‘Your president is now a picture’: The image as utopian democracy in Nigeria

Following the rumour that the then Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, died in a London hospital in 2017, many Nigerians believed that his clone had occupied the presidential seat until 2023. In this context, activist and ex-Niger Delta militant, Asari Dokubo, decried in August 2017: ‘Your President is now a picture’. He called Buhari ‘a ghost president’, ‘a photo president’, emphasizing how photographs were deployed by the Nigerian State to claim that Buhari was alive and healthy. This account, as I will argue, opens up a broader question of the state’s strategic deployment of photography in governance. The photographic image becomes a ’utopian democracy’, site in which the state seeks to fulfil the promise of good governance. It is used to compensate for the absences and failures of democracy in a country where, for instance, it is typical to encounter images depicting the inauguration of infrastructural projects that do not actually exist. The political elites recruit crowds and use their photographs to claim public endorsement during political campaigns. I analyse this visual politics along with the counter imagery it generates as disenchanted Nigerians rework, (re)circulate and scrutinize the images on social media. This analysis contributes to our understanding of how photography and social networking shape African politics.

Pitt Rivers Museum Research Seminar in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology, Trinity Term 2024

Fridays, 12pm-1.30pm(Weeks 1-4)

In person at the Pitt Rivers Museum Lecture Theatre.

Convened by Paul Basu and Emily Stevenson