By Reuben Abati
If anyone is looking for a valid illustration and the most scandalous evidence of fake news, fake speech, and hate speech, such a researcher needs not look farther than the comedy of errors and the misanthropic drama that overtook Aso Villa, the seat of Nigeria’s Presidency, during the weekend that just passed.
We all woke up, Thursday morning to be told that our President, 76-year old President Muhammadu Buhari was going to take one of his female ministers, 44-year old Sadia Umar Farouk, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs as wife, on Friday, October 11. Nigerians by nature, love gossip, mischief and entertainment, but this was something different, far more dramatic than theatre itself. Understandably, the story trended on social media and caught public imagination.
It became hot news. It was a perfect the Lion and the Jewel material. Is Buhari, 76, trying to celebrate his victory at the polls and at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal with some renewed activity in the same “other room” that he himself reminded us of? Would he behave like Bala Mohammed, Governor of Bauchi state and take a new bride to celebrate electoral success? If he were to do that, he would not be the first old man to grab a jewel at old age.
Olokun Eshin in Wole Soyinka’s award-winning play, Death and the King’s Horseman had to drop something in the “other room” at old age. But the wife of the President that we know, is Aisha Buhari. Has she fallen out of favour? Is Baba Buhari trying to replace her, more so as she suddenly disappeared from the other room and the Villa after the elections, and stories went around that she was somewhere abroad on vacation instead of staying with her husband, to provide some special attention that old men require? Islam encourages but limits variety. Is the President seeking variety?
Soon enough, the story gained traction. On social media, invitation cards were distributed and persons were invited to Aso Rock to attend the Fatiha, that is the Muslim wedding after mosque on Friday. Samples of the invitation card were distributed electronically with the Buhari family of Daura and the Farouk family of Zamfara inviting friends and associates to the marriage of their son, Muhammed and their daughter, Sadia. Congratulatory messages were posted online too, and there were images showing that some foreign dignitaries were already in Nigeria to attend the wedding of the year.
Conspiracy theories also surfaced to address such questions as: where is Aisha Buhari, the wife of the President? Why would she abandon her husband for months and nobody would know where she is? Some commentators concluded that the cabal had finally managed to get rid of her, by getting for the President, a less confrontational woman who would stay out of politics and leave the cabal in Aso Villa alone. Friends of Aisha Buhari expressed concern about her plight.
They asked: Has the Aso Villa Cabal now become so powerful that they would also choose a wife for the President? The tales lingered. One compatriot called me to ask if I had heard anything about the President’s alleged marital crisis. I told him I knew nothing, and that I thought Nigeria had far more important issues at hand than the President’s bedroom choices. The guy told me off, noting that Nigerian journalists are the laziest in the world! “The President of Nigeria is about to sack his wife and marry another one, and you are talking about Nigeria’s budget? Is that the kind of journalism you people are practising?,” he quipped. Photos of the would-be bride were circulated widely with such comments as: “she actually looks like Aisha Buhari”, “she will make Baba happy,” “she is a pretty one, Baba chose well”.
For hours, President Buhari was presented on social media as a Romeo or better still, an Adonis who managed to catch the fancy of a pretty 44-year old young, delectable woman. Some spoil-sports raised questions however, about the appropriateness of an incumbent President having an alleged amorous relationship with a woman he has just appointed a Minister and to whose Ministry he has assigned responsibilities and assignments taken away from his Vice President. There was no limit to the stories.
But the bubble eventually burst. It took the intervention of the woman who had been married away to debunk the story. She published a number of tweets to confirm that she was not about to marry President Buhari. She was not even in the country! We later learnt that there was no wedding in the offing, the invitation cards were fake, and there was indeed absolutely no competition in the President’s “other room”. Many heaved a sigh of relief. Others felt that their fun had been spoilt. Millions just kept quiet wondering about the manner in which a lie caught up with an entire nation, seized the multitudes and became the truth for more than 24 hours.
