I study Northern Nigeria for a living. I am a Lugardian Northerner. I grew up in and schooled in Northern Nigeria. I know that conspiracy theories have a high resonance in the region. I know that implausible and sometimes ridiculous alternative explanations and alternative facts circulate in the region to devastating effect.
Conspiracy theories led to non-Muslim fellow Nigerians being killed in Kano shortly after the beginning of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The ignorant interpretation of cosmic and climatic events as recompense for sin by some Muslim clerics led to Christians being attacked in Maiduguri when there was a solar eclipse–years before Boko Haram emerged.
Conspiracy theories and outright fabrication about insults and plots against Islam got Gideon Akuluka and Grace Usha beheaded in Kano and Gombe respectively. I know several northerners who are Truthers, believers in the theory that the 9/11 attacks were the work of the US government and/or Jews. I have seen posts written by Northern Nigerians on my Facebook timeline alleging that jews and/or Americans created ISIS to destroy Islam. Such posts garner many likes from Northern Nigerians.
Until Buhari’s election, there was a cottage industry of conspiracy theories about Boko Haram being the work of the CIA or of being a plot by then President Jonathan to destabilize the North. Former Governor Murtala Nyako of Adamawa State even went to Washington DC to spout this nonsensical theory, lending executive credence to a previously fringy contemplation. Some Northern Nigerians alleged that the US and French governments were supplying weapons to Boko Haram to destroy Islamic solidarity and pit Muslims against one another.
One interlocutor even told me that his village people had seen some Baturai (white people) among the terrorists, insinuating that that was proof of Western backing for Boko Haram. The abiding power of this particular conspiracy theory is the reason that when stories circulated in the wake of the capture of Camp Zairo in Sambisa about a “white man” being among the captured insurgents” the stories was a particularly enduring sensation in Northern Nigeria. In fact, Northern Nigerians dug up and widely circulated photos of the moment Cameroonian soldiers rescued a German hostage released by Boko Haram several years ago. The fake photo gave the story even more resonance in Northern Nigerian social media circles. The story found a primed audience in Northern Nigerians because it confirmed what many already believed. Its spread was aided by the existence of confirmatory bias in the region.
This is a long winded way to say that Northern Nigeria has always been a fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories that touch on religion and regional solidarity are especially positively received in the North, no matter how absurd and unfounded they may be.
The North is not the only region of Nigeria prone to spinning conspiracy theories to explain or deflect problems and challenges they have a hard time accepting as natural events or as emanating from among themselves, from among purportedly righteous Muslims. Boko Haram festered partly because former president Jonathan and his supporters manufactured conspiracy theories about the terrorist group being sponsored by the North or at least by his northern political opponents to scuttle his administration or–the famous Nigerian phrase–make Nigeria ungovernable.
Even so, I want to argue that, given the rate of illiteracy in Northern Nigeria and the existence of a large community Arabic- and Ajami-literate people who live in an incestuous bubble of self-reinforcing Northern Nigerian and Arabic language discourse and news feeds, the region is a much bigger receptacle for conspiracy theories, a bigger factory of silly but dangerous conspiracies than the South.
Which is why I agree with Mahmud Jega on the danger of a recent sermon delivered by a Muslim cleric at a Friday mosque in Funtua, Katsina State, regarding Buhari’s health challenges. Already, the sermon seems to have generated memes and speculations in the Nigerian fake news and social media universe about Buhari being poisoned, with even a few discerning Nigerians asking on my Facebook timeline if the rumor is true.
Here is how Jega characterized the sermon in his latest Daily Trust column.
“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. 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.”
Thankfully, a Katsina politician recognizes the danger of starting and spreading such a conspiracy theory at this time of national tension and political uncertainty. The question is, will the Northern Nigerian Muslim masses who have been exposed to the sermon and its other iterations across the North get the memo about this being an outlandish and made up theory about Buhari’s health issues? And what if, God forbid, the illness is terminal? Would these regular Northern Nigerians not go after compatriots that clerics told them poisoned Buhari and killed other Northern leaders before him?