Page last updated at 14:00 GMT, Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Lies, politics and Nigeria's great rumour mill

Nigerian President Umara Yar'Adua (L-R): in 2007, early 2009, late 2009
Nigerians have been noticing the apparent decline in their president's health

Nigerian journalist Sola Odunfa contemplates the invisible and unimaginable creativity of Nigeria's giant rumour mill, as part of our series of viewpoints from African writers.

There is only one industry I know in Nigeria which is completely immune to the vagaries of the national economy and the well-oiled machine of the government security and intelligence services.

It is big, it is strong, it never sleeps and it is unimaginably creative - but it is invisible.

No journalist worth the description should subscribe to the rumour mill and I try not to, but the Nigerian environment is different

I am talking of the Nigerian rumour mill.

Radio Nigeria describes itself as Africa's biggest news network - yet it is puny compared to the awesome rumour mill.

While the conventional, licensed media have to contend with laws and regulations and interests and finance, the Nigerian rumour mill is a wild industry which respects no conventions or authority or checks.

The butt of rumours

The rumour mill has no source. It simply exists with an arrogance drawn from its invisibility.

One day in 1989 Nigerians woke up to the news that one-time ceremonial President Nnamdi Azikiwe was dead.

Everybody who had ears heard it simultaneously across the country.

Dr Azikiwe himself read his own obituary! Subsequently the old man lived several years before reaching his bus stop.

Politicians are not the only butt of the rumour mill, and its scope may not always be national.

Who will question?

There are localised rumours - in small communities, in social clubs, in religious organisations.

They come with such authority that hardly anyone doubts them.

Nigerian former military leader gen Ibrahim Babangida
Gen Ibrahim Babangida - the rumour mill killed off his wife prematurely

Who will question the veracity of a story that an old or sick person has died? Or that a person whose source of wealth is unknown is indeed a drug baron? Or that a curvaceous Nollywood star is mistress to several adulterous men?

The mill in Nigeria is so powerful that it has permeated the conventional media.

Many newspapers and magazines publish products of the rumour mill as authentic news.

The less dishonourable of them publish retractions in obscure corners several days later.

The one factor binding all rumours is that they are fabricated to injure individuals or organisations.

They damage reputations and cause disaffection among people.

The Nigerian rumour mill gained ascendancy during the long period of military rule when the news media was castrated.

Information circulation went back to the old days of mouth-to-mouth communication.

Opposition newspapers were persecuted and, therefore, their journalists went underground.

'Street talk'

Since then many Nigerians, including the most educated, have relied on 'street talk' for what they regard as authentic information.

Muslim pilgrims on the Hajj at in the Saudi holy city of Mecca
It became known that President Yar'Adua was not in fact performing the Hajj

Today Nigerians say that genuine official information is forced out by the rumour mill.

Poor Maryam Babangida.

The elegant and once powerful former First Lady was on her sick bed in the US last month when the rumour mill back home published her obituary. It was on the world wide web pronto!

Pray never to be in the shoes of her husband General Ibrahim Babangida.

Nigerians simply love to hate the man. They would do - or say - anything to hurt him.

For health reasons

That story had just been suppressed when I received calls last week from some of my friends abroad requesting me to confirm that President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua had died far away in Jeddah.

The callers were not frivolous persons but they sounded disappointed that I said, firstly, that I could not confirm and, secondly, that I did not believe the so-called news.

Popular reaction at home since the story was officially denied was that, to put it mildly, the burden of governing Nigeria should devolve only on a visibly healthy person.

Nigerians sympathise with him over his health condition as a human being but some of the more vocal are now openly calling for his resignation or removal for health reasons.

'Everything is OK, Jack'

As we say here, no rumour is built on vacuum.

Nigerians got to know officially that their president was ill only after wide publication of rumours - twice.

The latest was the third death rumour on the president and it succeeded in eliciting official information that the devoutly religious man had not gone to perform the Hajj but was indeed rushed to Saudi Arabia for urgent medical treatment.

No journalist worth the description should subscribe to the rumour mill and I try not to, but the Nigerian environment is different.

We have been watching the president on TV for three years and noticing the progressive change in his colour.

