I have immersed myself in the study of the ontogenesis and manifestations of fascism since Buhari started to bare his ferociously fascist fangs. One of the world’s most insightful writers on fascist totalitarianism is George Orwell. As he himself pointed out in his 1946 essay titled “Why I Write,” “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism….”
His most famous works, Animal Farm (published in 1945) and 1984 (published in 1949), were not just devastatingly searing fictional critiques of totalitarianism, they also offer enduringly accurate insights into how absolutist fascism works. The significance of Animal Farm to understanding Buhari’s monocratic excesses are already too obvious to deserve expounding.
Orwell’s 1984 is the most helpful in unpacking the unfolding phase of Buhari’s next-level fascism. In this phase, the regime wants to not just impose ironclad strangulation on basic liberties; it also wants to exercise absolute control over the limits of the meanings of everyday words and expressions. I call this intangible but nonetheless visible forms of symbolic fascist violence.
Words and expressions such as “revolution,” “terrorism,” “terrorist,” “treason,” “soft target,” “defeat,” “technical,” “hate speech,” etc. no longer mean what they are universally understood to mean in the Anglophone world; they now only mean what Buhari and his fascist honchos want them to mean, as I will show shortly.
In Orwell’s 1984, we learn that the fictional totalitarian country of Oceania invented a new language called newspeak, which strips words of their habitual significations, constricts the semantic boundaries of existing words, narrows the range of vocabularies people can use, and privileges, indeed insists on, the meanings the state imposes on words and expressions.
All fascist regimes understand the power of language in birthing, nurturing, and naturalizing tyranny. Orwell recognized this fact in another famous, oft-cited 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English Language.” That is why the Buhari regime now wants to impose limits on what words can mean and not mean. Take, for instance, the increasingly variable and arbitrary meaning of the word “terrorism” in Buhari’s Nigeria. Every organized resistance against the government is now “terrorism.”
The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), whose mode of campaign for separatism is demonstrably non-violent, was formally declared a “terrorist” organization and proscribed.
Shiite Muslims, who have remained remarkably pacifist and restrained even in the face of the unjustified extra-judicial mass murders of their members and the continued incarceration of their leader in spite of several court judgments to release him, have been declared “terrorists” and their organization “proscribed.”
The regime labeled IPOB and Shiites “terrorists” only because of their sustained, constitutionally guaranteed civil protests against the government, which will go down in history as the most thin-skinned collection of boneheaded crybabies.
Omoyele Sowore’s nationwide #RevolutionNow protests, for which he is being illegally detained, were also declared “terrorism” and“treasonable felony.” Ironically, between 2013 and 2014, many of the founders of the APC vigorously lobbied the US government to not designate Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization. On June 10, 2013, Lai Mohammed said Goodluck Jonathan administration’s proscription of Boko Haram was overly broad and did not “pass the Constitutional test.” Buhari is also on record as saying that military action against Boko Haram was an attack on the “North.”
To this day, the Buhari regime has never officially declared Boko Haram a terrorist group let alone proscribe it. On the contrary, Boko Haram’s captured members are often washed up, deodorized as “repentant,” and even enlisted into the Nigerian Army, which explains why our soldiers are now sitting ducks for Boko Haram terrorists.
Murderous marauders known in the Nigerian news media as “killer Fulani herdsmen” or ” armed bandits” have been called “the fourth deadliest known terrorist group” in the world by the Global Terrorism Index, but the Buhari regime has said absolutely nothing about this group much less designate it as a terrorist group. If anything, members of the group are being featherbedded and emboldened by the regime.
But harmless, unarmed, defenseless groups who resist the regime’s tyranny peacefully are quickly labeled “terrorists,” detained, harassed, and ultimately “proscribed.” This is particularly interesting because Buhari rode on the crest of the wave of civil disobedience to climb to power. In fact, in 2011, during a stump speech, he did actually commit what amounted to a terroristic incitement to violence when he unambiguously told his supporters to extra-judicially murder political opponents.
“Ku fita ku yi zabe. Ku kasa. Ku tsare. Ku raka. Ku tsaya. Duk wanda ya taba ku halaka shi!” he said in Hausa. Rough idiomatic translation: “Go out and participate in the election. Cast your vote. Protect it. Accompany it (to the collation center). Wait for it (to be counted). Whoever tempers with (the vote) kill him!”
And scores of people, including youth corps members, were extra-judicially murdered in several parts of the Muslim North as a direct consequence of his incitement. That was real terrorism for which he was never brought to justice. Terrorism is defined as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
Similarly, although Buhari, Bola Tinubu, and many APC henchmen had used the word “revolution” in the past to characterize their resistance to the reigning government, the word is now practically banned in Nigeria. It can now only mean what the government wants it to mean. By “revolution,” Sowore clearly meant prolonged mass protests that would so overwhelm the government that it would be compelled to accede to the demands of the protesters.
That was precisely the sort of “revolution” Buhari praised in Egypt and which he enjoined Nigerians to emulate. The Arab Spring was not a revolution through the ballot box, as his defenders are insisting; it was a series of unrelenting, organized mass protests that caused the deaths of many people. It was its aftermath that birthed the pretense to democracy that was quickly thwarted in the country.
Any intelligent person knows that Sowore’s isolated references to overthrowing the government weren’t literal. In media law, it’s called rhetorical hyperbole, and it’s not actionable. Calling someone a “criminal,” a “thief,” a “fraudster,” a “conman,” etc. is mere rhetorical hyperbole, but saying they stole “500 billion naira in 2018” is a specific, verifiable fact and may constitute grounds for libel.
Sowore and his group have no capacity to overthrow the government. It’s the government’s own acute self-consciousness of its transparent illegitimacy that is causing it to see threats in even the most innocuous forms of resistance. English philosopher Bertrand Russel had hypersensitive, illegitimate regimes like Buhari’s in mind when he said, “Freedom of opinion can only exist when the government thinks itself secure.”
While any physical protest against the Buhari regime is now “terrorism,” the definitional boundaries of the term “hate speech” have also been squeezed to now only mean any strong criticism of the government’s trademark incompetence and fraud.
But hate speech is conventionally understood as speech that denigrates or incites violence against a people on the basis of their social, cultural, ethnic, religious, etc. characteristics. Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation (= the fact of being gay, etc.):”
That means government or its officials can’t possibly be the target of hate speech for just being in government. But the point of controlling the meanings of the words we use is that the regime wants to invoke its invented meanings as linguistic justification for physical violence and the naturalization of fascism.
Nigerians must not only resist the Buhari regime’s repression, they must also fight its Orwellian newspeak, which excludes Nigerians from the power of naming. In his influential book titled Challenging Codes, Italian political sociologist Alberto Melucci, whose country birthed the original fascist ideology Buhari is enamored with, tells us that, “The real domination is… the exclusion from the power of naming.”