Saturday, April 24, 2021

On My Friendship with Pantami

 By Farooq A. Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Supporters of Communications and Digital Economy Minister Dr. Isa Ali Pantami bewailed that my April 17 column titled “Pantami is My Friend, But He Can’t Be Defended” threw him under the bus and that I’m a “fake friend” and a snitch who isn’t even a “real Muslim.” But his critics said I wasn’t hard enough on him and that I gave him a wiggle room to extricate himself from his past toxic utterances because he is my friend.

At the core of these mutually opposed reactions to my column is a deeply transactional conception of friendship. Nigerians have been primed to understand “friendship,” particularly with powerful politicians, as a relationship that is lubricated by the dispensation of favors. 

So, people who said I “betrayed” Pantami probably think I failed to defend him in spite of the patronage I got from him, and people who said I was mild in my rebuke of his rhetorical embrace and promotion of wildly exclusivist rhetoric and terroristic incitements probably think I did so because I had a need to justify the patronage I got from him.

But let me make this clear: I have never physically met Pantami in my entire life and have never asked for nor received a single favor from him since he has been in government. My relationship with him started on May 29, 2011 when he sent me a friend request on Facebook.

When I accepted his friendship, I had not the faintest clue who he was. His first message to me on June 25, 2011 was an expression of admiration for my writing. “I really appreciate your pen in most cases,” he wrote. “I hope you will try and maintain the tempo of your objectivity. May Allah continue to albarkate your life. Ameen.”

As a linguistics aficionado and a connoisseur of lexical inventiveness, I loved the word “albarkate” because it made an English word out of “albarka,” the Hausa word for blessing, which is itself derived from the Arabic “barika” (ultimately from the Semitic root berakhah).

Even when our interactions morphed to the phone, I still had no idea who he was—to my shame, I admit, because he was a consequential cleric in the Hausaphone Muslim North at the time. Sometime in 2013, I got a little curious and decided to search his name on Google and came across a Facebook page dedicated to him. It had at least 150,000 likes at the time and featured his Hausa-language homilies.

I was struck by the number of likes the page had because social media hadn’t quite taken off in Nigeria as it has in the past few years. I later asked him if the page was his and he said it was set up and maintained by his students. His students? I was even more piqued.

So, I called a few friends I knew from the Gombe/Bauchi axis and asked what they knew about a Sheikh Isa Ali Pantami. I learned from them that he was an infant prodigy who memorized the Qur’an before he was 13 and who was also a math whiz kid.  

A Hafiz (as Qur’an memorizers are called) who is also a mathematical wizard? That was interesting. But why did he not tell me who he was? Was he being modest? Or did he think I should have known?

Interestingly, he hardly discussed religion with me. Our conversations often centered on family and occasionally on my writing, and he was almost always the initiator. I saw him as someone who genuinely admired my work.

In 2014, he received his PhD in Computer Information Systems from UK’s Robert Gordon University and moved to Saudi Arabia as an assistant professor of Computer Science and Information Technology at the Islamic University of Madinah. When he would call me from Madinah, he would give the phone to his son, Abdulrahman, and his wife to say hello to me.

When Muhammadu Buhari offered him a job as Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) in 2016, he sought my opinion. And before his name was formally announced as minister, he called to tell me I was one of 10 people whose approval he wanted before accepting the position. Of course, I was flattered, but I knew my opinion wouldn’t change anything. 

In spite of being close to Buhari, he had never requested that I stopped criticizing the government in which he served. He only appealed to me to use a milder tone in my criticisms if I could. I promised I would try but never delivered on my promise. 

One day he called and said he had just come to terms with the fact that I was like Caliph Umar Bin Khattab (who was nicknamed “Farooq,” meaning one who distinguishes truth from falsehood—after whom my dad named me). He had a reputation for brutal, unsparing fierceness in his truth telling. Pantami promised he would never again ask me to be whom I am not. 

People who are familiar with my relationship with him have asked why I’ve never derived any material benefit from it. Well, I don’t think friendship should always be transactional. He initiated friendship with me out of his appreciation for my writing, and I admired what struck me at the time as his humility in spite of his fame. Not much else connects us.

In 2016, during a conversation while he was still in Saudi Arabia, I told him of a half-brother of mine who wanted to get married but had no job, and he offered to reach out to his friends to help. He did make two attempts, and carbon-copied me in his email communications, but none worked out.

