Mailafia and the conspiracy theories


Simon Kolawole

Dr Obadiah Mailafia, a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), shook the airwaves recently when he told a radio station that a northern governor is the commander of Boko Haram. He also said the terrorists were flying freely during the coronavirus lockdown. “We have met with some of their high commanders, they have sat down with us not once, not twice,” he said in the interview that was also on video. “They told us that one of the northern governors is the commander of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Boko Haram and the bandits are one and the same. During this lockdown, their planes were moving up and down as if there was no lockdown.”

The video went super viral. After watching it, I was struck by a familiar feeling and I said to myself: “Haven’t I heard this before?” Immediately, I remembered: Admiral Murtala Nyako, as governor of Adamawa state, said a similar thing at a meeting with Ms Susan Rice, then-US national security advisor, and other US officials at the White House on March 18, 2014. In attendance were other northern governors. Nyako’s claim was that President Goodluck Jonathan was behind Boko Haram. He said Jonathan’s government was supplying arms to Boko Haram to perpetuate the conflict in the north to reduce their voting power ahead of his re-election bid in 2015.

I heard it before. Maj-Gen Muhammadu Buhari was allegedly the brain behind Boko Haram. They said he was a religious fanatic who was trying to use the terrorists to chase Jonathan out of power in 2015. At a point, Buhari was nominated by “Boko Haram” to negotiate with the federal government to bring an end to the bloodshed. It was a Catch-22: if Buhari was the problem, how can the problem solve the problem? If he agreed to help negotiate, that would be a confirmation that he was their godfather. If he said he would not, that would be proof that he did not want the bloodshed to end because he was the one behind it. He was damned, either way. He still chose to decline.

I heard it before. Lt-Gen Azubuike Ihejirika, then chief of army staff, was allegedly the brain behind Boko Haram. They said he was the one supplying them with arms and ammunition because as an Igboman, he had an unfinished business: to destroy northern Nigeria in revenge for the civil war of 1967-70. He was the first Igbo to lead the army since the end of the civil war and it was a perfect conspiracy theory to hold him responsible for the activities of Abubakar Shekau, Mohammed Al Barnawi, Mamman Nur and the rest of them. Ihejirika had to head for the courts to defend his name as the allegations became a staple diet for the Nigerian media.

Nyako never backed down, despite facing impeachment proceedings apparently orchestrated from Abuja. He wrote a widely publicised letter to the Northern Governors Forum, waxing lyrical in what sounded like a call to arms. He wrote: “Clearly the victims of the Administration’s evil-mindedness are substantially Northern Nigerians. The Administration is bent on bringing wars in the North between Muslim and Christians and within them and between one ethnic group and another or others in various communities in the region. Cases of mass murders by its bloody minded killers and cut-throats are well known, but it attributes the killings to so-called Boko-Haram.”

Nyako said thousands of young girls and boys had been kidnapped by “clearly organised militia in the last few years and kidnapping is now a random affair all over the far North”, adding that these organised kidnappers “must have the backing of the Federal administration for them to move about freely with abducted children just as those who convey ammunition and explosives from the Ports to the safe-houses of so-called Boko Haram in the North”. He repeated the claims he made in the US that arms and ammunition were being supplied to Boko Haram by air. For all his efforts, though, Nyako was impeached. But his conspiracy theory outlasted him.

After watching the Mailafia video, I spent a few minutes browsing through our history inside my head. Who indeed is behind Boko Haram? Who should we believe among the conspiracy theorists? They said it was PDP, they said it was APC, they said it was Buhari, they said it was Jonathan, they said it was Ihejirika, they said it was Senator Modu Sheriff. And now it is one northern governor that is the commander. Is there any northern governor today who can drive comfortably into Boko Haram’s territory and come out alive? Should we carry out an experiment? Who among the 19 northern governors will volunteer to give it a go? Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?

After honouring an invitation by the Department of State Services (DSS) to explain his claims, Mailafia, who hails from southern Kaduna, initially compared himself to Dr Nelson Mandela. But a day later, he was sounding more like the late Dr Tai Solarin, the social critic who played a critical role in spreading the wild rumours that fuelled the 1989 nationwide riots. Mailafia said he actually got the rumour from Fulani traders (no longer Boko Haram commanders); that he did not know his claim was on video (I’m not sure they used a hidden camera, but well…); that he was a fan of Buhari (cough cough); and that he was sorry if his claim offended anyone (no life was lost, thank God).

In 1989, Nigeria caught fire after Solarin, in his weekly newspaper column, relayed rumours that Ebony, the African-American magazine, had reported that Gen Ibrahim Babangida, the military president, and his wife, Maryam, owned the biggest fashion house in Paris, the biggest watch maker in Switzerland, and the biggest everything everywhere. Coming at a time Nigerians were reeling under economic hardship blamed on the structural adjustment programme (SAP), the rumours sparked spontaneous violence nationwide, leading to over 50 deaths. When the revered Solarin was brought on national TV and given a copy of Ebony to substantiate his claims, he looked sorry.

