Nigeria’s Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed’s current war against social media and its tendency to perpetrate fake news and hate speech is in his character. Mohammed, since he came into national consciousness, is known to take his job, whatever it is, very seriously, firing at targets from all canisters, passion and all.
As spokesperson for the budding All Progressives Congress, between 2013 and 2015, Mohammed talked his best to sell his party to the most cynical of people and diminish the standing of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party. Then, he pulled no punches and held back no kicks in a bid to get his job done. This must have impressed President Muhammadu Buhari to the effect that he invited Mohammed into his cabinet as spokesperson for the government. And when the post-mortem of Buhari’s first term is executed, it is doubtful that Mohammed would not emerge as one of the most successful ministers of that dispensation.
He took his job with legendary seriousness and stood by whatever he told the nation no matter how contrary the reality seemed. At a time when soldiers fell daily to the increasingly seeming superior bullets of Boko Haram insurgents, Mohammed swore, still swears in fact, that the terrorist religious group had been “technically defeated.” Forget that till date, you hear unconfirmed reports of death of men of the Nigerian armed forces and that the country scurries after Russia to purchase fighter jets for this same course. Such and so many other “hazards” of spokesmanship have given the lawyer turned politician the image of a man who speaks less than the truth, a reputation that has even filtered into his little grandchild’s consciousness. Concerning his reputation in Nigeria today therefore, this Kwara-born man is perceived as a merchant of stuff less than veracious. Yet, now that he tackles the common man who takes his liberty too far on social media, Mohammed conveniently forgets that lies and half-truths trickle down and that those who come to equity must, as they say, have clean hands.
This is not to say that government or indeed Nigerians should condone fake news and the evils that follow it. The country, government and the governed should indeed rise and do their best to contend with the trend as many other countries of the world currently are. However, lying, deception and false appearances are too entrenched in the Nigerian psyche that Mohammed’s current venture may be nothing than a merry chase unless there is a deeper search.
The first argument is that government in Nigeria is too secretive. They say democracy is a service to the people. This should ordinarily imply that there must be little or no opacity about government such that the people must have an idea of the very important issues that affect their lives and government.
But government has literally never held itself accountable to the people of Nigeria. As a matter of fact, governments here are run by a succession of cabals, sometimes known, sometimes unknown but generally holding power captive, taking decisions on behalf of the people, sifting what, how, when and how to release whatever token information they please. At other times, there is complete silence from government concerning many issues that are raging in the country.
When government is run this way, the minds of men are too endowed to allow the lacuna. This is more so in the absence of credible and verifiable information, let alone a situation where there is no information at all. While one concedes that fake news has become an outlet for all sorts of criminal intents by its purveyors, what happens in Nigeria a lot of times results from a tardy management of the information process. This spurs distrusts between government and the governed and leaves room for speculation.
While Mohammed is threatening fire and brimstone to deal with bearers of fake news, he must realise that the effective management of information, of issues and of crises when they surface, is an essential ingredient of good governance and a first panacea to the menace of fake news. Unless handlers of our leaders understand that nothing takes care of a reputational crisis like total openness, they will continue to get frustrated by what would be the standard reaction of all normal human beings.
The point about hate speech is also not entirely dissimilar. The political elite in this country are the originators and most beneficiaries of the divisive narratives that social media now eminently amplifies. That amplification not being far from the way new media reflects on any subject that momentarily interests the free spirits on those innovative platforms. In dealing with hate speech therefore, the political class to which the minister belongs must speak to and curb itself from continuing to use the Nigerian youths, whose world view is either constrained by the non-functional state of education or has become increasingly sub-human and malleable as a result of the deprivations they have suffered in the hands of the same political class as cannon fodders. That would be the most appropriate way to work for the end of fake news, in a society where deception is a major factor for survival.
Nigeria is a country that survives on strata of lies but its people hope and crave decency. But how does anyone reap what one did not sow? Society lays no foundations for honesty and pressures its youths to sink deeper into malady daily. Age requirements are placed on job opportunities and so graduates go ahead and falsify their dates of birth just so they can earn a means of livelihood. Between 2015 and date, not fewer than two federal ministers were fingered for having laid claims to qualifications that they did not really attain. God knows the number of such impostors littered across the public space in the country. In some other cases, people will falsify their states or local councils of origin just so they have access to some of the opportunities that their own places of birth do not offer them. Such liars get into public office and continue to perpetuate the tradition of manipulation in government as well as in their homes.
So, as desirable as it is to deal with fake news in Nigeria, it will be a more difficult task than it is elsewhere in the world. Yet, it is not an impossible task. What must happen before government wields the hammer therefore is that it must purge itself of the communication of lies and half-truths to Nigerians, lift the veil of secrecy that permeates governance in the country and get the political class to avoid its penchant for divisiveness. In addition to that, there can be no sacred dogs in the war against hate speech in particular. Such selective tendency is the very harbinger of the worst form of resistance from the people. When government decides to go after the social media menace, it must defeat the temptation of turning it into a witch-hunt capable of reducing it into another political instrument.