Fellow Nigerians, these are very interesting and humorous times indeed! Barely one week after the Big Brother Naija show was concluded, ending our light relief, some restless Nigerians have started their own nebulous reality show in earnest. To say Nigerians are well endowed with fecund imaginations and fantastic creativity would be an understatement. This is why rumour mongering is big business in this climate.
Let me reassure you that it didn’t just start today. Many are blaming the proliferation of social media and the affordability of internet data for this unusual surge in the wild speculations and stories flying everywhere today, but I wish to disagree with this theory. This is a major aspect of my research work at The African Studies Centre, University of Oxford.
Society Journalism is not new to Nigeria or Africa. This genre thrives on wild rumours and fertile imaginations. It was once described as junk journalism. And society loves junk generally because it is like fast food. People love to read and hear and discuss society people. Society people or newsmakers themselves love to gobble up junk stories, no matter how ridiculous they may be or sound. More often than not, the stories are untrue, but society still feeds on them.
Let me take you down memory lane. In May 1989, a wild rumour surfaced that nearly sent the government of President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida packing. The content of the rumour was so bizarre, but even intelligent people still believed the story. It was what led to what was tagged THE SAP RIOTS. SAP was the acronym for Structural Adjustment Program which President Babangida had introduced at the time. Then came the news, which was made believable by the participation of the famous social critic, Dr Tai Solarin, who swore by Jove that the story was impeccably true. What was it all about? It turned out that this tale was what he had learnt from a brief but hasty trip to a public toilet where he had overheard a conversation in which the lurid allegations were made.
It was reported that while Nigerians were being asked to tighten their belts and lives, Babangida’s family allegedly owned some of the most exclusive and expensive boutiques in Europe. Since there was no social media to help project, propel and distribute the gossip, the promoters had to improvise by typing the tales by moonlight on stencils and printing them as leaflets.
Unlike today, that was a time when we had no social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, it therefore remains a mystery how they were able to make those leaflets go so viral in 1989. From Lagos to Edo State and around the South West axis, the stories developed wings and began to spread across Nigeria like wildfire in harmattan. The more people tried to douse the fire, the higher the fire took a major leap of its life. And sadly, people believed the campaign of calumny against the government of the day which led to the youths taking to the roads and streets screaming “Babangida must go…” Anyone who said anything contrary was instantly considered an enemy of the people and friends of the looters. The situation was not so much different as it is today, but social media has since made such stories readily available to a willing, gullible and sometimes ignorant market.
I was away from our office at the Weekend Concord newspaper when the news broke on a horrible Wednesday. I returned on Friday afternoon by which time the first edition of the tabloid had gone to bed and already printed. The screaming headline was BLACK WEDNESDAY IN LAGOS. I immediately disagreed with my boss, Mr Mike Awoyinfa, that the headline was rather weak for a Saturday paper. He then challenged me to come up with a better headline and I picked up the challenge and came up with my own: RUMOURS THAT FUELLED THE RIOTS! My Editor was over the moon with his deputy editor, Mr. Dimgba Igwe (now of blessed memory).
The next problem was how to write a good story to justify my new headline without getting into trouble with the military government of the day. Trust me, I offered to be the lamb of God who would carry the sins of the world. Interestingly, this was 30 years ago, in 1989. I ordered a bottle of beer and raised one of my legs on the table while I pumped the alcohol into my brains to emit some powerful words for one of the biggest stories of my journalism career. That was when the famous columnist, May Ellen Ezekiel, who had just lost her job at Quality magazine and was now working on her own publication, Classique magazine, but kept a column in Weekend Concord, which I edited, sauntered in and saw me drinking while writing. First it was strange, and almost sacrilegious, to find anyone drinking in the main offices of Concord newspapers, except at the popular Bush Canteen, earmarked for such purpose, and then to be writing a satanic story at that. May Ellen approached me and said “shuo, what’s going on here?” I explained the delicate story I was working on and she was excited too. That was the day her respect for me quadrupled and she started making moves to headhunt and poach me to her magazine, to which I fell yakata about a year later.
Fortunately, that evening, our Chairman, Chief Moshood Abiola, returned from a trip to Europe and brought us copies of the Ebony magazines which was allegedly supposed to have carried the stories of the Babangida’s outlandish ownerships of expensive shops and choice properties abroad while Nigerians languished in excruciating pains. Nothing of the sort was ever published by Ebony. That was not the type of gossipy stuff Ebony would normally disseminate. So, I first regurgitated all the fictional anecdotes before revealing that we had laid our hands on recent editions of Ebony and nothing of the sort was contained therein. And we published a bromide of the Ebony on the cover to prove the authenticity of our claims. I believe our second edition on Saturday morning reportedly sold over 80,000 copies in Lagos and its environ alone. And I earned a double promotion that May 1989, when I moved straight from Staff Writer to Literary editor. Six months later, I was promoted News Editor, and it was such a meteoric rise for me. Our Managing Director, Dr Doyinsola Hamdat Abiola, who had handpicked me for the job at weekend Concord as a pioneer staff, from my former post at the African Concord magazine, was very proud of her decision.
Thus, you can imagine how I feel today, 30 years after, with another round of incredible fictionalisation, this time, about a former military ruler, now a civilian President, Muhammadu Buhari. The difference this time, I must reiterate is that the youths of today are much more audaciously creative, and largely emboldened by their smartphones from where they can operate even more clandestinely and incognito.
