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Get to know the tactics so you don’t fall for them
Last Thursday, Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, a retired Military General, addressed the nation in the wake of a brutal attack on protesters by government forces. For those who were hoping Buhari would clarify the situation or reassure citizens of his government’s intention to refrain from further violence, the speech was surely a disappointment.
But it scores high from a certain perspective: it almost perfectly follows the pattern of divisive rhetoric that authoritarian rulers all over the world have been using to discredit mass movements calling for change.
The techniques Buhari used in his speech to divide, denigrate, and threaten protesters are familiar enough now to those of us outside Nigeria, watching the destruction pursued by corrupt nationalists like President Donald Trump in the USA, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, President Alexander Lukaschenko in Belarus and many others.
These politicians, up against a vocal group of citizens speaking out against their violence, divisiveness or corruption, follow a similar pattern:
- Accuse protestors of being controlled by a small, subversive force that wants to bring down the government
“The promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests.”
“…Those who have hijacked and misdirected the initial, genuine and well-intended protest of some of our youths” – Buhari
The #EndSARS protests have been going on throughout October across Nigeria as a response to police violence and a call for reform. Mass protest movements like this produce a conflict for would-be authoritarian rulers: on the one hand, these men always claim to represent “the people” of a country, and thus must be seen as sympathetic to the concerns of the masses. On the other hand, acceptance of criticism in any form is seen as weakness and undermines their self-conception as the embodied fulfilment of the needs and wants of the people.
Thus, protests are reframed as illegitimate attacks against the government, organized by some outside, bad-intentioned force. They suggest that any ordinary people who joined in have been manipulated into following them astray by tricksters who have completely different, secret aims than the protests’ stated demands (thus, “hijacking” the protests for their own purposes.)
This is similar to how Donald Trump has repeatedly mischaracterized the #BlackLivesMatter movement as being dominated by violent, communist, radical elements intent on overthrowing the government.
In Europe, the massive protests that have been rocking Belarus for months this year in the wake of a clearly illegitimate election have been called a US-backed effort to destabilize the country by long-time dictator Alexander Lukashenko, instead of the result of people finally fed up with years of stagnation and corruption. Russian president Vladimir Putin has used the same terminology for years to discredit protests against his corrupt regime, suggesting that Russian protesters are actually paid Western agents. In Hungary, right wing illiberal autocrat Viktor Orban routinely suggests protesters are being manipulated by Hungarian billionaire George Soros.
In India, the current government led by Narendra Modi and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continuously accuse any media or citizens who criticize them as being “anti-nationals”, people who hate the Indian state. Followers of the regime parrot this terminology, using social media to troll and threaten journalists and citizens who dare critique Modi.
Needless to say, in none of these instances do the leaders present any evidence that protests are disingenuous or anti-state. They never provide proof for their outlandish claims, because there likely isn’t any.
2. Deny accusations and Blame the Victims
“The result of this is clear to all observers: human lives have been lost, acts of sexual violence have been reported, two major correctional facilities have been attacked…
…All this executed in the name of the END Sars protest.”
The way that Buhari brushes over the deaths of peaceful protesters at the hand of government forces in his speech, only to turn around and suggest these bad acts are done “in the name of the #EndSARS movement” is a piece of victim-blaming that is intentionally confusing. He implies that the very thing the protesters are angry about- deaths at the hand of police- are crimes actually being committed by the protesters themselves. This, despite the existence of live-streamed video and numerous witness accounts of a massacre of protesters by police at Lekki Toll Gate.
Deny evidence as “fake news”, blame the victims, create uncertainty and disinformation: this tactic, too, is sadly familiar.
In Brazil, where close allies of President Bolsonaro target voters and critics with disinformation campaigns through a so-called “office of hate”, he continuously accuses opponents and journalists of spreading “fake news”, even in his national addresses. In other words, he falsely accuses others of doing the very thing his own network actually does.
In India, mass, student-led protests have been taking place in reaction to the government’s exclusionary agenda, in particular in reaction to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which discriminates against Muslims. In February, when a horrific police – supported pogrom against Muslim neighborhoods in New Delhi led to the deaths of 53 people, some officials tried to blame the anti-CAA protesters for the violence- even though they were the ones agitating against the government’s anti-Muslim bigotry. Some of the leading activists of the protest movement were even arrested while the pogrom was occuring and baselessly charged with attempted murder – while actual murders were taking place down the road.
3. Threaten protesters with “law and order”
“I would like to appeal to protesters to note and take advantage of the various well-thought-out initiatives of this administration designed to make their lives better and more meaningful, and resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy. For you to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and the law and order situation. Under no circumstances will this be tolerated.”
Once you have alleged that mass protests are actually not mass at all, instead being instigated by a small group of traitors, and that the incidents they were protesting against either never happened, or were actually instigated by protesters themselves, then the third tried and true method is to threaten a crackdown to scare people off the streets. After all, the protests are invalid, the protesters are dangerous: with this logic, they must be put down by any means necessary.
Bolsonaro followed this playbook when he called on authorities to crack down on anti-racist protesters if they exceeded legal limits this summer, calling them “terrorists” and more. “These people have nothing to offer. Bunch of outcasts. Many of them are addicts … they are not the majority of Brazilian society. They want turmoil, confrontation,” he stated.
Trump also threatened antiracist protesters with violence over the summer, threatening the use of “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” if protesters attempted to breach the White House.
This threat actually materialized not when protesters breached the White House fence, but as they were peacefully protesting in the square in front of it several weeks later and federal agents used chemical weapons to disperse peaceful crowds so Trump could appear in a photo-op. According to reports, the government had sought the use of special military-grade crowd dispersal weapons that cause victims to feel like they are burning alive to use against protesters if necessary.
It is frustrating- sometimes, maddening – to hear politicians engage in rhetoric that denies, conflates, and obfuscates their own wrongdoing. To avoid falling for such tactics, its important that we as citizens educate ourselves about the techniques used by authoritarian regimes the world over to suppress legitimate calls for reform and justify violence and crime.
The fact is that asking your government not to kill you is not subversive, radical or unpatriotic. It’s the absolute least one can ask of their represented officials. Governments who cannot refrain from this baseline duty don’t deserve the benefit of understanding and cooperation- even less when they blatantly lie about it.
Instead, when human rights abuses occur, governments should investigate them, be transparent about what has occurred, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.
Christina Lee is a Berlin-based writer, editor and researcher focused on migration, human rights and the far right. You can follow her at @tinaleeinberlin
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