If Mailafia had made his claims some 30 years ago, I would have swallowed them head, thorax and abdomen — just as I gulped Solarin’s claims like apple juice in 1989. I never questioned anything. I disliked Babangida with passion and anything anybody said about him was true as far as I was concerned. There was no need to verify anything. The truth is that intrinsic bias makes us believe or disbelieve anything. We do not really care about the truth. Peter Wason, the late English cognitive psychologist, called this “confirmation bias”: our tendency to favour information that confirms or strengthens our beliefs or values — and, unfortunately, it is difficult to dislodge once affirmed.

If you disliked Babangida, you would most likely believe anything negative said about him. The first thing biases and prejudices do to the brain is to damage the cells — and it doesn’t matter if we have doctorate degrees or we are stark illiterates. We lose our ability to think rationally. We embrace all kinds of theories that definitely will not add up if we subject them to scrutiny. Common sense takes flight. In my career as a journalist, I have come across eminent Nigerians whom I had respected and adored all my life. By the time I am done with them, I feel sorry for Nigeria and wonder if we can ever make progress with the quality of their thinking — tainted with ethnic, religious or political bile.

Mailafia, in all fairness, is an accomplished professional. His resume is as impressive as they come: he graduated top of his class at ABU, Zaria, in 1978 with a BSc in politics, economics and sociology; had an MSc also from ABU; and was a commonwealth scholar at the Oxford University, earning a doctor of philosophy in economics. He worked at the African Development Bank Group; was the chief of staff (chef de cabinet) to the 79-member nation African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of states; and was CBN deputy governor from 2005 to 2007. He was probably disappointed that he was overlooked for the CBN governorship in 2009, presumably because he was a northern minority.

When someone of his calibre (by the way, he was a presidential candidate in 2019 and, at 63, deserves to be called an elder in the Nigerian society) makes a grievous claim that a governor is leading the most murderous jihadist group in Africa, people are most likely going to take him seriously. In fact, he played up his CV to make his claims believable. He asserted that he is not a frivolous person. Despite his penitence, there are people insisting that what he said is true, that the DSS cajoled him to backtrack, and that it is indeed a northern governor that is leading Boko Haram to wipe out the Christian population in the north. Confirmation bias, that is.

Nevertheless, the issue is not Mailafia. The real issue is insecurity. Government has the responsibility to secure this country. The bloodshed and carnage are too much for us to bear. We are all victims, directly and indirectly: Christians, Muslims, northerners, southerners, men, women, soldiers, civilians, PDP, APC, and so on. We are all suffering the pains physically or emotionally or both. Economically, it is pulling Nigeria down. So whether or not the conspiracy theorists are right, Buhari owes us one BIG duty: secure Nigeria. Terrorists, kidnappers and bandits must be crushed by all means. And Nigerians must set aside politics to help fight what is clearly a threat to all.

And four other things…

Abacha assets

Each time I hear about the return of another Abacha loot (or “Abacha assets”, as Mallam Abubakar Malami, the attorney-general of the federation, loves to frame it), I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The latest is €5.5 million from the Republic of Ireland, frozen at the request of President Goodluck Jonathan since 2014. Can this money be devoted to upgrading the National Hospital in Abuja or equipping the national libraries? And may I plead with Malami not to engage any lawyers for the restitution? All it takes is a request for repatriation made via the official letterhead and signed by Malami. If he’s too busy, I can help him draft it for free — as service to fatherland. Nigeria!

Tax masters

At a time advanced societies are slowing down on taxation so as to help the economy recover and get people back to work, authorities in Nigeria are introducing all kinds of taxes and levies that can only kill investment and innovation and further impoverish the people. You would even be consoled if you’re assured that the bulk of the revenue will be spent on making life better for Nigerians, but you know where it usually goes — largely on frivolities and private pockets. Accused of awarding contracts to his girlfriends, Hon. Mudashiru Obasa, speaker of the Lagos assembly, insultingly laughed and replied: “Nina l’owo!” (“Money is meant to be spent”). That’s the way we are. Sad.

Power show

Dr Wale Babalakin, the pro-chancellor of the University of Lagos, has finally carried out his agenda: removing the “stubborn” Prof Oluwatoyin Ogundipe as vice-chancellor. Issues had been building up for a while, culminating in the cancellation of Unilag’s convocation as Babalakin successfully flexed his muscle because of his links to the powers that be in Abuja. That Babalakin is leading a fight against “corruption” is quite interesting, but we also have to accept that this is what Nigeria has turned into and we have to live with it, at least for now. However, the Unilag crisis is far from over. I predict long-drawn legal and political battles over Babalakin’s latest antics. Dicey.

Carrington, RIP

When the history of the struggle for democracy in Nigeria is properly written, Mr Walter Carrington, former United States ambassador to Nigeria, deserves special recognition. In his crazy days, Gen Sani Abacha held Nigeria by the jugular in order to perpetuate himself in power. Carrington, it was, who provided comfort and support to the bruised and battered democracy campaigners, helping to facilitate their escape from the grip of blood-thirsty Abacha and his goons, and helping to keep the struggle alive. Unfortunately, some of the beneficiaries have become political monsters, but Carrington, who died on Tuesday at 90, goes to his grave satisfied that he played his part. Legend.


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