All politicians are subject to rumors and recrimination.
But few have had to answer for the sort of tall tales being told about the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, who over the weekend denied claims that he had died and been replaced by a Sudanese impostor.
“It’s the real me, I assure you,” Buhari said in a town hall on Sunday in Poland, where he was attending a United Nations climate conference. “I will soon celebrate my 76th birthday and I will still go strong.”
With that declaration, Buhari broke his silence about a rumor that had taken root on social media last year, when he was away in London being treated for an undisclosed illness. The theory went that the president, who is running for reelection in February 2019, had been swapped out with a look-alike from Sudan named Jubril — even that he was “cloned,” as he put it in relaying the rumor to his nearly 2 million followers on Twitter.
There was no evidence to back up the rumor, an AFP fact-check concluded. But posts on social media claiming that Nigeria — the most populous country in Africa and the continent’s largest economy — had come under the control of an impostor were viewed more than 500,000 times.
The earliest online mention of the rumor identified by the Paris-based news agency was in a Twitter post from September 2017, in which a user wrote, “The Man Who Parades himself as ‘Buhari’ Is Not The Real Buhari. Is Jubril From Sudan.”
With the text came a video of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra, telling supporters that the country’s elected leader had died. Kanu has repeated the claim, each time without evidence, on his pirate station, Radio Biafra. He has labeled the purported look-alike “Jubril Al-Sudani."
According to AFP, the conspiracy is nurtured by ethnic prejudice against Buhari, who is a northern ethnic Fulani Muslim. He has been accused of ignoring attacks against Christian farmers. Meanwhile, the May killing of a Nigerian diplomat in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum became the seed of the bizarre geopolitical suspicion feeding the rumor.
Asked about the impostor theory in the appearance on Sunday, Buhari blamed his political opponents, saying, “A lot of people hoped that I was dead and hoped I died.” He said the false reports of his death even prompted some to reach out to his vice president because they assumed he would replace him. “That embarrassed him a lot because he visited me when I was in London convalescing,” Buhari told his audience in Poland.
The president, who was elected in 2015, pinned a video of his response to the top of his Twitter page, where he also wrote: “One of the questions that came up today in my meeting with Nigerians in Poland was on the issue of whether I’ve been cloned or not. The ignorant rumors are not surprising — when I was away on medical vacation last year a lot of people hoped I was dead."
He blasted the purveyors of the rumor as “ignorant” and “irreligious.”
The former general’s rise to power in 2015 was his fourth attempt at retaking authority since he was ousted in 1985. He had been elevated in a military coup two years before. Military rule in Nigeria ended in 1999.
The president projected a relaxed air as he argued for his own existence, saying he was looking forward to his birthday on Dec. 17. ‘‘If I am getting harassed by anyone, it is my grandchildren,” he said. “They are getting too many.’’