BusinessDay

The “BMC” phenomenon – Buhari’s worst legacy

In December 2015, I attended a concert at the Eko Convention Centre in Lagos. One of the opening acts ahead of the high profile headliner was a little-known upcomer who seemed a bit overawed by the event and the size of the audience. His performance was – to put it kindly – not very good. Despite his obvious struggles on the stage that was clearly bigger than him at that point in his career, I noticed a group of people a few tables away who seemed to be having the absolute time of their lives.

None of us knew this upcomer or the songs he was performing, but the people at that table seemed to know all the lyrics. They sang along enthusiastically and even got up to dance. Soon, by the sheer power of peer pressure, people at the tables around them – myself included – began to bop their heads and tap their fingers to a performance that was markedly mediocre. These guys whooped and hollered their way through his entire performance, having a similar effect on everyone around them until he left the stage to the sound of what was definitely a warmer applause than his performance deserved.

It was not until I saw him after the show with the people from that table and I recognised some of them, that I realised what had just happened. The table in question was a corporate table given to a radio station that was a media partner to this event. Those sitting at the table were in fact radio personalities who were involved in promoting new artists, and he was one of the artists under their management. They strategically placed themselves in the audience to shill for him, and I had been suckered into putting my hands together for a forgettable performance. With this experience, I was able to comprehend the depths of a different type of shilling which came to my attention a few months later.

“Buhari new media centre” – A propaganda machine

It started out as a bunch of rumours within the media industry, about a well funded but secretive organisation working at the junction of parastatal, political action group and media agency. The Buhari New Media Centre, or Buhari Media Centre, according to these rumours, was an entity spun out of the Buhari Media Organisation, which primarily worked from locations in Lagos and Abuja, with strong funding and logistical support from people inside and close to the Buhari administration. This shadowy but well-connected entity apparently existed to do only one thing – to push any narrative that glorified or boosted the Retired General’s image and to vehemently attack anything else.

Slowly the rumours of the existence of a “BMC” became self evident truths, as almost overnight, a new genre of agenda-driven commentators appeared across Facebook, Nairaland, Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp and Instagram. These commentators sometimes posted under the real accounts linked to their everyday lives, but more often than not, they employed a dizzying number of sock-puppet social media accounts. All of these efforts were deployed to push the sole narrative of the president’s purported excellence.

Read also: Buhari charges EFCC board to strengthen war against financial crimes

What made the phenomenon even more concerning was that it was not restricted only to so-called New Media. In 2017, I was friends with a radio host who would complain bitterly to me about a group of callers who had somehow managed to hijack and monopolise the call-in segment on her daily morning talk show. These callers, she said, had only positive things to say about General Buhari and the government, even to the point of sounding delirious and losing credibility. The problem was that it was her show that would suffer credibility loss and haemorrhage listeners. The callers would simply move on to the next popular show to repeat the trick.

Print media was not spared either. Seemingly every other day, there would appear an op-ed, an opinion column, an analysis piece or a sponsored news story planted by this pro-Buhari, pseudo-parastatal entity. All the major terrestrial television stations would bring on people to speak on current affairs as “opinion makers,” but the only qualification that apparently qualified them for this status was the caption “APC Member.” In one especially shameful episode in 2020, one Ayodele Oyalowo – an individual of exactly no prior pedigree – appeared on Channels Television to inform a national audience that a VAT increase would only affect those who buy their consumer goods from supermarkets.

Why BMC is Buhari’s worst legacy

General Buhari has done some terrible things over the past 6 and a half years. As we meander into the final 17 months he will ever spend at the helm of Nigeria, he will probably add to that list. He has overseen the massacre of thousands of unarmed members of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria. He has overseen the massacre of unarmed protesters at Lekki Toll Gate, who were simply demanding an end to wanton police brutality. He has taken on the biggest local and external debt burden in Nigeria’s post-colonial history. He has banned a major social media app because of a personal temper tantrum. He has overseen an unbelievably illiterate and counter-productive border closure on Nigeria’s busiest international trade route.

All of these are objectively terrible things, but none of them come close to the spectre raised by the so-called BMC. This is my personal assessment and I will explain why. Now Buhari did not invent the use of shadowy propaganda outfits by state actors looking to engage with their audiences below the line. Former South African president Jacob Zuma famously used the British PR agency Bell Poittinger to push divisive narratives at home so as to keep negative political attention resulting from corruption scandals off him. Even ex president Goodluck Jonathan allegedly had a “40 Laptop Crew” doing something broadly similar to what the BMC does, at the time working under the supervision of former Information Minister Labaran Maku.

The reason why the BMC phenomenon is so much worse than all these is the sheer scale of it. If you want to have an idea of how big and sprawling this BMC monster is, you can type “BNMC” into your Twitter search box, and observe the number of handles belonging to BNMC state chapters across Nigeria. The lowest level operatives whose job is to deny, dissemble and disinform allegedly get paid a regular monthly stipend of N30,000. This figure goes all the way up to N500,000 for certain senior BMC employees. I have one question about all of this:

Where a president and his administration already have NTA, Radio Nigeria, Voice of Nigeria, a Minister of Information, and no fewer than 6 media and new media aides – each with their own fully funded and equipped office, what more does he need to have in order to get his point across? If despite being able to get his point across using any of this plethora of channels, the president decides that his interests are best served by equipping a group of online criminals to shill relentlessly and fight guerrilla warfare for him, then what are his goals exactly?

More importantly, what happens to the infrastructure built around the BMC phenomenon when General Buhari leaves power? Does it simply cease to exist, or does the next guy merely take it to another level, like Buhari himself did with President Jonathan’s “40 Laptop Crew?”

Questions, questions.

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