Nigerians will tell you today that they want to know the status of President Buhari's health. Some even want to know if he is alive. In fact, they will continue demanding amid fears that Buhari's health problems are more severe than the Presidency cares to admit. But so far, as proof of life to dispel the rumours, the President's media team has only responded with pictures of Buhari endorsing Channels TV, hosting Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State, and cosying up to the First Lady among others. That is not enough. What Nigerians really need is a Presidential episode of Big Brother London. A programme showing PMB watching TV, reading cartoons, receiving governors, and going into the other room. That is the solution. That is the way to satisfy the insatiable appetite and concern of Nigerians – feed them. A picture or recording will still attract doubts – only a daily show of Buhari’s activities can put our minds at ease.
Before discussing impossible solutions, we must ask ourselves, "Where did this all begin?"
‘News’ about President Buhari’s health kicked off with rumours of his death. I first came across the 'news' on a Nigerian forum. Upon checking the sources, I immediately doubted the story's credibility. However, by the next morning, it had gained traction on mainstream media with clickbait journalists classifying the reports as 'rumours'.
Fake News in Nigeria
The actual news source was a website impersonating the popular UK Metro newspaper, and the story was hastily shared by undiscerning individuals unfamiliar with the UK Metro website. Some days later, in an attempt to garner credibility, US media outlet Huffington Post allegedly reported the President’s attempted suicide.
Fake news has gained prominence with the increased use of social media applications and websites. In light of the shift from print media to online news, several websites purporting to be credible media outlets have contributed to rebranding rumours as ‘news’. The ultimate aim is virality. The practice is so rampant that Facebook has recently taken steps to clamp down on the circulation of fake news, while Vanguard Newspaper recently issued a disclaimer regarding fake websites trying to clone its news site, accusing them of 'raping the conscience of the undiscerning public'.
‘I am Alive’
‘I am alive’ verifications have been used by Lagos and Ondo State governments in vetting pensioners. In order to access their entitlements, retirees were required to go through strenuous exercises proving they were neither ghost workers nor actual ghosts. This is par for the course in a country where people go to extreme measures to swindle the system.
Buhari, like all of us, is no stranger to death; after all, he comes from a military background where death is a constant variable. Before his success in the 2015 elections, Nigerians were warned about his old age and health, with public advertisements outlining the risk of his death in office. At the time, the APC felt compelled to react to the news cycle. Yet, the source of those rumours differs significantly from the new mediums shaping public perception today.
In the wake of the recent rumours about President Buhari’s death, his team has had to respond. This begs the question of whether the Presidency is obliged to respond to fake news. An angry Lai Muhammed described the rumour as silly, while the savvier Femi Adesina was emphatic in stating that the President was on vacation and had handed over power. He also added that Nigerians should wait until February 6 – the termination date of the President's leave. Somewhat wary, the Nigerian Labour Congress still requested that the President address Nigerians publicly. In retrospect, perhaps this was a prudent move.
Incommunicado President and Expectation Gap
Since Buhari assumed office, he has addressed many national issues on foreign soil and in foreign media. Unlike President Jonathan who made good use of the local Presidential Media Chats, President Buhari has appeared averse to the Nigerian media. In light of clamouring demands from civic society, opposition politicians, and Labour Unions, there has been no definitive response from the Presidency on the state of the President's health. That being said, are Nigerians genuinely interested in PMB's health or are they just victims of the media rhetoric?
To put in context, a political analyst on Ray Power's Political Platform urged the President’s aides to ‘force’ him to publicly address the nation, so Nigerians know which prayer points to focus on. Others have suggested that he grant interviews to the BBC or Aso Rock correspondents. Others still have simply called for him to step down if incapable of dealing with the demands of the job. On some level, these calls may be unnecessary. Though veiled as civic alertness in light of President Yar' Adua's power vacuum, there are signs of strategic politicking. For instance, some have used news publications to encourage Nigerians to 'pray' for the President. But a keen observer would note that such calls merely reinforce the belief that there is reason to worry.
One thing is clear. However one looks at it, the President has consistently followed legal procedure when handling his travels. On this occasion, he has twice written to the National Assembly and handed over power to the Vice President. In essence, he avoided a repeat of the ‘doctrine of necessity' saga that emerged during President Yar' Adua's absence. But even with this commendable starting point, the President has accentuated the issue by now requesting an indefinite leave.
President Buhari is not the only vulnerable party in this news cycle – Nigerians are victims too. There is no doubt that Modern Day Journalism in Nigeria needs to be more sophisticated in addressing issues of national concern. Newspapers have been stubbornly content with peddling rumours.
So what happens if Buhari really kicks the bucket? Who would you believe? And what would it take to convince you?