Soon after he lost the 2008 US presidential election to Barack Obama, a reporter asked Senator John McCain if he intended to run again. The Arizona Republican said he quoted a rural American saying, “There is no education from the second kick of a mule.” If a donkey kicks you once and you did not learn any lessons from it, then you will not become any wiser when it kicks you for the second time.
At the weekend I saw a petition online that prominent Katsina politician Umar Tsauri alias Tata sent to the Police Inspector General. He complained that an Imam delivered an incendiary sermon at the Friday mosque in Funtua and weaved a very dangerous conspiracy theory around President Muhammadu Buhari’s illness. All Nigerians who missed the import of what Governor of Borno State Kashim Shettima said at the Murtala Mohammed Memorial lecture in Abuja two weeks ago should please revisit it. Shettima is the man who saw tomorrow partly because he is the man who has seen the worst of today.
After reeling out the cost of the Boko Haram insurgency to Borno State, including 100,000 dead, millions displaced and 30% of all houses destroyed, Shettima devoted a whole section of his paper to conspiracy theories. He said, “For me, the most critical experience and lesson I have had and learnt within the last five years has been the power of conspiracy theories and how they can strongly undermine the fight against insecurity and the management of the humanitarian crisis.” Actually they can do more than that; on their own they can generate the worst possible crises.
Shettima listed several conspiracy theories that reigned in Nigeria in recent years. He said following the attacks on Police Headquarters and Abuja’s UN Building in 2011, “a conspiracy theory emerged alleging that Boko Haram was set up by Muslim-majority northern leaders to target Christians and make Nigeria ungovernable for President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.” He said Northern PDP leaders however pushed “a narrower theory that northerners in the opposition were using Boko Haram to destabilize Jonathan’s administration. The end result was an alibi for the state not to admit its failure to rout Boko Haram at the earliest opportunity.”
What makes conspiracy theories potent is that they are often a blend of fact and fiction. Twelve far Northern states roundly rejected Jonathan in the 2011 election and even rioted against his win. A prominent Northern politician also promised to make Nigeria ungovernable for Jonathan. Still, when Prof Wole Soyinka promoted the same conspiracy theory in 2012, I wrote an article on this page titled He thinks he knows. It pointed out for example that the Northern elite could not have tried to kill the Shehu of Borno, Emir of Kano, Emir of Fika and General Mamman Shuwa.
Shettima pointed out a second conspiracy theory. When Boko Haram abducted nearly 300 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014, “a conspiracy theory was immediately created that denied that the abduction of the poor schoolgirls was real. The theory presumed that key politicians in the opposition APC cooked up the abduction story mainly to embarrass President Jonathan and the PDP.” Dame Patience Jonathan’s notorious video-taped harangue indeed tried to prove that “WAYEC, prispal, two teachers” and others plotted the abduction story. I again wrote an article to oppose her conspiracy theory. Governor Kashim Shettima mentioned two more conspiracy theories, one that politicians who lost the 2015 election to Buhari sponsored Niger Delta militants to resume attacks on oil installations, as well as another that the Federal Government, now headed by a Fulani man, is sending herdsmen to attack churches.
In fact there was a counter conspiracy theory, believed by many Northerners at the time, that Jonathan’s administration sponsored Boko Haram in order to destroy the North. Governor Murtala Nyako publicly propounded this conspiracy theory at an international forum in Washington, DC. As a serial attacker of conspiracy theories, I wrote an article on this page and disputed Nyako’s claim. I am a consistent opponent of conspiracy theories and I think I have the moral right to tackle the most recent one.
In the sermon that Tata complained about, the imam allegedly said President Muhammadu Buhari has been poisoned; and that it is a continuation of the killing of Northerners in power since 1966. The cleric listed Sardauna, Tafawa Balewa, Murtala Mohammed, Abacha and Yar’adua as Northern leaders that he said were all killed in office, supposedly by Southerners and or Christians. He added that Northerners and Muslims will not take it kindly if Buhari is killed. Certainly the first three rulers that he mentioned were killed. However, Murtala was killed essentially by Middle Belt officers and Ironsi was killed by Northern officers. There is no evidence that Abacha and Yar’adua’s deaths were anything other than natural, even though Northerners spinned another conspiracy theory that Obasanjo knowingly anointed Yar’adua to succeed him so that he will die in office.
While it is true that Obasanjo did a lot of political mischief, I do not believe that anyone will go to the extent of putting a man in power so that he will die, not the least because sickness is very different from death. Even the world’s best doctors cannot say exactly when a person will die. Former Defence Minister General Ali Gusau once told a story about his friend who was told by a British doctor that he had six months to live. He said, “That was twenty four years ago and he is still around. The doctor himself died two years later.”
For Northern Muslim conspiracy theorists, CAN’s repeated appeal to Christians to pray for the president’s quick recovery is further proof of conspiracy. Assuming that Christian leaders are so diabolical as to be praying for one thing and wishing for its opposite, what if God takes their prayer at face value and grants it, instead of their secret wishes? Certainly every kind of cleric knows that prayer is stronger than a mere wish. Now, clerics are always the first to remind us that life and health are privileges conferred upon us by the Almighty God. No matter what human beings do, no one dies when the time God gave him is not up. This is not to say that people should go about plotting the death of other people just because no one dies without God’s permission. The courts, for one, do not accept that as defence. I know some people who believe that 911 was a CIA operation. Many Americans believe that UFOs visited the Earth many times but the US government hushed it up.
The problem with President Buhari’s illness is not that he fell sick, especially given his age, but the rigmarole manner in which State House is handling it for political reasons. Sickness however is not the same thing as death. Some people are sick for many years [what newspapers call protracted illness] and people who we think are healthy suddenly die [what the media calls after a brief illness]. By now I am very much familiar with the unpredictable nature of death and its lack of perfect correlation with either age or ill health. I lost my elder brother and a very close friend, both under 50. When my father died nine years ago at the age of 80, I thought that was a ripe age. Now I am reconsidering it because some of his classmates are still around; some of his seniors in school and in service are still around and his younger brother is now 87.
The conspiracy theory propounded by the Imam in Funtua is more dangerous to Nigeria than most previous conspiracy theories. Governor Kashim Shettima raised a very important alarm two weeks ago and this Imam’s sermon is final proof that unless we collectively gag them, conspiracy theorists can easily spin matters out of control.
NOTE: This article first appears on Dailytrust Monday Column by Mahmud Jega as ‘No education from mull kicks’