In our view he is neither becoming more handsome nor healthier, yet we are told: "Everything is OK, Jack."

If the rumour mill went to sleep there would be no communication whatsoever between the ruling establishment and the people.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

Rumour is one of those things that keep majority unemployed Nigerians busy. Federal government of Nigeria and other two ties of government should as a matter of urgency create employment to keep most of us busy.
Onyema Ugwuogor Damian, Abuja, Nigeria

It is indeed a fact that the Nigerian rumour industry is one of the largest employer of labour. But what gives rise to rumour?? When ordinarily matters that should be of public interest are conducted in secrecy.
OLU BYKER, Madrid, Spain

In a society where dishonesty is a way of life, rumour mill is inevitable. Government officials are not under any obligation to tell the truth and thus, people have no choice than to peddle rumour in the hope that reality will emerge out the confusion. As for Yar'Adua, he will do well by resigning and leave Nigeria problems for somebody else, NOW...
ola isaacs, pretoria, south africa

Truth is always the same. Either you read it in the US tabloids or hear it from somebody in the street of Lagos, if it is the truth, it did not really make any difference. Nigerians had relied heavily on this rumour mills for a long time and I hope she will continue to rely on it because it has served as the only medium for the common man. Yar'Adua is very sick and cannot continue to rule as the president of the country, period. It is through this rumour mills we heard that he was sick before the foreign news related it to us. Nigerians journalists are cowards who compromises all the time. They are unreliable and cannot be trusted for anything. So the rumour mills is a better source of receiving information.
Bayo, spain

Sola hit the nail on the head when he insinuated that the rumour mills pull out the news from officialdom. That is true. Within African dictatorships, where everything is hush-hush and most official actions are against international norms, getting the truth out is often a Herculean task. Frustrated journalists and their consumers who would otherwise vie for sourced information can do no more than rely on rumours. The wilder the better to incite tight-lipped government functionaries to come out with their own versions of the 'truth'. Pushed to such uncomfortable corners, newsmen would very reluctantly always console themselves with even gutter gossip just to get officialdom talk.
Chief Bisong Etahoben, Yaounde, CAMEROON

It is a well written article by Sola. The rumour mill continues to thrive because adequate information is not made available by officials and also journalist who have abandoned their constitutional responsibility.

Several of the rumours have in the past turned out to be true e.g. death of Abacha & Abiola, plane crashes in recent times and corruption by public officers; they all started as rumours and usually take long to be confirmed. So we all subscribe to the mill for free.

Regarding concerns about president Yar'Adua's health - It shows lack of seriousness by his leadership. They always try to cover-up or out rightly deny his condition. To receive treatment in Saudi and still seek second opinion in Germany while Nigerian hospitals remain mere consulting clinic is a shame. I have a feeling he should resign, if he doesn't the rumour mills will conjure his resignation and/or death several other time over.
Lawumi Adekola, Lagos, Nigeria

The so-called opposition Politicians calling for the President to resign, are Vultures who are only after their own selfish Political interest. The administration in good hands with the Vice President Goodluck Jonathan looking after things for now until the President returns from his sick bed. I praised the Information Minister for speaking out against these people who have no idea of how system of Government works, and they are not as important as they think they are, they are minorities and that is where they belong. There should have been an official statement from the Government though, before all these rumours started circulating about his health and premature death. As always, Nigeria is incapable of getting it right.
Ayokunle Lókosú, London, uk

It is ironic that we find rumour amusing, whereas the rumour mill is very dangerous. It does not matter whether there is free press or not, the point is: someone somewhere is deliberately concocting and peddling LIES. Lies are lies, regardless of why it is invented. People who work at this rumour mill should be charged for federal offences like "Treason." Why?

Remember those days during the military, when journalists went under and started fabricating lies and we would all read in amusement and anger? Remember the rumour of "Babangida's wealth supposedly printed in Ebony Magazine" which led to street riots and many protesters' deaths? That is not funny, is it? The late Tai Solarin was disgraced on TV when he couldn't find the claim in the magazine. I saw him on live TV and pitied him. Rumours have led to religious and tribal conflicts and many deaths of course and destructions of properties. One day, if you are a victim of the rumour mill, you will nurse your wound and hatred forever. Please let us not support wrongdoing. Yes, the government MUST be open with us, but one wrong does not justify another wrong. Let us be enlightened and behave like one, lest we rut in backwardness.
Shams, London, UK.

