By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I am by no means a Buhari enthusiast. But I’d choose him (or, for that matter, anybody) over Goodluck Jonathan, not because I nurse any personal animus against Jonathan (I actually feel pity for him because the presidency evidently overwhelms and discombobulates him) but because he has the dubious honor of being Nigeria’s most disastrous leader since independence. There is no doubt that being Nigeria’s president is way above Jonathan’s pay grade.
As someone who has followed America’s politics closely in the last few years, I see uncannily analogous parallels between the ongoing contrived hoopla over Buhari’s school certificate and the manufactured hysteria by the lunatic fringe of American conservatives over Obama’s birth certificate.
The conspiracy theorists who believe that Obama was not born in America and is therefore ineligible to be America’s president are derisively called “birthers,” and their movement is called “birtherism.” I think we should also call the whacky conspiracy theorists who believe Buhari isn’t eligible to be president of Nigeria because he supposedly has no West African School Certificate (WASC) “WASCers,” and their movement “WASCerism.”
So what are the similarities between “birthers” and “WASCers” and between “birtherism” and “WASCerism”? Let’s see.
When Obama’s previously lackluster campaign for the White House gained unprecedented momentum and the prospects of his triumph became an almost inexorable certainty, his opponents hatched a devious plot to call to question his American citizenship and, thus, his suitability to run for the office of America’s president. It started as hushed whispers on the margins of the American society. Then it quickly spread to polite society, and soon became the grist to the mill of the American news media. A cottage industry of conspiracy theories about Obama’s putative Kenyan birth mushroomed in no time.
Obama’s campaign team initially ignored what they thought was a preposterous, scorn-worthy distraction. They thought the self-evident mendacity of the accusation that Obama was born in Kenya was sufficient defense for Obama. For instance, when Obama was born, at least three Hawaiian newspapers published notices of his birth. Microfilms of the notices were published on the Internet by the newspapers. Plus, it’s simply implausible that a teenage mother would leave the comfort of America and travel to Kenya, which she had never been to, to give birth to her child and then return to America after the birth.
When the whispering campaigns didn’t go away, Obama decided to confront them frontally. On June 12, 2008, his campaign team created a website called “Fight the Smears.” On the website Obama uploaded a scanned copy of his "Certificate of Live Birth," also called the short form birth certificate, which showed that he was born in Hawaii. The conspiracy theorists were not persuaded. They said the birth certificate was fake, was digitally altered to mask its forgery, and that it lacked the official stamp of the state of Hawaii.
They said they wanted Obama’s original, “long form birth certificate.” In 2011 Obama requested that authorities in Hawaii release his original birth certificate, which was uploaded onto the White House website. But it didn’t placate the conspiracy theorists. They still said it was a forgery.
Do you find any parallels here between American birthers and Nigerian WASCers? In the past couple of election cycles that Buhari has run for president, no one has called his educational qualification into question. He wasn’t a real threat. The social, cultural, and political basis of his popularity derived from narrow primordial confines. He was chiefly popular among the people of the extreme north, whose votes are not sufficient to win him a national election, the cocksure confidence of his fanatical supporters notwithstanding. But this election cycle is different. Buhari is riding on the crest of the fierce wave of popular discontent against Jonathan’s rank incompetence.
About the only places Buhari isn’t wildly popular are the southeast and the deep south whose combined electoral strength isn’t sufficient to deny him a victory. So there is nakedly transparent panic in Aso Rock. What to do? Well, enlist the news media—and the social media— to, like Obama “birthers,” manufacture a phony controversy over his eligibility to run for president. Put him on the defensive. Say he has no school certificate. Keep saying it until you cause him to defend himself. When he does defend himself, pick holes in his defense, however illogical and puerile this may be. Ask for proof of his graduation from a secondary school. When he provides the proof, impeach the credibility of the proof. Say it’s a forgery.
This strategy is intended to achieve two results. One, it would slow Buhari’s ferociously rising momentum. He is expected to be bogged down with trying to refute the layers of malicious falsehoods they will continue to throw at him. Second, by keeping the issue in the news cycle up until election day, seeds of doubt about Buhari’s education, eligibility, and integrity may grow into rejection of his candidacy, especially among the undecided.
But, like birthers in America, I doubt that Nigerian WASCers can derail the unrelenting march of Buhari’s momentum. I only hope that the Buhari campaign team doesn’t allow Jonathan’s spin doctors to continue to define the main conversations of this election season. There are more pressing issues we should be talking about than the “O” level certificates of presidential candidates.
It’s frankly silly to obsess about the “O” level school certificate of a man who not only rose to the pinnacle of his military career but became the head of state of his country. In all this, though, it is the Nigerian military’s public statement on this issue that bothers me deeply. When a national military that can’t defeat a gang of domestic terrorists gets embroiled in dirty politicking, you know you’re in really perilous times.