When he became DG of NITDA, my brother pressed him but didn’t have any success. And when his name was announced as minister in 2019, my brother pleaded with me to talk to Pantami on his behalf, believing that he didn’t help because I didn’t request it. I didn’t. 

As a rule, when people I know get into government, I give them a wide berth both to avoid compromise and to not be one extra burden they have to deal with. This principle has alienated me from family and friends. But I’d rather have it that way.

I am bringing all this to light to let people know the nature of my relationship with Pantami so they can understand the context of my relationship with him. I was never aware of his previous extremist views that became public knowledge in the last few days. I am not indebted to him for any favor of any kind. I am only privileged to know a side of him that most people who heard and watched his incendiary homilies don’t.

As I told an interlocutor a few days ago, every human being embodies a multiplicity of personas. For example, Black America’s Malcolm X was a fierce, fiery, electrifying, and uncompromising orator who gave white folks the jitters, but he was timid, almost diffident, even-tempered, and overly polite in private, according to his biographers. Who was the real Malcolm X? The hothead in public or the quiet man in private?

People who know me only through my public commentaries also think I'm a grouchy, fire-eating hulk with an intemperate rage, but people who know me in private know me as a slight, compulsively smiling, mild-mannered introvert, and can't reconcile my public persona with my private one.

Of course, I didn’t bring up Pantami's other side to obscure his clearly condemnable past utterances in support of terrorism (because nothing at all can attenuate that), but to show why I could be on friendly terms with him in the times that I've known him.

An otherwise acerbic critic who took issue with my last column for not being hard enough on Pantami expressed his disagreements with me in the mildest and pleasantest tone I’ve seen him deploy on Facebook when he disagrees. I asked why he didn’t curse me like others were doing, and he said, “it’s because you’re not just a friend, but a brother.”

I have never met this person in real life and he actually deployed “brother” as an affectionately fictive kinship term (because we don’t even share the same ethnicity). So, I asked why he expected me to be different to Pantami in my criticism of his past. He got the point.

As Oscar Wilde said, “I write because it gives me the greatest possible artistic pleasure to write. If my work pleases the few, I am gratified. If it does not, it causes me no pain. As for the mob, I have no desire to be a popular [writer]. It is far too easy.”

Related Articles:

Pantami is My Friend, But He Can’t Be Defended

When You Piss Off Two Extremist Groups on Opposite Ends

Sunday, April 18, 2021

When You Piss Off Two Extremist Groups on Opposite Ends

 By Farooq Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

From the responses to my Saturday column, you can almost accurately tell the motivation that drives the responders. Regular, everyday people with no loyalties to any religious ideology have a different response from thin-skinned, unthinking, “touch-not-my-anointed” Salafist and Pentecostal religious partisans.

The Salafists are angry that I put their ideology under a microscope. They said I poured fuel to the fire of Pantami’s troubles, said I am a “fake friend,” and have been cursing me. The Pentecostal partisans, particularly of the RCCG crowd, are ticked off that I mentioned Yemi Osinbajo’s name in the column even though I made it clear that while he has been accused of RCCG bigotry with solid evidence, to his credit, he hasn’t been associated with extremist and exclusivist religious rhetoric in his past homilies. 

It's my choice whom I chose to reference in my own column. Don’t like it? Tough luck.

This reminds me of a report I did about Katsina in either 1999 or 2000 for the Weekly Trust titled “Katsina: Transparency Without Development” when the late Umar Yar’adua was governor of the state. All the people at the extreme ends of the partisan divide were livid. They called and sent copious mails to complain and harangue.

I was initially worried, but my editor-in-chief invited me to his office and said something along the lines of, “Look, Farooq, you’ve managed to equally piss off people at the extreme ends of a mutually opposed political divide. That’s evidence you’ve done a damn good job!”

The Christian partisans ignore my condemnation of my friend’s rhetoric and are hung up on what I said about their “anointed”— and the fact that I didn’t ask my friend to “resign” (as if anyone resigns in Nigeria for anything unless they’re British-born Kemi Adeosun). 

