A rally in Abuja. Photo: Getty
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Live-tweeting an Islamist insurgency

With the eyes of the world on the Nigerian government, its main concern is to silence critical voices.

The kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria on 14 April by the Islamist group Boko Haram has provoked worldwide condemnation and sympathy. Protests erupted around Nigeria and outside the country’s embassies overseas. The US, UK, France, China and Israel have all offered practical support. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over a million times, even by Michelle Obama.

It’s easy to send a protest tweet in the west but in Nigeria the stakes are higher. A critical comment can lead to days of government questioning. On 5 May, two women leading protests in Abuja against the kidnap, Saratu Angus Ndirpaya and Naomi Mutah Nyadar, were arrested and accused of fabricating the abductions to discredit the government. Both have now been released.

It took over three weeks for the presidency to acknowledge the disappearance of the girls. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration aggressively guards information on its “war on terror” by cracking down on citizen journalism and online activism. With a general election scheduled for February 2015, Jonathan is intolerant of any criticism of his government’s record on security and corruption.

“The current government is desperate to stay in power,” Japheth Omojuwa, a veteran activist and member of the Occupy Nigeria movement, told me. “Any voice, any individual, that looks like it’s not in support of them will be blackmailed, will be arrested. They will do anything they can to shut down these voices.”

Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram dates back over a decade but has intensified in the past two years. In March, Amnesty International estimated that 1,500 people had been killed this year alone. Nigerian newspapers report that at least another 500 have died since.

Official government reports claim the army has incurred few losses in its campaign against the Islamists. Amendments last year to a 2011 law have made it a criminal offence to incite terrorist violence online, and the security services have used the act to intimidate journalists and bloggers who publish alternative accounts of the military’s campaign. Independent journalists say they are being threatened with libel actions to prevent publication of stories damaging to the government.

On 30 March, Isiyaka Yusuf Onimisi, an engineer at an electricity substation on the edge of Abuja’s high-security Aso Rock compound, which contains the presidential villa and the federal Supreme Court, heard gunfire outside his window. Aso Rock is also where the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria’s domestic intelligence agency, interrogates suspects. In the 1990s, enemies of the military dictatorship disappeared into the SSS headquarters – known locally as Yellow House – and never came out. Today, it is central to the government’s battle against Boko Haram.

That morning, a suspected militant overpowered his guard and freed his comrades; they then staged a jailbreak from Yellow House. The resulting gunfight lasted over four hours. The media were kept away but Onimisi was, as he tweeted, “in the middle of the show”. As the government tried to play down the incident, his tweets were being read avidly around Nigeria.

Three hours in to the gun battle, he stopped tweeting. When family members tried to call him, they found that his mobile phone was switched off. A source close to the family told me that when Onimisi’s brother rang his office, colleagues told him he had been taken away “on orders from above” by men who identified themselves as members of the Directorate of Military Intelligence.

When ten days later Onimisi still had not resurfaced, his Twitter followers raised the alarm. Activists, including Omojuwa and others from Occupy Nigeria, began demanding his release. Protests were organised in the cities of Ibadan, Ekiti, Benin, Lagos, Kaduna and Kano.

On 11 April Onimisi was quietly released. He returned to Twitter, briefly, on 17 and 18 April. He did not respond to my request for an interview, but thanked his supporters. “My freedom matters,” he tweeted, “whatever happen in there end in there.” (Meaning “whatever happened in there, stays in there”.) Then his account was closed.

Even now, with the eyes of the world on the Nigerian government, its main concern is to silence critical voices. Social media might not bring back the victims of Boko Haram’s crimes, but the continued courage of critics inside the country could help force a complacent government to confront its own weakness.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Clinton and Trump: do presidential debates really matter?

The ability of the candiates to perform in front of the cameras is unlikely to impact the final result.

The upcoming televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated for many years. No doubt there are various surprises in store – this has been, after all, the most surprising of campaigns.

People will be particularly fascinated to see if Trump dials down his bombastic rhetoric and perhaps even adds some substance to the vague policy pronouncements he has made so far. To a lesser extent, many will also be interested in whether Clinton can add the necessary zest to what some consider her lacklustre style, and whether she can prove she’s made a sterling recovery from her recent bout with pneumonia.

