Social Media, the Public Sphere, and the Anxieties of Power in Nigeria (2)
(Lecture delivered at the Keynote Speaker Series of the African Students Association, State University of New York at Oswego, November 2, 2011)
(Continued from last week)
It should be clear from the foregoing that the sociology of Nigeria's political elite devolves from decades of unchecked corruption, wanton profligacy, unbridled cant, unrestrained chicanery, and an absolute disdain for discipline, law, and order. Some 150 million Nigerians are prisoners of contemptible rulers moulded by a culture of impunity. The ability to misbehave and get away with it is the oxygen of Nigeria's rulership. Congenital elite misbehaviour thrived in the era of citizenship largely because the contradictions of Nigeria's nationhood led to the emergence of a disoriented, dominated, and dispossessed citizenship.
Sometimes you don't know who to hold responsible for the Nigerian tragedy: the rulers or the voyeuristic followers. I can only try to account for the voyeurism of the follower-as-citizen. Disorientation, domination, and dispossession are three extremely powerful Ds that could turn citizens into culpable spectators or even cheerleaders in the very process that oppresses them. The acquisitive misbehavior of the elite turned the citizen into a voyeur or a complicit spectator of his own oppression. Every eye-popping mansion built, every glistening bulletproof jeep (that is what we call SUVs in Nigeria) acquired with the proceeds of theft and graft was applauded by the voyeuristic citizen.
I explained earlier that the convoy of the Nigerian official is the most sickening open symbol of oppression and corruption in the country. Those convoys have been getting longer and more ostentatious since October 1, 1960. They have been killing Nigerians on our roads because they are reckless and do not respect speed limits. The vehicles have been disappearing with every incumbent because his successor will award over-inflated contracts for his own brand new convoy. Yet, I have no stories to tell you of citizens pelting those convoys with tomatoes, shoes, eggs, or stones. When a governor or minister visits, citizens line up on the roadside to cheer the thieves and admire the SUVs. Apart from being irredeemably corrupt, the Nigerian state is a most astute manufacturer of consent; a manufacturer of the consenting citizen, to put it more precisely.
My argument here is that the age of the citizen has now been replaced by the age of the netizen. The netizen carries his weapon in his hand. S/he is nowhere and everywhere at once. The netizen has powers that existed only in the restless imagination of the citizen. Today, Nigeria's former aluta patriots exclaim on Facebook: if only we had social media! Yes, if only they were netizens! The tanks, the tear gas, and the AK-47s of the Nigerian state are all powerless against the netizen. The agency of the netizen reminds me of the proverb: a lion's liver is vain wish for dogs. That is the bitter lesson that Nigeria's corrupt rulers have learnt. The Nigerian netizen has become the lion's liver; s/he has become a fishbone stuck in their corrupt throats.
Unlike the Nigerian citizen, the Nigerian netizen is not content with being a spectator, a voyeur, or a cheerleader in sheepish contemplation of the symbols of his oppression. He has a weapon in the palm of his hands. He has a blackberry or an iphone. He can take pictures that could go viral online within seconds; he can send picture albums to SaharaReporters or to Philip Adekunle's Nigeria Village Square. When the corrupt people in Abuja go to sleep at night, they are no longer sure that pictures of the palatial mansions they acquired with stolen money would not be making the rounds in Cyberia by the time they wake up in the morning. The era of boundless impunity, of getting away with misbehavior, died with the citizen. The netizen wields the power of surveillance and ubiquity. And I'm loving what all of this is doing to the despicable rulers of Nigeria. Lucky Igbinedion, Tafa Balogun, Farida Waziri, Dimeji Bankole, Mohammed Adoke, Diezani Allison-Madueke and several members of the corrupt rulership have experienced a rude awakening from the immense possibilities of netizenship.
Because the netizen has the power to strip them naked on youtube, listerves, Facebook, twitter, and other avenues of cyber agency such as SaharaReporters, NVS, and Nairaland, Nigerian officials are understandably nervous. They are anxious. You see, there is a little business called neo-colonialism in Africa. I cannot get into details about that business here. Let's just say that neocolonialism ensures a master-servant relationship between Nigerian rulers and your own leaders here. You will observe that I have made a distinction between rulers in the case of Nigeria and leaders in the case of America. It is a weighty distinction but I digress. The master-servant relationship ensures that Nigerian officials are always in Washington, Ottawa, London, and Paris for meetings with their Western masters. When they come here, they are nothing like the picture I have painted of them thus far. They put on their best behavior for they must be able to tell sufficiently convincing lies about the marvelous things they are doing for the Nigerian people in order to secure more loans, aid, and bilateral funding for projects – all funds that they are going to steal once they get to Abuja.
