Posted by ambika samarthya on Fri, 2011-05-06 05:45

During the recent Nigerian elections, which the international voting watchdogs deemed fairly run, the Southern candidate, current President Goodluck Jonathan, received more votes than the Northern candidate, former dictator General Buhari. The perception was that Goodluck got 99 percent of the votes in the South (for anyone who has studied statistics, this number is highly improbable), but that not all Northerners voted for Buhari.

The difference in these two candidates is stark: one comes from an army background, the other from politics. Jonathan has been ruling the country since Yar Adua’s death last year; Buhari ruled as a military dictator in the early 80s and was overthrown. Goodluck is more passive and a background player; Buhari more aggressive and charismatic. There was also a third candidate, Ribado, that took many of the new youth vote. More than anything else, Jonathan represents the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, and that party has not lost presidential election since 1999.

But once the results came out, it seemed like the only difference anyone, including media outlets in and outside the country, wanted to talk about was religion. Buhari, representing the North, is Muslim; Jonathan is Christian. All of a sudden, Northerners were literally in arms, burning houses of people who were suspected of supporting and voting for Goodluck, “A good Muslim would only vote for another Muslim,” became the credo. In line with political diplomacy, the rule has been that winnings candidate always had a VP of the different religion or other part of the country. Goodluck’s VP is Muslim; Buhari’s is Christian. So how exactly does someone stay true to their religion?

Within hours, Nigerian Facebook pages were lit up with conversations and discussions about the religious war, with slurring and finger pointing galore. Photos from the two hardest hit states, Kano and Kaduna, were put up all over, with a pointed discussion that had two predominant themes: Buhari has shown irresponsibility by encouraging such conflict to happen and Northern Muslims and Southern Christians will never get along.

From afar, it was easy to see this whole situation as a very clear and simple case of divide and rule. Here were two candidates who are well known for their corruption and inadequacies, and suddenly instead of the discussion being how Jonathan can (who put Abuja in danger by not paying attention to a bomb threat on independence day) guarantee security for the country, it became about religion and the North-South divide. How easy the candidates had it that they go on with their ineffective policies on education and health, looting the country’s wealth, while the masses and the people who would suffer most were now riled up over religious conflict.

I have seen this time and time again in India, and even in the states, where discussions towards race divert the real attention away from serious public policy issues. It’s not a coincidence that at time of heavy bipartisanship Obama is suddenly defending his presidency with a birth certificate. It’s very easy to talk about where you are born; much harder to get a health insurance bill passed.

But what I am angered about is the role social media, which has proudly created revolutions of freedom and change in the Middle East, has been used to promote tribalism and division. I was happy to see a former colleague of mine, a radio and TV producer, finally write on his Facebook page: “Everyone who is making this a religious issue, shut up. It’s not, and you should be punished for what you are causing.”

Between a government censored media outlet, and a foreign press that had its attention focused on Libya and the Middle East, the culprit of this misunderstanding was Facebook. I am a true believer in social media, but social media is just that: it’s an interactive place for friends to chat and discuss. It does not NEED to be a credible media source, nor does it have to defend its accusations or show any references to its claim. Unfortunately in countries where people can not turn to a representative and uncensored media, Facebook has become their source of information. It’s not journalism; it’s gossip.

I was discussing the situation with my family, explaining to them that people were making this into a religious issue when it’s not. My Nigerian friend said, “no, they are hurting themselves because of religion.” I said, “True, but it was not a religious issue, it’s now claimed to be a religious issue.” He agreed.

I think of Magritte’s painting of the pipe. “This is not a pipe,” the French cursive states. Magritte’s point was simply that a painting and illustration of something does not mean it’s actually that thing. I wish I could put a comment on all the Facebook discussions, “This is not a religious conflict.”