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Opinions of Sunday, 13 June 2021

Columnist: Biodun Jeyifo

Buhari’s Twitter debacle - Cry, the beloved country

President Muhammadu Buhari President Muhammadu Buhari

Our nation is the toad that forgot its tale
That mindless nanny goat whipped countless times
For repeated transgressions; season after season,
We drown in the same river of unknowing
Always, wrong wo/men in the right places
Hideous, hidebound, insufferably haughty
Medieval in their methods, dark in their deeds
Deaf to the throes of a nation dying in their hands
Niyi Osundare, “This House Must Not Fall”

Did the nation suffer with President Buhari the debacle of the suspension of his Twitter account? You would have to be a fanatical supporter of the president to think so. For one thing, if the countless number of Nigerians who regularly pour abuse and opprobrium of an extremely negative and violent kind on Buhari in Twitter platforms had their way, Buhari’s account on Twitter would be suspended permanently.

Indeed, going by what Buhari is typically subjected to on Twitter, it is nothing short of a reversal of epic proportions that for a ruler who rode to power as an elective president in 2015 on a tidal wave of admiration and euphoria, he has turned out to be perhaps the most hated ruler in Nigeria’s post-independence era. And for another consideration, did Buhari and his advisers really think that Nigerians would willingly and sympathetically accept the president’s clumsy and autocratic extension of his ban on Twitter to the whole nation? If that is what they expected, does this not reflect an astonishing level of naivety on the part of the president and his advisers?

This piece is only referentially and tangentially about the suspension of Buhari’s Twitter account. More centrally, it is about the context in which this event and its fallout are taking place. It is this context, this national ethos of pervasive fear of present realities and an acute sense of foreboding concerning looming catastrophes that I wish to juxtapose to the president’s brash expectation that the nation would “patriotically” suffer his Twitter debacle with him.

Indeed, it is this ethos that is powerfully and lambently evoked in the two pointed literary references indicated in both the title and the epigraph to this essay, Allan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and the lines from Niyi Osundare’s haunting poem, “This House Must Not Fall”.

Paton’s famous novel was published in 1948, just before the apartheid state was instituted as a sort of “solution” to the sense of irremediable brokenness that gripped all South Africans in the years and decades before the emergence of apartheid as a “solution” to that nation’s dire problems. As for Osundare’s poem, dear reader, just take a minute to reflect on the depth of the sorrowing jeremiad in the following lines.

We drown in the same river of unknowing Always, wrong wo/men in the right places Hideous, hidebound, insufferably haughty Medieval in their methods, dark in their deeds Deaf to the throes of a nation dying in their hands

For those who are unaware of the pointed referentiality of the title of Osundare poem, the direct reference is to a book on Nigeria published in the year 2000 by an American academic, Karl Maier with the title, This House Has Fallen.

Writing his poem and signifying on the title of Maier’s book, Osundare’s does not say, “This House Has Not Fallen”; he does not say, “This House Will Not Fall”; he says, “This House Must Not Fall”.

This is because twenty-one years after Maier’s book, things in our country have become immeasurably worse and the “house” that the American scholar had declared as “fallen” is now in the mud, in the doghouse of historical unravelling. Except that there is another consciousness, another logic in Osundare’s poem and it this thought which, among all the classical 19th-century founders of intellectual Pan Africanism and their 20th-century revivalists, Amilcar Cabral best illustrates: there is no level to which a community, a nation has fallen from which it cannot rise again.

The historic context of this “thesis” of Cabral is the extreme exploitativeness of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. So backwards, so unregenerate was it that, on the eve of independence in most of the Portuguese colonies, many of them were in conditions of underdevelopment worse than the state in which they had been conquered by the Portuguese. It was in this historic context that Cabral formulated his famous thesis: there is no level so low from which a society cannot rise again.

Please, let us take note of the fact that Buhari’s Twitter account was suspended for the extremely divisive, petty and negative comment that the president made on the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. It is beyond dispute that everyone, regardless of which side they were/are, perfectly understood both the intent and the message of that comment.

Leaving the pettiness and the divisiveness of this Twitter comment aside, in the context of Cabral’s thesis that I have just outlined by way of Osundare’s poem, isn’t it amazing that a president whose government is losing badly against present-day insurrectionary and irredentist movements can hark back to an empty triumphalism wrung from the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War? Where are the Nigerian who feels confident that the Nigerian armed forces will defeat and crush the Boko Haram insurgency, not to talk of the other myriad security challenges and crises before which the whole nation has been brought to its knees? Indeed, is it not through a version of Cabral’s faith that African societies, like all human societies, have a self-regenerating propensity that Nigerians are able to keep hope alive that out of the present dire prospects may come better days? Does Buhari any longer remotely inspire such Cabralist hope and faith in our peoples, if we concede the fact that he once did?

In the context of these musings, nothing could be more morally and politically disastrous for Buhari and his advisers than to begin arresting and prosecuting Nigerians who continue to patronize Twitter in angry and contemptuous response to the government’s extension of Twitter’s suspension of Buhari’s account to the whole nation.