It’s possible that some voters may in fact change their minds based on what they see in the two’s only on-camera encounters. And yet, barring a true disaster or devastating triumph, it’s unlikely that anything the candidates say or do will make much difference to the overall result.

This might not seem all that surprising for these two candidates in particular. Leaving aside how long they’ve both been in public life, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have put Clinton and Trump under incredible scrutiny ever since they announced their respective candidacies – and their every sentence and gesture has already been analysed in the greatest detail.

Trump in particular has received more free publicity from the networks and Twitter than even he could afford, and it’s highly unlikely that he will say anything that the US public hasn’t heard before. Similarly, voters’ impressions of Clinton are apparently so deeply entrenched that she probably won’t change many people’s minds.

Yet there are also broader reasons why presidential TV debates are less important than we might imagine.

Looking the part

Even before the media environment became as saturated as it is today, debates were rarely, if ever, decisive in presidential elections. The exception was possibly the very first TV debate in 1960, which pitted the then vice-president, Richard Nixon, against John F. Kennedy.

At the time, the election was so close that the young, relatively inexperienced but highly telegenic Kennedy was able to reap the benefits of putting his case directly to viewers. He was the underdog; a relative unknown in comparison to Nixon and so had more to gain from such national exposure. Nixon, as the establishment figure, had a lot to lose.

In the end, Kennedy’s narrow victory may well have been because of his debate performances. But his success also demonstrated another important feature of television debates: that viewers take more notice of what they see than what they hear.

Notoriously, television viewers responded very favourably to Kennedy’s film-star good looks, but were turned off by Nixon, who refused to wear make-up and looked sweaty and uncomfortable under the studio lights. In contrast, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had come out on top. It seems that viewers saw Kennedy as more “presidential” than Nixon, especially given his calmness under pressure. Kennedy did work hard to exploit some of Nixon’s weaknesses on policy, but in the end, that turned out not to be the point.

Kennedy’s success was one of the reasons that neither of his two successors, Lyndon B. Johnson and then a resurgent Nixon, participated in any such events when they were running for the presidency. Although some debates were held in the primaries, there were no face-to-face contests between presidential candidates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

The next debates were held in 1976, another tight campaign. These yielded a notorious moment in the second encounter between Gerald R Ford and Jimmy Carter, when the incumbent Ford appeared to throw the election away with a poorly judged remark declaring that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. As myth has it, this gaffe stalled Ford’s polling surge; he ultimately lost the election.

Yet even this was not decisive. Although the comment did the president no favours, it’s highly debatable whether it in fact had an impact on the overall result; Ford actually closed the polling gap with Carter between the debates and the general election. People’s reactions to the debate had less to do with the substance of his remark and much more with the media’s constant replay and analysis of that moment, which continues to mar Ford’s reputation to this day.

Selective memory

This pattern has continued in the election cycles that have followed, as slips and awkward moments rather than substance provide the media with dominant themes. Many people recall vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s cack-handed attempt to compare himself to Kennedy in 1988, or George Bush senior’s ill-judged glance at his watch when listening to a question in 1992; few probably remember much about what policies they discussed, or whether, if they won, they carried them out.

If anything, the shortcomings of the TV debate format have become more pronounced in the current cycle. Although neither of the main candidates in this year’s election wants for national exposure, the primary debates have tended to favour the underdog and those who claim to be outsiders.

On the Republican side, Trump’s various moderate competitors were one by one hobbled and engulfed; Clinton, for her part, spent months slugging it out with her remarkably successful left-wing rival Bernie Sanders, never quite landing a televised knockout punch and ultimately only defeating him properly after six months of primaries.

While credible policy proposals seem to matter less than ever, things that would have once been considered catastrophic gaffes have become par for the course. Indeed, one could argue that Trump’s success so far is because he has built his campaign on half-truths and outright lies without care for the consequences.

So despite all the anticipation, this year’s debates probably won’t tell us very much about what will happen after the president takes office next January; the analysis will almost certainly focus less on what the candidates have to say and more on how they say it. Voters will no doubt tune in in great, possibly record-breaking numbers, but they’ll come away with precious little sense of what’s in store for their country.

Equally, the spectacles we’re about to witness might be pyrotechnic enough, but they’re unlikely to decide the result in November. And in the unlikely event that they do, it won’t be for the right reasons.

Andrew Priest is a lecturer in Modern US History at the University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.