By Iyke Obi Durumba
It was Nnamdi Kanu, leader of proscribed Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) that introduced the idea that the occupant of Nigeria’s presidency may not be Muhammadu Buhari. The fugitive director of Radio Biafra, in one of his outbursts, alleged that President Buhari “died” in a London hospital and was replaced with a body double, someone he named as ‘Jubril from Sudan’.
Initially, this allegation was ignored as it ought. The very idea sounded so preposterous that no sane person could even countenance it much less deign to comment on it. How could anyone even begin to think the President of a country could be impersonated for elongated periods without detection?
Admittedly, the use of body doubles by world leaders is not exactly novel. Historically, Felix Dadaev was one of the body doubles whom Soviet intelligence services sometimes used in place of Josef Stalin in motorcades, rallies and other events. More recently, it was also alleged that Saddam Hussein used a body double. However, these two examples point to security-obsessed dictators needing to protect themselves with look-alikes who would take the bullet in the event of any putsch. The Jubril story doesn’t quite fit here but with the demise of former President Umaru Yar’adua and the ensuing powerplay implications on the delicate North-South balance of power in Nigeria, the theory that a body double was hastily arranged to take Buhari’s place when he “died” appeared faintly plausible.
By reason of consistent propagation especially on social media, the idea came to acquire a life of its own. So tenacious was it that President Buhari himself spoke up. Responding to a question on his being cloned, Buhari while addressing Nigerians in Poland said, “A lot of people hoped that I died during my ill health. It is real me… I will soon celebrate my 76th birthday and I will still go strong”. But a few days before that, Lai Mohammed was more pointed in his comment, “It is idiotic to say the President is cloned. I don’t see any serious government responding to that.” How the President then condescended to respond to such an “idiotic” allegation remains a mystery. It is indeed puzzling why the President chose to unwittingly play into the hands of his traducers.
The fact that this government decided to join issues with such an allegation demonstrates more than anything else the administration’s propensity for the mundane. By the President’s rejoinder in Poland, what was initially a local rumour generated by a proscribed group has found its way to international media. Coming after the purported Trump ‘lifeless’ crack on the Buhari, the acknowledgment of the Jubril theory is an error and the jokes which have followed are most unsavory and has plunged the global prestige of the Nigerian Presidency to the nadir of insalubrious hilarity.
As a distraction, however, it is working quite well as the Jubril theory has gone viral. Practically every Nigerian with access to the internet (at least 100m of us) is talking about it. Many initially ignored the story for the asininity it was but the FG’s response has now elevated it to a seriously considered possibility and this is just sad. For a country like Nigeria wallowing in all the unenviable negative indices such as extreme poverty, illiteracy, corruption and disease, the Jubril distraction may even be ironically welcome by the government who may chose to play victim with it.
Several ‘reasons’ have been advanced by some of the propagators of the rumour as to why their imaginations ran riot in such wild and clumsy fashion. There have been pictures showing the President before and after his medical vacations and as far as pictures go, they appear pretty convincing to the naive. Their argument is more a show of amazement that such an elderly man could be hospitalized for months on end yet recover so completely as to look far younger than he did previously. Other pictures show the President’s right ear looking different pre- and post-hospitalization. However, to say these stories are nonsensical is simply stating the fact. The conjectural evidence is laughable as most of the pictures presented as ‘proof’ are doctored to arrive at the conclusion that there is a body double in the Presidency. The simple use of google image search will show many of these pictures have their origins in the Twitter handles of either Nnamdi Kanu or IPOB sympathisers and are photoshopped to achieve the exact effect desired by the purveyors of the theory. One of the pictures showing Buhari signing documents with his left hand is patently fake, just to cite one example.
The effects of this story are multifarious as they are deleterious. First, the Presidency is on the defensive over something so ridiculous. Even the Vice President, a Professor of Law, fell for the psychological manoeuvre when he joined issues with the story at the recently held APC Consultative Forum. The effect of the public relations faux pas of responding to this conspiracy theory is that whenever Buhari appears in public henceforth, all attention will be focused on scrutinizing his person instead of his message. The Jubril conspiracy theorists have succeeded in embedding the idea in the consciousness of Nigerians and for them, that is a huge victory. It is very sad that a Nigerian President could be reduced to a caricature with the unwitting aid of the government itself.
It must be said that the operation of this Presidency which is often-times opaque is more than adequate to drive all types of queer conspiracy theories like this Jubril story. When it becomes official policy to shield an elected President from the media, the breeding ground for such theories becomes very fertile. It is inconceivable that an elected President can be so protected from the very people who elected him to serve them. Like the Japanese emperors of old, President Buhari has chosen to live in the high loftiness of the Presidency, isolated by the legions of aides who speak for him and secluded by the trappings of power. The presidential media chats which former President Obasanjo engrained in the democratic character of Nigeria and which other Presidents followed to some degree, has all but been abandoned by President Buhari fuelling speculations such as this Jubril conspiracy.
Clearly, there was something fishy that the President of a country could spend months on end abroad without any cogent explanation about what ails him provided to the very people who elected him. Vagueness such as this promotes ridiculous stories like this Jubril nonsense. Absurdity breeds absurdity and since nature abhors vacuum, conspiracy theories will occupy the space of facts and become what is referred to as ‘alternative reality’.
If the person of the President of a country like Nigeria is the subject of discourse, care must be taken to ascertain facts or risk a conflagration whose consequences no-one can quite predict. Given IPOB’s sworn intentions to “set the zoo on fire”, the Jubril theory may well be crafted to create the confusion that will produce the sort of crisis this country may not survive. This must not be allowed to happen.
One resounding irritation with this Jubril story is that the Buhari personality is so rich in damning but factual narratives that it does not need any mind-bending, alternative-reality conspiracy theories to deconstruct. As a public figure, the last three-and-a-half years has served to deconstruct the Buhari personae like nothing else can. The decades-long façade of integrity has been so thoroughly shredded that Nigerians have seen the fraud in it. Buhari’s two misadventures into power have been disastrous for the country and facts abound to show that Nigerians were perversely misled as to his abilities. What then is the need for the sort of jejune nonsense which this Jubril theory represents? If it is meant to mock him, then it is not just poor, it portrays the purveyors as pathetically lacking imagination and cannot be regarded with any degree of seriousness.
It must be stressed that the Muhammadu Buhari in Aso Villa right now is the one who was elected to fix the Nigerian rot and has failed. It cannot be over-emphasized that it is he whom Nigerians must hold responsible for the present parlous state of the country, not any Jubril from anywhere. The buck stops at his table and as he strives to receives accolades for any achievements real or imagined, he must also be personally held responsible for the misery in the country today. He must not be provided with any Jubril as a fall guy.
As the country goes into momentous elections in about two months, Nigerians must not be distracted from holding Buhari responsible for whatever they face today.