A fracturing of the Nigerian state looms on the horizon—harking back to a bloodied history of ethno-religious conflict and fuelled by unchecked ethnic hate speech.

When asked whether Nigeria could really split into two or more nations, Nigerian writer Tade Ipadeola, of the Yoruba ethnic group, tells me: “It’s a real possibility now. In the event that balkanization happens, the least number of succession blocs is three. There is a possibility of up to six countries emerging.”

In response to the worsening climate, a group of Nigerian writers—including Ipadeola—are calling for restraint amid heated rhetoric as the nation splinters along ethnic and religious lines. On June 28, 28 writers published a statement titled “Ethnic hate speech,” addressing the increase in ethnic hate speech. “Freedom of speech, though sacrosanct, is not absolute,” they write. “Our freedom is a shared one, limited by the freedom of others. Citizens must draw the line between free speech and arbitrary spite.” The statement is careful not to mention specific examples of hate speech, nor does it single out ethnicities. Rather, it’s an impassioned plea offering a “warning” of what can happen when “parochial politics” go unchecked.

“The ‘us’ against ‘them’ rhetoric that ignited bloodshed of a bestial magnitude since independence has resurfaced again,” the 28 writers warn. “A new breed of ethnic entrepreneurs seem hell-bent on causing anarchy for political motives. The lessons of our history are being ignored.”

Ethno-Religious Conflict in Historical Context

In order to understand today’s current fracturing, one has to understand its historic, religious, ethnic, and geographic context. Starting with the country’s decolonization, when the British left Nigeria in 1960 having drawn up arbitrary lines on a map that sliced through ethnic and religious groups, a coming storm was set in motion.

That storm was the Biafran War, three years of bloodshed which saw over a million deaths. And while the civil war ended in 1970—when the breakaway region of Biafra dissolved back into the Federal Republic of Nigeria—the ethno-religious tensions did not.

Today, much of the country remains divided along these ethno-religious lines: The southeast region is the homeland to the Igbo, who are almost all Christian, many of whom want their own nation, Biafra. Yet, in the southwest, only 45 percent of the population is Christian. In the northern part of the country—where the current president is from—the majority of the people are Muslim, about 80 percent of the population.

But of course, there is more nuance to Nigeria’s religious and ethnic DNA: Weaving through Nigeria’s fabric are over 250 ethnic groups and over 500 languages. “A good number of Nigerians are animists, for example, and a growing number are atheists,” says Ipadeola, who is a signatory to the June 28 statement. Crudely speaking, however, in recent times there have been calls for a northern “Muslim Nigeria” to sit atop a southern “Christian Nigeria.” These calls have not gone without bloodshed.

Violent speech seems to be rising alongside violence itself. In 2015, Radio Biafra, an eastern Nigerian radio station, was accused of spreading hate speech when it reportedly canvassed for secession. “It appears the echoes of the civil war are still here with us,” reported local media. Soon after, in November 2016, Amnesty International reported the killing of 150 pro-Biafra activists had been killed since August 2015. Whatever the motives for these deaths, the answer to incendiary speech is not murder—this only ensures the cycle of needless killings will continue.

“Free Speech” vs. “Arbitrary Spite”

The distinction that the 28 writers make between “free speech” and “arbitrary spite”—or hate speech—is supported by recent events. In addition to the 2015 Radio Biafra broadcasts, two recent public statements by separate groups seem to cross the line from free speech into dangerous speech intending to scapegoat and increasing the likelihood of violence.

The first statement, known as “the Kaduna Declaration,” was issued by a coalition of youth groups from Nigeria’s north. The declaration simultaneously calls for the expulsion of the small number of Igbo people—who mostly live in the southeast—to leave northern Nigeria, and for secession of Northern Nigeria from “the current federal arrangement.” The authors of the Kaduna Declaration note that this declaration of secession is “necessitated by the realization that it since ceased to be comfortable or safe to continue sharing the same country with the ungrateful, uncultured Igbos who have exhibited reckless disrespect for the other federating units and stained the integrity of the entire nation with their insatiable criminal obsessions.”

In response, Nwachukwu Egbunike—one of the signees of “Ethnic hate speech”—calls for calm, and stresses the seriousness of the Kaduna statement. He says all political utterances—including those by his own Igbo people—should “bear in mind Nigeria’s long history of ethno-religious conflicts.” “This is 2017 and people use this type of deep seated animosity in their speech precisely because of the culture of impunity which reigns in Nigeria. These conflicts break out, people are slaughtered and no one is punished.”

The second recent example of questionable public speech is the response to the Kaduna Declaration from the Middle Belt Youth Council in the Middle Belt region—the area between the North and South characterized by its mix of ethnicities and religions—calling for its sponsors to “be arrested and charged for treason.” In addition, they offer safe haven to the Igbos who, under the Kaduna Declaration, would be kicked out of the north, and call for the Middle Belt to join hands with the Southern part of Nigeria and secede. Or, put another way, the Middle Belt will gladly let the north breakaway to form its own country.

Both the Kaduna Declaration and the Middle Belt Youth council’s response demonstrate the “hijacking” of political discourse “by a vocal minority of individuals who promote ethnocentric ideas” that the 28 writers condemn.

A Commonwealth at Risk

The future of Nigeria, Ipadeola notes, depends on what happens when—and if—Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari emerges from his UK medical bunker. Elected in 2015, Buhari has spent much of the year in London receiving medical treatment under ominous secrecy. The president’s poor health, combined with minimal information on his current state, is causing a power vacuum back home.

Hoping to put an end to the violence, the writers demand that the government of Nigeria “do everything in its power to protect her citizens and avert another spate of useless killings, and to listen to all aggrieved segments in a constructive and productive manner.”

Regardless of whether or not President Buhari ever emerges—or whoever is to lead the country into the near future—the tone of the writers’ letter suggests time is of the essence. “Nigeria’s democracy, attained through great sacrifice and loss, now faces its most crucial test of ensuring that citizens are safe wherever they choose to reside.”

As for the Nigerian people?

If Nigerians wish to preserve this hard-earned democracy, they must heed the writers’ warnings and learn from their past before history repeats itself. They must unite against the outspoken, hateful minority to protect the commonwealth.

Or witness history repeat itself.