoughtful readers. But I can't subject myself to the torment of reading hate-filled, scorn-worthy, malicious illiteracy just because I want to read the occasional intelligent comment. If people have something important to say, they will probably send it to my email or share it on my Facebook wall. And since the email and Facebook profile 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 of popular Nigerian websites give them.
After all is said and done, I don't advocate that people be censured for the egregiousness of their comments. Let people ventilate the hate and lies and bigotry that lurk in their diseased minds. Perhaps, someday, they will get catharsis and subsequently realize the folly of their ways. For now, though, what is clear is that cyber Nigeria is a distressing social barometer of the frighteningly naked hate and mutual suspicion and distrust that reign supreme in real Nigeria.