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Rick Hellman
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Nigerians respond to hard times with social media humor

Wed, 05/04/2022

James Yékú, assistant professor of African digital humanities at the University of Kansas, is the author of “Cultural Netizenship: Social Media, Popular Culture and Performance in Nigeria.”

LAWRENCE – The idea that humor is an appropriate response to oppression and is used to shine a light on the truth is an old one, and it comes up yet again with a new twist in a new book by James Yékú, assistant professor of African digital humanities at the University of Kansas, titled “Cultural Netizenship: Social Media, Popular Culture and Performance in Nigeria” (Indiana University Press).

If Western audiences think of Nigeria and social media together at all, they might recall the worldwide #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign spawned by the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolchildren by the Islamist terrorists Boko Haram, or the more recent #EndSARS campaign against police brutality by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

While Yékú’s new book reflects on those deadly serious efforts, he also focused on the everyday online performance of resistance to “abjection,” or the lack of political power, experienced by ordinary Nigerians, particularly those cultural expressions that rely on humor as a means of politicking. He cited, for instance, memes from 2015, after the #IstandwithJega hashtag was birthed on Twitter to support the head of the electoral commission, Attahiru Jega. The hashtag trended as a statement of confidence in Jega, who was perceived by many in the country as a social-justice crusader who would not be compromised in the electoral process, unlike his predecessors.

“The image served as an online expression of outrage against rumors that the (President Goodluck) Jonathan administration was contemplating replacing Jega with somebody who would aid the incumbent government and disenfranchise the people.”

Yékú included an Instagram post styling Jega as Jegai, mashing up his name and image with those of the Jedi knight heroes from “Star Wars” and stopping would-be vote fraudsters with an iconic line from the action film. This strategy of remix, Yékú said, is central to how cultural netizenship manifests to describe digital genres of popular culture in commentary discourses.  

Another school of memes often employed in Nigerian online political discourse and cited in “Cultural Netizenship” is from an Instagram account the creator calls “Yoruba Bollywood,” in which scenes from Hindu-language Indian cinema emanating from Mumbai are repurposed with new, topical dialogue. Yékú analyzed these memes together with others from the domestic film industry in Nigeria, aka Nollywood — whose classic iteration supplies content for online comedians.

In the book, Yékú documented how social media enables “a golden age” of political humor that is produced by everyday non-elite users on the Nigerian internet.

“The more controversial a political topic is, the more likely it will become a subject of viral social media humor,” he said.

And yet, he said, the comedians who make their feelings known in this way are relatively safe because governments do not always believe any serious critiques of the state take place online. But this is not the case for activists and bloggers, whose resistance is a risk in Nigeria today, even though it is nominally democratic.

“What is important is not whether you have freedom of speech, but whether you have freedom after speech,” Yékú said, referencing a quote by Uganda’s former strongman, Idi Amin, to mark the authoritarian nature of power in Nigeria. “When the government arrests a blogger, he is not arrested for blogging or tweeting content. It's on some other spurious charges, especially when you're seen as an anti-government agent online.”

So why does endemic corruption in Nigeria lead content creators to respond so prominently with humor online?

“I think that question has always been raised as to whether we should laugh in the face of tragedy,” Yékú said. “People are today producing internet memes and humor as affective responses to the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine, right? During the Holocaust in the 1940s, some scholars initially lamented the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz, but poetry was eventually seen as a convenient means of responding to the tragedy in Germany and Europe generally.

“Anyone who sees aesthetic forms as incapable of comprehending human misfortunes needs to recall that human societies all over the world have always turned to the artistic imagination to make sense of tragedy,” Yékú said. “In the Nigeria instance, the abjection of life summons the use of humor as a way of laughing away suffering.”

Yékú cited the title of Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka’s 2021 novel, “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,” (Penguin/Random House) as yet another example of political satire that grapples with the pessimism of life in Nigeria. The title, he said, stresses the irony of an early-2000s study that found Nigerians to be the world’s happiest.

“Of course, a lot of people didn't necessarily think that was true,” Yékú said, “but there's something in these kinds of assumptions, and it’s that people still find a way to smile and laugh despite economic oppression. People find a way to still make merriment and produce what the French call jouissance, despite their state of precarity. So the sociological facts of abjection in Nigeria are the conditions for the relevance of social media humor.”

Photo: James Yékú, assistant professor of African digital humanities at the University of Kansas, is the author of “Cultural Netizenship: Social Media, Popular Culture and Performance in Nigeria” (Indiana University Press).



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