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Pro-Biafran Trump supporters

Unravelling the “mystery” of Donald Trump’s Nigerian supporters

Donald Trump has Nigerian supporters and they are very vocal on social media. They troll Nigerians and Nigerians in the diaspora who support and plan to vote for Hillary Clinton. They are hard to ignore because they are worked up over the election and are fanatically committed to hating Clinton or getting Trump elected, or both. I’ve been observing and studying their strange antics and have come to a conclusion about their varied motives. The following list is not exhaustive but it captures, in my opinion, the major strands of the Nigerian pro-Trump phenomenon.

1. In the first category are those who are simply ignorant of what the vile, racist demagogue stands for. It doesn’t help that there is a lot of falsehood on social media and on the Internet generally about what Trump has done and what he will do. I have even come across several items on my Facebook newsfeed about how Trump has promised to “actualize Biafra,” how Trump would crush Boko Haram, how Trump made this or that statement about Nigerians and Africans — all of them false memes generated by Internet junkies on fringe sits with political agendas targeting the uninformed and lazy. If you look hard enough you’ll find on the Internet that Barack Obama is an alien from another planet and that the moon landing never happened. Some Nigerians wittingly or unwittingly share false information from far-right and racist websites on Facebook. Some shares are from the conspiracy website, Infowars, which, among other outlandish claims, peddle the notion that the September 11 attack was the work of the U.S government and that the killing of Osama bin Laden was a hoax. These shares regularly appear on my timeline. To me they are a minor irritation; to others they are credible information.

2. The second category comprises Nigerians who know but don’t care that Trump is a bombastic conman, a narcissistic, know-nothing racist, and a sexist xenophobe to boot. This group is the most perplexing because it requires a measure of self hate and/or cognitive dissonance to support a guy who combines xenophobia with a long history of disdain for blacks and Hispanics. Given the disdain of some Nigerians for research and history, it is possible that some in this category are simply not aware of the depth and span of Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and sexism, or his propensity for mocking the disabled and for petty insults and infantile tantrums.

3. Category three is made up of Nigerians who identify with Trump’s strongman, fascistic tendencies and pronouncements. Some people are seduced by braggadocio and bluster. Some of these Nigerians won’t admit it but they see themselves in Trump. Others see a world in turmoil and yearn for a measure of order that they assume only a tough, Mafioso type leader can provide. This phenomenon is playing out in several parts of the world. In an unstable and uncertain world, citizens of several countries have embraced tough-talking, rigid, extreme political figures that several years ago would probably have been dismissed as unviable candidates. India’s Modi; Egypt’s el-Sisi; Nigeria’s Buhari; Turkey’s Erdogan — these are all so-called strong men whose firm, if counterproductive, certitude and showy display of nationalistic fervor have catapulted them to, or consolidated them in, their countries’ presidencies. The same potent mix of ultra-nationalist sentiment and a cult-like belief in a strongman’s capacity to restore the nation’s pride and solve its problems is at work in certain sections of America that fanatically support Trump. Ironically, many of Trump’s Nigerian supporters never supported Buhari. Conversely, many Nigerians who supported Buhari because of his strongman nationalist posturing against the “weak” Jonathan are opposed to Trump. This last position is not necessarily an inconsistent one as people in this camp of Buhari-supporting but Trump-opposing Nigerians are likely to be Muslims who are turned off by Trump’s Islamophobia, or people repulsed by his racist rhetoric.

4. The fourth category comprises Nigerians who, as embarrassing as it is to admit it, actually agree with Trump’s Islamophobia, his Muslim ban, and his blustery talk about “Islamic terrorism.” Here, in this category, you will see some Nigerians who are using the prism of Nigeria’s bitter religious politics to cultivate an attitude toward the US presidential election. For them, Trump is the solution to the global problem of Islamist terrorism and extremism, never mind that the candidate is woefully uninformed about Islam, the Middle East, and the Islamic world generally and knows even less about antiterrorism policy. Some Nigerians in this group channel their antipathy towards Boko Haram and towards Nigerian Muslims they believe share the blame for the rise of Boko Haram into supporting the candidate they see as being tougher on terrorism.

