Day by day, it becomes more and more obvious that whoever aspires to leadership in Nigeria, must take a course on how to identify the imprimatur of fake news, its diverse manifestations, its perils, and how to deal with the monster. Part of the package would also be for the aspiring leader to constantly have his antennae up, and sharpen his sense of discernment as often as possible. Otherwise, he, at the pinnacle of power, will spend more time pondering, and responding to half-truths, outright lies and implantation of fifth columnists than he spends on governance. And the people would be the greatest loser.
Nothing better lends credence to this than what unfurled for most of the week that just expired. For most part of the week, the social media was awash with the ludicrous tales of President Muhammadu Buhari becoming husband again. The reports, even spread by credible platforms and people, had it that the President would tie the nuptial knot with Hajia Sadiya Umar Farouq, his Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Minister.
To make the ‘news’ real, the purveyors flooded virtually all the social media platforms with soft copies of the wedding invitations. There were two types-one with Nigeria’s coat of arms, and the other like the type quacks manufacture in Shomolu, the headquarters of printing business in Lagos. I even got one on my whatsapp handle inviting a mere mortal like me to the President’s wedding banquet scheduled for the International Conference Centre, Abuja, after the Fathia at the National Mosque, also in the federal capital. The ‘wedding’ was slated for 2p.m., after Friday’s Jumat prayers.
The carriers of the ‘news’ also released all sorts of videos and photos to boot. None of the materials had any direct bearing to the so-called wedding. To support their claim, some numskulls even shared photos that the minister had posted on her twitter handle, on September 15, 2019, where friends were celebrating her appointment as Minister.
The ‘bride-to-be’ captioned the photo boldly: “Yesterday, I attended a walimah organised by my family and friends to congratulate me on my appointment as honourable Minister by President Muhammadu Buhari.” As unambiguous as the caption was, the purveyors used the material to support their tales regardless of its apparent non-relevance to the issue at hand.
There was another faceless video showing a scene that could have been cut in any feuding household, in which an apparently agitated lady (therein referred to as Mrs. Aisha Buhari) was ranting and ranting, both in Hausa and English, about some irritants. Nobody knew what was eating her. She was just ranting and ranting. And guess what? The purveyors created the impression that the faceless woman was the wife of the President, Mrs. Aisha Buhari. Yes, the voice sounded like the First Lady’s but the video neither showed the face that owned the voice nor the full ambience of the room where the episode was taking place. All we saw was a ‘headless’ female pacing up and down, shouting as she talked.
There were several other posts and ‘publications’. From the authors’ level of engagement (misrepresentation, skewed presentation, illogical sequence, et al), it wasn’t so difficult for me to infer emphatically that: ‘this is fake news’. But my misgivings couldn’t, and would not have stopped people from debating it. And Boy, was the debate rigorous! The debate was so hot its heat threatened to melt, and crash my phone. And despite the apparent flaws in the ‘news’, people, even my colleagues, fellow journalists, believed it was true.
Flaw number 1, and perhaps the biggest is: while all the hullabaloo was going on, the two subjects in the controversial ‘wedding fathia’ were worlds apart. They were 6, 127 kilometres from each other. While President Buhari was at his desk at the Presidential Villa in Abuja, the ‘bride-to-be’ was in Switzerland on official assignment. As the wild rumour soared back home, Sadiya was in the country with the nickname, Quora, because of its multilingual confederation of cantons, promoting a United Nations campaign against poverty.
Flaw number 2, and as reflected in our online newspaper, The Crest, there was nothing on ground, either in Abuja or Daura, to indicate that such an epochal event was about taking place. Finally, Friday came, and the Jumat prayers began and ended at the National Mosque without any sign of the President tying the nuptial knot with the Minister.
The Minister herself debunked the satanic rumour via a tweet she posted on her twitter handle from far away Switzerland: “On October 17, join us as we #WalkOutPoverty. The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is commemorated to encourage active participation by all to respect the rights & dignity of people living in poverty.#WalkOutPoverty#EndPoverty#Children @ossap_sdgs.”
There was no mention of any wedding fathia.
Still, the rumour persisted. It continued swirling and swirling like whirlwind, gathering momentum by the second. To put the matter to rest, I called the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, to confirm the story, He replied with sarcasm: “Have you not received your VVIP invitation card?” And he burst into his vibrating signature laughter. Of course, like his principal, he too was at his desk in the Villa.
Coincidentally, my wife came to my office at the peak of the roiling rumour on Friday. Like most Nigerians, she too desperately sought to know if it was true. I gave her the Femi Adesina treatment. I asked if she had seen my missing VVIP invitation to the wedding fathia. She responded with thunderous laughter. What the hell is going on here? I deliberately shouted, faking anger.
However, Ms. Sadiya Umar Farouk, the woman in the eye of the storm, drove the last nail into the rumour’s coffin, via another tweet where she debunked the satanic hypothesis, emphasising her loyalty to the president, and her unalloyed deference to the First Lady and her family; a loyalty she vowed never to breach.
Of a truth, this was not the first time the First Family was targeted by fake news manufacturers. The other time, the so-called cabal was purported to have arranged an Igbo Lady for the President to marry as second wife and as a check to Mrs. Aisha Buhari, who, the rumour’s masterminds alleged, was getting too ‘powerful’ and ‘uncontrollable’. To add flesh to the lies, the spin doctors alluded that Aisha’s ‘long absence’ from the country had been a result of certain irreconcilable differences between her and her husband of 30 years.
