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Shettima and the question of ethnic profiling

A few days ago, the political commentator, Japheth Omojuwa, observed that “Kashim Shettima is the most stereotyped candidate on a presidential ticket this term,” and…

A few days ago, the political commentator, Japheth Omojuwa, observed that “Kashim Shettima is the most stereotyped candidate on a presidential ticket this term,” and that “His photo goes with variations of ‘I don’t know what scares me about this man’ & ‘Boko Haram’ for being or doing nothing other than being from Borno.” What was intended to be a conversation around ethnic profiling, which is the oxygen of our partisan politics, instantly erupted into a vulgar exercise in name-calling on Twitter. 

Mr Omojuwa was merely addressing the bigotry in the show glass of the 2023 presidential election. Since Senator Shettima’s emergence as the vice-presidential candidate of the APC, the serial attempts to profile him are not hard to miss. Some either underlined his Kanuri ethnicity and his political history as governor of the Boko Haram-ravaged state to associate him with the terrorist group or cited his unsmiling demeanor to weave the very assumption that must’ve alarmed Omojuwa—that there’s something about his looks. This is a hilarious take, only that it’s mainstream thinking in certain partisan quarters. 

The last time I accompanied my wife to her hospital, and our conversations veered to personal and political subjects, her doctor shared that her concern about Shettima was the Boko Haram question. Her source was the trending photographs of the politician with some Fulani herders, which some partisans have shared to accuse him of “dining” with bandits. Of course, I took my time to point out the holes in that story, and that it’s been fact-checked by various credible newspapers and non-partisan organisations. 

On July 14, 2022, the Centre for Democracy & Development, in collaboration with Daily Trust, published a fact-check piece onthis claim. They highlighted that they set to establish the fact of “A photo of the All Progressives Congress vice presidential candidate, Kashim Shettima, allegedly eating with Boko Haram terrorists (which) has been circulating online,” and concluded that “Despite several reports and reactions, linking Shettima to the activities of Boko Haram while he was Borno State governor, none of the allegations has been proved.” The report further explained that “Hence, there is no sufficient evidence to back the claim that the Senator was dining with alleged Boko Haram members as depicted in the viral photo.” 

On the same day, another news platform, PR Nigeria, fact-checked the claim, and reported that “According to a full-length video obtained by PRNigeria, Senator Kashim Shettima was actually dining with nomadic Fulani in their community when he paid them a persuasion visit in his efforts to convince them to enroll their children into his free educational program in that remote community while he was Governor of the State.” PR Nigeria also shared that “It was during this excursion that Mr Shettima adorned in the same outfit dinned with the Fulani leaders” before their final verdict that “Senator Kashim Shettima has never had a breakfast with bandit-terrorists. The claim is therefore NOT TRUE (sic).” 

If these fact-checking interventions have proven anything, it’s the criminal aversion to truth in our politics. The biggest weapon has been the contest of weaving stereotypes around the ethnic, religious and regional affiliations of the political candidates to de-market them. Shettima’s accusers, as documented by the fact-checkers, lacked the evidence to back their claims and are not even interested in one. 

Our obsession with making our citizens, especially those in the spotlight, representatives of their ethnic group isn’t a new fad. That there are killer bandits in the North West who are Fulani doesn’t make, say, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a Fulani man, culpable in their operations. Neither is Peter Obi, an Igbo man, guilty of the savagery perpetrated by unknown gunmen or the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the South East. Any attempt to do so is a dangerous ethnic profiling that promises nothing good. The outcome is always disastrous. 

Beyond his Kanuri ancestry, Shettima’s accusers also shared that he was an ideological bedfellow of Boko Haram while he served as Governor of Borno State between 2011 and 2019. But the same Shettima, according to a Premium Times revelation, was targeted by the terrorist group when he was his state’s chief security officer. “Kabiru Umar Sokoto, the convicted Boko Haram bomber, was hatching a plot to kidnap the children of Kashim Shettima, then-governor of Borno State, when he was arrested in January 2012, a confidential memo has revealed,” the report said, and that “In a confidential security memo dated Thursday, June 14, 2012, that is just coming to light, Sokoto was reported to have infiltrated the Borno governor’s lodge in a plot to kidnap the children of Shettima, who had relocated them from Maiduguri, Borno state, to Abuja for safety reasons.” 

Coincidentally,  Kabiru Sokoto has also been linked to Shettima, the man whose family he plotted to harm. Denying this fact is all politics, it may seem. But it’s deeper than that. The fixation on making the politician a political face of Boko Haram is a disturbing ethnic profiling that shouldn’t have found a place in our political discourse, and it bothers that those who ought to defend this tradition came for Omojuwa’s neck online when he questioned their hypocrisy. 

One would think that Shettima was too absorbed in the reality of our politics to address this stereotype. But, last Sunday, at a reception in his honour by the Borno Indigenes Forum Abuja (BIFA) in Abuja, he addressed the profiling suspects in his speech. He said, “Sometimes, you come across the energy devoted to promoting their improbable fiction that you begin to wonder if their redemption is possible—if they would ever agree to submit to superior facts” and then added, “But we have to thank the exceptional citizens and journalists volunteering to fact-check the imaginary stories.”

We can’t fuel a system where we ethnicise a practice or crime and think of an outcome that won’t be collectively regretted in the long run. The danger is, every group has this tendency, this tendency to misfire. None, sadly, is capable of monopolising it, and if we ever allow such a stereotype to be a legitimised mode of identifying an individual or group from whom we are different, that may take away even this veneer of unity in Nigeria.