A few days ago, Senator Dino Melaye, in one of his disturbing bursts of discourtesy attempted to make fun of the APC presidential candidate and his running mate. What was intended to be in defence of his boss, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, became a shameful exercise in bigotry that I believe even Atiku himself would find cringeworthy and embarrassing if he pauses to weigh the implication. The damage that video would cause the PDP ticket, for which Melaye is a spokesman, is something he ought to have weighed if he truly knows his job.
Asking Nigerians to reject the APC ticket, Melaye called Shettima “Osama Bin Laden,” an unspeakably dangerous reference to his ethnic origin as a Kanuri man from Borno State, where Boko Haram broke out. The bigotry Melaye attempted to sell is the usual ethnic profiling that undermines unity in Nigeria, where an entire ethnic group is targeted and profiled because of the transgressions of certain individuals of the group, individuals who don’t represent the group or their interests.
If Melaye were smart, he would’ve realized that based on his logic Atiku should also be called out as a Fulani bandit, being from an ethnic group that has been fiercely accused of the spates of killings and kidnappings across Nigeria. The Fulani have been at the receiving end of the very dangerous mindset demonstrated by Melaye, this resort to demonizing, vilifying and blackmailing the entire members of an ethnic group because of the criminal transgressions of renegade individuals or a group that identifies with the ethnic group.
Beyond the ethnic profiling, calling Shettima “Osama Bin Laden” is a classic case of the very Islamophobia that’s trailed Muslims all over the world. Melaye’s video fuels more than just ethnic profiling of the Kanuri, who are the worst victims of the atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria. They have paid with their lives, and have sacrificed too much for some shallow-thinking politician to feel it’s acceptable to ridicule any of them as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.
The Kanuri have been orphaned and widowed by Boko Haram, and so have their political elite been targeted for assassinations by the group. Their youths have also joined state-approved vigilante groups to keep Nigeria safe and to protect us from the menacing threats of Boko Haram. What Melaye attempted to fuel is painting these patriots too as criminals and complicit in the spread of the very terrorism that’s ravaged them and their properties and habitats because of their ethnic origin.
Atiku may choose to overlook his spokesman’s bigoted and Islamophobic rants, but he’s as vulnerable as Shettima to Melaye‘s smear campaign. In a world where Muslims are struggling to undo the damage of the propaganda warfare that got every Muslim profiled as a practising or a potential terrorist, reckless communications like Melaye’s must never be allowed to trend unchallenged. The implication is damning. It’s beyond politics.
Anti-Muslim North propaganda has been an easy sale in various bigoted quarters in the country, and no rational man who’s paid attention to Shettima’s roles in the war against terror would call him stereotypical names as done by Melaye. He’s been a frontline critic of Boko Haram and has never minced his words in asking the federal government to arm the military properly to stand a better stance in the conflict.
The first time I paid keen attention to Shettima was during the Chibok girls’ abduction saga, which the federal government attempted to deny or play down at first. As the Governor of Borno State, the jurisdiction of that crime against humanity, he was at the centre of this story and I watched as he fought to remind President Goodluck Jonathan to live up to his expectation as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. This harmless plea set in coordinated attacks and mischaracterizations from the PDP-led government.
Even before the tragedy in Chibok, Shettima was in the news for drawing attention to the plights of his people and crying out that the Nigerian troops stationed in the North-East were under-equipped. Boko Haram militants had not only demonstrated their superior firepower in waging their war against Nigeria, but they also went as far as capturing vast territory of Nigeria as big as Belgium. Jonathan’s response to Shettima’s sympathy with the military was a threat to withdraw troops from the North-East to teach Shettima a lesson, and the nation rushed to call him out and stand in solidarity with the then Borno State Governor.
But Shettima isn’t new to coordinated smear campaigns. In 2017, while still the Governor of Borno State, his spokesman, Isa Gusau, had to release a statement to refute a 20-minute taped conversation, purported to be between Governor Shettima and Governor Kunle Amosun of Ogun State in which the voice mistakenly attributed to Shettima was heard insulting the Igbos and mocking their political essence.
Of course, the voice in the audio was evidently not Shettima’s, and even though the source of the provocative material, which has also been circulated by knowing but mischievous partisans in this election season, was unknown, Mr. Gusau allege that “one particular presidential aspirant from the north has declared a war of mischief to destroy some persons including Governor Kashim Shettima.”
That attempt to portray Shettima as either Osama, as done by Melaye, or as an Igbo-hating political leader would’ve flown if his track record isn’t known. The same Shettima singled out an Igbo military officer, Major General Rogers Nicholas, the Commander of “Operation Lafiya Dole,” whom he praised as an “Igbo man from Mbaise” as a pivotal force in decimating Boko Haram terrorism. And, at a town hall meeting in Maiduguri on February 7, 2018, he also shared that “some of our greatest recent feats in the conflict were done by non-northerners and non-Muslim officers in the military. Most of the soldiers that sacrificed their lives are not of the Kanuri ethnic group”.
So, it’s unfortunate to watch these glaring lies and historical revisionism being broadcast and printed to smear Shettima’s image, especially by those who know his exact portrait. The Dino Melayes and the partisan and bigoted characters in the business of ethnic profiling and Islamophobia may think it’s just politics, but the victims aren’t just the target of their falsehoods. We are all victims of each lie and each attack on ethnic and religious identity that goes unchallenged. Politics is not madness. May God save Nigeria.
Mr Oseghale is a lecturer and public affairs analyst based in Abuja. He can be contacted via [email protected]