But at about 4.30 a.m. on Sunday, the woman returned to Abuja, aboard British Airways, full of life. She told journalists at the airport that though she was entitled to six weeks annual vacation, she had to extend her stay in London to enable her see her doctors. Perhaps, to knock the bottom off the rumour, and tell her traducers that she still dey kampe as Buhari’s wife, the obviously refreshed woman expressed her gratitude to the President for appointing some special assistants for her office to enable her take proper care of the home front and be able to do other things.
Put that aside. In the heat of the campaign for the 2019 general elections, some con artists went to town with a postulation that, if not handled carefully, would have set this country ablaze. They alleged that Buhari, who had previously suffered a serious health reverse but later rebounded to vibrancy, had actually died in a London hospital in January 2017. And that a “cabal” had cloned or brought in a body double, a look-alike named Jibrin Al-Sudani, to replace him as a way of blocking Vice President Yemi Osinbajo from taking over as stipulated by the constitution. They even procured a death certificate.
Prior to this, and whilst Buhari was still struggling for life in London, and deserved serious prayers from all Nigerians, a People’s Democratic Party Governor in the Southwest, swore by his birthday that the president was brain dead.
I do not know how much the President enjoyed the wedding joke. But I’m not sure anyone would find it funny, given the way the social media lapped it. Its effects on the home and concentration on the job better imagined.
From his strides and gait, Buhari looks like somebody who is still active in “the other room”. And as a Muslim, he could marry one or two more, provided he can take care of them and love them equally. But granting the enormity of the burden he is currently carrying, I doubt if he would succumb to such indulgence. One, the timing is inauspicious. Nigerians are groaning under the prevailing economic situation, and taking a second wife now would certainly be an insensitive way of showing empathy with the toiling masses.
If he so desperately needed a second wife, I think he would have taken one long before he returned as a democratic President; maybe a few years after he married Aisha (in 1989) following the collapse of his marriage to first wife, Safinatu Yusuf, in 1988.
Two, given his Spartan principles, and frugal life style, it is highly unlikely that he would succumb to that option at this material time, no matter how tempting the option is, and no matter how strained the relationship between him and his wife is. To attempt it is to go down in history as modern day Nero who fiddled while Rome burned.
In any case, at close to 77, what would he need a harem for, even if he is a super stud, brimming with raw energy and soaring libido. Admitted, you can never say ‘never’ with men. Admitted his religion permits him to marry more than one wife, if he so desires. But this Buhari looks too serious, and has his hands too full with Nigeria’s multifarious problems than to toy with the idea. Still, he is human; and men would always be men. I concede that.
Even if he doesn’t admit it publicly, even the dumbest of humans would know that this President must have felt nauseated by those satanic rumours.
I feel for the women at the centre of the entire saga-Aisha and Sadiya. Women, like any of God’s creative explosions, love their territory passionately and protect same with everything they have. Even if Aisha carried on with her advocacy for the girl-child on a day like last Friday, a day the United Nations set aside to celebrate the girl-child, she, as a devoted wife and mother, cannot but feel disturbed by what happened during that week, before reaching its richly deserved anti-climax on Friday. The same goes for the children who, for no fault of theirs, must have had their share of the embarrassment. But who would they complain to? Nobody. They would only sulk and nurse their wounds secretly.
What about the President’s image makers? Issues like these are like a ticking bomb; very dangerous to handle. How the spokespersons handle a situation like last week’s rumour that rocked the Rock would determine whether they would have their integrity intact thereafter, or have it blown away like dust in the wind. For me, the most important step would be to establish the truth from the big boss and marshal a plan of action. A tall order, but it’s achievable. A timid spokesperson may find it extremely difficult to walk up to his powerful principal and ask him to confirm or deny if he, indeed, is taking a second wife. Any professional worth his calling would not fret to do the needful.
Here is the second possibility: if the rumour is false, like the rumoured wedding fathia turned out, last week, silence may be golden. You could just sit in your cosy office and watch the thing burn out. You may be twice lucky if the big boss permits the ‘Bride-to-be’ to release a rebuttal. Like Ms. Sadiya Umar Farouq did on Friday. The rumour died the moment she tweeted the denial.
Another possibility: the big man may say, ‘it’s true’, and permits you to relay same to the press. Beautiful as this may sound, handling the backlash in the media, especially social media, would be a herculean task. You will need the wisdom of the Biblical King Solomon to deal with the plethora of opinions, editorials, talk shows on radio and television, as well as all kinds of inquiries from the press-local and international.
Yet, another possibility: your principal may manufacture an obvious lie and order you to sell the dummy to the prying public. Unconscionable leaders do this a lot. So, how do you pull this, as the spokesman? Dress the lie with a beautiful wrapper, present it to the public, and risk the disintegration of your hard-earned reputation and integrity? Or, drop the lie, walk out of the job, return to your village and become a chicken farmer? Tough job.
See why I don’t envy Messers Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu. Their beat is tough and delicate. But people only see the glamour. Of all the possibilities, the best and the safest route to solving the challenging situation, to me, would be to find a way of making the big man tell you the absolute truth. Once the truth is established, then, you work out the best way to serve it to the public. The truth the spokespersons know, or are able to garner, would free their minds and give them a clear head to handle the situation. The boss, or/and some authorities, may direct how the truth should be served. In that case, pray that the boss’ interest does not conflict with the country’s. If it does, the country comes first. But you may find yourself between the deep blue sea and the roaring lion.
Everything added, I think the presidential spokespersons handled their boss’ wedding rumour very well. They maintained a studied silence and allowed the truth to crack out of its shell, and speak for itself.