Osinbajo and the fallacy of truth

At a town hall meeting with Nigerians in New York on Sunday evening, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was asked about the security situation in Nigeria. He responded that although there were actual incidents, the stories of violence and insecurity have been wildly exaggerated. He blamed the social media for its propensity to galvanise e-troops who infuse relatively mild situations with enough hysterics to magnify it into a significant social problem.

According to Osinbajo, some of the most ‘dramatic’ stories of kidnapping are untrue and merely fuelled by politics. He added that they try to verify every report of an abduction story, and eventually they find that at the end of the day, “people just tell all sorts of stories.”

I was taken in by the way the Vice President treats ‘truth’ as an objective measure of the reality he addresses. He said they try to verify every report of a kidnapping and that people “just tell all sorts of stories.” These two points are connected, and both reveal that Osinbajo is using the wrong analytical instruments to measure the truth value of the stories. While I understand that the job of his office includes working with factual details of kidnappings, and it is necessary to weigh evidence in this type of situation, he should also understand that premising the notion of truth on the verifiable content of stories people tell is fallacious. Not all stories are true because they are factual; they are true because they epitomise ongoing social sensibilities and sentiments. They are not true because they happened but because they symbolise the truth of a society’s situation.

 And what is the truth of Nigeria’s situation? Insecurity in all ramifications. It is exacerbated by insufficient government response, and a sinking feel of despondency and helplessness that is further galvanised by Aso Rock’s body language. From Zamfara, Borno, Osun, Ondo to Akwa Ibom states, there is an acute sense of insecurity plaguing Nigeria. Nobody is spared from the menace of herdsmen and other agents of deaths. People are not just telling all sorts of stories; all kinds of mishaps too are happening.

I agree with Osinbajo that some of the stories in circulation are embellished accounts. What I do not fully buy is the idea that the motive behind creating those stories is all political mischief nor do I agree that it is a problem of social media. Indeed, I have seen countless stories of kidnapping, abuse, and rape circulated on social media forms like WhatsApp that look too contrived to be true. You could instantly pick holes in them if you read them with even a little scrutiny. However, that does not mean these stories should be dismissed as creative imaginations of political opponents who want their government to look bad.

 Osinbajo must know that people making up stories to narrativise their social conditions is nothing new. It is why historians and anthropologists study history and culture beyond what is written in official archives. They also look at myths, jokes, legends and rumours, even proverbs. Their contents might not be factual, but they are true because they resonate with people and give weight to their feelings about their society. Some of those who circulate these stories too are some of the most fanatic Buhari supporters that I know. It must mean something that they join in the propagation of these narratives.

Recently, Nigeria Security Tracker, a project run by the Council on Foreign Relations in the US put out the staggering information that about 26, 000 Nigerians might have been killed in violent crises during President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure. In a country where most of us are undocumented citizens, it is possible that the casualty rates might be higher (or lower), but it does not deduct from the reality that our lives are insecure. Worse still, there is also the general feeling that the government is either incapable or indecisive about managing the situation. Today, they say one thing and tomorrow they mean another. There is neither coherence nor coordination and people’s response is to manufacture stories that encapsulate their condition. By looking for the truth of these stories in its factuality and verifiability, Osinbajo is not listening well enough.

Let me give an example that illustrates how his government has contributed to the social milieu in which people tell all sorts of stories. On October 31, 2016, Osinbajo gave a lecture at the Harvard University’s Weatherland Centre for International Affairs, United States. The lecture was titled, ‘The unravelling of Boko Haram and the rebuilding of the North-East of Nigeria.’ In that lecture, he  stated that former President Goodluck Jonathan failed to arrest the terrorist and insecurity situation in Nigeria because he was never committed to ending the acts of insurgency that reigned during his tenure.

In that lecture, Osinbajo also gave a series of reasons Jonathan was never motivated enough to pursue insurgency with the level of fervour that it required. In short, he blamed Jonathan for not fighting insecurity properly because the gradual collapse of the northeastern region favoured his politics and also because the funds voted for security supplied easy money for Jonathan’s corrupt government.

I am not going to contest the Vice President’s points nor speculate his motives in sticking it up to Jonathan. However, looking back now, he must see that he used the gravitas of his office to contribute to the belief that if the government is unable to tackle insurgency, it is because they have no willingness to do so. It means they let the exigencies of politics and the gains of corruption supersede their commitment to the nation.

If we take Osinbajo’s past thesis seriously, it must also explain why the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Tukur Buratai, will blame the setbacks the army has suffered on the “insufficient willingness” of his troops and even a lack of commitment to a nationalistic course on their part and not be fired. Elsewhere, an oga soja admitting that he can no longer motivate his troops is asking for his job to be given to someone more capable.

That lack of commitment on government’s path must explain why Buhari himself, the man they said will bring his military training and zeal to bear in tackling insecurity in Nigeria, will slap one palm against the other before perplexedly cursing Borno terrorists that God will judge them. Was this not the same kind of sloppiness of thought and action that they once blamed Jonathan for? If the problem then was Jonathan’s commitment, can we not say the same for Buhari that insecurity persists because he is not committed to ending it?

What Osinbajo said about the government’s lack of commitment was also an echo of a statement that gained ground during Jonathan’s tenure. In 2014, when the Boko Haram insurgency reigned, daughter of the late dictator, Gumsu Abacha, recalled a statement by her father that said, “If insurgency lasts for more than 24 hours, the government has a hand in it.” At that time, it was quite convenient to treat that statement as self-evident. Now, it comes back to haunt the All Progressives Congress, too.

The spate of killings in Nigeria has brought us back to that place where we think that things are the way they are also because our government is acting in a conspiracy against us. It is not for nothing that people are telling these “woe is us!” stories. They are reflecting the general feeling of anxiety that is reigning in the polity. Their sense of despair is further owed to the Muhammadu Buhari administration’s politicisation of issues of insecurity.

There are many reasons both the Buhari and Jonathan’s administrations have woefully failed in terms of security, but no thanks to the two of them, the major thing people hear and feel is “we are here because they want us to be here.” It is that sense of frustration that echoes through all the stories that are circulating. That is the ‘truth’ of our present situation that Osinbajo should be worried about, not just the one that checks out in details.

Abimbola Adelakun (The Punch)