21 March 2019
By Neil Tidmarsh
Where is the real President Bongo of Gabon? And the real Melania Trump? And the real President Bouteflika of Algeria? And the real President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria..?
Hang on, hang on. Shaw Sheet may be a genuine child of the twenty-first century internet, but that doesn’t mean we have any truck with all the conspiracy theories swilling around us on the web. Does it?
There’s certainly been a glut of them this last week. How to explain that? Something to do with the quarter of the moon, perhaps? Or with the current alignment of the stars? Or recent sun-spot activity? Perhaps mysterious rays are being beamed in from outer space, to rob us of common sense and logic in preparation for… Oh no, that sounds like a conspiracy theory itself, doesn’t it? No, please don’t pass it on, I was only joking, honest. Really, it was a joke, I made it up…
Right, let’s take them one by one, expose them to the light of pure reason, and then move on.
First of all, Melania Trump… Rumours that the silent and expressionless woman in big dark glasses who accompanies the president of the United States in public is not his wife but a body-double began over a year ago. They resurfaced this week following Mr and… er… Mrs Trump’s public appearance in Alabama. But the President and White House officials have denied the rumours, condemning them as “fake news”. So there you are. (Mind you, if you look at her jaw-line, and the set of her mouth, and the angle of her nose, and take into consideration those commentators who have pointed out that she can’t be the real Melania because she’s holding his hand, which the real Melania never does, and she’s got split ends, which the real Melania would never countenance, and… No, no, no, let’s stay rational here. Move on…)
President Ali Bongo of Gabon, 60 last month (happy birthday, Mr President), has been in power since the death of his father Omar Bongo in 2009 (Bongo senior had been president since 1967). He won elections in 2009 and again in 2016, although both victories were marred by violence and allegations of irregularities. Last October he fell ill (reportedly he had a stroke) and was taken to Morocco for treatment and recovery. He has apparently returned to Gabon only twice (most recently after a failed coup against him in January). His disappearance from public view soon prompted rumours that he had died. On January 1, he addressed the public via a video posted on social media in an attempt to persuade everyone that he was still alive. But this only seemed to trigger rumours that he has been replaced by a look-alike. The rumours have gathered such a head that a government spokesperson called a press conference last week to deny them. “There’s no body double” said the spokesman, Ike Ngouoni. But of course that’s exactly what a conspiracy theorist would expect a government spokesman to say anyway, so no doubt the rumours persist.
Similar rumours are running riot in Nigeria. Just over a year ago, President Muhammadu Buhari paid a number of extended visits to Britain for medical examinations, treatment and convalescence in relation to an undisclosed but serious medical condition. Last year, reports began to appear on social media claiming that President Buhari has been replaced and impersonated by a cloned imposter from Sudan called Jubril. The claims were so persistent that President Buhari was forced to deny them a few months ago via email. “It’s the real me, I assure you…” he (or Jubril, the doubters might say, how can we tell?) wrote.
The delusion that someone else has been replaced by an imposter is a recognised psychiatric disorder known as the Capgras syndrome. It’s usually associated with other conditions such as schizophrenia, brain injury and dementia, and sometimes with diabetes, hypothyroidism and migraines; but in one interesting case, it was triggered by ketamine, the anaesthetic medication which has found widespread use as a recreational hallucinogenic drug in recent years… The individual claimed by the sufferer to have been replaced by an imposter is usually a close family member; but perhaps a national leader – or his wife – would fit the bill psychologically, as father (or mother) of the nation or as political big brother or big sister…
Like President Bongo of Gabon and President Buhari of Nigeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria has spent recent years out of his country, for medical attention, treatment and convalescence abroad. He’s 83 years old and has been president since 1999. In 2005 and 2013 he was taken ill and spent months in a hospital in France. He was hospitalized in France again later in 2013, and again in 2016. He wasn’t seen in public for years on end. Presidential elections are due next month, however, and somehow he recently let it be known that he intended to stand for a fifth term. Last week he reportedly returned to Algeria at last, from the hospital in Grenoble where he’s been living, silent and out of sight, for the last two years.
Political developments rapidly followed. Mass demonstrations broke out in protest against his intention to stand again. The president then announced that he wouldn’t stand for re-election. Then he announced that elections wouldn’t take place next month, after all; instead, an interim government would be appointed and a committee formed to draft a new constitution; only then would a new date for elections be set. Demonstrations continue, however, and gather pace as the suspicion that the president and his inner circle, known as ‘le clan’, have no intention of relinquishing power.
The question here is; when was President Bouteflika last seen, in public or in private? And by whom? Was he seen on the plane from France, or on his return to Algeria? Has he been seen at all since his return? He didn’t make those announcements himself; a letter was read out for him by someone else. How long will it be before claims that he is no longer alive begin to circulate? That ‘le clan’ are concealing his death and playing for time while they sort out succession amongst themselves? And if he does finally make a public appearance, after all these years, will those claims morph into allegations that he is being impersonated by an imposter, a double?
Just asking, you understand. Just curious. Shaw Sheet may be a genuine child of the twenty-first century internet, but we don’t want to start any conspiracy theories. Do we?