It is difficult to know how our President feels about the alleged wedding arranged and almost contracted by the country’s ubiquitous social media. But it is not difficult to guess that President Muhammadu Buhari has, by now, developed a thick skin to what I once called the wily ways of social media, their capacity to manufacture rumours and pass them on to the unsuspecting public as authentic story of authentic events.
He may therefore have laughed off the hoax that was the wedding plan between him and one of his ministers, Hajiya Saddiya Umar Farouk, just as he laughed off the fake news about his double in the villa after his alleged death in London. But nobody can say for a fact how it all started. The thing about rumour is that it is normally without foundation and no known origin. Usually it is something like somebody told somebody and the ebb and flow of its narration gets more palatable and sweet to the ears as it gains traction and endurance.
The one involving our president and his alleged marriage plan was not an exception. Last Friday, the day set aside for the wedding fatiha, eminent personalities in Abuja waited patiently hoping to be part of the biggest event of the year.In expectation, the Jummat service at the National Mosque in Abuja was jam packed. So was the mosque in the Villa. But it turned out to be an anti-climax, an April fool day in October.
But what can one make of the latest joke, albeit an expensive one; as expensive as the one about a Sudanese Jibrilla doubling as Buhari in the Villa as Nigeria’s president. Good a thing that our First Lady’s absence from the Villa didn’t coincide with the rumour. It would have meant that Aisha Buhari couldn’t stand the Sudanese double and called it quits.
But do we have a cure for the menace of the fake news that is threatening to be the main news in our current democratic setting? Professor Wole Soyinka had called purveyors of such rumours cowards, those who couldn’t stand by their own courage of conviction but preferred to put their words into other people’s mouths. These fellows once maligned the vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo. They nearly created doubts in the minds of his missus about her hubby’s fidelity after they created and published a fake scene of social dalliance between the respected pastor and some pretty girl at a public function.
Before the advent of social media, General Olusegun Obasanjo, then military head of state, nearly suffered the Buhari-Sadiyya fate in 1977 when rumour gained ground that he had secretly wedded a pretty television newscaster. The fake news from the rumour mill refused to die down until one enterprising young reporter decided to get to the bottom of it. He went to the registry where the marriage was said to have been contracted. He drew blind. He took the bull by the horns and made a dash to Dodan Barracks to confirm the rumour. There, he met Ogbuefi Alex Nwokedi, the best press secretary one can get of any ruling potentate. He laughed the reporter out of his office. No such wedding. He too had heard the rumour and it was nothing but that.
It was the fore-runner of today’s fake news, but it lacked the sure fire social media gravitas and mischief to circulate instantaneously. But such rumour predated the promulgation of Decree 4 of the General Muhammadu Buhari era as the intended anti-dote to wild and speculative stories.
The problem with that decree though was its inability to distinguish between facts and fiction, so long as the reports had the capacity if not the propensity to embarrass public officials. It did not really matter at the time whether the report was factual. Any infraction of the dreaded law meant imprisonment without the option of fine.
The decree had its origin in the embarrassing reports in the media that the hefty sum of 2.8 billion dollars was missing from the coffers of the ministry of petroleum resources under the watch of Minister Buhari. A probe panel set up by the Obasanjo military regime later gave an official lie to the report.
The oil sales tribunal, as it was called, had investigated the operations of the Nigerian National Oil Company, NNOC which later became the NNPC. The tribunal, according to an official, had found that in three years the NNOC had failed to collect its “equity share of oil produced by Shell, Mobil and Gulf.” As a joint partner, NNOC was entitled to about 182.75 million barrels of oil production but NNOC was said to have failed to get buyers. Arising from this, it lost “potential income of 2.8 billion dollars.” The media reported it as missing money. All this happened 1977.
A badly injured Buhari did not forget that incident. And when the opportunity came for him in 1984 to get back at his traducers, he did not miss the chance. At his first ever press interview with me and my two colleagues at Concord – Dele Giwa and Ray Ekpu – the ramrod lanky general, now military head of state, snapped his finger and said: “I will tamper with the press.” This was in reply to our question concerning the press and how he perceived its role under the new military administration.
That incident did not stop fake news, or better still, unsubstantiated rumour from running riot in the country. In May 1989 during the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida, student riots broke out sporadically on the university campuses. Students, regarded as the conscience of the nation, were angry with rumours circulating that military leaders were neck deep in corruption.
The rumours gained currency when the respected and influential Tai Solarin, social critic and educationist of blessed memory, joined the bandwagon and actually claimed that he read the report of massive corruption in the May issue of Ebony magazine after initially picking the rumour from some Amebos in the bus.
For the students, it was no longer an issue of somebody who told somebody. There was a known and respected somebody behind the rumour. And that somebody had read it in an influential Black oriented American magazine which circulated in the country. But the sad truth was there was no truth in the rumour. Ebony of May 1989 did no such report on Nigeria. In fact, it had written nothing on Nigeria since 1977 according to its publisher.
Under the military regime, the press and social activists were almost permanently locked in a running battle with the government, all in an organised effort to see the back of the men on horseback. And finally democracy, with all its imperfections, is in free flow in the country. Some of the dividends of democracy include the wily and wild social media industry spewing out fake news, hate speeches with the technology for match-making at the highest quarters of government.
But the amazing thing is that the one-time nemesis of the press, the reincarnated Buhari, wearing the toga of a democrat, now appears simply flabbergasted. He may or may not be relishing the dish. But in his new role and in the current dispensation, all he can do is to learn to tolerate all the irritations that come with the territory.