No one knows how the rumours of President Buhari’s supposed whirlwind romance with one of his new Ministers surfaced and blew out of proportion such that everyone is talking about it authoritatively. Different versions of invitation cards have been designed and printed online. Some people claimed the wedding was definitely taking place and procured their own “aso ebi”, a special uniform dress for special guests, friends and relatives. By Thursday night, I had reached out to several impeccable sources within and outside the Presidential villa and was told categorically that no such event would take place on Friday, October 11, 2019. I also confirmed that the supposed bride was not even anywhere near Nigeria. She was away overseas on national assignments.
But some new videos, purportedly showing the supposed arrival of the reportedly estranged First Lady, Mrs Aisha Buhari, who has made England her new home and base these past months, were going viral. One of them was a loud voice lamenting how some parts of the villa had been locked up and the woman in the video was practically stridently lamenting and soliloquising about how she was being treated shabbily. “Enough is enough” was her bitter assertion in that particular video. There were other videos of the new bride dancing and being sprayed with crispy notes in what looked like a traditional wedding party. All the videos of the alleged returnee wife and the supposed incoming bride turned out to be old footage obtained from God knows where and how.
My investigations further revealed that the First Lady was also out of the country. I therefore, tweeted that there was no way such a wedding would take place in secret, but many still disagreed with me. President Buhari is a man well known for his strong convictions and would not hide behind one finger, if and when he decides to take another wife. It is not an offence against his culture and religion to marry more than more wife, so there is nothing that can stop or discourage him, if he really wants another wife. What I find odd and strange is that his handlers allowed the silly rumours to fester beyond redemption. A simple statement would have killed the unbridled rumour in its infancy.
By yesterday afternoon, the rumour came up with renewed vigour as the day of reckoning loomed with some people running commentaries like football commentators from the “wedding venue”. I have never felt so entertained and titillated in my life. My name even came into one of these spoofs. These guys are downright hilarious!
Someone created the account, Uncle Demola @OmoGbajabiamila, and ran this commentary:
“Burna Boy is giving us ‘when the gbedu de enter body’ “…
“Oshiomhole don off shirt.”
“LMFAOOOooo… Chris Ngige is doing breakdance to Burna Boy’s song. Anambra people can disappoint sha!”
“Adebayo Shittu is finally here.”
“When Baba see strippers, E just de shout ‘Astagafurillahi, Astagafurillahi, Astagafurillahi!’ “
“I’m hearing noise outside. Let me go and check what’s happening.”
“There is a serious problem outside between Rochas and DSS.”
“Apparently, Rochas Okorocha came with a giant statue of Buhari and he wants to bring it inside but the DSS guys won’t allow it. Where’s Abba Kyari FFS???
Rochas just came in and he’s complaining bitterly about the DSS guys not allowing him bring the statue in.”
“Wait! Dino Melaye has been allowed to enter as Naira Marley’s backup singer. Smart man!” #BUSA19
“Naira Marley has not even started singing, Lauretta Onochie is already twerking… DSS, heissss DSS. Do your job naaau!”
“Shehu Sani is on low cut. Baba wan disguise enter. ABBA Kyari catch am. DSS is taking him away already!”
“Apparently, someone told Dele Momodu that the party had been called off. So, he didn’t bother to come. Baba dey Twitter now de lament as e see say groove don begin.”
“LMFAOOOOooo… ABBA Kyari don bounce Dino Melaye.”
“Elrufai don show!!!”
“Goodluck Jonathan came with his own Sapele water. Ijaw man himself. Hennessy na like Sprite for am.”
“Garba Shehu de in charge of Barbecue.”
“Be like Femi Adeshina de suspension.”
“…Dem don wake Ganduje, make E come go sleep upstairs. Be like Baba don de snore.”
“Amaechi and Wike are also here but the two of them are on handcuffs so that there won’t be any fighting between them.”
“Akeredolu with this his baggy trousers sha. Who is his tailor nitori Olorun?”
“Buhari has collected the mic from Naira Marley. Looks like he doesn’t like the Soapy song. Not sure Abike Dabiri will like this!”
“Rauf Aregbesola is drinking Malt.”
“Fashola is calling NEPA boys to bring light. Be like fuel don low for gen and Mele Kyari nor remember to buy fuel.”
“Femi Gbajabiamila is here on a Gucci up and down. Iyalaya anybody!”
“Femi Otedola and Dangote are forming big boys. Nonsense!”
“I think I have been reported. The DSS guys are looking at me wan kain…” That’s the narrator, Uncle Demola himself.
For me, that was the height of comic relief that attended this silliness and maybe it came at the right time of acute stress everywhere. It certainly alleviated my feeling of gloom and doom. The solution is certainly not to ban or criminalise fake news. That was not done in 1989 by the more authoritarian, dictatorial military regime of Ibrahim Babangida. It should not be done now, when we are in a constitutional civilian democracy! For me, as a journalist, the freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution is sacrosanct and, in any event, there are extant laws available to deal with any abuse or infraction. Any new law will only be used by those keen to muzzle critics and presumed opponents of government like the so-called “wailing wailers”!
My conclusion is that nothing can ever shock Nigerians again so that even if this story had been true, we would have taken it in our stride. Our proclivity for absorbing shocks is infinitesimal. The world is waiting and watching how alleged family feuds, rebellion and relationships involving the leadership, domestic and other staff would end eventually.
Will this national drama ever lead to a denouement? Time will tell.