Salafist partisans ignored my saying that Pantami has a side to him that is not publicly known but that departs from his past fiery rhetoric— and that some facts of his life after those preachments point to a more tolerant ideational evolution. (He himself said so yesterday after my column.) They instead chose to fixate on my condemnation of his rhetoric and my affirmation of the views of people who called him out.

Regular people, of course, see a sincere attempt to X-ray and condemn a friend’s indefensible past utterances, offer another perspective about him, and suggest a way out for him. Most of these extremists who want me to mirror their thoughts (as if they pay me to write for them) don’t have the courage to question their own assumptions, their friends, their priests, and their primordial allegiances. In their childlike hauteur, they even suggest that I shouldn’t have written my column if I won’t validate their emotions. Ha!

Evolutionary biologists say humans didn’t evolve to be a thinking species (and that the burden of thinking is often invested in a minority of people), but the simplemindedness— and sense of entitlement to own my mind and to mold my opinions in other people’s self-interested images— by a vast horde of people is both insufferable and entertaining, if that's possible.

After all is said and done, the truth is that while my thoughts may be expressed in public, they are not public property. They are mine and mine alone. I express thoughts that I’m convinced about, not to court anybody’s validation or admiration. You don’t like my opinions? Write yours. Better yet, don’t read them. It’s that simple.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Pantami is My Friend, But He Can’t Be Defended

 By Farooq A. Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

This is a difficult column to write because although scores of people have importuned me to intervene in the controversy regarding Communication and Digital Economy Minister Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami’s utterances before he came into government, my wife, who knows Pantami is my friend, pleaded with me to stay out of it.

But I would be a hypocrite and betray the meaning of my name (and also my late father who taught me the meaning of my name when I was too young to fully grasp it and who never failed to remind me to live up to it) if I sidestep this consuming national controversy because it puts my friend in a bad light.

The truth is that it’s impossible to deploy the resources of logic, reason, basic decency, and even religious morality to defend some of the sermons Pantami gave in the early to late 2000s, especially in light of his current position as a federal minister in charge of a vast treasure trove of citizens’ sensitive information. I’ll come to this shortly.

But, first, how did the controversy about Pantami’s past preachments come to the forefront of national conversation? A story appeared in a few Nigerian news sites on April 12 alleging that Pantami was a Boko Haram sympathizer and enabler who is now on the radar of America’s intelligence community.

The most prominent of the newspapers that gave wing to this story was James Ibori’s Daily Independent, which alleged that Pantami had “ties with Abu Quata¬da al Falasimi and other Al-Qaeda leaders that he revered and spoke glowingly of in several of his videos on YouTube” on the basis of which he is now “on the watch list of the [sic] America’s Intelligence Service.”

The backstory to this story is that it was planted by executives of telecommunications companies in Nigeria whose companies are hemorrhaging financially because of Pantami’s December 9, 2020 directive that halted the sale, activation, and registration of new SIM cards until an “audit of the Subscriber Registration Database” is completed.

I know this because at least two editor friends confided in me that they had received the story of Pantami’s alleged links to terrorism and his surveillance by US intelligence authorities from people connected to Nigeria’s telecommunications industry, but that they declined to publish it because it was legally problematic. 

I suspect that Pantami himself has identified the source of his troubles because, on April 15, he ordered a conditional resumption of new SIM card sale, activation and registration from April 19 “as long as mandatory National Identification Number (NIN) verification is done and the guidelines of the Revised National Digital Identity Policy for SIM Card Registration are fully adhered to.”

Nonetheless, in spite of efforts by paid and unpaid media and social media “influencers” to defend him—and the retraction of the story that alleged his sympathies for domestic and international terrorists—the truth is that his rhetorical entanglements with extremist Salafist ideologies, which I wasn’t familiar with until fairly recently, justify the critical scrutiny he is receiving now.

In a series of reports, complete with audiographic accompaniments, the Peoples Gazette has unearthed sermons by Pantami that amounted to unvarnished homiletic endorsements of terrorism and intolerance of non-Muslims.  

For instance, in response to a question about Osama bin Laden’s “killing of innocent unbelievers,” Pantami said although he conceded that Bin Laden was liable to err because he was human, “I still consider him as a better Muslim than myself” and pointed out that “We are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed, but the Sharia does not allow us to kill them without a reason.” You can’t defend that.

