By Ugoji Egbujo
Rumours may have existed before the earth was created. And fables have been told about the wives of kings by glib roadside barbers since eternity. But when a state governor churns out a rumour to eat up the integrity of the president’s wife, then something relatively new has reared its head. The reason rumours skulk rather than prance is that though they fill information gaps and titillate, they are always of doubtful, dubious character. And the noble always abstains from them.
While they can be all there is when the windows are shut against the truth, they are stuck with pejorative connotations because they are wretched substitutes for facts. When the potential for harm is high, good conscience must dictate abstinence from rumours. Consequently true political leaders almost never publicly engage in rumour mongering because the people depend on them to be illumined. Nigeria has never been free from rumors but what currently bedevils the country qualify for an epidemic of malignant rumour mongering .
A Rumour once spread like wild California fire and ravaged Northern Nigeria. That was even before Boko Haram came to tell of the harmfulness of western education. These other zealots set the Muslim North against our polio immunization programme. Once the programme was rechristened a western conspiracy to castrate, and curtail the fertility of Muslims, polio vaccines were rejected by those who needed them the most. But that was innocent ignorance at play.
The monumental costs in lives cut short, deformed limbs and frustrations suffered by global polio eradication efforts wasn’t so innocent. The cost of the eradication of the rumour itself, once it had spread like water hyacinth, was telling.
Rumours help human interaction, relieve tensions and sublimate fears. But they also perpetuate negative beliefs and diffuse bigotry. With rising social tensions and proliferation of circumstances loaded with significant ambiguities in our polity, rumours are bound to be rife. But they don’t have to be this prevalent poisonous variety. Rumours have been constant features of motor parks, barbers’ shops and all spaces of social interactions. But rumours aren’t expected to issue from mouths that have a fiduciary duty to the public. And not from minds to whom the peace and unity of the country have been entrusted— governors, senators and religious clerics.
What has beset the nation presently is conspiratorial rumours, borne of political discontent, designed to cause widespread disaffection. And they are always well received because our politics is filled with divisiveness and bitterness. When cynical skepticism entangles itself with bigotry, reason is shut out. Millions are then corralled by emotionalism into self-indulgent victimhood. They are not necessarily gullible but in their state, that state, their appetite for rumors is ravenous.
Every official government pronouncement is treated with suspicion until political patrons—conspiracy theorists—have ‘deconstructed’ them. So once the lie that President Buhari was dead was sold, millions who have been suffering an extended grief reaction following the outcome of the 2015 presidential elections , bought it, dropped their sackcloth and levitated. It isn’t self deception, paranoid delusions are often not deliberate. But these very dangerous rumours aren’t spontaneous or intuitive. They are often devious schemes of a manipulative few propagated by naive millions wallowing in mawkish sentimentality.
Fayose, it was who took out front pages of newspapers to say that Buhari will die in office and primed the minds of many to regard the president as a potential invalid. As reprehensible as that was, we can dismiss it as the froth of a garrulous governor seized by election fever. But when herdsmen are branded jihadist agents sent to forcefully Islamize the Christian South then a more dangerous and more metastatic rumour is unleashed.
The latter rumour is potentially a weapon of mass destruction because it sharpens sectarian divisions. Flying on the wings of religion, it has the capability to produce hate and hostility on a commercial scale. Many herdsmen have committed unprovoked mass-murders and they should be found, prosecuted quickly and hung. But it’s important they are rightly labeled, murderers. So that other innocent herdsmen will not be exposed to hostility reserved for Antichrists. And the country would not be set up for a repeat of a Central African Republic killing spree.
The nation is being primed for combustion, unfortunately. The realms that should be the bulwark of truth and peace have gotten too excited and become centers of demagoguery. The government’s sloppiness in handling the herdsmen’s wanton savagery has been unpardonable and perhaps curious, but that shouldn’t push the church into a betrayal of its founding principles. Violent herdsmen in broad daylight can’t be labeled agents of Islamization. They are just mass murderers.
When they become demons rather than sinners, they become less than humans. If these agents cannot completely Islamize Borno and Kaduna states for centuries now, cries of Islamic invasion of Enugu must be fear mongering, dangerous hyperbolism. Crying wolf could be expedient, could be a way to rouse a tone-deaf government. But the dangers of demonization and ‘othernization’ must be weighed very carefully.
A parochial sentiment that furthers nepotism can be called out without engaging in dangerous political brinksmanship; without endowing issues with apocalyptic connotations and destroying the fabric of national unity. Political and religious leaders must be wary of rumourmongering and conspiracy theorizing. Their true role is to douse tensions and engineer peace.
In many parts of the North, Christians live and thrive, but can’t dislodge lingering fears of safety. They can quickly become kafirs (unbelievers) and be expunged. Once a confusion that can be remotely associated with religion sets in, they become endangered species. In many reported cases in the past, the original precipitating incidents never had any bearing with the stories that flew around to catalyze the burning and dislocation of lives and livelihoods. And in cases that have been really calamitous, religious leaders helped sustain lynching by stoking the fires of religious bigotry with their conspiratorial passivity in the face of unspeakable evil.
So the truly inflammable rumour isn’t that that fills in the space left by absent truth but that which rises from the chimneys of trouble makers cooking mischief. After President Yaradua’s ordeal, it’s not entirely malicious to suspect that a president that has gone for an unscheduled medical check isn’t telling all. Many who reveled in the death of a living president may be pardoned for ignorance and perhaps childish sadism. But those who conjured images of midnight meetings of northern governors and security chiefs; those who started disbursing prayers for a supposed imperiled Osinbajo aren’t merely ignorant. There are people who intently crave anarchy and dark rumours are their weapons.
Some have gone a bit further. It’s the information age. So they clone websites and social media accounts of reputable news media. Then like wolves in sheep clothing they send out deliberate falsehood aimed at the jugular of the society. And these chimneys have sponsors amongst whom are people claiming to be championing the defence of the rule of law. We are gradually wearing away the fabric of national unity and soon we might be totally naked.