Nigerian officials consider social media a spoiler because the American official preparing for a meeting with a government delegation from Nigeria might have read SaharaReporters just before the meeting. All the lies they are going to tell, all the pretext of being cultured and responsible officials of a partner state could come crashing down on their heads. Power is anxious, corruption nervous. They are both fighting back. Appropriation is the mode of response of the Nigerian state to the immense latitude of action granted the netizen by social media. If you can't beat the netizen, join him on his turf and engage him right there in a fight to finish.
The invasion of social media by anxious agents of the Nigerian state is an adventure steeped in paradox. Practically no institution of the Nigerian state has a website worthy of that name. After this lecture, you may google such institutions as the presidency, the National Assembly, state governments, Federal ministries, etc, and check out their websites. Pure torture. When you get to the official website of the Nigerian presidency at www.nigeriafirst.org, click on economy, you will see a story there entitled: "President Jonathan hails Hyundai decision to build multi-billion dollar shipyard at Brass". After reading the story, google "president Jonathan and the Hyundai controversy". You will discover that the Hyundai story, still languishing on their website, was denied by Hyundai and that led to claims and counter-claims between presidential spokespersons and Hyundai. Hurry and look it up because they will take it down from their website once this lecture goes public at SaharaReporters.
If the presidency of Nigeria cannot maintain a proper website, updated daily like the service your country provides for you at www.whitehouse.gov, it goes without saying that the incompetence will trickle down to all other institutions of state. I am sure you are all familiar with the website of the State Department at www.state.gov. When you leave this lecture room, go to the Nigerian equivalent at www.mfa.gov.ng and compare. If you have time on your hands, click on the official websites of some Nigerian missions overseas posted on the website of the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Try http://www.nigeria-can.org.au/ (Nigerian mission in Canberra) or http://www.embassynigeriacs.org.ve/ (Nigerian mission in Venezuela) or http://www.nigerianembassy-brasilia.org (Nigerian mission in Brazil). All those links will give you the same verdict if you click on them: Not Found! And these are active links on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nigeria's window to the world.
For all their incompetence, Nigerian officials are hyperactive on social media and therein lies the paradox. They cannot maintain functional, regularly-updated, coherent, and user-friendly websites for institutions of state in the 21st century but they have all the time in the world to invade Facebook, twitter, and listervs in order to give Nigerian netizens a fight. Once they concluded that social media and the netizen are the most formidable threats to a status quo that they have nurtured and reproduced from one generation to another since October 1, 1960, they invaded that space of civic agency with their endless harems of aids, personal assistants, sympathizers, intellectual prostitutes, sanctimonious but hypocritical sympathizers, and kool-aid drinkers. These ponces of power are the new obstacles to our bid to take Nigeria back from our oppressors.
A good example of this new problem that we face is the celebrated case of President Jonathan's Facebook account. At close to a million Facebook friends, President Jonathan does not envy your Hollywood celebrities here. The only problem is that the setting up of that account was part of a grand scheme to use social media in the perpetuation of the same myths and lies that have kept our people in bondage for so long. Most of you may not remember a fellow called Joe Trippi. He is your compatriot. As far as presidential campaigns go here in America, he is a failed political strategist because he has not worked on one successful presidential campaign. Where do failed Americans go to resurrect their careers as successful expatriates? Where do third-rate American professionals go to become kings of the hill? Africa. So, Mr. Trippi goes to Zimbabwe, works on another failed presidential campaign (Morgan Tsvangirai) before he finally struck black gold in Nigeria. He had the help of one ambitious Nigerian nebulously designated as Vice President Africa in his firm.
Somewhere between Washington and Abuja hotel rooms and government guest houses, the social media version of President Jonathan was born on Facebook. Trippi was smiling to the bank in America. The subsequent instrumentalization of President Jonathan's Facebook account is a study in the awesome ability of social media to produce the wrong results. Social media is a double-edged sword: it can produce the conscientized netizen but when deployed as a counter-offensive weapon by the oppressor, it could turn critical mass into uncritical believers. Facebook was the space where Joe Trippi's Nigerian quisling, Mr. Reno Omokri, was going to manufacture a mass of satisfied believers in the mythologies of the Jonathan administration.
