People & Money

Nigeria and its conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories also serve a much deeper need.

…conspiracy theorising is totally African. The hex, the banshee who wailed last night (and the child who died this morning), the babalawo, dibia and bokaa are all cut of the same fabric. As balefully influential as the woke Left in the US (if you are fringe Republican), or as maliciously dangerous as the MAGA group (if you are progressive). Together, these elements (add the bandits, terrorists, etc. who now also threaten us) heighten our sense of victimhood. They absolve us of responsibility for our current state. And they have us focussed on the wrong solutions.

Donald Trump and senior members of his administration knew that he lost the elections for the office of the president of the United States in 2020. The same cannot be said of a large section of the electorate in the US who still plumb for him. For this group of voters, the malevolent influence of big tech (hostile to conservative views), George Soros (Victor Orban, Hungary’s president, loathes him), and woke crypto-communists somehow arranged to steal the vote from their candidate. It does not matter that facts, including official investigations by members of the Republican Party, failed to yield evidence in support of this view. That was always to be expected, of course. The anti-American forces coalesced against the 45th president of the US are especially skilled in arts so dark, they perpetrate their crimes ― including child sacrifices ― in plain sight.

That, incidentally, is one strength of conspiracy theorising. Humdrum explanations are just that: Chapters of often dissociative ordinary chance occurrences. Especially when they reflect a breakdown of trust in established authorities, conspiracy theories lend intelligent design and considerable order to even the most random sequence of happenstances. These theories, thus, make it easy to explain away and bear adverse circumstances by projecting one’s failures and shortcomings on the machinations of malign others. In this sense, they strengthen the sense of victimhood, clearly. But they also remove any sense of agency.

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However, for those who genuinely seek solutions to the problems arising on the back of the failures and shortcomings to which these theories advert their attention, each conspiracy theory is a red herring ― making the design and implementation of policy responses difficult by smearing false scents across thought trails.

Nowhere is this process more advanced than in our part of the world, and its consequence more ominous than in the dominant description of the problem with Nigeria. According to a handful of experts, the Hausa-Fulani hegemony explains all. This hegemony, apparently, persuaded that the Jonathan administration might contrive ways to remain in office in spite of voters’ wishes to the contrary, secured the services of non-Nigerian, armed non-state actors preparatory to levying a low intensity war on the recalcitrant government. The apparent unwillingness of the incumbent administration to combat the deteriorating security situation in the country is often cited as supporting evidence for this fact.

Why would an influence that has always owned the legal means of violence resort to a new source of violence? A neophyte’s question, this. The more cobweb-like its skeins are, the more menacing (and credible) a conspiracy theory is. On this reasoning, our hegemonic forces may have moved the needle away from their traditional dominance of the army in favour of today’s preference for irregular armed forces on motorcycles…

The same hegemony, incidentally, was marshalled by the Jonathan administration as excuse for its doddering leadership of the country. And long before this, the hegemony was purportedly behind every coup plot in the country ― for unbeknown to most Nigerians, the Hausa-Fulani also owned the army. Why would an influence that has always owned the legal means of violence resort to a new source of violence? A neophyte’s question, this. The more cobweb-like its skeins are, the more menacing (and credible) a conspiracy theory is. On this reasoning, our hegemonic forces may have moved the needle away from their traditional dominance of the army in favour of today’s preference for irregular armed forces on motorcycles because the latter are likelier to help complete the takeover of the Nigerian state.

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And yet, conspiracy theories also serve a much deeper need. Given the enormity of the consequences of processes, events, or persons moving against my self-interest, simple explanations just will not suffice. In this sense, the bigger possibility is not that the Buhari administration is in cahoots with those who now threaten to make Nigeria ungovernable. Rather than his being unwilling to fix the country, retired General Muhammad Buhari simply might be unable to. “Unable”, unfortunately, often conjures up images of objective hurdles in the path of the willing and able. But as the management of the domestic economy over the four years after 1999, and over the last 15 years shows, “unable” could also speak to subjective hurdles.

In this narrower construct, conspiracy theorising is totally African. The hex, the banshee who wailed last night (and the child who died this morning), the babalawo, dibia and bokaa are all cut of the same fabric. As balefully influential as the woke Left in the US (if you are fringe Republican), or as maliciously dangerous as the MAGA group (if you are progressive). Together, these elements (add the bandits, terrorists, etc. who now also threaten us) heighten our sense of victimhood. They absolve us of responsibility for our current state. And they have us focussed on the wrong solutions.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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