For almost two years, Nigerians have watched with glee the comedy skits and sketches of Sabinus, the blued-shirted actor from Port Harcourt. His oga Sabinus o soundtrack is hard to miss. Neither is his usually short-knotted tie. Sometimes, he wears an outsize jacket to play his self-delusional ‘investor’ character. And after he has suffered the consequences of his folly, he grimaces. Not a few people find his grimace funny, no matter how many times they’ve seen it. For Sabinus, his comedy thrives on his foolishness, grimace, and sartorial inelegance.
Comedy fans and critics often praise him for his self-deprecating humour. Unlike his contemporaries, he hardly sexualises women. In fact, he hardly makes another character suffer a tragic ending. He sacrifices himself on the altar of his own folly. To achieve success from this without talking about yansh (or showing it) or without cross-dressing is quite commendable, fans and critics argue.
He has bequeathed slang and memes to popular culture, another testament to his success. Last year, he reportedly sued Peak Milk for using his slang Something hooge is coming in an Instagram ad and Gala for using a cartoon version of a popular meme of his, also in an ad. He is an Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA) winner. He has headlined a show in Ghana and recently, the United Kingdom. With 3.4 million followers on Instagram, 1.5 million followers on Twitter, and 614k subscribers on YouTube, he is definitely living the dream.
But Sabinus detoured from his self-deprecating humour at his show in Port Harcourt on December 18th. Four days later, he posted a clip from the show on his Twitter handle which ended up ruffling a lot of feathers. In the clip, he acted as a ridiculous sign language interpreter during a simulated presidential debate. The clip showed someone acting as Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the standard bearer of the All Progressives Congress, answering debate questions. Tinubu was depicted as a senile and frail man. In an ingenious way, the actor medlied Tinubu’s past gaffes to sound incoherent while answering questions.
He referenced what Tinubu said during a rally in Ebonyi a few months ago: We have no blinker of electricity. They spent more than 60 billion dollars. They forget! That transmission line is a super highway for generated electricity in power. They could not even make a down payment for a roasted corn for that electricity.
The actor also referenced what Tinubu said during his 12th eponymous colloquium in March of 2021 when he suggested that the federal government should recruit 50 million youths into the army as a way to tackle unemployment and insecurity. He added that all they would eat, for instance, cassava, agbado, yam, would be planted and it would be a win-win for farmers and Nigerian youth.
I watched the longer clip of that debate sketch on Sabinus’ YouTube channel. I should say in all fairness, the dramatis personae also satirised Peter Obi and Omoyele Sowore. If you had only gone by the Twitter clip, you easily could have believed Sabinus did a hit job on Tinubu.
The clip earned Sabinus praise and excoriation. Many threatened to unfollow him and some others said they had just followed him because of the clip. Bashir Ahmed, the Special Assistant on Digital Communication to Buhari expressed his disappointment in the comment section. He said the sketch was insulting. To some, Sabinus was testing the boundaries of comedy. To others, he made a bold statement through comedy. With that sketch, Sabinus morphed from a self-deprecating humourist to a political satirist.
I am not aware of any particular consequences he has suffered from staging that sketch. I would be surprised to learn he suffered any. While a good case can be made on how free speech is under threat in Nigeria, Sabinus’ comedy sketch is far from being offensive, insulting or partisan. We’ve seen how people have been arrested for making skits or tweeting things the political class found uncharitable. For instance, two TikTokers in Kano were arraigned in November for mocking the state governor, Abdullahi Ganduje. They were charged with defamation. Aminu Muhammed, a student from Jigawa state was arrested also in November for tweeting about Aisha Buhari’s weight. He quipped that she became fat after she fed from the nation’s meagre resources. But Sabinus’ sketch was not an attempt at punditry or commentary on Tinubu’s presidential ambition. The sketch was a reflection of Tinubu.
It is the comedian’s prerogative to make occasional interventions into the world of politics to satirise. In comedy, there are no sacred cows. The moment someone or an ideology is exalted above the mockery of comedy is the day free speech dies. Comedy is the bastion of free speech and any attack on it is an attack on democracy.
Even in autocratic monarchies in the Middle Ages, court jesters had what was known as Jester’s Privileges. They had the freedom to mock freely. So, the idea that a Sabinus cannot satirise a presidential candidate, even if it is the Jagaban, is an insult to his profession.
During the Goodluck Jonathan administration, comedians did sketches to mock the ineloquence of his wife Patience. I remember how a comedian did an incredible impression of Patience Jonathan during an Alibaba January First Concert some 7 years ago. Another comedian, MC Tagwaye built his brand by mimicking Buhari. He in fact was invited to an APC national convention some four years ago where he performed his impression right in front of Buhari. But from his body language, it didn’t look like Buhari enjoyed the mimicry as everybody laughed away at MC Tagwaye’s act.
Comedy serves as an anodyne for a vast majority of the Nigerian population. It’s how many of us are able to get by every day. Little wonder there is an explosion of comic content creators today. For the political class, comedy is supposed to remind them of their ordinariness. By being in the corridors of power, one can get lost in all the admiration and adulation they receive from sycophants. It’s very easy to develop an over-inflated sense of worth when daily surrounded by yes-men. But when a comedian has your time, they jolt you back to reality. They remind you that you are not better than anybody. They make others laugh at the expense of your folly without necessarily forcing a narrative. Sabinus’ sketch was not an insult to the person of Tinubu. It was Sabinus exercising some effrontery through comedy.
Olayemi is the publisher of The Disaffected Magazine. He also hosts the Disaffected Nigerian Podcast. He enjoys everything from Evolutionary Psychology to the syncopations of Apala music to Fela’s discography. He fancies himself as an Amala enthusiast. His dream is to be a travel writer someday.