Prior to coming to power in 2015, it was clear to many people that President Muhammadu Buhari needed additional help to bank on his traditional political power blocs and much-touted personal character to take him to Aso Rock.
It took a well-oiled social media propaganda project propelled by the Buhari Media Centre to finally sell his candidacy successfully to Nigerian voters and helped him defeat the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan.
But as he prepares to leave office, Buhari finds himself at odds with the social media capital that paved his way to power.
He joined Twitter in December 2014 with the handle @thisisbuhari, less than four months before the 2015 presidential election. In less than six hours of announcing his official handle, 12,000 people followed him.
Experts say Buhari’s media handlers took advantage of Nigerians’ discontent with the Jonathan administration to launder Buhari’s image on social media as an incorruptible reformer, an anti-corruption crusader, and the best solution for the country’s deepening insecurity.
“Social media played a significant role in the emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 much as it did in the Obidient Movement wave in the last election. In both instances, the youth were at the centre of it all.
One would have expected that PMB took advantage of social media to reach out to Nigerians, share his policies with the people, the achievements of his administration as well as convert it into a public square for participatory democracy but he failed in all of this,” said Celetine Kezie, a lecturer in the Humanities Department, Pan-African University.
In the first few months of his administration, Buhari made efforts to leverage social media to share his administration programmes through several official handles created for the purpose. However, try as he did to manage the expectations of Nigerians on social media, his poor handling of the economy, which began to show up almost as soon as he took over from Jonathan, quickly soured his relationship with many Nigerians who had cheered him to victory.
By June 2016, there was a flurry of reports in the media, both local and international, detailing how underwhelming Buhari’s first year was. His popularity on social media also declined as the Nigerian economy went into recession in August for the first time in over two decades.
A report by AFP, the French news agency, noted that the president’s ineffective policies have led many to believe he doesn’t have what it takes to rescue Nigeria from recession. The President did not also help matters as he preferred to grant interviews to foreign media organisations rather than local ones and would not address Nigerians on the live broadcast about the declining economy.
The angry posts from Nigerians on social media began to build and didn’t take long before it started causing the administration sleepless nights and prompting it to take action. Rumours about a social media bill to gag free speech became rife. The Presidency claimed ignorance and released a statement, saying it would not assent to a bill that is against the provisions of the constitution.
“He is not averse to lawful regulation, so long as that is done within the ambit of the constitution which he swore to uphold,” the statement read by Garba Shehu, senior special assistant on media and publicity, noted. The statement did little to stop the bill from passing the second reading at the National Assembly and instead raised the public’s fears.
When the President finally agreed to speak to Nigerians through a live broadcast, his speech caused a stir on social media again as parts of it were reportedly copied from former US President Barack Obama’s speech. After weeks of silence on the allegation, the presidency admitted to having plagiarised the speech.
“It was observed that the similarities between a paragraph in President Obama’s 2008 victory speech and what President Buhari read in paragraph nine of the 16-paragraph address are too close to be passed as coincidence,” the presidency said in a statement. “President Buhari urges Nigerians to look beyond this incident and focus on the message of change which the country needs in order to restore our cherished value systems.”
Many Nigerians – at least those on social media – did not look beyond the incident. The President’s admission of guilt served as a fire to interrogate other missteps of the government, for example, Buhari’s frequent medical trips. In 2017, he was away in a London medical facility for a total of five times, spending a total of 157 days in that year alone.
While Nigerians took to Twitter and other social media platforms to express their displeasure about the frequent medical tours and the huge cost to the economy, the presidency provided no explanation as to the whereabouts of the President. Buhar did not also transmit a handover letter to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo during his August 2017 trip in which he spent 103 days in the hospital.
In an attempt to dispel rumours of his death, Buhari’s aides including Garba Shehu, Femi Adesina, Lauretta Onochie, and Abike Dabiri-Erewa, travelled to London to visit him. After the visit, the visitors issued a statement, saying the President was doing well but they were short on information as to when he would be returning back to the country.
In 2018, eight months after returning from his 103-day medical trip to London, Buhari went back for another medical check-up and returned after four days. But the criticisms on social media boiled over on a statement made by the President during a business conference in London. Buhari was quoted to have said that the youths in Nigeria “do nothing” and want everything for “free” in Nigeria.
“A lot of them (Nigerian youths) haven’t been to school and they are claiming, you know, that Nigeria has been an oil-producing country therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, health care, education, free,” he said.
The statement led to the creation of the hashtag #LazyNigerianYouths, which trended for many days on various social media platforms. It also spurred many rebuttal articles in different media houses.
“I am a Nigerian youth. A multi-degree holder. I am a hardworking entrepreneur, with a family to cater for. I pay taxes; generate adequate light for myself and pay for security in my country. My President lied by calling a lot of youths like me lazy,” wrote Badmus Habdulakeem on Instagram.
When the President had the opportunity to clarify what he meant in an interview with Voice of America, he blamed the media for causing the uproar generated by his comments.
“That has not been explained enough and you know the media, especially the print, are simply doing what they like. We had two successful farming seasons, people went to the farm and did very well, but no one is talking about that, only insults,” Buhari said.
The President’s position left little doubt about who was behind the social media bill. In December 2019, Shehu, the senior media aide to Buhari, publicly called for the regulation of social media, because doing otherwise could lead to “more lawlessness, violence, and deaths.” Lai Mohammed, minister of information and culture, would later in 2021 ask the Senate to amend the constitution to empower the Nigerian Broadcast Commission to regulate social media.
Although that is yet to happen, the presidency did find the opportunity to assert control over social media with the ban of Twitter in Nigeria in 2021. The social media platform played an active role in the EndSARS protest of 2020 that galvanised many Nigerian youths against a corrupt, extortionist, and murderous police force unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
Protests erupted across the country following several social media videos and pictures showing officers of SARS carrying out their dastardly acts. The protests were short-lived as hoodlums hijacked it to destroy public infrastructure; loot and torch malls and shops; and cause general mayhem. The government sent in troops to quell the violence and ended up fatally shooting civilians protesting peacefully.
“During the #EndSARS protests, President Buhari was heavily criticized for his initial media silence and lack of a public address for several days while the protests were ongoing. This silence was interpreted in some quarters as uncertainty about his position on the protest and the legitimacy of the protester’s demands. This exacerbated an already tense situation,” said Jiro Ejobe, CEO of VIISAUS.
For many people, the Twitter ban was a natural next step for a government that has held a grudge against citizens expressing contrary views on social media.
It began with Buhari tweeting a statement the microblogging platform said violated its terms and conditions. The company deleted the offending posts and the government retaliated with a ban that lasted six months and cost the country millions of dollars in revenue losses. Ejobe sees it as the most significant misstep of the government in terms of engaging with citizens.
“For Political leaders to build trust amongst their electorates, they need to be perceived as authentic in their social media communications as against being perceived as scripted. The populace is more likely to align with a politician who they feel is similar to them,” Ejobe said. “Irrespective of the views shared, politicians should, as much as possible, be responsive to comments and willing to dialogue with their constituents.”