In July, a picture of a woman dressed in traditional Muslim clothes training with an AK-47 rifle was shared on Christian Arise Network, a Nigerian WhatsApp group, with the caption “Fulanis teaching their wives how to handle [a] gun but we are busy calling [on the] UN to come and help us. Hmmm.”
The post was shared in the context of inter-communal violence between Fulani herders and pastoralists, which has been raging in northern Nigeria since the 1990s. This conflict recently assumed a more dangerous dimension when it spread to the north-central region from the northwest. Experts say farmers are forced to move south due to loss of grazing reserves, desertification and droughts, the Boko Haram insurgency, and cattle rustling in the core north. The resulting competition over scarce land and water resources has led to violent confrontation between the mainly Christian farmers and mostly Muslim herders. This is compounded by dwindling confidence in a government that has failed to deliver on its repeated promises to punish perpetrators of past violence.
With this shift, the conflict is increasingly framed along ethno-religious fault lines in a way that risks exacerbating divisions and tensions. Whereas Christian conspiracy theorists allege the problem is a product of Muslims’ attempts to Islamise Nigeria, describing the Fulani herders as “a jihadi or occupation force”, their Muslim counterparts claim that the whole thing is staged by Christians to give Muslims a bad name and deny them access to land and water. Complicating this are accusations and counter-accusations of conspiracy, complicity and complacency over the issue between the ruling and opposition parties. This has only increased in the run-up to Nigeria’s 2019 general election.
Along with outright false reports, there are dangerous exaggerations or distortions of true stories, which are more difficult to spot.
What is more, Boko Haram, the ISIS affiliate operating in the Lake Chad Basin, taps into these theories and divisions. Earlier this year, Nigeria’s intelligence agency said the group had started launching attacks in areas affected by the farmer-herder violence to stoke tensions.
Against this background, it is understandable that Nigerians might be alarmed when they see posts such as the alleged Fulani woman with her AK-47 on social media. But that picture was fake. The shot was taken from a video that I was able to track down on YouTube. The people in it spoke neither Hausa nor Fulfulde, the languages spoken by people accused in the post. They sounded like native Arabic speakers, implying that they were not Nigerian. In fact, the description accompanying the video says the woman is Sudanese.
Along with outright false reports such as this, there are dangerous exaggerations or distortions of true stories, which are more difficult to spot. A day after ethno-religious violence in late June, which reportedly left about 200 dead in Plateau state, one Nigerian Facebook user posted a picture of a vandalised ambulance. The post read: “This ambulance was attacked by the Berom Christian Militia in Jos, with a patient in it, the driver and hospital staff were all killed! Not even the patient was spared.”
This post was shared by hundreds and accompanied by inflammatory comments. The doctor, the nurses and the patient were killed only on social media pages, however. Yes, the ambulance was attacked, but nobody was killed. The post went so viral that the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, which owns the ambulance, was compelled to post a statement to clarify what had happened. Sadly, the truth was shared by no more than three dozen people.
In other instances, gory pictures, often old or taken in other countries, are tweeted and retweeted hundreds, if not thousands, of times as images of kinsmen killed by the other. A number of accounts do this regularly. The misinformation they share spreads like wildfire because it is so easy to forward these messages to multiple groups through social media and messaging apps.
Tech companies and civil-society organisations would do well to educate citizens on how to spot and counter fake news.
These conspiracy theories and rumours exacerbate communal tensions and sometimes cause reprisals and counter-reprisals. The stories are widely believed, from the grass roots to the halls of government. They penetrate the highest levels of political, religious and traditional leadership and thus inhibit a collective national response to the farmer-herder issue. Every solution proposed by the federal government is swiftly rejected by Christian-majority communities who view them as pro-Muslim/Fulani measures introduced by a Muslim/Fulani-led presidency, just as solutions canvassed by Christian-majority states are labelled anti-Muslim/Fulani and rejected by Muslim communities. Some ethno-religious group leaders have started calling publicly on their constituents to arm in self-defence. The most recent of these came earlier this year from General T.Y. Danjuma, a retired army general and Nigerian civil-war veteran.
Nigeria may be adept at “dancing on the brink”, as former US ambassador to the country John Campbell has written, but Nigerians cannot afford to take this for granted and continue their dangerous dance. Some 3,200 kilometres away to the southeast, the fault line in the Rwandan genocide is widely understood as the result of decades of resentment between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. However, it is much less well known that the terms used for these ethnic groups mean “people who farm” and “people who own cattle” in their respective local dialects. If nothing else, Rwanda teaches of the danger of sustained ideological manipulation of ethnicity.
Tech companies and civil-society organisations would do well to educate citizens on how to spot and counter fake news. According to 2017 data, 50 per cent of Nigerians have Internet access and some 17 million are on Facebook. As the prevalence of smartphones increases and the cost of Internet access declines, fake news and rumours are likely to increase.
Measures that restrict the spread of hoax news are worth considering. Last month, following a spate of lynchings in India that were allegedly sparked by fake videos shared on WhatsApp, the app took steps, including letting users know when a message has been forwarded and not written by the sender. Nigeria’s government needs to work with the private sector and citizens’ groups to address the root causes of this ethno-religious violence, build confidence in authorities and ensure that fake news does not worsen an already tense situation.