Boko Haram fighters and their leader Abubakar Shekau
Boko Haram fighters and their leader Abubakar Shekau

I should add here that many Nigerian urban households now get the Right Wing US news network, FOX News, which is essentially an arm of the Republican Party and of Donald Trump’s campaign. Their attitude to the election has been partly shaped by FOX News. It was during the 2012 that I came to know about FOX’s presence on Nigerian cable TV offerings. A few weeks before the election, an Obama-supporting prominent Northern Nigerian journalist frantically called a Nigerian friend of hers in Atlanta asking if what she was hearing on FOX News about Obama was true and almost tearfully asking if it was true that Obama was headed for certain defeat. This friend spent a great deal of time lecturing her on the political loyalties of FOX, on its genealogy and ideological commitments, and on the true picture of the election campaigns. It was a big relief for her, a relief that Obama’s victory confirmed a few weeks later. In the same period, a cousin of mine also relayed what he had been hearing on FOX News to me, but in his own case, he said he was suspicious of the network and wondered why they were so biased against Obama and so intent on smearing him. Because he was already a skeptical watcher of FOX it didn’t take me long to confirm his suspicions and point him in the direction of more objective coverage of the election.

5. Category five contains Nigerians whose attitude to the US presidential election is refracted through the lens of Nigeria’s politics, specifically the lingering emotions of the 2015 presidential elections. In this category are many supporters of former president Goodluck Jonathan and detractors of president Buhari, who detest the Obama administration’s cold disposition toward Jonathan and its barely disguised support for Buhari’s candidacy. In the calculus of these Nigerian Trump supporters, it is payback time, time to humiliate Obama by defeating Hillary.

Many pro-Trump Nigerians may be smarting from Buhari's defeat of Goodluck Jonathan in last year's (s)election
Many pro-Trump Nigerians may be smarting from Buhari’s defeat of Goodluck Jonathan in last year’s (s)election

6. The sixth category is populated by gullible, impressionable Nigerian Christians who listen to and watch American right-wing radio and TV broadcasts. Most of these misguided Christians are from my own Evangelical/Pentecostal constituency and are naively drawn to US Evangelical political rhetoric without acquainting themselves with the political and cultural roots of such rhetoric. They are drinking the Kool-Aid of the American religious Right. To these Nigerians, Clinton (and by extension Obama) is too cozy with Muslims and not sufficiently Christian, precisely the rhetoric of the U.S. right wing. Conversely, for reasons that are known only to them, and contrary to all the available evidence, they regard Trump as a warrior for Christianity, the savior of a supposedly endangered Judeo-Christian civilization. This is an expansive category. My first introduction to this strange emotional alliance of Nigerian Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and the U.S religious Right was during the 2012 election cycle when a relative of mine called me to ask if it was true that Obama was the antichrist and had begun forcing Americans to be implanted with 666-numbered chips on their foreheads to signify their allegiance to him. A quick search on the Internet gave me the source of his misinformation, which apparently had spread in his church and in his Christian circle. The fictional nonsense emanated from fringe, extremist Right Wing and Christian Right websites, and from a dark part of the Internet that is now associated with white supremacy and he Pseudo-Christian politics of the so-called alt-right. I spent at least one hour on the phone reeducating and disabusing my relative of the falsehood. In Nigeria today, thanks to the relative democratization of Satellite broadcasting technology and the globalization of mass media, many households have cable TV packages that come with several American Evangelical and Christian Right channels, including CBN, TBN, and others, where they are fed a steady diet of politicized gospel, apocalyptic nonsense, and anti-Obama, anti-Clinton talking points and inventions. They regard this information as gospel truth and are too lazy or too loyal to their TV Evangelists to verify what they are being told or to crosscheck the outlandish claims against the Bible in their hands.

7. The final category comprises Nigerians who, far from being repulsed by Trump’s reputation as a con artist, artful tax dodger, and serial scammer, actually admire him for precisely those reasons, for what Trump himself says are a mark of his smartness. Unfortunately, some Nigerians, like some Americans, actually admire Trump for being a slick, litigious, and shady businessman who has managed to avoid getting into serious legal trouble despite operating outside or on the edge of the law for decades. It is the same kind of admiration that some people have for mob and mafia bosses and figures.

Fortunately for those of us who live and work in the U.S, know what’s at stake, and have American children whose lives and futures will be impacted by the outcome this election, the vast majority of these Trump-supporting Nigerians cannot vote and in fact are simply cyber noisemakers who buy data and log onto Facebook from their abodes in Nigeria to snipe at Hillary and those of us who support and love her.

Moses E. Ochonu is Associate Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University and author of Colonial Meltdown: Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression (2009).

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