Tuesday, December 6, 2022 6:20 am
When conventional tools of resistance have failed or been compromised, humor has been a weapon of last resort for the African subaltern.
By Ebenezer Obadare
In the wake of the recent explosion in the comic industry across Africa, leading to increased academic interest in comedy as a tool of political resistance, old questions about comedy’s political effectiveness have resurfaced. For example: How do you disrupt long entrenched political structures with something as apparently harmless as comedy? Is the pun really mightier than the sword; or, to adapt Stalin’s famous quip about the Vatican, how many battalions has the comedian? What is the role of humor in a continent grappling with serious political, demographic, ecological, and economic challenges?
While these questions have defied definitive answers—the positive affirmations of many scholars being counterbalanced by the nagging skepticism of others—intermittent episodes in various African countries have served to underscore the potency of humor in ruffling the feathers of authority figures and their intimates.
The drama involving Nigerian First Lady Aisha Buhari, and Aminu Adamu Mohammed, a final-year student at the Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State, in the northwestern region of the country, is a case in point. According to reports in the Nigerian media, Mrs. Buhari ordered the arrest of Mohammed in mid-November after aides had brought to her attention a tweet the latter had posted sometime in June. In the said tweet, twenty-three-year-old Mohammed had suggested that the first lady had gorged herself on funds set aside for the poor in the country. To illustrate, Mohammed, who wrote in Hausa: “Su mama anchi kudi talakawa ankoshi” (translation: “Mama has embezzled monies meant for the poor”) attached to his tweet a noticeably corpulent image of the first lady.
Although it is not clear why Mrs. Buhari felt compelled to react to a tweet that had been posted several months earlier, and one, incidentally, that most people had not noticed until Mohammed’s arrest drew attention it; such, at any rate, was her annoyance that Mrs. Buhari gave orders to security officials to apprehend Mohammed and bring him to the seat of government in Abuja, where he was allegedly roughed up in the presence of the first lady. Following this, Mohammed was detained at the Suleja Custodial Centre in Niger State, before his eventual arraignment before a Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court for “criminal defamation” of the first lady and spreading false information.
Human rights organizations, activists, and the Nigerian media have condemned Mohammed’s maltreatment and trial. In a statement, Amnesty International noted that the Mohammed saga fell within a pattern of Nigerian authorities “increasingly using unlawful arrests and ill-treatment to stifle those who criticize the state.” The Northern Nigeria Human Rights Advocates, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), and activist Aisha Yesufu, all condemned the first lady’s action and demanded Adamu’s release, and her eventual decision to drop charges may not be unconnected with the sheer vigor of the pushback from civil society.
While these groups and activists are right to focus on the egregious abuse of Mohammed’s human rights, it is easy to overlook the fact that at the bottom of the entire episode was an ordinary citizen’s mockery of a powerful woman, in this case the spouse of the Nigerian president, the country’s most powerful individual.
George Orwell once wrote that “every joke is a tiny revolution,” and like many a joke, Mohammed’s contained a seed (perhaps multiple seeds) of social criticism. In the first place, the dig at the physical appearance of the first lady belongs to a well-established tradition of ordinary people poking fun at people in power for their perceived physical transformation due to the comforts and privileges (statutory or otherwise) of holding public office. On this view, the perks of political office are literally embodied, and jocular allusions are a way of saying that the sudden transformation has not gone unnoticed. Besides, bodies of the powerful have always been a target of mockery and sarcasm; what the actual revolutionary cannot touch, the cartoonist can always savage. Cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro’s (alias Zapiro) caricatures arguably did more to expose the skullduggery of the Jacob Zuma administration than the entire South African opposition combined.
Second, Mohammed’s reference to monies meant for the poor being embezzled speaks to the culture of corruption in Nigeria, particularly ordinary citizens’ perennial criticism of the political elite for failing to honor any sort of distinction between what belongs to it and what belongs to the public.
Finally, Mohammed’s controversial tweet appears to be an indictment of the “Office of the First Lady,” unknown to the law of the land, yet mysteriously abounding in unaccountable wealth. In parenthesis: Nigerians have a love-hate relationship with the Office of the First Lady. At both federal and state levels, aversion for their unconstitutional privileges tends to be offset by a modicum of sympathy for the women involved, as well as the sordid reality of the office as a route to untold wealth and eminence by their kin, friends, and entourage.
Much more than a joke that did not go down well with a single first lady, the Mohammed tweet is also a reminder of the sensitivity of power to parody. Some recent examples suffice to illustrate this point.
Last month, two TikTok stars, Mubarak Isa Muhammed (aka “Uniquepikin”) and Muhammed Bula, were arrested and arraigned before a Magistrate Court in the northwestern state of Kano for using their social media platforms to “mock” Abdullahi Ganduje, governor of the state. According to reports in the media, prosecution lawyer, Wada Ahmed Wada, told the presiding judge that the comedians’ mockery of the governor “was capable of disturbing the public peace,” and given his decision to sentence both Muhammed and Bula each to 20 lashes of the whip and a token fine, the presiding judge must have agreed with the prosecution.
In 2020, Rotimi Jolayemi, aka “Oba Akewi” (King of Poets) spent twelve days in jail after Minister of Information Lai Mohammed ordered his arrest and detention for a poetic composition adjudged to have caused “annoyance” and “hatred” to the honorable minister. Back in 2016, then thirty-year-old Joe Chinakwe was arrested for breach of public peace after he named his dog Buhari (as in, Muhammadu Buhari) and painted the name on both sides of the dog. Chinakwe insisted he bore no malice toward the president, adding that he only named his dog Buhari because he was “inspired by the President’s “dogged” fight against corruption.”
When combined with President Buhari’s seven-month ban on Twitter for deleting a post in which he apparently threatened secessionists in the southeastern part of the country, these examples point to a low-wattage authoritarianism—but authoritarianism nonetheless—that threatens to undo the slender political gains of the past two decades.
Yet, such is Nigerians’ creativity and resourcefulness that it is difficult to imagine its penchant for parody being reined in. As long as power remains wedded to excess and conceit, the satirist can be counted on to cut it down to size.
The joke, as always, is on the state.
*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). This article was originally published by the CFR as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy: https://www.cfr.org/blog/uses-parody