In the early years of the 1920s, a certain Felix Okonkwo from Nnewi, Anambra State, found himself in the colonial city of Kano in search of greener pastures. A few years later, he would become a successful spare parts dealer, and so to say, a renowned one. His spare parts company, with branches in a particular Kano area, would be named Okonkwo and Sons.
Mr Okonkwo would soon become a rare millionaire and a wealthy personality to reckon with. His influence and affluence earned him respect so much that the area he had settled in, Kano, was named after his investments — Okonwkwo and Sons. But the native Hausa speakers in this area would mispronounce the name as days turned into years, calling it “Kwankwaso” instead of “Okonkwo and Sons.”
The millionaire businessman had a son named Reuben. But the native Hausa indigenes of Kano would also misspell his name, calling him “Rabiu”. Many years later, Reuben, erroneously called Rabiu, would become a two-term governor of Kano State through his father’s influence and is now a presidential candidate of the New Nigerian Peoples Party (NNPP).
Wait a bit: the above storyline might appear interesting, but it is nothing short of a conspiracy ideation concocted by some electioneering merchants to appeal to a section of people in the political space. It is a perfect example of what pundits call political “conspiracy theory”.
Many of these stories are told during elections about different political personalities, but they are usually backed with weak evidence for unsuspecting electorates to believe. But before we delve into some conspicuous stories cooked up to deceive, let’s look at the term “conspiracy theory”.
Conspiracy theory and the danger of misinformation
Have you read about the 5G phone network conspiracy theory that came with the COVID-19 pandemic? There is no evidence that this is true, making it even more believable to some people. A story such as this is a product of conspiracy theories drafted by some individuals setting agendas for reasons best known to them.
Conspiracy theory, says Britannica, is an attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small, powerful group. Such explanations, however, reject the accepted narrative surrounding those events; indeed, the official version may be seen as further proof of the conspiracy.
In clearer terms, conspiracy theory is a form of information disorder, sometimes passed from generation to generation, to push for narratives different from what is popularly known or what, indeed, is the truth. These stories often overshadow true events because they’re mostly sensational and appealing to a larger part of society.
It is easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as unhinged beliefs held by a few paranoid people, but that seriously underestimates them, says Graham Lawton of the NewScientist, an international magazine covering all aspects of science and technology. He added that “belief in conspiracy theories is very widespread, the product of normal human psychology, and extremely influential and dangerous.”
Conspiracy thinking or ideation can result from the conspiratorial tendencies of humans, but psychologists say there are other factors attributed to it. These factors include but are not limited to: personality traits; variation in cognition; conservative political orientation, low trust in authorities; inequality and societal crises; polarisation and misinformation, according to the Royal Society Journal.
The conspiracy theories of Nigeria’s 2023 elections
No election season comes and goes without its conspiracy theory. Think of a major political event in Nigeria, and you will find at least one conspiracy theory or hypothesis attached.
The list is indeed long: the President Muhammadu Buhari we all voted for is dead, and Jubril of Sudan, his clone, has replaced him; Bola Tinubu is using a stolen identity. His real name is Amoda Yekini Ogunlere – from Iragbiji, Osun State; Atiku Abubakar is not a Nigerian. He’s rather from Cameroon; Peter Obi is a sympathiser of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a separatist group; Kashim Shettima is a Boko Haram Commander; the Aso Rock fifth columnists are plotting to stop 2023 elections from holding and so on.
The thing about conspiracies and their theorists is that they provide truthful-sounding narratives for their claims. Suppose you travel to some of the interior parts of southeastern Nigeria, for example. In that case, you will be shocked to see how much people believe the conspiracy ideation that the real Buhari had died and had been replaced by his look-alike from Sudan. It is easy for adherents of IPOB to believe this storyline because Nnamdi Kanu, convener of the separatist group, had promulgated the Jubril-of-Sudan conspiracy theory.
In many parts of Nigeria, it is hard to convince many people that there is no evidence Mr Tinubu stole another person’s identity. The seemingly commonest conspiracy theory in Nigeria’s political space is the identity crises hypothesis promulgated against political figures with little or no evidence. Mr Tinubu is one such victim.
In July 2022, Mr Tinubu became the subject of a stolen identity conspiracy theory after he failed to submit his primary school certificate to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Social media influencers, obviously of an opposition party, then seized the opportunity to spread this narrative to demarket the candidacy of Mr Tinubu. Dozens of Twitter threads, Facebook posts and Youtube videos were made to make this story truthful-sounding. But then, some Nigerian fact-checkers, including Daily Trust, insisted there was no evidence for the conspiracy hypothesis and adjudged the storyline as false and misleading.
When the Nigerian Civil Right Movement spread the Kwankwaso-is-an-Igbo-man conspiracy theory in June last year, many critics said the claim was laughable. But as days changed into weeks, the story appealed to some people, and they took it upon themselves to spread the storyline via social media pages. Mr Kwankwaso himself had to come out on national television to clear the air about his identity crisis and the conspiracy theory.
The truth is that the town of Kwankwaso has existed — and has been known by its current name — before Nigeria was formally constituted and so couldn’t possibly have been founded by one Felix Okonkwo in 1927, said Farouq Kperogi, a Nigerian columnist and writer while commenting on the conspiracy theory that claims Kwankwaso is Igbo.
“The town’s first traditional ruler, according to historical records, was known as Mamman Danhawa, and he ruled from 1808 until 1842. The formal colonization of northern Nigeria started on January 1, 1897,” he added.
‘Lies don’t have to spread far to cause problems’
However, scholars and pundits of conspiracy theories have argued that false ideas don’t have to go far to be really dangerous. The virality of a false story may not have gained public awareness, but its consequences might bite deadly within the locality in which it exists. “Lies don’t have to spread far to cause problems,” they said.
Conspiracy theorists are mostly the enemies of democracy in the political space. Their mission is to play on the psychological consciousness of unsuspecting individuals on political events.
“Conspiracy theories can be weaponized not only to torment victims of violence but to spur violence against individuals or entire populations; this is not new,” said Sarah Kendzior, an American author and researcher in her book, ‘They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent’.
“Weaponized rumours have been used to stoke slaughter and genocides for thousands of years, made easier today by the global speed of technology, the breakdown of institutions, and the increasing pressure to see yourself not as a person but as a brand.”