Misinformation exacerbates ethnic and religious tensions in Nigeria, facing serious security threats and community tensions. This phenomenon is particularly true during the election period.
The months running up to recent elections saw a slew of false claims about politicians and their parties, as part of deliberate attempts to shape the narrative before polling.
Africa’s most populous nation is often characterised as teetering on the brink.
Security threats include Boko Haram Islamists in the northeast and violence between nomadic cattle herders and farmers in central states.
The latter is primarily a battle for water and land but those involved have been polarised along ethnic, sectarian and religious lines, in a country with more than 250 ethnic groups and where identity is rarely far from the surface.
For Simon Kolawole, who runs The Cable online media, fake news “contribute to weakening the precarious ethnico-religious balance in Nigeria and undermining the credibility of the press in the country.”
The months leading up to the recent presidential and legislative elections have been marked by a series of misinformation spread by politicians, with the aim of influencing the polls.
The outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north of the country, re-elected in February 2019, has been accused of wanting to apply Sharia law to the entire territory.
His unfortunate opponent in the presidential election, Atiku Abubakar, was also the victim of rumors, asserting that he was supported by the gay and lesbian community, a maneuver intended to discredit him with the conservative electorate in the north of the country.
Nigeria faces multiple security challenges, including the insurgency of Boko Haram jihadists in the north-east and deadly violence between Muslim and Christian farmers in the center.
This last conflict, which mainly concerns access to land and water, has in recent years taken on an ethnic and religious dimension, aggravated by the population explosion in the most populous country in Africa (190 million inhabitants, more than 250 ethnic groups) and the instrumentalisation often made by local politicians.
Misinformation and hate speech “threaten the peace, unity, security and lives of Nigerians,” said Information Minister Lai Mohammed.
Denominational hatred online
The spread of rumors or false news that affect the division of the country, between a Muslim North and a Christian South, particularly worries. “When you’re on social media, you get the impression that Nigeria is at war, that Muslims are killing Christians,” he says.
In this country, where the vast majority of the population lives in extreme poverty and where the literacy level is very low (59%), false information spreads like wildfire on the 140 million mobile phones that count the country.
It is true that misinformation has long been used in Nigeria. In November 1989, the state television NTA announced the death of Nnamdi Azikwe, the first Nigerian president, a new recovery by the majority of newspapers … while Zik, as he was nicknamed was then alive – he died in 1996.
Thirty years later, rumors have circulated about the death of the current president, Muhammadu Buhari, in 2017 – it has since been “cloned” or replaced by a lookalike from Sudan …
Social networks have ignited to the point that Muhammadu Buhari had to raise the subject during a press conference in Poland in December 2018: “I am the true me,” he assured.
The fact that a president-in-office must deny his own death demonstrates the extent of the problem caused by misinformation in Nigeria – and that of the task of the media and organizations fighting misinformation.
A misinformation that often has its source in the political parties themselves: if the rumors about Buhari’s death were initially propagated by a Biafran separatist group, “it’s an open secret” that the two main parties Nigerians have created “media” cells dedicated to misinformation during elections, assures political analyst and editorialist Fredrick Nwabufo.