by Chi Ibe
Today, Feyi Fawehinmi – not someone you would know if you don’t spend any time on Nigeria’s social media echo chambers, but someone you can’t (and shouldn’t) ignore if you are interested in what Nigeria’s young, digitally-connected intelligentsia is saying – sent Twitter a-flutter: he is sorry to have voted for President Muhammadu Buhari.
Fawehinmi was one of the then-candidates most vociferous supporters, even allowing himself defend him as vehemently towards the first 9 months of the administration. In losing him, Buhari’s government has lost an important digital voice.
He is not alone. Over the past few weeks, past supporters including journalist Cheta Nwanze (@chxta), activist Gbenga Sesan (@gbengasesan), blogger Japheth Omojuwa (@omojuwa), culture critic Tola Sarumi (@AfroVII), even Lagos government official Akintunde Oyebode (@ao1739) who with his cryptic tweets has made it abundantly clear – there is a young elite consensus that Buhari’s government is a hot mess.
If this were the US election, we would certainly be talking about this in terms of demographics – it would be the equivalent of young college-educated whites leaving a candidate or the president. In present-day America that would be a huge loss, in terms of income, numbers, and influence. In Nigeria, it may not be so big a loss but its significant.
There are 5 reasons why this matters – a lot.
- This is the beginning of the end
I remember the point at which this same thing happened to GEJ. First, with his Independence Day statement supporting MEND, and then eventually with the arrogant disregard with which he treated #OccupyNigeria protests and the litany of corrupt-laden actions that he refused to defend or reverse course on. With GEJ it was corruption, with PMB it is policy illiteracy. In both cases, it’s not really the faults that matter to a once-fawning youth audience, it is the arrogance of it – the refusal to admit failings, to accommodate criticism, to even pretend to be listening, especially when one failing. The public waits a while to see if it’s a fluke or if it’s a pattern. Once a pattern is established, the consensus builds and the backlash is swift. Once it happens, and you are as insulated, oblivious and foolhardy as this government has copied from GEJ, there is no going back. It takes a fundamental change in substance or a fundamental review of communication (the latter more difficult when you are dealing with over 35 ministers each with their agenda) for the government to recover. GEJ didn’t – and didn’t realize how terrible things were until 2015. I’ll wager you a bet Buhari too can’t hear the rustlings of disavowal, and won’t self correct. So history will self-repeat.
- They may not have the numbers, but they have the voice
True, the mass numbers of people who voted for Buhari everywhere from Alimosho to Kano don’t listen to a cocooned Oyebode sitting in an air-conditioned office in Lagos sharing wisdom gained by privileged insight, and they sure as hell will not listen to a Fawehinmi who is safely ensconced in the United Kingdom. And Nigerians on Twitter are barely a few hundreds thousands if that. BUT! Much as the Jonathan government was ultimately brought down not by a vocal, insistent minority whose malice first formed on Facebook and Twitter, crystallized, boiling over onto traditional media, and then going viral through WhatsApp, chatrooms and office water coolers, they will have the same effect on a Buhari government. Even worse, they don’t stand in isolation – from The Nation’s op-ed pages to the ThisDay Backpage, the consensus has tightened, and it is soon hardening. Very shortly, there will be social permission for the general populace to begin to loudly curse a tone-deaf government.
Did I say very shortly?
It’s already cool to dismiss this government as a failure. Watch this video from a popular Lagos comedy show last month – watch from the 3mins 23secs mark. It’s already here.
- The international media will get the message that Buhari is a failure
Then there is social media. That’s where everyone from Amanpour to Piers Morgan, Quartz to Reuters gets their opinion about what exactly is going on in Nigeria – and what the public mood is. Still unaware of what tiny sliver of the popular social media reaches, conclusions are quickly reached on whether a government is loved or not by listening to Nigerian influencers on social media. Indeed, how does CNN primarily get its feedback when it is doing a story on anything about Nigeria? Yeah, no prizes for guessing: Twitter. Twitter now has nothing good to say about Buhari, except for those who get paid from state coffers, or a virulent, increasingly marginalized, few who insist the king isn’t naked. For a government which has enjoyed global goodwill for perception rather than substance, this is going to a big loss. And it won’t matter if it’s an unfair, hasty or alarming conclusion – it will be the defining narrative.
- The intellectual case for Buhari’s government has collapsed
There was Sam Omatseye telling you why Buhari was the only option Nigeria had to be saved. There was a certain Femi Adesina deploying the Sun’s back page to mould public opinion on his way to a job at Aso Rock. There was Olusegun Adeniyi as usual saying-without-really-saying that Jonathan had become a problem needing to be solved, and Buhari was the only possible option. There was Simon Kolawole extricating himself from a government he could no longer be ‘balanced’ towards. And of course there was Dele Momodu making it clear – Jonathan had blown it, Buhari was the saviour. They have all changed their minds. They can’t say anything else with a straight face – from monetary policy to partisan investigations, there appears no one who can appear to muster an intellectually honest argument for why this government is on the right track. The remaining holdout was social media, where the cost of admitting defeat is high – in a space where PDP stalwarts and The Wailers (as Adesina calls them) have been baying for blood, waiting to say ‘I told you so’! Buhari’s online supporters have decided that the cost of that ridicule is lower than the price for supporting a government that looks set to fail. There is no good face to put on that.
- It’s APC in free-fall
2019 has already begun – your move, Atiku (actually make that your NEXT move). Restructuring, rumours of forming another party. Abubakar Atiku, who lost embarrassingly to Buhari in the 2014 primaries is certainly going to run in 2019. He has been very strategic about this ambition – fully supporting Buhari in public, even if his defenses make it clear he is his own man. With Buhari apparently losing public trust (his approval ratings per an NOI Gallup Poll is now below 50 less than a year into his government), Atiku is certain to step up his moves. There is no time to waste. There is after all a Bukola Saraki section of the party that, with Dino Melaye as attack dog and an aligned PDP arm, is positioning for that same office. And of course there is the architect of the party himself, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who must move to protect his party from its biggest beneficiary while ensuring that the progressive path he is passionate about are not hijacked by either Saraki or Atiku, with whom he has never really been in bed, forget how many smiling faces and big embraces you see at his son’s wedding. The war will be beginning even sooner than we thought. And it won’t be pretty.
And a bonus 6: The countdown begins until another #EnoughisEnough rally
For the larger public, you will be concerned about groups like #SaveNigeria, for the youth population, the most significant activist group is Enough is Enough Nigeria. It has stood there along with its partners including BudgIT at each significant protest in Nigeria’s history over the past 5 years. The noises from its end of the road are not at all good for Buhari, as are the noises from other civil society organisations including the trigger-happy SERAP. There is enough to protest against with this government – its hypocritical silence on the House of Representatives’ budget-padding scandal, its backward steps on monetary policy, its coddling of the Chief of Army Staff through apparently doctored corruption reports, amongst very many others.
It is almost inevitable. Civil society will soon be back on the streets. Only one man can stop them now. President Muhammadu Buhari might urgently need to begin paying attention.