I agree to Sola's description of the rumour mill in Nigeria, but he forgot to say why it has become a powerful source of genuine information. The Nigerian Press is the most corrupt in the world. 80% of what you see in the papers are either lies or sponsored articles. Even the journalists admit that they do not have the freedom to write the truth. Owners of Newspapers and other media outfits are known to be blackmailers of corrupt government officials, thereby enriching themselves. They have all become so wealthy even when the newspaper with the highest circulation in Nigeria distributes only 60,000 copies a day. I am one of those that believe that only the press can change Nigeria.
John Opara, Lagos, Nigeria

You'll find that most of the rumours turn out to be true or at least unveils the truth. Due to Nigeria's unique blend of democracy and dictatorship, even when a journalist discovers the truth about certain issues, it's safer to deliver it as a rumour
Ayo Ajayi

This clarification worth making. Where there is siwa siwa there is a bit of facts. Nigerians are very proud people and they love to be seeing or heard on the world stage. Every Nigerians would love to see their president attending conferences around the world instead of acting through proxy. Nigeria is the most popular nation in Africa and can not afford to have ill president. However I am not suggesting the president resignation, but let all presidential candidates in next elections be examine by independent medical professionals and certify prior to declaring intentions to run for the presidency.
Pat Grupee, Melbourne, Australia

Rumours in my country are not just lies intended to hurt the targeted person(s), but truths whose source don't want to be named. Most times, these rumours are started by those who know the truths, but due to official secrecy in the country, they fear what might happen if they are named. And because our leaders? (rulers) believe they don't owe us any explanation, people keep on adding and subtracting from the original. What a shame! I believe Government can do better by telling us what is, and what isn't instead of calling names and looking for enemies.
Philip Obi, Lagos, Nigeria

Yar'Adua should go, rumour or no rumour, the guy is dead sick. A man on life support has no business leading Nigeria. Period!
Kpari Illa, Lagos, Nigeria

rumours are ready substrate in an environment where information is hushed. i-hear-say (a pidgin English formulaic expression that usually begins a rumour)is an important industry in Nigeria. Nigerians' creativity in circulating unfound news is second to known worldwide. No propaganda machinery can equate it in Nigeria. Besides their ability to extort facts from the victim, Nigerians express their freedom of expression through them. How can we stop them? Impossible! How are we sure that the person who is giving you the rumour is not its originator? He/she may have a hunch about something, and the only way they can make their impression known is by pretending that someone else has fed them with the information, so that you, the listener, will not quote them and may not be incredulous. It is a pity that that rumours can be fatally manipulated to injure a person, it is inherent in us, even before the military. it is called GULMA in hausa, ASIRI in igbo. I therefore urge our leaders to fasten the passing into law of the freedom of information bill.
EMMANUEL UBA, lagos, Nigeria

There is a new Cardiac Centre in Cameroon, about the same thing in Saudi Arabia where he could be treated for half the cost in Saudi Arabia. I think we can better take care of our own people than people who do not even know them. Africans wake up.
kihsin Charles, Kimbo

Sincerely speaking the best thing that will happen to Nigeria is for Yaradua to return home safely and complete his First tenure and go home. It will mean evil for this country if anything happens to him now. I am surprised some people who are calling for his resignation are not seeing the obvious three hand writings on the wall.

1. If Yaradua dies/resigns we have made Obasanjo a god.

2. If Yaradua resigns there will be an imbalance in the federal Character principles that informed the zoning of the presidency to the North.(Think well)

3. If Yaradua resigns we will witness a return of Obasanjo's FOX and Lion days as he will totally and completely remote control Goodluck .

Although I am not totally happy with all that Yaradua's Government is doing ,I pray for his safe return and at least completing his First tenure.
Emeka Speedwell Onyewuotu, Owerri,Nigeria

The Rumour mill remains probably the only source of half-authentic information, far better than the lies Journalists provide for the eager populace. When it is obvious that Journalists are on sale to the highest bidder in this corrupt-ridden environment, rumours will continue to fly high. The interesting part is that the rumour mill is fuelled by leaks from frustrated well-meaning sources very close to the ruling cabals. The flow starts with 2+2 making 22, eventually arriving at the correct answer 4.

