Mon, Apr 15, 2019 - Page 5 News List

‘Fake news’ fueling ethno-religious crisis in Nigeria

AFP, LAGOS

Misinformation risks worsening ethnic and religious tensions in Nigeria, media commentators and researchers have said, at a time of heightened concern about internal security and fragile community relations.

The months and weeks running up to elections in February 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 characterized as teetering on the brink.

Security threats include Boko Haram militants 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 polarized along ethnic, sectarian and religious lines, in a country with more than 250 ethnic groups and where identity is rarely far from the surface.

Simon Kolawole, a former editor with Nigeria’s This Day newspaper and founder of The Cable news site, said that manufactured lies in the guise of news was “further endangering the delicate ethno-religious fabric of Nigeria.”

It was also “hampering the credibility of news outlets in the country,” he said.

Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed said that misinformation and hate speech “threatens the peace, unity, security and corporate existence of Nigerians.”

Of particular concern was the fabrication of stories pitting the country’s mainly Muslim north against the predominantly Christian south — a traditional fault line often used by proponents of restructuring the federal system and even breaking it up.

“When you go by social media, the impression you get is as if Nigeria is at war and as if Muslims are killing Christians,” Mohammed said.

Misinformation — deliberate or not — is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria.

In November 1989, the official Nigerian Television Authority announced the death of Nnamdi Azikwe, the country’s first governor-general and president after independence in 1960.

By morning, most of the newspapers were running the story, but Azikwe was very much alive and would live for another seven years.

Thirty years later, rumors circulated that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had died during one of his lengthy absences from Nigeria in 2017 on medical grounds, and that he had been replaced by a lookalike called Jubril from Sudan.

It took nearly two days before Azikwe was to clear the air about the state of his health and inform the world he was still alive — and the false claim was relatively contained.

The supposed death of Buhari in contrast spread like wildfire on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, so much so that he had to address the claim at a news conference.

“It’s the real me,” he told supporters on a trip to Poland in December last year.

That Buhari, 76, had to even devote time to debunking the claim is extraordinary, but that it still circulates is a sign of the scale of problem — and the task facing the media and fact-checking organizations.

Fredrick Nwabufo, a political analyst and columnist, said that it was “an open secret” that Nigeria’s two main political parties ran “media centers” to pump out misinformation during the election.

He agreed that there was a risk the practice could escalate ethnic and religious tensions.

The lookalike rumor can be traced to Biafran supporters, who want a separate state for the ethnic Igbo people who dominate southeast Nigeria.

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