There has been some understandable outrage, following the response by Bello El-Rufai, the son of Nasir El-Rufai, to his tweet on Donald Trump by Consigliere, a Twitter user. In the private reply, Bello had threatened to pass around his friends the mother of his traducer, whose mission from the outset was to provoke Bello into a fight by his subtle bullying. Most certainly, Consigliere would not have reacted to a similar tweet by a Patrick Eze, with no name recognition. In other words, it was a personality engagement.
Typical of the unique Nigerian way of addressing issues (pushing them under the carpet), that sexual innuendo has most unfortunately overshadowed very critical issues that ab initio gave rise to the shadows we are chasing, as against the substantive issues that we ought to be focusing on. We ignore at our peril our worrying political divide, abusive name-calling, inappropriate posts, labelling based on tribe or religion, the attempt at eroding the fundamental rights to hold and impart opinion on the social media, which, so long as they are not addressed, would continue to trigger crises and widen the gulf.
It is important to stress that I vehemently condemn the vile comment about Consigliere’s mother, but there is no denying the fact that Bello, who has since tendered an unreserved apology, like most young people, made a mistake in his justifiable anger at what obviously amounted to an infringement on his fundamental human right to hold opinion guaranteed him by the 1999 Constitution, as amended. While Bello has definitely learnt some hard lessons, sadly, Consigliere has escaped accountability, considering that the narrative for political purposes has remained focused on the regrettable sexual innuendo.
A son’s love for his father is beyond DNA,;it is inexplicable. Not even the marriage between a beautiful woman and a man whose looks may not match that radiance is comparable to the love of a son for his father. Most beautiful women who marry such men are looking beyond the superficiality of physical appearance, concerned more about affection, love, care and security, which are already taken for granted between parents and their children. Behind every child who believes in himself is a parent who first believed in him. And this is true of Bello, who clearly loves his father unconditionally. This fact is difficult to comprehend for some commentators who have counselled that Bello ought to have taken the insults against his father, including being called a murderer. The question these “unbiased” commentators have bluntly refused to address is what their own reaction would be to sustained insults were they in Bello’s shoes; would they move on like they have counselled because their father is a governor or ultimately behave like Tommy in Kenny Rogers’ Coward of the County, who, in spite of his father’s admonition not to fight so as to be seen as a man, eventually had to fight?
Bello’s reaction, viewed against the background of consistent denigration of his father, is understandable, even though it is very easy for those lacking emotional connection to counsel restraint on the part of Bello. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a great responsibility on the lean shoulders of Bello, because of his father’s position. But the question begging for answer is, why has society refused to make the same demand of the provocateur whose intimidation started this whole affair? Was it right for Consigliere, because he was a “son of nobody,” like many commentators have argued, to infringe on Bello’s fundamental human rights to hold and to freely impart opinion?
Everyone has a wall or walls to write on issues that they are passionate about, so why didn’t Consigliere, who, obviously, had issues with the Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, write on them, rather than dictating to Bello what to write on Buhari? This is at the crux of the matter that many commentators have refused to touch. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 20 per cent of social media users have at sometime blocked, unfriended or hidden someone due to political disagreements, like the one between Bello and Consigliere. It is obvious that Consigliere knew fully well that he and Bello were politically apart, and, to precipitate a fight, he only had to question Bello’s right to hold and to impart opinion.
This article might have been precipitated by the Bello/Consigliere spat, but it certainly goes beyond the spat, which has predictably been overshadowed by the sexual innuendo for which Bello has apologised. The cyberspace has most unfortunately become notorious for insults, lies and distortions, often driven by sundry ethnic and religious agendas. Thankfully, the spat offers Nigerians the opportunity to decide whether the social media should be be regulated or allowed to be the cyberspace of threats. Can we take this moment to generate the much-needed consensus about the standard of discourse on social media? There is no doubt that our politics has become more divisive, as can be seen in the vitriolic exchanges on the various new media platforms. There is no denying the fact that the Internet has further aided this divisiveness. Concerned Nigerians must be worried that these religious and ethnic agendas are becoming much more volatile. And that this is unfolding in a climate where people have been led to believe that there is no need to demonstrate responsibility in what they post on social media. Before the advent of the Internet, the newspapers and the electronic media had gatekeepers that would never publish or air offensive statements. These rigorous efforts to keep out the extreme and the irresponsible are sadly lacking on social media. What we have in its place is the consistent outbreak of irresponsibility, which those who should know better condone as free speech or defend because it fits their political, ethnic and religious agendas.
The mainstream media in Nigeria, confused by and unsure of how to respond to the challenge of new media technologies, has not demonstrated the sophistication to seize this moment to differentiate itself as the fount of factual news, properly nuanced analysis and responsible opinion. Rather, they are steadily abandoning professionalism in a losing game of aping the sensationalism, distortions, fictions and superficiality that are the hallmarks of social media in Nigeria.