You can imagine how irresponsible the government has been for almost 3 years telling lies about the health situation of the Number 1 citizen until 3 big rumours emanated from the Mill finally made them confessed the guy is ill last week. As long as this type of reckless behaviour continues on the part of the government, the mill will continue to boom.
Oluwole Franklyn-Ayeni, Hillside, NJ USA

This rumour is no rumour. Look at the picture of our President; it fuels the rumour about our president. When rumour mill exist in its infinity, it's because the subject of the rumour is being told that you can't fool the observers. Almost every Nigerian knows almost everything that the other person thinks he knows. So who is fooling who? Is it the Igbo man that knows every trade route in the world, or the Yoruba man who is very Westernize than the rest of us, or the Urhobo man that knows all the wayo in Nigeria or is the Milam who you will dare chase his daughter? We Nigerian know each other Kamkpe and no one knows more than each other than to pretend. Our President was not ready for this but our former President is rumoured to put him there so he can control him. Now it's rumoured that President Obasanjo did not want Odili because he is too smart but Jonathan, a PHD holder was rumoured to be very quiet and also timid. Now that Yar Adua is very sick and the PHD holder is also timid so Obasanjo can still control the presidency for his aborted third term. Now that the game plan is revealed Obasanjo can now hold Jonathan down to his knees if Yar'Ardua eventually resigns.
G. Ogbeide

Rumour mill or not, Nigerian leaders have become nothing but disgrace to the country. All you read about in the Newspapers/Internet and other media sources are frauds, kidnapping, police killing and what have you. Some of these idiots that we call leaders need to be put in jail where they rightfully belong. Unfortunately, most of us Nigerians are nothing but cowards that like making noises without the guts to rise up against our bad leaders and corrupt elements in our society. Our problems will surely continues as long as we the people do nothing about our bad leadership problems. A country so blessed with human and natural resources but allows idiots to hold the country to ransom.
Fola Balogun, Hamilton, New Jersey-USA

NRM is the best information outlet but the difficult thing is that I do not how to start a rumour. I have so many I will like to start but it never goes beyond two or so of my friends. Does anyone know how it works?Thanks
Kole, Gainesville, Florida

I totally agree with Osagi Ayanru. Nigerian journalist are corrupt. They don't do their job, as they depend on gratification or outright bribery to trumpet the viewpoints of the rulers.
Dread Imann, Atlanta, Ga

Sola's viewpoint is rubbish! Nigerians will of course, rely on rumour mills and sometimes dodgy western media when our own journalists are mainly lazy and corrupt individuals chasing about treasury looters for bribes which the often call PR money.

What Sola should do is make a difference in the sense of distinguishing himself as a journalist who goes out for news, rather than criticise Nigerians for demanding news. People are entitled to demand news and news sources should work hard to be trusted, if they want to be taken seriously!

Nigerian journalists have failed reliability tests many times that not many reasonable Nigerians believe in their news. Before the advent of, most Nigerians relied on CNN or BBC because nobody trusts our newspapers and TV channels.
Ezhi Opfu, London, UK

Let it be known to you that smoke cannot diffuses into thin air without the presence of fire! Whether rumours or not we shall soon know the truth and that truth shall set us free without any political vampires or sycophants. This is an absolute TRUISM!!!
Engr. Abraham Ogunjimi, Abuja, Nigeria

As a youth growing up in a country like Nigeria, we have learnt to thrive for genuine information from words on the 'streets'. Every rumour has an atom of truth in it. The Nigerian state and our media have failed repeatedly in delivering sincere and punctual news to its people. We have been at the mercy of the rumour mill. I think our president should just swallow his pride and step down honourably from office. Each time i watched him giving speeches on TV, i continuously notice his ailing and fading composure and i pity him. Nigeria is a very complicated and yet boisterous nation. She needs a vigilant and healthy hand to sail her through the many tumultuous waters we are facing now. Long Live The Niger Delta. Long Live the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Biz Malupe, Port harcourt

