Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Did Kashim Shettima transform from “Boko Haram Sponsor” to Anti-Muslim Muslim?

Some Fulani herders were labelled “Boko Haram terrorists” with whom Shettima was allegedly hatching sinister designs.

• June 17, 2023
Kashim Shettima
Kashim Shettima

Vice President Kashim Shettima is undergoing an interesting notional transformation in Nigeria’s fractured public sphere. Before and during the last presidential election, his opponents, particularly in the South, tagged him as the “founder of Boko Haram” even though he was a mere commissioner in 2009 when Boko Haram burst forth into national consciousness and he had exactly zero connection with the group’s founding.

People who couldn’t sustain the charge that he founded Boko Haram (because the chronology of Boko Haram’s emergence and the rise of his political stature don’t align) caused a 2017 photo of him dining on a mat with Fulani herders whose children he enrolled in a secular school he built for them when he was governor of Borno to go viral on social media. The Fulani herders were labelled “Boko Haram terrorists” with whom Shettima was allegedly hatching sinister designs.

Several fact-checks, including by the BBC’s Global Disinformation Team that famously exposed in a January 18 investigation that “parties give out cash, lavish gifts, government contracts and even political appointments” for disinformation against political opponents, revealed that the photo emerged from an innocuous, publicly available record of Shettima’s move to promote Western education among the children of nomadic Fulani people in Borno, which is paradoxically a direct attack on Boko Haram’s ideology. 

But the fact-checks did nothing to attenuate the narrative that he is a Boko Haram sponsor, or that the viral photo was merely the photographic record of his meeting with parents of children he enrolled in a Western school.

Neither Shettima nor his media team, to my knowledge, did anything to dispel the reputationally damaging falsehoods about his connections to Boko Haram. He even made a joking reference to his being the “sponsor of Boko Haram” when he announced his appointment of two Christians as his first volitional hires as vice president, indicating that it doesn’t worry him.

The reference to appointing Christians as his personal aides was unnecessary because he is on record as the first governor of Borno to appoint southern Christians as aides. His Chief Detail was a certain Ifeanyi Onwubuya. One Christopher Godwin Akaba who is my Facebook friend also served as his Special Assistant. And Chief Kester Ogualili was his Special Adviser on Community Relations.

Shettima probably hasn’t cared to correct the false narrative of his Boko Haram associational baggage because it doesn’t cause him any reputational harm in his natal constituency, by which I mean Muslim northern Nigeria. But he now has a reason to be worried about his acceptance in this constituency for a different, even ironic, reason.

This week, his forceful, impassioned appeal to northern Muslim senators to concede the senate presidency to a southern Christian in light of the current political power configuration that is disproportionately tilted in favour of Muslims caused offense to many Northern Muslims and earned him the rather ironic label of being an “anti-Muslim”— or, if you like Christophilic—Muslim. 

(I am using Muslim Christophilia here to denote notions of excessive, often compensatory, empathy for Christians by a Muslim who wants to show that he or she is not bigoted against Christians. It’s the opposite of Christian Islamophilia).

In an address to an informal gathering of senators on June 11, Shettima said, “For me, under the current dispensation, the worst, the most incompetent Southern Christian is better than the most puritanical Northern Muslim for the Presidency of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” And all hell broke loose in Muslim northern Nigeria. 

Shettima’s media aide initially issued a statement that accused critics of Shettima’s statement of being “mischief makers” who “twisted” his words in the service of a predetermined agenda. That was both inaccurate and unhelpful. Several of the people I read criticising him over the statement were well-meaning, non-partisan people who aren’t given to unwarranted toxicity.

I first became aware of Shettima’s speech from a Facebook friend by the name of Muhammad Sulaiman Abdullahi who is an editor with an online newspaper called The Daily Reality. He was peeved by what Shettima said, but I don’t know him to be politically partisan. 

Even Northern Elders Forum’s Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed who criticised Shettima’s words as “unfortunate” and helped amplify the reach of his speech isn’t a “mischief maker.” He is a deeply intellectual yet temperate, amiable, and mild-mannered person.

Nonetheless, I think the reaction to Shettima’s speech in Muslim northern Nigeria, even from Baba-Ahmed, missed the context of his text. It was obviously a case of the main point of a speech being lost in a maze of figures of speech. He deployed intentional exaggeration and rhetorical contrast to aggrandise the point he wanted to make. 

He proceeded from the assumption that his audience agreed that a “puritanical Northern Muslim” embodies the ultimate standard of perfection. That leap isn’t surprising because, like me, Shettima was raised by a father who was an Arabic and Islamic Studies teacher. (Shettima’s father taught Arabic and Islamic Studies to former Borno State governor Mala Kachalla in primary school in Maiduguri).

 Shettima deployed the ideal of a “puritanical Northern Muslim” as the basis for a contrast with the “worst, most incompetent” southern Christian to dramatise the exigency (or what Martin Luther King, Jr would have called the “fierce urgency”) of electing a Southern Christian senate president because the president, vice president, speaker, and Chief Justice of Nigeria are (in the case of the speaker would be) Muslims.

So, the operative term was “under the current dispensation.” In other words, he wanted to communicate the idea that sometimes circumstances dictate the ideals we should promote. I made a similar, if reverse, argument in my June 12, 2022, article titled “A Muslim-Muslim Ticket in APC?” which opposed the Muslim-Muslim ticket Shettima is a beneficiary of.

I wrote: “When Obasanjo favored northern Christians in appointments during his administration, he defended his action by insisting that he was guided by considerations of competence, not religion or region. 

“Some of the same people who’re defending the prospect of a Muslim-Muslim ticket in APC using ‘competence’ as a defense (as if competence is delimited by religion or region) told Obasanjo that sensitivity to intra-regional diversity trumped ‘competence.’ Hypocrisy seems to be grafted into our DNA.”

If he had chosen to be plain, Shettima’s speech would have read something like, “I am the son of an Islamic Studies teacher and deeply respect the ideal of a pious Muslim leading the polity. But to tell you how much I want a Southern Christian to be Senate president since every other position in the highest reaches of government is occupied by Muslims in a multi-religious country like Nigeria, I’d be prepared, under the circumstance, to sacrifice the leadership of the pious Muslim leader I’ve been brought up to cherish, which tells you how much invested I am in averting the disruption that I think will result from electing another Muslim as a senate president.”

Contrary to what many northern Muslims understood him as saying, he was actually manifesting praise and approval for the hypothetical “puritanical northern Muslim.”

The only criticism of his speech that is valid, in my opinion, is that which says his concerns for reflecting religious plurality in leadership at the top is at best self-serving. Had he rejected being a running mate to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a fellow Muslim, on account of the sameness of the faith he shares with the president, he would have stood on firm moral grounds to campaign against the dominance of one faith in the leadership of the country. 

Well, Shettima has now apologised because he has understood that if, as a leader, your communication isn’t understood by your followers, the fault lies not with the followers who misunderstood you but with you the leader. As I pointed out in my September 17, 2022, column titled “Shettima as Tinubu’s Chief De-Marketer,” the vice president needs to be attentive to his communication style.

I wrote: “He appears to just love the show of erudition and bibliophilia that comes from his exhibitionistic verbal swagger. It may excite his admirers and may even be cherished by Nigerian rhetorical scholars, but it’s a treacherous political minefield.” I am sure he will agree with me now—and has learned his lesson.

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