The 2019 elections are only over by date and year, which is why the abusive name-calling, the ethnic labelling have intensified and are still the order of the day. These inflammatory posts are signposts of what lies ahead in the 2023 presidential election. President Buhari has been under vicious attack for what many see as very poor performance and there is absolutely no doubt that Nigerians have that right to constructively criticise him, whether they voted for him or not. But when the criticisms are generalised to the level of lampooning his ethnicity, even critical northerners who have misgivings about the direction of the administration are forced to defend him.
This is exactly what happened in 2015, when Patience Goodluck Jonathan derogatorily described the North as “born throwaway,” and thereby helped seal her husband’s fate in the election. Many northerners rightly appropriated the insult as meant for the entire region and not just against the members of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Sadly, it does not appear that those southerners who persist in denigrating the North have learnt any lesson from this incident, which is why Consigliere precipitated the spat by trying to dictate to Bello to write on Buhari, rather than the Donald Trump that Bello had exercised his right to critique.
Tunde Asaju, in his article, aptly titled “Of Twitter Wars And Palliatheves,” said: “The battleground has shifted to that virtual playfield called Twitter. Inhabitants of that land are not subject to anyone’s control but icky fingers on virtual keyboards spewing the views of brains twisted by sweet sweet codeine or comrade hallucinogens. Illusory midgets turned giants inhabit the Nigerian Twitterati. Vestiges of age-old values of respect, decency and decorum are discarded as celebrities are born there and virtually die there.”
Like Asaju, most nationalists cringe when they read some of the inflammatory posts or attempts at bullying people into silence. Why must the likes of Consigliere, who abound on the social media, dictate to others what they must write on? If Bello within his rights decided to write on Trump, who almost everyone except the Christian evangelicals believe is an unmitigated disaster, why didn’t Consigliere who apparently feels otherwise write on Buhari on the several spaces, Facebook to Twitter, available to him? Undoubtedly, these passionate disagreements have become more prevalent because of the social media.
This brings us to the missing chapters of this whole saga, the consistent, systematic and persistent pattern of denigration of Nasir El-Rufai and other public office holders from the North by people from certain sections of the country, which has, tragically, become the norm, rather than the exception on the social media. Why are they obsessed with El-Rufai, spewing bile and lies about him, even after he has thrown his weight behind a southern claim on the 2023 presidency? The plausible reasons why he is considered a good sport are: the crucial role he played in convincing Buhari to come out from retirement and run, his role in the merger of the parties that led to the formation of the APC and, lastly, the belief by supporters of Bola Tinubu that he will run despite his support for the presidency to shift to the South. This is the background of the vicious attacks on El-Rufai that date back to the period around the 2015 presidential election, by mostly people from the South-East zone and the recent newcomers from the South-West whose entry into the denigration fray bears the stamp of 2023 anxieties.
If we do not make a honest national effort now to ensure that we can discuss our country and its affairs with facts, context, goodwill and charity, there will not be a campaign in 2023. That sense of coalition-building, mobilising national consensus around the most viable candidate/party is likely to be replaced by strident appeals to the base and letting the numbers decide. No serious politician is going to succumb to the hatred of people who despise you because of where you were born, the name you bear and how you worship God. Even if your answer to Nigeria’s malaise is its break-up, you will soon find out that it is not enough to whip your own side into unreasonable frenzy. You must still reckon with those you despise! Our bloody history teaches this poignant lesson, even if the ethnic warriors ignore it!
Nigerians should worry that civility is no longer part of our conversations. The anger that Nigeria is horribly misgoverned is understandable, but it can never justify the online political bullying or culture of abuse. The hatred for Buhari is, unfortunately, extended to anyone who supports him, as seen in the rant by Consigliere against Bello. There are those who believe that the “illiterate and indolent Hausas” are the problem of Nigeria. You would think that those who harbour these sentiments, many of whom reside in the South-East and South-West states, live in places that are all epitomes of excellence in governance. The critics from the South-East should tell us if that there is any governor from their zone that has spectacularly raised the bar in governance. Then we can discuss what can be learnt and adopted from that success story.
Let me conclude by stating clearly that it is childish and unproductive to neglect the duty of bridge-building. Or to feel entitled to the attention of those you denigrate. Outrage is an equal opportunity emotion, and those guided only by their emotion represent a danger to themselves and the collective. Contrary to the illusion that has been encouraged by some, new media has not abolished the obligation to exercise freedom of speech responsibly. It is entirely lawful to hold people to account for what they post, even while hiding behind the flimsy cover of a smartphone screen.
May God help the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Amen.