The rumour mill thrives in a society where official news is difficult if not impossible to come by. When the President travelled to Saudi Arabia last year, rumour had it that he went for a kidney transplant, the presidency denied it but when the President got back, he sacked his chief of staff (rumour had it that he wanted a PLUMBER to plug the leaks) and (another rumour) asked his ministers to swear an oath of secrecy. He then refused to go for the UN summit where he was expected present a speech. His reason? Cabinet reshuffle! It took him almost 2 months after that to forward the list to the Senate for approval. Rumour has it that when one undergoes a kidney transplant, he needs to rest and therefore cannot stand for long. (I don't know if that is true or not). The fact is, as long as we as Nigerians do not get the official news, one of us will fabricate the unofficial version and we will spread it.
Afeez Alade, Lagos, Nigeria

The problem is not rumours but the culture of the rumour mongers. MOST Nigerians I know are loud mouthed of the highest order. Their amplified voices don't seem to have the volume down tune no matter the environment...just limitless, boundless, horizonless loud. In a loud environment, anybody can hear rumours, hence faster spread. You just can't stop them, that is what our brothers and sisters from Nigeria are and that is what makes them unique good.
Kaunda Mbaka, USA

This is more of a Nigerian problem where everyone is kept in the dark as the govt beliefs the populace is stupid to understand anything. The rumour mill in Nigeria i can tell you for nothing is more authentic that the govt stance any day. Yar Adua sickness for instance has been in the mill of years now and now was just confirmed last week. Although a times they get it wrong but in most cases stuff like this regarding the govt is always correct. Until we learn to put our cards on the table then they rumour mill will continue to strive.
Olu Babs, Uk

I wonder why some Nigerians pray for the death of their leader. president Umara Musa Yar'Adua has said several times that the issue of life and death is in goods hands. A krio proverb say ''rain no dey fordom nar wan Man domot" and we should all join hands to pray for him for the better.
Murtala, Freetown, Sierra Leoene

To start with, I commend Sola on this well written and fun to read article. The Nigerian rumour mill is powerful and here to stay. It has become part of our culture. I have helped spread it countless times "unconsciously" and so is Sola and all these people commenting above. Who dare to deny a simple truth? As for Yara'dua, I hope he resigns; not that it will make any difference.
Tobi Adetayo, Manchester, U.K

every rumour has it roots, nigerians believe in hearsay bcos first class info and news is expensive. having said that, rumours about the prezzy is not rumour bcos our president is very ill and nigeria works is beyond sick person even the healthy ones can deliver to the masses. am a fan of the president but it better to quit when the ovation is loudest.
fatai yussuff, belfast

In an unhealthy political environment, the rumour mill is a sign of the general wish and intents of the people. It's the only way the people can voice their wishes out, since the so-called medias cannot even be trusted. Their information are biased and opinionated, bribed and infected with obvious lies. I think the rumour mill is the last hope to the wish of the peoples whose hopes in a proper media representation has been lost.
Rees Chikwendu, Groningen, Nederlands

As long as our leaders continue to act like Tin gods by attempting to monopolise information and stifle the opposition and put a stumbling block in way of free information flow. Nigerians have no option but to lend their ears to the rumour mill. I think the national assembly should take the bull by the horns and pass the freedom of information bill.
Dr Michael Abah, kaduna, Nigeria

I am happy enough with our President whatever others say about him. I know things could be better but they did not get the way they are overnight and it would be difficult for any honest and sincere leader to repair the complicated situation.

That said, any time he considers that his health is not at its best, I think he can weave in plenty of rest and relaxation into his schedule every day. As far as I know, he pays attention to his health. Perhaps he could do more just like many of us. In some business sectors in Nigeria, they seem to think closing late is helpful until stress and hypertension set in.
Richard Adetola Adegbesan, Lagos, Nigeria

