Cloning a President: Social Media and the Politics of Elections in Nigeria
Postscript to The Facebook President: Oil, Citizenship, and the Social Mediation of Politics in Nigeria
By Omolade Adunbi
In my article, “The Facebook President: Oil, Citizenship, and the Social Mediation of Politics in Nigeria,” I described how Nigerians use social media to make claims from the state in ways that shape perception of oil and natural resources. Using the example of the creation of a Facebook page by then President of Nigeria, Mr. Goodluck Jonathan, I show how social media became important in facilitating conversation on what constitutes a national resource and how social media space creates “social media citizens” that are simultaneously visible and invisible to the state. Communication with the state, I argue, is shaped by a form of visible concealment—i.e. citizens’ views are visible via their posts to social media networking sites, but their identity can remain anonymous both through the use of pseudonyms and by the ability to make these claims from the comfort of their smart phones instead of in a public forum.
One of the most important elements of the article was a discussion of a shift from commendation to condemnation of the president after he announced the withdrawal of subsidies on locally consumed oil. The withdrawal became a way for the people that I referred to as “social media citizens” to situate oil wealth at the center of the social mediation of politics in Nigeria. Social media was not only used to make demands from the state, but it was also used to engage in a discourse about oil as a national treasure that the state ought to use for the benefit of all. In a nutshell, social media engagement by youths in Nigeria helped rouse opposition against the administration of president Goodluck Jonathan. While social media may not be utterly responsible for Jonathan’s eventual loss of the presidential election in 2015, it remains one of the most potent and galvanizing platforms against his administration’s handling of the economy and insecurity in the country. Since 2015, there has not been any significant improvement in the economy and general insecurity in the country. Two interrelated factors are responsible for this—volatility of the international oil market and resurgence of insurgency both in the oil rich Niger Delta and the Northeast of Nigeria.
Volatility of the oil market especially between 2015 and 2016 saw a total collapse of oil prices. From its high of about $140 per barrel in 2014, it fell to a mere $40 per barrel in 2015 when the new Buhari administration was inaugurated. The resurgence of insurgency in the Niger Delta was a response to the Buhari administration’s attempt to end the Amnesty Program that had been the bedrock of peace in the Niger Delta region because of its monetary benefits to former insurgents. The Amnesty Program served a dual purpose for the Jonathan administration. It placated many of the stakeholders, particularly members of insurgency groups such as Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, Niger Delta Vigilante Movement, NDVM, and others who had found a way of engaging with the state and corporations through the force of arms. It also served as a cash cow for many Niger Delta leaders and politicians. A sharp drop in oil revenue and Buhari’s anti-corruption stance were the reasons adduced for the end to the Amnesty Program. Buhari’s election and strong stance against corruption ushered in a period of uncertainty for the amnesty deal. For almost three months after his election, the Buhari administration did not appoint a replacement for the head of the amnesty office. Throughout this period, the program lacked leadership and direction. On top of this vacancy, the payment of monthly stipends to the former militants stopped abruptly after the change in administration. In late 2015, the appointment of retired Brigadier-General P. T. Boroh as the new coordinator of the Amnesty Program provoked unease within communities. Unlike his predecessor, Borah was considered an outsider with no ties to the militants and other stakeholders in the Delta.
This uncertainty regarding the amnesty office and Boroh, combined with Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign, led to a resurgence of violence. Connected to that is the rise in incidences of Boko Haram in the Northeast of Nigeria, increase in kidnappings by Boko Haram and other criminal gangs across the country. While the Buhari administration was able to placate the Niger Delta insurgents through the renewal of the amnesty payments, Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast continued.
By the time I visited Nigeria in the summer of 2016, the economy was in recession and the tidal wave that propelled Buhari to power in 2015 was beginning to recede. Once again, Facebook and other social media platforms had become a theatre where different engagements with the state were performed. A sluggish economy that the administration had no hands in bringing about became its major undoing. Many social media citizens came down heavily on Buhari and other members of his administration. Mr. Buhari’s health failings also did not help as he had to travel to the United Kingdom for medical treatment. Mr. Buhari was in and out of the hospital in the United Kingdom several times during his first term with no official explanation of his ailment. By the time he returned to Nigeria, social media citizens, aided by the new form of Facebook engagement—bots and conspiracy theories—reveled in how the president had died and that it was his clone that had returned to Nigeria.
Facebook turned into a public sphere (Habermas 1991) where discourses about natural resources as a commonwealth changed to discussions about whether the president was a clone or real. Many Facebook and Twitter posts suggested that the cloned president was actually someone named Jubril al-Sudani who lives in the Republic of Sudan but has a close resemblance to president Buhari, hence, his being contracted to replace the president as his clone. Thus, Jubril al-Sudani became a popular discussion point among social media citizens in the lead up to the 2019 reelection campaign of the president. The president had to react to the rumor that he was a clone while on a state visit to Poland in December 2018, few months before the election. On his Facebook page, the president posted a video of his reaction to the rumor at a town hall meeting he had with Nigerians based in Poland. In the video clip, Mr. Buhari said, “One of the questions that came up today in my meeting with Nigerians in Poland was on the issue of whether I’ve been cloned or not. The ignorant rumours are not surprising—when I was away on medical vacation last year a lot of people hoped I was dead.” (Muhammadu Buhari, December 2nd 2018). In response to the statement, the crowd erupted in laughter. Mr. Buhari continued by calling the rumor “ignorant” and “irreligious” and suggesting that those behind the rumor had hoped that he was dead. He concluded by saying, “I can assure you all that this is the real me. Later this month I will celebrate my 76th birthday. And I’m still going strong!” There were also messages on Twitter by the office of the president debunking the rumors as a conspiracy theory crafted to discredit his administration.
