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What are we going to do about fake news and misinformation in Nigeria?

By Tabia Princewill

IT was recently brought to my attention that a newspaper, in a report on the Dapchi kidnappings, used a friend’s picture to illustrate the story. The young woman is neither a student, a relative of any of the students, nor does she have anything to do with the school the girls were taken from.

Her picture was simply taken off of her social media page and used as an illustration for the report, for unfathomable reasons. Let’s not forget all the pictures of South Sudanese rebels carrying guns and herding cattle which are erroneously but frequently used by Nigerian media houses to depict the groups of violent herdsmen currently waging war on Middle-belt communities.

It also took a few days before anyone could ascertain whether or not General Ibrahim Babangida had indeed authorised the recent letter written by his media aide, due to the denials and counter- denials published by the media.

This confusion reaches all the way to government quarters as the Yobe State government initially released facts it said were obtained from the Nigerian Army, claiming the latter had recovered the kidnapped Dapchi girls. It later  had to release another very embarrassing, apologetic statement basically admitting the information made available to it by the Army turned out to be false.

One could go on forever as the examples of confusion, half-truths and outright misinformation abound.

Chaos and misstatement have become the mainstay of public authorities and media organisations in Nigeria: It is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction in the digital, “fake news” age, but Nigeria has taken this trend to the extreme.

Donald Trump might as well leave the United States for Nigeria. Here he would find an army of partisan, gullible people ready to defend his every action with photoshopped images, fake tweets and an imprecise, very basic understanding of the issues. Ignorance in Nigeria has been allowed to fester, to solidify into becoming something of a badge of honour: the less one knows about anything, the louder one seems to speak to the sound of deafening applause.

Countless WhatsApp videos of morally dubious characters circulate; they pontificate about what they would do differently, and Nigerians forward these illogical, staged performances forgetting these people are all former governors, ministers, senators, associates of people in power etc. who’ve had a chance at governance and could have implemented all the things they talk about now if not for selfishness, greed and opportunism. The bar is so low that every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to be running for President. Notoriety seems to be the only requirement for any sort of campaign in Nigeria as our politics isn’t a contest of ideas.

We are a reality TV nation where anything can be said or done so long as it captures the imagination and seems dramatic enough to keep people talking and distracted. Won’t someone tell Donald Trump he’s wasting his time in the US and that Nigeria has become a haven for racial bias, ethnic propaganda, hype and misinformation?

The class divide in Nigeria is nothing short of medieval: we convince ourselves (and the masses) that poor people are not capable of understanding the issues and thus our dialogue with them, especially during political campaigns, is nothing short of a bribe: stomach infrastructure or the argument against issue-based campaigns favours the political class who never have to explain what their plans are or truly engage with the citizenry.

Engagement, in this context, is simply a monologue based on ethno-religious sentiment and more “fake news” to confuse the masses and whip them up, first into a frenzied acceptance of their own inferiority then into supporting those whose actions are not in their interests. In the era of misinformation, any intelligent conversation or attempt at questioning the status quo is dismissed as “grammar”.

Misinformation, duplicity and blatant attempts at hiding the truth are common in Nigeria now, so when Senator Adamu was recently accused of “disappearing” or “mismanaging” 70 million Naira belonging to the Northern Senators Forum, Nigerians laughed because Senator Shehu Sani said the money was swallowed by monkeys in Senator Adamu’s farm.

Strategic conversations

Where is our outrage, our affront at being taken for fools? What, in fact, is the role of the Northern Senators forum? How is it funded? How does it account for said funds? Must every arm of government have a forum?

Don’t these strategic conversations between members happen anyway? How can we build a country of shared interests if everything about our thinking and our actions serves to separate us on ethno-religious lines? Whose interests do these forums represent anyway?

First ladies, civil servants, etc. have forums. From Muslim civil servants to Christian civil servants, everyone has a group but aren’t the issues of poverty and underdevelopment we all face, the same?

This fragmentation has killed nation building. It has also destroyed our capacity to think, we prefer comic spectacle to serious discourse.

When you multiply forums and public actors, when no one can account for anything, when everyone can blame someone else (including animals) for their failures, then the truth is whatever anyone with a microphone says it is.

We are happy to be lied to, content to be taken for granted. After corruption, Nigeria is in danger of making fake news and outright lies its great sport and pastime.

 

Atiku Abubakar

FORMER Vice-President Atiku Abubakar’s recent declarations about the “snake of corruption” almost make it seem like he wasn’t in power during the Halliburton and Siemens scandals for which several people were jailed in American courts.

The snake of corruption, he was reported as saying, will kill Nigeria by swallowing money in government agencies and ministries. The snake wasn’t born yesterday. In fact, it is probably quite amused by Nigeria’s descent into the animal kingdom, a society where people are embraced for stating the obvious and anyone can say what they like no matter the verifiable truth and get away with it.

We’d all rather laugh and joke about this because the reality is much too horrible to consider seriously.

 

Abubakar Malami

I HAVE been searching for examples in world history of an Attorney General in an anti-corruption regime, claiming that fighting corruption would make his government look bad. I found none.

President Buhari will have a hard time convincing Nigerians to vote for him based on his anti-corruption record given that many within his administration don’t quite seem to be on the same page or to share his fervour.

Or should we simply be grateful no one has claimed the $1.1 billion from the Malabu oil deal were eaten by snakes or monkeys? Mr. Malami claims no foreign companies will take Nigeria seriously if the transaction is questioned.

How curious. Nigeria’s placement on global business and transparency indexes would soar, so would confidence in our business dealings, if corruption cases were properly investigated, curtailed and the perpetrators brought to book. The House of Assembly, trying to score some points with Nigerians, has vowed to carry on its own investigations. Razak Atunwa, the Chairman of the House ad hoc committee investigating the Malabu deal recently said: “Mr. Jonathan was the President at the material time that his ministers brokered the deal that led to the alleged $1bn diversion of funds.

“His name features in the proceedings initiated by the Public Prosecutor of Milan in Italy. A United Kingdom court judgement in relation to an application to return part of the money being restrained, castigated the Jonathan administration as not having acted in the best interest of Nigeria in relation to the ‘deal.’

“The Attorney-General at the time, Mohammed Bello-Adoke, has said his actions were instructed by the former President.”

We are yet to take hold of the anti-corruption fight or to demand answers. We would rather believe puerile excuses than face up to the rot in our political system.

 

Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.