People’s Gazette also unearthed an audiotape in which he engaged in a weepy defense of Boko Haram terrorists against extra-judicial killings and asked for an amnesty for them just like Niger Delta militants. “See what our fellow Muslim brothers’ blood has turned to? Even pig blood has more value than that of a fellow Muslim brother,” he said.

In the aftermath of the religious crisis in Shendam in Plateau State in 2004 in which Christian militiamen murdered scores of Hausa Muslims, Pantami was livid and tearful. In an audio of his preaching, he said the “Ahlus Sunna,” that is, people who are now called Salafists, should strike back and shun politicians and religious clerics who preached peace and restraint.

“This jihad is an obligation for every single believer, especially in Nigeria (hādhā jihād farḍ ‘ayn ‘ala kull muslim wa-khuṣūṣan fī Nījīriyā),” he said.

In his March 2019 paper titled “The ‘Popular Discourses of Salafi Counter-Radicalism in Nigeria’ Revisited: A Response to Abdullahi Lamido’s Review of Alexander Thurston, Boko Haram,” Professor Andrea Brigaglia of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, writes:  

“Subsequently, Pantami offers himself as a volunteer to mobilise the Hisba police of the Muslim-majority states and to be appointed as the ‘commander’ (Hausa: kwamanda) of a militia ready to travel to Yelwa Shendam to join the fight in defence of the Muslims. The speech, which is about twenty minutes long, concludes with the prayer: ‘Oh God, give victory to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda’ (Allahumma ’nṣur Ṭālibān wa-tanẓīm al-Qā‘ida).”

There are many more indefensible rhetorical endorsements of extremism that can be found in Pantami’s past preaching. In my opinion, it is legitimate for non-Muslims to be concerned that someone with that sort of baggage is a federal minister—just like it would be valid for Muslims to be outraged if a Christian minister has been shown to have espoused extremist views before they became minister.

Yemi Osinbajo, for instance, has been accused of being an intolerant, narrow-minded Christian extremist who wallows in his Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) bubble, who employs only Yoruba people who belong to the RCCG, but while that is condemnable, no one has yet accused of him advocating views as extreme as Pantami’s when he was a pastor.

Nevertheless, while I denounce Pantami’s past embrace of extremism in his public preaching, I want to point out that there is a vast disjunction between his rhetoric and his person. People who know him outside the pulpit attest to his compassion, kindness, and peacefulness. 

Although an April 15, 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable (exposed by WikiLeaks in 2011) about the religious crisis in Bauchi during that year said “Imam Fantami Isa, who preached at the mosque, had been previously thrown out of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University and of a Gombe mosque for preaching inflammatory rhetoric,” he is not known to have instigated any religious upheavals since then.

I also think he has evolved from the days of his fiery homiletic entanglements with stochastic terrorism. I can point to a few evidentiary proofs. First, although he said in one audio that he wanted to push Nigeria to the point where there would be no iconography in our national currency and even political campaign posters, he now obviously loves photography.

Second, although previous sermons expressed contempt for working for the government and even derided Islamic clerics who do, this is Pantami’s second political appointment. Before he was appointed minister, he was DG of NITDA.

Third, he earned a doctorate from the UK’s Robert Gordon University in 2014 and is now so enamored of the West that he even claims on his Twitter page and elsewhere that he was “trained” at “Oxford; Harvard; Cambridge; MIT/IMD” although he only attended a few weeks’ courses there after being in government.

But the notion that these facts show evidence that he has changed is just my extrapolation. If he indeed has evolved like I think he has, he should address a world press conference and say so. At the very least, he should give the context for his previous incendiary preachments.

 No one can do this for him. Paying media houses to “fact-check” un-fact-checkable claims (such as whether he is on a watchlist) and to cleverly twist facts to deceive a gullible reading public— and social media “influencers” to muddy the discursive waters— won’t help him.

After all, in December 2020, Sheikh Aminu Daurawa who, like Pantami, countenanced Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the early to mid-2000s, released an audiotape renouncing his past. And he isn’t a government appointee. 

As Desmond Ford reminds us, “A wise man changes his mind sometimes, but a fool never. To change your mind is the best evidence you have one.”

