By UCHE EZECHUKWU
During the week that ended on September 8, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, had every reason to be elated and satisfied with the events that had taken place around him in the Sultanate and particularly at his palace during the week. That week, the members of the Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) held their annual conference in Sokoto. The episcopal biennial conference is usually rotated from one diocese to the other.
A very important item on their agenda this year was a courtesy call on the Sultan at his palace, where they experienced the type of rousing reception that has remained the talk of town. (The key elements and mile- ages of that meeting between Catholic and Islamic leaders will be a matter for another dis- course. But suffice it to say that the meeting was another plume in the cap of the efforts that the amiable monarch had been un- dertaking in cooperation with the clergy of orthodox Christian denominations, in the promotion and pursuance of interfaith dialogue and entente.
Led by the archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, the over 50 Catholic bishops were made at home at the palace, even as the visit became another pointer to the close similarity between the theology of Catholics and Muslims. It provided yet another opportunity to showcase the fact that there was no difficulty in getting genuine Christians and Muslims to work together for national peace and unity for the benefit of the genuine adherent of the two religions. It was, therefore, a very happy and fulfilled Sultan that depart- ed his palace at the weekend to pursue other assignments on behalf of the Nigerian Muslim umma which he leads. He travelled to Kaduna and then to Zaria, where, in conjunction with other Muslim leaders, he officiated at the formal opening of an Islamiyah school in the an- cient city of Zaria. It was while at the peak of that function at about noon, on Sunday September 9, that the Sultan received a troubling phone call that his 19-year old son, Amir, who had been holidaying at home from his school in England, had been involved in a ghastly car crash in Sokoto and had been admitted at the Intensive Care Unit of a medical facility in Sokoto.
Sultan Abubakar’s belief system which preaches a total submis- sion to the will of Allah, coupled with the high position he oc- cupies as a leader, he always approaches events and under- takings with stoicism and faith. Having ensured that the right things were being done for the benefit of his seriously injured son, the monarch proceeded to the other leg of his affairs, which took him to Abuja by road, where he arrived later in the evening. Barely had he settled down at this guest house when he started to be inundated by phone calls, from the high, the mighty and the ordinary people from different parts of the country, making enquiries about the condition of his son.
He didn’t need to search for long to ascertain how the news had spread that far and wide within so short a period. It turned out that a now-notorious US-based online news outlet had sensationally “broken the news” of the accident with an unprecedented coating with damaging false embellishments.
Put yourself in the shoes of parents and relatives of the 19-year old boy who got involved in a near fatal car crash in which he sustained serious injuries and became unconscious. As at the time Sahara Reporters was sending reports that instantly went viral on the accident of the teenage Sokoto prince and his two cousins, they were fighting for their lives at the Intensive Care Unit of a medical facility in Sokoto.
Throwing professional ethics and morality to the dogs, and without any care about the sen- sibilities of people and institutions involved, the online service deliberately concocted layers upon layers of falsehood, deliberately erected to cause maxi- mum damage and opprobrium to a revered institution of the Sultanate, through a deliberate character assassination of one of its own.
The Sahara Reporters had re- ported, without any iota of verification or corroboration that the young Amir had been driving at over 200 kilometres per hour when the crash took place. More irresponsibly, SR had claimed that the boy was driving under the influence of ‘codeine’ and had gone ahead to claim that bottles of codeine were found in the crashed car. Worse still, the report claimed that Amir was driving in company of another young man and a lady of easy virtue who the fake report claimed was imported from Kaduna for fun with the prince. Of course, the contents of the report were as fake as hell in all material particular, as everything claimed was mischievously concocted, giving the impression that it was deliberate. There was even a photo-shopped image of Amir holding a bottle of cough syrup. Like I have said, the character, disposition and upbringing of the sultan and members of the palace, not to talk about his military background, have conferred on him the capacity and disci- pline to take and absorb what ordinary people are incapable of living with. Hence, the inflamed emotions in Sokoto and amongst those who don’t share the equal background of the Sultan that pervaded the atmosphere in the Sultanate and beyond. If you were close to the Sultanate as I am, you would have noticed the palpable nature of the pain and feeling of sorrow at the uncalled for assault on the institution and the people that run it.
The 214-year old institution of which the current Sultan is its 20th head is so reticent and dignified in its dealing with the outside world that it opted to keep silent and refused to put the records straight about the accident, as that would have amounted to giving the Sahara Reporters the rec- ognition that it does not deserve. Even in that reticent, it was hard not to notice the institutional and personal sorrow and pain that pervaded the royal atmosphere for a whole week and more.
If the Sultanate was resolute in its decision not to join issues on the fakery of the news peddled against it, it still managed in spite of itself to make a short release, the following day on the fact that the injured cousins were stable and responding to treatment. If the two paragraph press release issued by Umar Bukar Ladan, the secretary of the Sultanate Council of Sokoto (SCS), was primar- ily for the purpose of calming the nerves of all those who had been grieving and anxious over the incident, it deliberately said noth- ing to clear the air on the fake news; yet, the pain could not be hidden.
Nevertheless, the brief statement was able to give that name of the male and female cousin with whom Amir was involved in the accident, namely, Khalifa Mac- cido Aliyu and Zainabu Bara’u Issah. In fact Miss Zainabu turns out to be the daughter the Sultan’s younger sister. Such and more were the depth of the deliberate damage that the fake news from Sahara Reporters had wreaked on the Sokoto royal family, the person of Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar and family and especially on the reputation of the Nigerian media which only a few responsible would continue to take seriously. Because of my closeness to the Sultan, his office and family, I felt the effect of the fake news by SR very personally and was devas- tated. I was therefore able to feel, first hand, the amount of devastation that it caused the Sultanate and the Sultan’s family. It is not likely that the Sultanate would take any legal action against the Sahara Reporters, yet the damage that such fake news can wreak on the reputation of the media can only be imagined. I don’t wish my worst enemy to be a victim or to be at the receiving end of fake news.
When will serious minded media practitioners join the fight against fake news? Its prevalence diminishes and damages us enormously. (Concluded)