I have vivid memories of the celebration in Benin City on July 6, 1994, when we heard that seven of the Italian players who had knocked us out of our first World Cup the day before had tested positive for drugs, leading to Italy’s disqualification. My cousin, Chuma, who came into Benin from Jos the next day, confirmed that he had also heard the story in Jos, which confirmed the authenticity of the story.
Our first World Cup campaign had started well. African champions, in our first match we dazed Bulgaria 3-0 before falling to Argentina 2-1 in a tightly contested match where Maradona the junkie played some funny tricks. Then we beat the Greeks 2-1. Therefore when the knockout game against Italy came, we were confident of victory. We scored first, but the Italians turned it around and won. Nigeria’s World Cup debut was over.
But the next day, the rumour about the Italian drug tests spread like wildfire, and people came out to celebrate our passage to the quarter finals. Thus it was that on June 9, we gathered around the television set expecting to see our Super Eagles file out against Spain. It never happened.
The rumour carriers in 1994 could be forgiven by today’s standards, as they had no way to verify the drug test rumours, except to wait, and get their hearts broken as Gli Azzurri filed out to face Spain in Foxborough. Rumours are a staple in Nigeria, and that incident made me promise myself that I would try and verify every story. It’s a promise I have largely kept, although I have had some spectacular failures which still haunt me. You see, some stories are just too sweet not to run with once you hear them.
Twenty years later, another rumour caused quite a bit of heartbreak in Nigeria, and this time it was spread by the very tool that would have allowed its propagators to verify, the mobile phone.
The year was 2014, and Nigeria was in the grips of a potential outbreak of the Ebola virus. In Catholic churches as an example, the Pre-Eucharist ritual of Pax Domini was suspended so that people would not have to come into contact with a potential carrier of the virus. However, for some reason, the rumour spread, aided by the BBM instant messaging client, that a saltwater bath could cure someone of the virus.
At least two people died, and 20 ended up in hospital in Plateau state alone, because of excessive use of salt water, based on that rumour. Something that could have very easily been verified. It is important to note that given the medium of spread – BBM, a good number of Nigeria’s cream took part in spreading that story.
Last week, Nigeria’s President was subjected to international ridicule, because he addressed a rumour. The rumour had gained ground that Muhammadu Buhari whom we see, is not Muhammadu Buhari, but a body double, or clone according to some, a chap from the Republic of Sudan, whose original name is Jubril.
There are three threads to this incident:
First — Jubril al-Sudani is the creation of a delusional and possibly deranged Nnamdi Kanu. He first talked about it in a Radio Biafra broadcast last year. Unfortunately, Jubril gained strength on the back of the information gap that Buhari’s long absences created when he disappeared for treatment without explanation. Till date, we do not know what was, or is, wrong with our President. If he had been honest, we won’t have had to deal with this. When there is an information gap, people will fill it with something.
Natura abhors vacuum.
Second — Buhari’s choosing a foreign venue to respond to the allegation in person, when he could have simply told the person who asked the question something along the lines of, “I don’t dignify such stories with a response,” is a clear testament to the disdain with which Buhari holds Nigerians in Nigeria. Not responding to the rumour was the right thing, but Buhari being Buhari, the moment he was outside the country, his mouth loosened up. Then the international press, and the comedy circuit, picked it up. The first person to pick it up was the influential American political commentator, Ben Shapiro, who has the ear of a man that allegedly called Buhari lifeless…
Third — Most importantly from my viewpoint is this: remembering the Italy rumour, and the saltwater thing, that this rumour spread like wildfire is evidence of the kind of society that we are. We thrive on unsubstantiated tales, and disdains rigorous fact-checking and data gathering. To be honest, I am a lot more frightened about Nigeria’s future now than I have ever been. The kind of people who have propagated this tale, highly educated people, makes me worried. I got WhatsApp messages from people, where they simply forwarded the flipped “left-handed Buhari” as evidence that he is now a clone. If the so-called cream of the crop in Nigeria can spread this without thinking, imagine the kind of damage a well thought through fake news campaign can do to us.