In the comments section of this particular post, many social media citizens didn’t find Mr. Buhari’s response good enough to dispense their belief that he was Jubril al-Sudani from the Republic of Sudan. Some of the commenters responded: “As silly as it sounds…that is not our president…I suggest a simple DNA test/bone marrow scan to authenticate both his age & identity…this sets this matter to rest for all time & removes all controversy”, said a commenter named Kay (Kay Ayoola, December 2nd, 2018). “The real Buhari is much taller than you sir! And also older than you!! don’t believe its real you! come and address us here in Nigeria and not Poland!” (Chigbogu Obi, December 4th, 2018). “You’ve been programmed to believe you’re the real one. Classic clone move” (@thedopenasty, December 3rd, 2018). “The fact that your citizens are even wishing you were dead simply show how ineffective your administration has been. Nobody would have wished Nelson Mandela dead during his time as president of South Africa” (Brume Sam, December 5th 2018).Other commenters said,“It’s clear that reasonable Nigerians, even America don’t need lifeless president again. Jubril should quickly book available flight back to Sudan bcuz his contract has expired” (Wizzy Uchman, December 4th, 2018). “The real Buhari can’t be at peace while Nigerians die of hunger and starvation. With fellow Nigerians been killed like chicken by Fulani Herdsmen every day…our own Buhari is not this wicked” (Ginta Peterson, December 2nd, 2018).
While many of the names of the commenters are those associated with Nigeria, there are some such as Ginta Peterson and Wizzy Uchman that appear to have been made up by the commenters in order to protect their identity. Some of the comments combine humor with commentaries on serious national issues such as general insecurity and the perilous state of the economy. Republic of Sudan as a space where the “cloned Buhari” came from is also intriguing considering that Nigeria has no border with Sudan. What becomes clear is that, to many of the commenters, Sudan has a sizeable Muslim population and the country is sometimes erroneously associated with the idea that the Muslims in the North were responsible for killing Christians who are from the South, hence the secession of the South in 2011. Since Mr. Buhari is Muslim Fulani from the North of Nigeria, it becomes easy for some of the commenters to believe that a Sudanese Muslim can be his clone. The reference to Nelson Mandela, an icon and former president of South Africa, by one of the commenters aims to bring attention to the fact that while Nelson Mandela brought freedom and unity to his people, Mr. Buhari’s political and economic policies tend to increase insecurity and ethnic division in the country. There were commenters that sympathized with Mr. Buhari. Some of those sympathetic commenters pointed out that these were mere rumors propagated by opposition groups and separatist groups such as the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, IPOB to create discord among Nigerians. The sympathizers commended Buhari for responding to the rumor and scolded those spreading the rumors as “enemies” of progress in Nigeria.
Most importantly, the social media space has, in the last few years, become a space for intense political engagement. While this can be considered a positive as it could result in more political participation by the citizenry, it also has the capacity to produce unintended consequences—one of which is the circulation of rumors and conspiracy theories around political leaders. Mr. Buhari and the rumor of his cloning represents such a consequence of a well-crafted conspiracy about cloning. This example also shows that economic and political anxiety can help in the propagation of conspiracy theories that favors one political group over the other. Economic anxiety fueled by an instability of the international oil market produces an outcome that creates distrust of a political leader who had promised economic prosperity and to fight against corruption. Mr. Buhari easily won reelection in February 2019 but the consequences of those rumors and conspiracies about his health, death and cloning still persist today. The discourse of oil as a commonwealth among social media citizens has thus been replaced by a new discourse—the discourse of how rumors and conspiracy theories circulate in a state rich in oil.
Omolade Adunbi is a political anthropologist and an Associate Professor and Associate Chair at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) and Associate Professor, Program in the Environment (Pite) and Professor of the Honors program, College of Literature Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Adunbi is also a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the Graham Sustainability Institute, University of Michigan. His areas of research explore issues related to resource distribution, governance, human and environmental rights, power, culture, transnational institutions, multinational corporations and the postcolonial state. His book, Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2015) which addresses issues related to oil wealth, multinational corporations, transnational institutions, NGOs and violence in oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria in 2017 won the Amaury Talbot of the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland’s Anthropology of Africa book award. His current research focuses on the growing interest of China in Africa’s natural resources and its interrelatedness to infrastructural projects, oil refining and special economic zones. He is currently completing a book manuscript that interrogates the intersection of oil refining with special economic zones. His teaching interest include transnationalism, globalization, power, violence, human and environmental rights, the postcolonial state, social and political theory, resource distribution and contemporary African society, culture and politics.
Habermas, J., & Habermas, J. (1991). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. MIT press.