On April 14, acting in my capacity as editor of Brittle Paper, I made the editorial call to pull down a story about the Twitter outrage against Hadiza Elrufai’s response to a statement made by her son. My then deputy, Otosirieze Obi-Young had covered the story and published it on the front page of Brittle Paper before I could review it.
Otosirieze’s post was an impassioned, deeply personal piece reporting on the reprehensible statement made by Hadiza El Rufai about her son’s equally odious statement. I found the title inflammatory and unnecessarily incendiary, but everything seemed fine until I got to the last paragraph. It was then that alarms rang in my mind.
This paragraph read as follows:
Interestingly, four hours after backlash began to her response, an article appeared on ThisDay titled “Endearing Qualities of Kaduna First Lady, Hadiza El Rufai.” It is exactly as shabbily-written as you would expect of a hastily assembled, face-washing gimmick. But it is not as unintelligent as the one on OperaNews.
There must be a name for this feminism whose reply to “Tell your mother I’m passing her to my friends tonight” is “I didn’t see any threats of rape.” A feminism that agrees to raise men to be better but says “All is fair in love and war” when their ethnic-bigoted men-children threaten violence on women’s bodies.
Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.
It was not clear why he was accusing two Nigerian newspapers of writing “hastily assembled, face-washing gimmick” and another of being “unintelligent”. And why was the diatribe “shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” being used in what should have been a plain reportage of facts and written statements and tweets? It seemed to be histrionic, inflammatory, even melodramatic and totally not in keeping with the seriousness of the matter he was addressing.
I felt, and feel, Otosirieze’s outrage. I am both a woman and the mother of a daughter. Suggesting that a woman should be sexually assaulted is unconscionable and needs a hard and swift response. But in condemning such statements, it is important that we ourselves do not stoop to the level of those making them. It is important that we do not abandon completely all principles and ethics in how we write.
In the age of social media, I have become particularly sensitive to making sure that everything we do on Brittle Paper, from titles to all content are crafted with care. I disdain clickbait and try to minimize the use of coarse language. Using “gang rape” in the title where something like “lewd comments” would have sufficed seemed gratuitous. These were some of the editorial questions running through my mind when I called Otosirieze to tell him that the post needed editing. My call with him did not go well. He sounded upset on the phone and seemed unable to completely see why the paragraph accusing Thisday and OperaNews of unethical behavior without any proof was not only problematic but also potentially libelous.
After insisting for ten minutes, he grudgingly agreed to remove the last paragraph. Unfortunately, he refused to edit the title, which I felt to be unnecessarily incendiary. He refused to do so, even as I tried to suggest alternative titles. Unfortunately, this all occurred at a time I had to prepare time sensitive lectures for my students, and without sufficient time to edit the post. The time difference between Nigeria and the US also left me with little time to act quickly, so I pulled the post down as the exigent thing to do.
I have run Brittle Paper for 10 years. In that time, I have made more than my fair share of mistakes, but I have also learned a lot. I have become increasingly aware of how important it is to be careful with language so that it produces meaning as opposed to obfuscation. I am also careful to ensure that we do not accuse without proof, and that we do not defame any persons, intentionally or unintentionally. As a literature professor who teaches a course on social media, words have become even more sacred to me as I watch the public sphere spiral into chaos because non-discerning orators compete for the most irreverent rhetoric.
I took no issue with Otosirieze’s post except for the highly sensationalized reporting and the potentially libelous reference to two Nigerian newspapers. If any of the journalists whose pieces he mentioned were to sue Brittle Paper for libel, the buck would have stopped with me, and not with Otosirieze.
I am stunned that what was essentially an editorial matter has spilled into theatrical war over censorship fueled by conspiracy theories. At no time during my conversation did I suggest that the article should not be published or that it was not newsworthy. This whole matter could have been resolved if we had managed to come to an agreement about making the story less incendiary and less libelous. Otosirieze hung up on me as I tried to explain why the story would have to be pulled down, and refused to engage on this issue professionally.
In his initial statement on April 14, he misrepresented me by suggesting that I pulled down the post to suppress his voice. Brittle Paper’s record against censorship, and its record in celebration of all writers stands for itself. It is on the record that Brittle Paper has never shied away from controversial issues. We reported on this, this and this, and those pieces remain online, even when they were about far more powerful people. When I realized our working relationship had broken down irretrievably, I removed Otosirieze’s access to Brittle Paper and its accounts on other digital platforms.
I am extremely disappointed, indeed, I am deeply wounded that my wonderful cooperation with a writer whose talent and work ethic I always admired has ended in this way. Otosirieze was not only a valued partner at Brittle Paper, he was a trusted friend.
I am particularly disappointed that he has chosen not to correct several allegations that he knows for certain to be falsehoods. For instance, Brittle Paper has never been funded by the Kaduna state government. Further, I am not a misogynist. Nor by any stretch of the imagination could I ever be called a supporter of rapists. I also find it astonishing and worrying that he would try to link me and Brittle Paper to any sort of danger to his person when he knows fully well that I have no connection to the state of Kaduna or the federal government of Nigeria, for that matter.
More than anyone, Otosirieze knows that I run Brittle Paper on my personal income. He knows that I have never taken a kickback, or any dime from any foundation, individual, or corporation. He knows the sacrifice that has gone into building Brittle Paper. As someone I considered a friend, Otosirieze also knows my values, knows what I believe in and stand for, and knows that I would never under any circumstances be found on the side of anyone advocating rape. I consider his failure to speak out against these attacks on my character to be a deep betrayal because he has stood by and gloated while a group of persons who do not know me at all have tried to burn my hard work to the ground and have defamed my character with falsehoods that he knows to be such.
Nonetheless, I deeply appreciate all the work that Otosirieze committed to Brittle Paper over the last four years. I am sorry that we have had to part with this bad blood between us and wish him the very best in what is certain to be a stellar writing career. I also wish to thank the many readers who have supported me in this difficult time. I am willing to be judged both by Brittle Paper’s past work, and its future endeavors, confident in the certainty that the truth will always shine through. Brittle Paper will continue to celebrate African literature in ways that have always inspired readers.