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Tinubu: A Presidential Disaster Waiting to Happen?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Anyone who has watched Bola Ahmed Tinubu closely and dispassionately can’t help but notice that the man is not well. He is a walking psychedelic calamity. His endless verbal miscues and nonverbal cues constantly conspire to construct the profile of a man who is battling a troubling internal turmoil, who is held hostage by disablingly malefic inner demons.

He appears to revel in his own self-created alternate universe that is always lightyears away from ours. When he speaks and walks, he strikes the observer as a man in a daze, in a cripplingly drunken or narcotic stupor. He slurs his words, slacks his attention, blanks out, has awkward gaits (which caused him to trip at Arewa House in Kaduna recently), and seems impervious to the world around him. That, for me, is the outward manifestation of an inner turbulence.

For instance, during a speech on April 8 in Abuja on the occasion of the launch of Aisha Buhari’s biography titled “Aisha Buhari: Being different,” Tinubu misidentified Dolapo Osinbajo, wife of Yemi Osinbajo, as the “wife of the president.” 

“Your Excellency President Muhammadu Buhari, ably represented by the chief of staff; His Excellency the vice president, Yemi Osinbajo; Her Excellency first lady Dr. Mrs. Aisha Muhammadu Buhari; Your Excellency wife of the president, Dolapo Osinbajo,” he said

The slip-up was cringeworthy not just because Tinubu was reading from a prepared speech but because even after an awkward pause and a dazed gaze, he failed to correct himself. That was not the picture of a man who was in control of his mental or sensory faculty. 

Ten days earlier, on March 29, he betrayed an even more disturbing dissociation from quotidian reality during a speech in Kano on the occasion of his 69th birthday celebration. He suggested that an effective way to fight unemployment in the country and demobilize bandits in the North was to employ 50 million youths into the military.

“To recruit from the youths who are unemployed—33 percent are unemployed?” he said followed yet again by an uncomfortably stuporous 12-second silence. “Recruit 50 million youths into the army and errr [indistinct]. Take away from their [i.e. the bandits’] recruitment source. What they will eat— cassava, errr, agbagdo, errr, corn, yam in the afternoon… it is grown here. You create demand and consumption for over five million army of boot camps.”

Although his press aides later issued a statement saying he meant “5 million youths,” not “50 million youths,” this was another wild, public performance of hyperaroused dissociation from reality. The clumsily uneasy silence, the dazed gaze, the inelegant repetition (egbado and corn refer to the same thing, but they are different in Tinubu’s alternative world), and the illogic that punctuated Tinubu’s speech appear to be only symptoms of a more insidious inner struggle. 

This suspicion shows up every time Tinubu departs from the professionally dexterous mediation of his inventively resourceful media team. 

For another recent example, go back and watch the incoherent and illogical video of his October 2020 response to the Lekki Massacre. As I pointed out on social media at the time, he appeared to be either in a bacchanalian daze or a somnific trance—or both.

Tinubu has one of the, if not the, most sophisticated propagandists and mind managers in Nigeria, but he sometimes overrules his media minders and rants in public while in an unflattering mental state. A proverb says, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” The inverse is true for Tinubu. Through expert media manipulation by ingenious spin doctors, we have come to associate Tinubu with political and cognitive sophistication and admirable intellectual heft.

If he had remained silent, he would have nourished and sustained this myth, but his unceasingly scatterbrained and unhinged public performances show us a man who is incapable of a basic presence of mind or a coherent thought-process for a sustained period. 

We now know his only strength is that he has excellent speech writers, artful PR professionals, and an army of well-paid, overzealous social media and traditional media battering rams. Not all wealthy people hire the best, so he deserves credit for that.

Now Tinubu is expending every imaginable financial, political, social, and symbolic resource at his disposal to become president. With Abba Kyari out of the way, he just might sleepwalk his way into the presidency while the rest of the country laughs at his gaucheries.

In previous columns, I wrote with cocksure certainty that Tinubu would never be president. For instance, in a September 21, 2019 column titled “Why Bola Tinubu Can Never Be Nigeria’s President,” I pointed out, among other things, that “the most important reason Tinubu can never be present is that the people who currently wield political power, to whom he is a witlessly obsequious bootlicker, won’t hand over power to him—or to anybody—in 2023.”   

I also revealed that “Before the 2019 election, a friend of mine who is close to Abba Kyari confided in me that after the election they would ‘deal with Tinubu and his people.’ He bragged that by the time they are done with him and his underlings, he would be so damaged that he won’t even be an option for the 2023 presidency. It’s already starting.”

