Murja Kunya: Rise and fall of a TikTok baddie

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When TikTok began to gain strong ground in Nigeria in 2020 during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, like in many other parts of the world, young Nigerians flocked to the platform for better visual expression of self and of different rays of creativity that distinguished it from other social media apps such as Instagram and Twitter by providing users with many creative tools, including trending music tracks and funny spoken words for lip-syncing, colourful filters, magical effects, and unique editing features.

Young men and women who were previously “unknown” suddenly began ascending as “influencers” on TikTok among the communities that shared their interests or identities – even rubbing shoulders with already-established celebrities and content creators – which was particularly enhanced by the platform’s effective algorithm. Notably, it saw the rise Khabi Lame, the 24-year-old Senegal-born Italian whose voiceless mockery of overly complicated “life hack” videos crowns him the most followed TikToker with currently over 160 million followers, a position that even afforded him a spot in Forbes’s 30 Under 30.

So, all of a sudden, TikTok began to propel ordinary people into the limelight by birthing a fresh wave content creators who establish connections with millions of followers, in a manner that can be described as an astonishing democratization of fame.

A cacophony of enthusiastic Hausa-speaking TikTok users from northern Nigeria began to jostle for fame through short-video interactions that are sometimes vulgar, crude and hostile. But that also helped in the establishment of a large community on the platform, with thousands of audiences who find those online wars entertaining. Young Muslim women began to share clips of themselves dancing to trending songs, shutting their ears to accompanying negative judgements. Young men with or without the right talent or skills began to become skit makers and stand-up comedians. Transvestites (called ‘yan daudu in Hausa) became more visible and outspoken and began to thrive as content creators on their own right.  Gossips about the personal lives of popular users began to be “good content.” Almost every active user of TikTok appeared to be going as “creative” as they could to generate good number of views and followers, despite constant criticism and ostracisation (especially of the women) from the same people who supply them with the following and viewing they desire.

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Sprouting among them was Murja Ibrahim Kunya, a young woman from Kano who after a series of controversies became a force and a voice, gaining attention and recognition even from people who were reluctant to admit knowing her. Her most distinguishing feature being her bizarre garrulity, Murja would soon be the most popular TikTok celebrity from the Muslim North who’s not an actual Kannywood actor. Even though she had appeared in a few Kannywood music videos and movies in supporting roles and has friends in the Hausa-language film industry, her controversy-laden fame is essentially a result of her TikTok activities that even Kannywood’s famous singers began commissioning her to promote their new releases. She became a full-blown celebrity, unconventional and fearless and vocal, making headlines on news blogs and even newspapers that usually describe her as “controversial TikToker” as the necessary phrasing of her brand.

Disturbed by constant complaints about the “immoral” activities of those TikTokers (many of whom are from the country’s second most populous state, Kano), Hisbah, the moral police board in the state began hunting for them by releasing statements worded in search of the notorious ones, with Murja always topping the list. While the announcement itself had the potential to make those TikTokers “more famous” as some commenters argued, it also expressed that the Hisbah Board was extending its policing to even the social media activities of the Kano residents.

In January 2023, Murja was arrested in Kano while booking rooms at a hotel for her much-publicised birthday party. She would later be prosecuted and sentenced to three weeks of sweeping a hospital premises in the state, for the offense of attacking others on TikTok and for releasing “inciting videos” that were contrary to the Islamic morality. She would be seen in videos sweeping the premises with a downbeat background music, a video that quickly went viral on her page, becoming another content that accrued higher attention to her social media persona, vindicating those who had expressed mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the arrest.

After the expiration of her sentence, she released a video apologizing to the public about her online activities and promising to change, but quickly failed to live by it in subsequent ones. With higher attention and engagement on her page since after the reports of her arrest, Murja became bolder in her utterances and conduct. Her TikTok videos – aided by parody accounts in her name – started making their way to other social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, harmonizing her fame across the platforms.

Things began to get a little more interesting with the victory of Abba Kabir Yusuf as Kano governor. Murja, being a vocal supporter of Kwankwasiyya and the NNPP on the platform of which Yusuf won, had always campaigned for him online, and had been seen with him smiling in photos.

In February this year, the Hisbah Board, led by a prominent Islamic scholar in the state, Sheikh Aminu Daurawa, arrested Murja again concerning her usual offences. After her appearance at the court, the judge ordered a psychiatric assessment of her.

A voice note of a woman said to be her mum instantly went viral, in which she alleged inhuman treatment of her daughter at the psychiatric hospital. She claimed that the hospital attempted to administer unspecified injections to Murja without informing her of any diagnosed condition. She also said there was nothing mentally wrong with her daughter, as she had always been jovial since her childhood.

Governor Yusuf, who had never been heard commenting on the operations of the Hisbah, expressed dissatisfaction with the Hisbah’s approach during a gathering, criticizing their operations as harsh and potentially harmful. It led to a swift response from Sheikh Daurawa who expressed offence at the governor’s criticism of the Board’s operations, and said he had resigned from his position as the Commander of the Hisbah Board.

That led to heated controversies and conversations, especially online, where people divided their supports between the governor and the cleric. The governor was faulted for speaking in favour of Murja and for trying to reward loyalty with leniency, while others faulted Daurawa for not submitting his grievances through the right channels. However, after a reconciliatory meeting, Daurawa was reinstated as the Hisbah commander.

Murja has now been granted bail and banned from being on all social media, by the Kano State High Court. For a woman who has built such remarkable fame on social media and who used it as a source of income, it is difficult to imagine the possibility of her surviving without it. Whether she will appeal the judgement or adhere to it remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: as long as the order stands, her reappearance on social media would be treated as contempt of court.

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