A common thread to the indignation that greeted Mr. Nasir El Rufai’s now infamous re/tweet is “can a Christian say something insulting about Prophet Mohammed (SAW) without Muslims embarking on a killing and burning spree”? (The SAW is mine). This raises the question why people educated enough to curse and fume in English on Twitter and Facebook would want to act like impoverished feral youths or Mullahs who owe their social positions and living to the ability to set citizens against each other while pretending to defend Allah. And many did act like Almajiris by going on a verbal rampage once they heard or imagined a Muslim politician had insulted Jesus Christ, describing El Rufai as “anti-Christ” and Muslims as “bloodthirsty devils”. They didn’t stop to think at all if El Rufai could have or actually had insulted Jesus Christ or what his motives could have been.
The reaction to the El Rufai Re/Tweet tells us a lot about the problem with Nigerians and Nigeria and nothing at all about El Rufai. We are so divided and mistrustful that we are mentally on alert for real and imagined slights, a fertile state of mind for those who profit from setting Nigerians against each other to sow discord. What started as a debate about the corruption, misrule, the squandering of the $20 billion savings in the Excess Crude Account (aka the Excessive Corruption Account) between 2007 and 2010 instantly became a spat between Christians and Muslims and Northerners and Southerners on social media. In the Boko Haram state of mind, Nigerians assume the worst about each other’s intentions. No one is to be given any benefit of doubt. Mallam El Rufai came into public consciousness as a politician cum public servant of the ilk described as “technocrat”, not as the Governor of a Sharia State. There is no evidence that he favoured his co-religionists more than it is the norm for Nigerian politicians and bureaucrats while serving as Director General of the Bureau for Public Enterprises and Minister of the Federal Capital Territory. After leaving public office, he has become one of the most incisive government critics, working within activist networks dominated by Southerners and Christians. For a long time, El-Rufai wrote a column not in a Northern newspaper but a Lagos-based daily in which he hurled nothing more explosive than economic policy fatwas at the Government (His opposition to the eradication of the fuel subsidy is irreconcilable with his free market faith). The person he was defending, Dr. Oby Ezekwesilli, is a fervent Christian married to a pastor. And why would someone who may be canvassing for votes to become Nigeria’s President in 2015 or soon after chose to improve his chances by insulting Jesus Christ!?
Even if El Rufai had a reputation as a Muslim fundamentalist, there was really nothing in the re/tweet that could be construed as an insult to Jesus Christ or to Christians. Except by people who have been programmed by self-interested politicians and religious leaders to dedicatedly scour for and discover slights to their religion or ethnic group even in the most innocuous words. The El Rufai re/tweet could have been read as “Jonathan’s aides would insult even Jesus if Jesus criticized their corruption”. El Rufai didn’t invent the outrageous claim that Jesus Christ had sexual relations with Mary Magdalene. There are scores of films, websites and books exploring, suggesting or claiming this as a possibility or fact. To an “unprogrammed” reader, the re/tweet only compares the President Jonathan camp’s allegations against Oby Ezekwesilli to the ridiculous wild allegations made about Jesus Christ. Nobody but President Jonathan’s aides that the tweet classifies with the loonies who insult a personality as holy as Jesus Christ should take offence. Even if the tweet is construed as an insult, there was little to indicate that El Rufai approved. But in the Boko Haram mental state, the caveat “retweet is not an endorsement” is promptly suspended.
Some Nigerians, Christians as well as Muslims, accept that El Rufai didn’t intend to insult Jesus Christ but yet blame him for recklessness. He should have known better; the tweet was bound to cause offence. This is plain nonsense. It sets such low standards for public discussion and defends the rights of people who are on the lookout for ethnic or religious slures to misinterpret and wrongly accuse others. The majority of Nigerians on Twitter have at least a secondary school education and can afford a N15, 000:00 smart phone. They should be criticized for rushing to join digital mobs orchestrated by a minority of ethnic or religious bigots. (It is quite possible that they have been so thoroughly programmed they don’t need further goading to rise against imaginary insults). If we start to caress the brittle sensitivities of even educated Nigerians, we would never be able to confront and curtail the excesses of impoverished Al Majiris and clerics whose beards or robes catch fire at the slightest provocation. A society where one self-censors his metaphors and analogies is not a healthy society. Canny politicians will learn to nip discussion of public affairs in the bud by twisting their opponents’ words to imply religious or ethnic slurs if Nigerians keep lapsing into verbal or physical rages at the slightest hint of offense. It was disappointing that newspapers ran headlines about El Rufai’s “blasphemy” and not one prominent person dismissed the outrage as the baseless rubbish it was.
Boko Haram (and Al Majiris who are liable to go on killing and maiming sprees after elections) are best seen as a problem for all Nigerians not a malaise of a religious community, region or ethnic group. Their main victims remain “their people” who live near them. People whose response is to claim an equal right to be as unreasonable and intolerant as Boko Haram and by so doing set Nigerian Christians against their Muslim co-workers, neighbours and friends on Twitter and Facebook are becoming Boko Haram with university degrees.
Agboluaje wrote from Lagos.