Remarks by President Muhammadu Buhari that too many of his countrymen are in jail abroad have sparked a furious social media campaign
ABOVE PHOTO: Did he really say that? Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari Photo: Paul Grover/The Telegraph
For any journalist not working in the likes of North Korea, creating a stir has long been part and parcel of a good day’s work. Yet while I relish generating controversy as much as any other reporter, never in my career did I expect to be accused of branding a nation of 170 million people as criminals.
That, though, is one of the claims by the #NigeriansAreNotCriminals social media campaign in recent days, through which I have been accused both of spreading anti-Nigerian propaganda and wilfully misquoting an innocent Nigerian statesman.
Luckily, I’ve checked my notes – and I think I’m in the clear.
The offending article – if you aren’t one of the millions of Nigerians who have now read it – arose out of my interview last Friday with Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, who was on a trip to London.
Interviews with heads of state are a big occasion for any reporter, although it’s fair to say that most of the time, they offer very little in the way of departures from the standard diplomatic niceties.
Not so Mr Buhari, a former general who prides himself on a tough, uncompromising reputation. So when I asked him whether the threat from Boko Haram made it justified for Nigerians to claim asylum in the UK, he looked even sterner than normal, and then dropped the following political grenade.
“Some Nigerians claim is that life is too difficult back home,” he told me. “But then again some Nigerians have also made it difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in different prisons all over the world accused of drug trafficking or human trafficking…
“We will encourage our countrymen to stay at home, work hard and make a respectable living at home.”
You can see the full transcript of what he said here. But as you can imagine, this particular portion of the interview did not go down very well with most of his countrymen, who have accused their own elected leader of doing irreparable damage to their image abroad.
Or, to put it in a British context, Mr Buhari has done the political equivalent of a “Ratner”, after the British budget jewellery tycoon who destroyed the value of his firm after saying that his wares were “total cr–“.
True, this is not the first time that Mr Buhari has lambasted his own people.
He has long cultivated a somewhat headmasterly image, treating his vast nation as unruly school pupils who need to be kept in check, and during his time as a military ruler in the 1980s, he was famous for waging a “war on indiscipline”.
Members of the public could be whipped if they didn’t form orderly queues at bus stops, while civil servants were ordered to do squat thrusts if they turned up late for work.
Indeed, when he returned to office last year, he made a televised address in which he bluntly ordered the nation to change their “lawless habits”, saying: “We must change our unruly behaviour in schools, hospitals, market places, motor parks, on the roads, in homes and offices…To bring about change, we must change ourselves by being law-abiding citizens.”
However, many of his countrymen say it’s one thing to deliver that message for domestic consumption, and another to deliver it on the world stage.
“I can’t remember the last time a leader went abroad to speak ill about his people,” said one Twitter user.
Not surprisingly, Nigeria’s opposition also made capital out of it, with Ben Bruce-Murray, a Nigerian senator, urging people to get the hashtag #IamANigerianNotACriminal trending.
According to the BBC – which has also reported on the row – the slightly snappier #NigeriansAreNotCriminals had been used 35,000 times as of Tuesday.
Perhaps inevitably, some of the flak was also aimed at the messenger, with The Telegraph criticised for headlining on Mr Buhari’s remarks about his countrymen rather than some of the other comments he made.
But that folks, is the nature of news – any newsman worth his salt will always pick out the most newsworthy bits of any interview. And take it from me, if we did the opposite, and ran every single worthy word uttered by every politician we’ve ever met, we’d produce some very boring (and very long) newspapers.
Nor is it true, as some charged, that we only write bad stories about Nigeria. If you don’t believe me, read this story about the governor who’s cleaned up Lagos, this story about the doctor who saved Nigeria from Ebola, and this one about the gutsy television reportress who fronted up Robert Mugabe.
But was there any truth to what Mr Buhari said? I’ll leave people to judge Mr Buhari’s remarks for themselves – and judging by the online reaction, there are no shortage of people disputing the notion that Nigerians are disproportionately involved in crime.
But it is perhaps instructive to look at why this perception may have arisen.
First, as a country with some of Africa’s biggest urban cities – Lagos has nearly 20m people – Nigerians have long enjoyed a reputation for breeding a few tough hustler types, which is hardly surprising in a country with such poverty. Indeed, in the rest of west Africa, people from Lagos are sometimes seen rather like New Yorkers – slick, streetwise and very worldly wise.
Second, there is the legacy from the infamous 419-scams, which mean that many people around the world have experienced the crafty – if entertainingly inventive – world of the Nigerian con-artist (my favourite is one asking for help for a Nigerian astronaut marooned in the international space station).
A third, meanwhile, is simply a question of numbers. As Africa’s most populous nation, and one with a huge diaspora, the law of averages says that more Nigerians are likely to fall foul of the law abroad than Africans from other nations.
So why, then, did Mr Buhari say what he said? That is something only he can answer, but I can confirm that since the interview, we’ve had no complaint from his office about the accuracy of what he said.
Then again, such blunt talk probably also sits well with someone who prides himself on straight-talking, and whose toughness was the very reason many people voted for him in the first place.
Whether it will cost him another term in office, only the next election will tell.
One thing though, seems certain. If he does fail to win another term, I wouldn’t bet on a new career as a diplomat.
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