Remarks by President Muhammadu Buhari that too many of his countrymen are in jail abroad have sparked a furious social media campaign.
For any journalist not working in the likes of North Korea, creating a stir has long been part and parcel of a good day’s work. Yet while I relish generating controversy as much as any other reporter, never in my career did I expect to be accused of branding a nation of 170 million people as criminals.
That, though, is one of the claims by the #NigeriansAreNotCriminalssocial media campaign in recent days, through which I have been accused both of spreading anti-Nigerian propaganda and wilfully misquoting an innocent Nigerian statesman.
Luckily, I’ve checked my notes – and I think I’m in the clear.
The offending article – if you aren’t one of the millions of Nigerians who have now read it – arose out of my interview last Friday with Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, who was on a trip to London.
Interviews with heads of state are a big occasion for any reporter, although it’s fair to say that most of the time, they offer very little in the way of departures from the standard diplomatic niceties.
Not so Mr Buhari, a former general who prides himself on a tough, uncompromising reputation. So when I asked him whether the threat from Boko Haram made it justified for Nigerians to claim asylum in the UK, he looked even sterner than normal, and then dropped the following political grenade.
“Some Nigerians claim is that life is too difficult back home,” he told me. “But then again some Nigerians have also made it difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in different prisons all over the world accused of drug trafficking or human trafficking…
“We will encourage our countrymen to stay at home, work hard and make a respectable living at home.”
You can see the full transcript of what he said here. But as you can imagine, this particular portion of the interview did not go down very well with most of his countrymen, who have accused their own elected leader of doing irreparable damage to their image abroad.
Or, to put it in a British context, Mr Buhari has done the political equivalent of a “Ratner”, after the British budget jewellery tycoon who destroyed the value of his firm after saying that his wares were “total cr–“.
True, this is not the first time that Mr Buhari has lambasted his own people.
He has long cultivated a somewhat headmasterly image, treating his vast nation as unruly school pupils who need to be kept in check, and during his time as a military ruler in the 1980s, he was famous for waging a “war on indiscipline”.
Members of the public could be whipped if they didn’t form orderly queues at bus stops, while civil servants were ordered to do squat thrusts if they turned up late for work.