Hanging out with your President on Facebook! Gisting with him! Chatting with him! How lovely! How romantic! Nigerians have lived for so long with the arrogance of rulers who operate at a physical and social remove from the people. The yearning for a President close to them, who is just like them, who interacts with them, is a weakness that President Jonathan's Facebook operatives exploited to maximum effect. No amount of conscientization by Sahara Reporters and other non-gullible activist sites could persuade the believers that they weren't chatting or gisting with their president; that their president wasn't the one posting those honey-coated status updates on his Facebook page. The believers were too far gone. As I speak here, the believers are all over social media, active foot soldiers of their own mystification by power. They are yet to encounter any evidence of President Jonathan's incompetence they couldn't excuse; no instance of failure they couldn't rationalize.
I assessed that Facebook scam with considerable sadness. Why would the president allow the boys who run the show in his Ministry of Truth to prey on a deep yearning of the Nigerian people for an accessible leader by impersonating him on Facebook? Did he not know that his one million believers on Facebook actually thought that they were interacting with him and not his body-doubles? I doubt if President Jonathan has ever logged into that account, let alone post status updates. Quietly, they rectified the situation by officially appointing Mr Omokri as a Special Adviser (or is it Special Assitant?) – anyway, special something – to the President on New Media.
Power has other ways of demonstrating its impatience with the awesome potentials of social media. When power fights back, it does not fight fairly. Okey Ndibe, my brother and fellow columnist at SaharaReporters, is one of the few voices left in the defense of the Nigerian people. Okey Ndibe's moral capital is towering, his ethical stock daunting. Men don't come finer than Okey Ndibe. He is incorruptible; his voice has no price. That makes him a very serious problem for the Nigerian authorities in general and for the government of Anambra state in particular. When Governor Obi and his goons got tired of Okey's relentless criticism of the state of things in Anambra state, they fought back, largely via social media. The objectif was not the truth for power is never interested in such minor inconveniences. Just manufacture lies that could be reduced to soundbites and broadcast widely on social media. And so, one of Governor Obi's aides, Valentine Obienyem, manufactured lies and attributed them to Okey Ndibe. Lines Okey never ever wrote were attributed to him and trained upon social media. Of course, Okey's adversaries knew that once their lies gained traction on Facebook, twitter and listservs, no amount from rebuttal from Okey would convince the believer. That was their strategy. They forgot that the truth needs only one second to catch up with a lie that has been in a full-throttle flight for twenty years.
SaharaReporters also faces its own challenges. The presidency and members of Nigeria's rulership considers it a problem. The site suffers an average of two attacks daily. I am talking about hackers trying to shut it down or infest it with all kinds of viruses. It is not too difficult to imagine where those attacks come from. The operatives of President Jonathan's Ministry of Truth are, however, not content with such attacks so they send anonymous clowns to clog the commentary section of the site with gutterlect in the vain hope that their incendiary attacks will intimidate or discourage columnists who are responding to ideals much higher than the chicanery of their masters. You should see what sometimes happens to the op-eds of Okey Ndibe, Solana Olumhense, Chido Onumah, and yours truly.
What I take away from the relentless attacks on SaharaReporters and her columnists by hired and voluntary agents of the Nigerian state is the degree to which power can instrumentalize the victim and deploy him as a tool in the perpetuation of his own victimhood. Apart from the appalling quality of education displayed by the attackers, it is also sad to note that if the policies of those who recruit them - pay them chicken feed, and take them to cyber cafes to spend days of their lives prowling and abusing SaharaReporters - had been good policies, they wouldn't be available for hire in the first place. They would be productive citizens of Nigeria at work.
For me, the task remains the same: ensure that the traducers of the destiny of my people do not have the last word in the struggle for meaning that is Nigeria. Social media has enabled me to contribute my voice to that epic struggle and I am grateful for that opportunity. Winning the Penguin Prize for African Writing has also given me the opportunities that come inevitably with the territory of international literary prizes. One such opportunity is access to Western podiums and audiences. This lecture here at Oswego is the second leg of a continuous lecture swing across the United States that started in Stanford, California, last week and will end only in March of 2012. These are all valuable podium moments that I intend to put into the service of the Nigerian people. Abuja, which fears access of people like me to Western audiences like you, will continue to hear from me from those locations.
I thank you for your time.