Well, Kyari died and the old cabal no longer exists. Abubakar Malami, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, is now the head of a reconfigured Aso Rock cabal who takes presidential decisions. Although he is as determined as Kyari was to stop Tinubu’s presidential ambition dead in its tracks, he isn’t nearly as ruthlessly shrewd as Kyari.

For one, INEC’s purchasable chairman isn’t as indebted to Malami as he was to Kyari since Kyari singlehandedly put him in his position and dictated his every move. Tinubu can deploy his enormous war chest to buy up INEC.

For another, Malami has no control over APC’s fissiparous factions. Although he controls the dominant faction of the party, he is challenged by the Fayemi/El-Rufai faction and by the Tinubu faction. But he doesn’t have the sobriety to realize that being a surrogate president who hires and fires people while the man who pretends to be president withers away in silence isn’t enough. 

Most importantly, though, although Malami and Tinubu are Nigeria’s fiercest political enemies today, they are actually more alike than unlike. Like Tinubu, Malami lives in his own little world. I have watched videos of his media interviews and noticed that his eyes are almost always bloodshot, his body shakes uncontrollably, and his limbs whirl involuntarily. These are telltale signs of something more profound. Not surprisingly, like Tinubu, he also lives in an alternate universe.

I am now prepared to be open to the possibility that Tinubu can become president if no one outsmarts him. But it would be a tragic presidency.

After eight years of Buhari's vacant, dementia-plagued presidency, the last thing Nigeria would need is even a single day of another presidency that is ensconced in an alternate universe and that would be conducted through press releases and public opinion manipulation by devious mind managers.

If Nigeria is to have a chance at survival, it shouldn’t make the mistake of replacing a dementia-ravaged Buhari with an emotionally and mentally troubled Tinubu. At the minimum, we need a sober, self-aware, cosmopolitan person who respects and shows sensitivity to our diversity

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Umar’s “BIAFRAN Boys” Dig Part of Nigeria’s Unofficial Igbophobia

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Danladi Umar, the notoriously vain and sickeningly skin-bleached chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, was caught on camera on March 29 physically assaulting a security guard identified as 22-year-old Clement Sargwak.

 Umar flew into a tempestuous rage because Sargwak besought him to not park his car at a spot that obstructed traffic in Abuja’s Banex Plaza in Wuse 2.

In the aftermath of the swift, across-the-board social media denunciations that his cowardly physical violence against a lowly security guard roused, Umar caused the head of the Press and Public Relations unit of the Code of Conduct Tribunal by the name of Ibraheem Al-Hassan to issue an agonizingly dreadful and error-ridden press release that, among other things, singled out nameless “BIAFRAN Boys” for blame in a show of shame in which he is the main villain.

“As the few policemen in the complex were apparently overwhelmed by the mobs, consisting of BIAFRAN boys throwing matches [sic] and shape object [sic] to his car, which led to deep cut [sic] and dislocation in one of his finger [sic], causing damage to his car, smashing his windscreen,” the statement said. “At a point he attempted to leave the scene, these same miscreants, BIAFRAN boy [sic] ordered for [sic] the closure of the gate thereby [sic] assaulting him before the arrival of police team [sic] from Maitama police station.”

Notice that the press statement, which Al-Hassan later told ICIR he wrote “on instruction” from Umar, spelled “BIAFRAN” in all caps and called the unnamed protesters against his barbarity “boys.” Calling men “boys” is often a linguistic marker of notions of their inferiority and subservience. So the expression “BIAFRAN boys” was designed to simultaneously provoke revulsion and disdain in certain demographic categories in the country. 

Sargwak, whom Umar physically assaulted, is a northern Christian from Plateau State. But the people who heckled and caught Umar’s violence against Sargwak were spontaneous, amorphous, anonymous, and multi-ethnic bystanders. Why did Umar invent the trope of “BIAFRAN boys” when it was practically impossible to determine the ethnic identities of the people who recorded and heckled him?

Well, it was because Umar wanted sympathy even when he was the top dog who tormented an underdog. Although he is obviously cognitively stunted, he is smart enough to know that anti-Igbo hysteria unites a surprisingly large number of Nigerians.