The dust finally settled when Aisha Buhari suddenly returned home to claim her bona fide rights. There was even a video making the rounds, again on social media, showing that she was not allowed access to her room in the Villa. It turned out that this was an old video, criminally de-contextualized to promote a lie. But it was a true video nonetheless as confirmed further by one Fatima Daura, another commentator on the Aso Rock saga, who has also been quoted as saying her father is not arranging a new wife for the President. So, is it the President’s body language that is fuelling this? Or is there mutual distrust in the President’s bedroom?
Four quick takes. One: Students of fake news, hate speech, and fake speech would find in the Aisha Buhari marital fake drama of 2019 a locus classicus. It is furthermore, an indication of the kind of damage that persons who have access to social media can wreak. The way it is, any one with a miserable smart phone, one of those cheap little things with internet connection, or a blog site, an Instagram or twitter page can just sit in an unknown corner of the universe and cook up a story about innocent persons, put their photographs together and allege anything from romance to rape, dalliance and an actual wedding.
Last weekend, Nigerians gave President Buhari a wife, married her off, collected bride price on her family’s behalf and gave the First Lady of Nigeria, such a massive heartache that smoked her out. Human beings are very wicked. I am now tempted to see the reason in the argument that there should be some regulation of social media content, despite my commitment to free speech. A situation whereby any anonymous character can just hide in one corner, create a terrible tale and disrupt the public order is dangerous for our democracy. It is an abuse of free speech. What happened last weekend is enough to be treated as treasonable felony.
What if the First Lady, Aisha Buhari, had collapsed and slumped upon hearing that her husband planned to take another wife? What if Sadiya Umar Farouk’s family had acted on the information and accused the President openly of kidnapping their daughter? His position as President certainly does not give him the right to grab another man’s daughter without due process, especially as he took an oath of office to respect the rule of law! What if Aisha’s children had confronted the President to defend their mother only to realize that they were responding to fake news and hate speech? Whoever tried to cause a revolution in the President’s household should be identified, investigated and sanctioned. Who released that fake video? For what reason? Who published the fake wedding news and arranged to make it go viral? Fake news is unacceptable. It runs contrary to all known principles of journalism: truth, accuracy, objectivity and fairness. If the security agencies know what they are doing, they will take a deeper look at this matter.
Two: This is also about the private lives of public persons. It is a trite point that when you take on a public role, you give up a part of your privacy. The President of a country in particular is public property: voters have every right to ask after his well-being, pry into his personal life, raise questions about how he conducts himself, because whatever he does can easily affect the fortunes of the country. Only God knows for example, how many foreign investors heard the story about a cooked up conflict in the President’s household, and simply decided in the last 72 hours to hold on until there is concrete information about the situation. But how far should the public go? Is there a little zone of privacy available to the President and his family? I guess stretching this democracy thing all the way to the President’s bedroom and his choice of women may be a case of too much democracy. It is also a kind of auto-suggestion that should be ignored by the President. We need some order in the President’s household to enable him focus properly on his job.
Three: Mrs Aisha Buhari has since disclosed that she went abroad for medical treatment and also decided to take a little vacation based on her “doctor’s instruction,” and that explains her absence from Nigeria. I note that she has not disclosed the nature of this ailment. Couldn’t she have consulted Nigerian doctors? Don’t we have enough doctors in Nigeria to attend to whatever ails her?
Four: I think the Presidency mismanaged the messaging process. They allowed the rumour to spread for far too long before intervening. Is it possible for the President of Nigeria to take a second wife and plan an El-Fatiha wedding without the entire Villa knowing? Couldn’t they have shut down the rumour much earlier? Their silence caused the frenzy.
A colleague of mine, a young lady wondered why Mrs Aisha Buhari, also seeing that this was a case of fake news and hate speech had to rush back from the United Kingdom as if her life was at stake. She asked whether Mrs Buhari doesn’t trust her husband. My response to her is that Mrs Buhari has shown great courage, determination and promptitude by defending her territorial control over the President’s “other room”. Let no one blame her for as they say, “possessing her possession.” It is Minister Sadiya who owes us an explanation for that wedding that didn’t happen.