Every Rumour has its foundation in truth, the so-called Rumours mill in Nigeria shows asymmetric nature of information in Nigeria, it is simply there because the media is inadequate in satisfying the curiosity of the people over information, when people expect things to happen and it has not happened, they have right to speculate why it is has not happened, when there is no explanation for that, they turn to rumour market for siwa siwa. Nigerians are just like other Africans, they love Palaver Africas, Palaver is "much ado about nothing" and "siwa siwa" is Asaba word for Rumours. In USA or UK, CNN or BBC will be on the air to clarify any Siwa Siwa while Newspapers write lavishly on them. In Nigeria, the impotent Media appear sterile. Every Nigerian has right to information irrespective of the source, be it Siwa Siwa from Palaver market. Every Rumour has it foundation in Truth, definitely, the president is sick and can be sick. It shows how efficient Siwa Siwa is in Palaver Africa's Nations.
Sunny Ekwnugo, Berlin, Germany

It is an absolute disgrace when a country has a massive information/propaganda ministry; presidential spokes people and the rumour mill reigns supreme.

For the local media it is a remarkable choice - either take the back hander, publish and be a disgrace to your profession or publish and be damned - suspect packages or jackboots and detention.

Suffice to say that in a country like Nigeria with a high level of literacy and a plethora of intelligentia, for the rumour mill to reign supreme is an absolute disgrace.

Can this failure of a state and its related functions be because the vultures who should know better are waiting for the spoils of war or an abject incompetence on the part others gone to sleep on duty.

Shame....scrap NTA/VON and all the so called federal and state news agencies and spend the money on health, good roads and education.
Von Edomi, London, UK

Rumours manifest when the populace is tired or have a particular wish about something. In Nigeria, it is news of opinion. Since nobody wants to say something definite about the President's health, the rumour was about his death! Those in power should learn to manage information.

There will always be rumours where there is no free, unfettered flow of information. We only got to know Mr. President has acute pericarditis because one of his doctors had leaked the news to a foreign media. When you live and work in Nigeria as i do, one learns to give the rumours some degree of credibility, because at the long run, the truth is usually not far off the rumour. Much as i wish the president speedy recovery, his aides should be more forthcoming on his health status. Nigerians should not be learning about the grave health condition of their president from the foreign media.
Patrick Thorpe, Lagos, Nigeria

As regards the rumours circulating about the current Nigerian President - if the current administration was initially forthright about his medical condition and at least provided basic education on a likely treatment plan there wouldn't be so much speculation about his demise. Nigerians are smart enough to know that we are all finite. If you run for public office, the state of your health becomes public information.

Finally, I think the president is missing a great chance to acknowledge and address the problem that Nigeria doesn't have basic health care for its citizen. As usual leaders on the continent are short-sighted and look out for their selfish interest- i.e. fly out to receive treatment. It would have gladdened the heart of many if the president had increased health care expenditure and drawn the attention of the country to preventive care.
Ben Gever, Kopka, Czech Republic

"Their is no fire without smoke" rumours in Nigeria are the beginning of the truth which does take time to surface. African leaders never die even after medical confirmation. only by the grave side.
Okpokoro Emmanuel Chibuike, Ukraine

The fear of authority has always been there even before the strong men of the military era. For example, Nigerians are always afraid of the police and would offer them bribe even before they ask for it. This fear only got worse with the brutal repression of the military. And worse still, those in authority in Nigeria, even among the civilian leaders, do not take kindly to criticisms, no matter how constructive. They also do not communicate very much with the people. Therefore, the Rumour Mill strives as an alternative engine of indirect form of communication where it is easy to credit the source to somebody else.
Lugard Osagie,

Though disavowing the rumour mill, Sola Odunfa, seems to be inadvertently, sanctioning it as the only means of communication between the ruling elite and the people. In my opinion, the rumour mill exist because journalists don't do their job as they depend on gratification or outright bribery to trumpet the viewpoints of the rulers. Lastly, there is no freedom of information act, in that country.
Osagie Ayanru, Huntington, WV, USA

Rumour strives in an environment where there no press freedom and or integrity. People rarely believe what is in the news because it is most times politically driven. When government of the day wants to take care of opponents they publish stories that are negative and without foundation. So the people believe the truth are never written on paper but other hidden truths are buried and could be found in the rumours. Most times the rumours have come back to be true
T,oyee, lagos

Rumours are nothing but wishful thinking. The Nigerian people have seen 'hell' in the hands of their several governments. The masses use these rumours to express their feelings on pressing issues and to show how they would have wished those issues were different.
John Opara, Atlanta, USA

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