Chinua Achebe captured this well in his famous 1984 booklet titled The Trouble with Nigeria. “Nigerians of all other ethnic groups will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo,” he wrote. 

When I read this years ago, I was enraged with Achebe. I thought he was overly sensitive and paranoid because he didn’t describe me or many people that I know, but upon deeper reflection and more sober observation, I realized that there’s some truth to his claim.

Many individual Nigerians don’t resent the Igbo, of course, but to deny that there is a reflexive, Civil War-inspired antipathy toward the Igbo as a collective group is to wallow in denial, which psychologists say is an instinctive ego defense mechanism. It is the collective unconscious national antipathy toward the Igbo that Umar was exploiting when he gratuitously invoked mysterious “BIAFRAN boys” to mitigate and explain away his shameful conduct. 

Fortunately, the tactic backfired precisely because the absurdity of its ethnic scapegoatism was too nakedly self-evident to be effective. But Umar is not alone. More than any other administration since the Civil War, the Buhari regime takes Igbophobia as an unofficial state policy. Watch the rhetorical maneuvers of the regime’s aides and paid propagandists, and you will find that they often revolve around stoking anti-Igbo frenzy.

Perhaps because he was serially rebuffed by the Igbo after many attempts to court them (even after choosing Igbo running mates two times in a row, he never won the Igbo vote), Muhammadu Buhari himself makes no pretenses about his deep-seated loathing of the Igbo.  

For instance, during a Q and A session at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC in 2015 shortly after he was sworn in as president, Buhari said there should be no expectation that he would dispense favors to people who gave him only “5 percent” of their votes. 

The “five percenters” were, of course, the Igbo—and Southern minorities. So, instead of magnanimity in victory, Buhari chose to declare hostility against the Igbo from the get-go.

During his first and only presidential media chat on December 30, 2015, Buhari infamously asked, “What do the Igbos want?” As I wrote in a previous column, it wasn’t the question in and of itself that was the problem; it was the raw, unvarnished animus he exhibited in asking the question. “No president should speak so contemptuously of any constituent part of the country he governs,” I wrote.

In his interview with Aljazeera’s Martinee Dennis in Qatar in March 2016, Buhari also became manifestly agitated when the interview questions shifted to Biafra. He curtly declined to view a video of military officers shooting defenseless Biafra agitators and even countenanced the Nigerian military’s extra-judicial murders by saying Biafran demonstrators were “joking with Nigerian security and Nigeria will not tolerate it.”

Again, on September 13, 2016 when youth corps members who served in Katsina State paid him a courtesy visit, Buhari singled out the Igbos among them for censure over Biafra. “Tell your colleagues who want Biafra to forget about it,” he said. That was unpresidential and invidious, particularly because, at that time, Biafra didn’t even enjoy as much sympathy in the southeast as it does now.

 What Buhari did was akin to requesting a group of Muslim well-wishers to tell their terrorist co-religionists to stop terrorism. Or telling innocent Fulani well-wishers to tell their “colleagues” to stop kidnapping. That’s unfair stereotypical generalization.

American eugenicist Arthur Jensen invented a concept he calls the “stereotype threat” by which he means that people who feel stereotyped tend to act according to that stereotype, or inadvertently authorize it, often in spite of themselves. This has happened with the renewed agitation for Biafra. Up until mid-2016, Biafra was on the fringe even in Igboland. Buhari has ensured that it has now moved to the forefront.

There is a chicken-or-the-egg type causality dilemma about the collective resentment of the Igbo in Nigeria. Is the collective antipathy toward them as a group a visceral response to the 1966 coup and the subsequent attempt by the Igbo to secede from Nigeria or were these events triggered by the incipient antipathy toward the Igbo?

In my opinion, that’s a pointless debate because it resolves nothing. The reality is that there is now undoubtedly a mutually reinforcing cycle of recriminations, which needs to stop if we are as interested in national unity as our leaders perpetually proclaim to be.

A good first step to demonstrate sincerity in the quest for national unity is to fire Danladi Umar for unwarrantedly stereotyping an entire ethnic group without evidence. If not, preachments about “national unity” will sound even more hollow than they’ve always been. 

Most people know that “national unity” is only invoked as a rhetorical cudgel to squelch dissent. But Umar has presented an opportunity to show that it means more than that.