Clearly, as many individuals and civil society organizations have claimed, this is a case of arrant abuse of power. It is absurd for any ruler in the world to claim that regardless of the cause, any disgrace to himself or herself is a disgrace to the nation. This may have been “true” in the olden days of feudal kingdoms in our continent and around the world but it is a completely baseless and unsupportable proposition in the modern world. This is why when Facebook kicked Donald Trump from its accounts, no American felt that the expulsion of their president was also their own disgrace, including even the most ardent supporters of Trump.

Indeed, I predict that if Buhari’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice goes ahead with his threat to have any Nigerian who continues to make posts on Twitter arrested and prosecuted, Buhari himself and his administration will become the laughing stock of the whole world. A word is enough for the prudent. But you never know, for as an Igbo adage culled from one of Achebe’s novels puts the matter, the fly that has no one to advise it follows the corpse to the grave!

To those among Buhari’s handlers and advisers who would argue that if Nigerians who ignore the threat of arrest and prosecution and continue to use Twitter are not dealt with the government will lose face and thereby inspire more “disloyalty” to the president and the administration, there is an answer. The answer comes in the form of a question: which is worse, the government quietly dropping the whole matter and losing a “little bit” of face at home in Nigeria, or arresting and prosecuting the “refuseniks”, inevitably to the derision of the whole world? Let there be no doubt about this: nothing in recent memory comes close to making Muhammadu Buhari the laughing stock of the whole world than the arrest of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Nigerians for nothing worse or more than making posts on Twitter regardless of the content of the post.

In making this point so bluntly, I have in mind the fact that among all of Nigeria’s postcolonial rulers, Muhammadu Buhari has been more sensitive, more reactive to actual or imagined slights and insults. As the whole world knows, in his infamous Decree No 4 of 1984, he made it a crime to cause embarrassment to his military dictatorship through any publication, even if the publication was based on truth or fact. And when he had Omoyele Sowore arrested and detained for treason for the Revolution.

Now protests and demonstrations of 2019, one of the listed offences was “insulting the president”, a crime that has no constitutional or legal basis in Nigerian jurisprudence. Indeed, it is very likely that the nastiness and pettiness of the post that earned Buhari the suspension from Twitter probably come from the fact that the president has been the recipient of very insulting and excoriating posts by IPOB, especially its controversial leader, Nnamdi Kanu.

But would Buhari be so prone to being driven to extremes of pettiness and nastiness by real or imagined insults if he and his administration were truly and effectively responding to the terrible problems and crises that make our country one of the most dangerous places in the world in which to live and to die at the present time? That is the question, compatriots. In one of the most startling stories in Chinua Achebe’s collection of short stories titled Girls at War and Other Stories, we are told the riveting fable of a man who leaves his burning hut to pursue a fleeing rodent. 

He manages to catch the terrified rodent, but afterwards, he finds that there is no hut for him to return to. I do agree that there is an awkwardness in my comparing Buhari’s “tormentors” on Twitter and other social media platforms to the “rodent” of Achebe’s fable, but let the analogy stand. Insulting the president, pouring abuse and vitriol on his person and his rulership is a false salve for the terrifying edifice imaginatively depicted in Osundare’s poem, “Let This House Not Fall”.

There are far more substantial grounds on which to engage in dialogue with our rulers than the usually arid fulminations of Twitter and Facebook. This is why the image of the burning house in Achebe’s fable and that of the falling edifice in Osundare’s poem are so apt as replacement subjects for both the president and his Twitter and social media tormentors.

Women in the French Open 2021

The crucial term is here is “women”. This is because something extraordinary at the French Open (Tennis) this year has posed a very sharp question which, at the same time that it highlights the significance of gender in professional sports in general and tennis in particular, also indicates the necessity of not making gender too overdetermining.

Here’s the situation: in women’s tennis these days, no super-athletes dominate the competition and slams and other major competitions are won by players who have not established nearly insuperable dominance over the field. In the French Open this year, in particular, all the eight players who reached the quarter-finals and thus had a chance to move to the semifinals and finals are relatively lowly seeded players.

This is in sharp contrast to men’s professional tennis which is (still) dominated by superheroes who have held dominance over the field for the last two decades, together with new superheroes who have joined the old pantheon of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Does this reflect an essential male thing to which women at the French Open 2021 is also an “essential” female thing?

I am reminded here of something very pithy, very tantalizing that Bertolt Brecht, the great German playwright, wrote in his play, The Life of Galileo: Unhappy is the land that has no heroes; unhappy is the land that has a need for heroes.

If we render this as “unhappy is the gender that has no heroes and unhappy is the gender that has a need for heroes”, would this be satisfactory in relation to the French Open 2021? I wonder, deeply troubled by both this proposition and its seeming real-life expression in this year’s French Open where all the winners were players supremely satisfied and fulfilled in not being superheroes, for instance, like Serena Williams.