Let me begin this piece with a confession: I am not a member or sympathiser of the ruling All Progressives Congress, neither am I a partisan in the course of President Muhammadu Buhari or any other party or politician for that matter. I make this confession because I wish to establish my bonafides as a patriot and a non-partisan commentator on the issue I seek to raise here. This bonafide is important because the comment I will make on the issue of fake news as it applies to President Muhammadu Buhari may sound to some as coming from a partisan out in defense of Buhari and his government rather than one who is concerned only for the public good.
On Wednesday, July 11, the Federal Government of Nigeria launched the National Campaign Against Fake News in Abuja. Fake news is an issue of such significance that nearly three weeks of its launch, I expect that it is the number one issue that will dominate media and public affairs attention. But quite curiously, what one is seeing playing out is that some Nigerians tend to see it as a government thing, essentially I think, because Governments and major political actors tend to be wrongly perceived as the main victims. But all of us, and not only government and its main actors, are victims of this phenomenon.
But first what is fake news? Wikipedia defines fake news as a type ‘’of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. This false information, it says, ‘’is mainly distributed by social media, but is periodically circulated through mainstream media’’. It says further that fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership, online sharing, and Internet click revenue. In the latter case, it is similar to sensational online “clickbait” headlines and relies on advertising revenue generated from this activity, regardless of the veracity of the published stories’’.
From this apt definition of what fake news is and the damage it can cause, it should be clear to the discerning that it is not only governments and their actors that are usual victims of the phenomenon so the campaign against it should not be seen as the concern of Government.
Even more importantly, the sensitisation about the phenomenon called fake news and the harm it can do to individuals as well as government, organisations and groups, has opened my eyes to the injury being inflicted on President Muhammadu by fake news. Indeed, if there is anyone or any administration in this country who/which is one of the greatest victims of fake news, President Buhari and his administration is, undisputedly, the one. And I am saying this with particular reference to the reportage by both the mainstream media and their Social Media colleagues on the Fulani herdsmen-farmers clashes which have left many Nigerians dead on both sides.
In Nigeria, a particular narrative about the often deadly clashes between Fulani and non- Fulani communities, especially farmers, has been firmly established and it is that it is the Fulani who are the unprovoked aggressors and at no time are they ever victims of attacks by their non-Fulani neighbours. News about these frequent clashes is often slanted to create the impression that the Fulani are never victims at all; they are always the aggressors.
This, of course, is not true. Many times the savage killings by the herdsmen are retaliatory attacks. Let me however quickly state here very firmly that no sane person will endorse bloody clashes of any kind let alone the savagery of the herdsmen attacks, whether they are retaliatory or provocative. Nothing should therefore suggest that one is in any way supportive of the usually deadly attacks of the Fulani herdsmen. Media commentators are, therefore, right in condemning the sheer bloodiness often exhibited by the Fulani herdsmen.
Yet as all honest brokers/ patriots would admit, it is unfair that when two persons fight, all the blame is heaped on only one of the parties. Such can only make reconciliation efforts very difficult and that is partly why the problem has persisted until now and seems to defy any solution.
What is even worse is that the impression is also often created that President Muhammadu Buhari is supportive of, or sympathetic to, the Fulani because they are his kinsmen. What many Nigerians who say so do not seem to be aware of is that as President, Buhari has access to privileged intelligence report from security agencies which gives him a more accurate and fair representation of what has taken place as opposed to the often jaundiced side given out in the media whether traditional or social. His being in a more vantage position to hear the true sides of most happenings in the country influences the way he perceives the disagreements and the solutions that are required to address the problems.
If Buhari goes ahead to divulge the correct intelligence available to him to the public as a basis of his action or non-action, he will be further perceived as biased and even further accused as not acting as a statesman and father of all but as a partisan father unworthy of his high office and the responsibilities attached to it.
He is therefore often placed in an uncomfortable position of being between a rock and a hard place. As a leader of all Nigerians with responsibility to use his office to protect all, he cannot do something to hurt any group of people even if they happen to be his kinsmen just to show he is tough and fair-minded. At best, he must strive to be seen as neutral or even- handed. Some Nigerians expect that Buhari should come down hard on the Fulani just because they have been established as the aggressors even when evidence on the ground shows that that is not always the true narrative. When Fulani errs Buhari cannot afford to be seen saying or doing something that will even remotely suggests he is giving others a license to kill or harass Fulani herdsmen. That will not be reasonable.
And when the President says that neighbours of Fulani herdsmen should learn to accommodate their brothers, it is not to be understood that he supports his kinsmen as the often slanted presentation of his appeal seems intended to suggest. I have chosen to highlight the biased reporting of the Fulani-herdsmen and farmers clashes to highlight the evils which fake news visits on a country. Again, let me plead that I should not be misunderstood. Fake news is different from accurate but negative news about political actors. What I am talking about here is the deliberate slanting of news and commentaries to portray someone or group or government in undeserved negative light in order to achieve sinister political or other goals.
This administration inherited the Fulani herdsmen-farmers clashes. The Fulani may have only become more daring and dastardly because they think one of them is now president. But the portraiture of the Fulani as the only sinning party who are not sinned against and the presentation of Buhari as a tacit endorser of their atrocities is what this writer is complaining about. And I am doing so because this tendency will do nothing positive but hamper sincere efforts to find solution to the root of this national problem.
What many Nigerians do not seem to realise is that while other non-Fulani Nigerians accuse Buhari of siding his kinsmen in the killing of other Nigerians, his kinsmen, the Fulani, are, on the other hand, also accusing him of not doing enough to protect them. When two sides are accusing one man of siding the other against them you know that the man is being even handed.
In a sense, I feel sorry for President Muhammadu Buhari who I consider a helpless victim of fake news. Because Buhari is not a talkative person, he is often fair game for those who manufacture fake news to tar him or his government and to portray him as inept, ineffectual and partisan and to portray him as not thinking of a solution to this national problem when the contrary is the case. They want this tricky problem to be solved their own way forgetting that the Fulani are also citizens of this country and have a right to live and to earn a decent living. What has not been agreed upon by both sides is how can the migratory herdsmen earn their livelihood in a manner than will not jeopardize the occupation of the sedentary community?
-Timothy writes from Abuja