Nigerian military’s half-truth and propagandist war against Boko Haram
Conscience is an open wound: only truth can heal it — Uthman Dan Fodio (1754-1816).
This is the 13th month since I stopped believing the official statements of the Nigerian military. In that time frame, I have edited and published reports written from the military’s press releases without believing the contents. As a full-time journalist, this is an extremely difficult admission to make. Impartiality in news reporting demands that the journalist separates his belief from the job, or — to be more brutal with the truth — that belief is suppressed for reporting. Knowing the gulf between belief and reporting is what separates the journalist from the person.
No one needs to be told that propaganda is a generously-deployed item in any military’s weaponry of war, but never would I have imagined that the Nigerian military’s case was of such extreme proportions. As we all now know, propaganda precedes arms, ammo and artillery in the war of the Nigerian military, particularly the army, against Boko Haram.
THE TRUTH CAN’T BE HIDDEN FOREVER
On Tuesday, an oil exploration team comprising staff of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the University of Maiduguri was ambushed in Magumeri Local Government Area of Borno State, despite having the escort of soldiers and civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) members. Majority of the contingent were killed while some were kidnapped; a few of them managed to escape. The following day, the army claimed it had rescued “all the NNPC staff”.
“So far, they have rescued all the NNPC staff and recovered the corpses of the officer, eight soldiers and a civilian have who have been evacuated to 7 division medical services and hospital,” Sani Usman, army spokesman, said.
It soon emerged that the army had lied. Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, was the first to subtly expose the army. “We only heard, but can’t confirm if anyone has been rescued,” Kachikwu said one full day after the army’s supposed rescue. A senior military official surreptitiously told the media that the military was trying to conceal the casualty toll, adding that for several hours after the attack, there was in fact no reinforcement team to support the victims.
As the bodies of the victims began arriving the UNIMAID teaching hospital, a cover-up had simply become impossible. There are still conflicting media reports on the death toll; while the minimum valuation is 48, figures of “more than 50” and 69 have also been mentioned. What is no longer in conflict is that scores were massacred by Boko Haram, nine of them lecturers of UNIMAID’s Geology and Survey department.
Ordinarily, the army would have gone scot-free with the misinformation. There were two reasons why the lie was exposed this time: some of the victims were NNPC staff and the corporation couldn’t possibly lie to the media that its missing staff had been found; nine other victims had put a minimum of 10 years into their UNIMAID careers; there was no way key officers of the university would hide their grief. They were influential people — important members of the academia; such deaths are impossible to cover.
A HISTORY OF BAREFACED COVER-UPS
Hundreds of ‘not-so-influential’ soldiers and civilians have had their deaths smothered. For example, during an undercover investigation to the northeast in June 2016, I discovered that the army had been grossly reducing the figures of slain soldiers. In the six months of that year alone, I CONFIRMED that more than 900 soldiers had been killed by Boko Haram. According to all press releases by the army in that same space of time, the figure was not even up to 100. That’s at least nine times an undervaluation of the casualty toll on the army’s side.
On November 18, 2015, a 330-man army deployed to Gudumbali, Borno State, was the victim of an unexpected attack that left 183 soldiers either dead or unaccounted for. The army covered it up, only issuing a statement after Premium Times reported the attack. Even then, it merely dismissed the attack as “a minor setback”, and it’s rejoinder to a follow-up report by the ICIR failed to acknowledge the death of a single soldier. What the army did not know was that the ICIR report was prompted by hard evidence, as the investigative newspaper was in possession of a video of the attack.
In January 2017, shortly before the accidental bombing in Rann that resulted in the death of at least 126 civilians, 42 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were accidentally gunned down by soldiers after they were mistaken for insurgents. The IDPs got clearance to enter the bush in search of firewood but they died at the hands of soldiers from Marte who were on patrol. The story was largely suppressed by the army, but — no longer able to hold his peace after the Rann bombing — the second mistake in two weeks — a military source spilled it out.
THE DOWNSIDE OF PROPAGANDA
In all the three cases mentioned, the army did not take kindly to the journalists and media houses behind the revelations. After my Forgotten Soldiers series of 2016, the army accused me of committing subversion — a treasonable offence punishable with death in a military regime. I expect a similar reaction to this op-ed but I remain an ally of the army, despite my disenchantment with its media strategy. I am first an admirer of the valour of Nigerian soldiers, and — despite my aforementioned examples of unimpressive information management by the army — I still firmly believe that the army is winning this war against Boko Haram. I have previously documented the army’s great work in restoring the suitability of many parts of Borno for habitation. I have also reported how soldiers are dealing with Boko Haram, and paid tributes to the officers coordinating the operations.
When superficially examined, the army’s information strategy looks understandable: minimise the damage, free the public from apprehension, obliterate any trace of defeat at the doorstep of the armed forces, starve the enemy of ego. Unfortunately, the current strategy is fast proving counter-productive, already upturning the results it was meant to deliver.
Public trust in the army is a crucial component of the war against insurgency. The people must be able to trust in the integrity of the armed forces; they must be able to rely on the army for the true picture of the war. Frequent release of false statements has rendered the army vulnerable to public distrust and left the people nursing far more apprehension than they ordinarily should. As journalist Frederick Nwabufo already asked, why should we still trust the claims of the military in this war?
The strategy is also undermining the military’s good work in this war, and this is my ultimate worry. With the false success claims about the latest attack, the public is right to believe that the military is living in perpetual denial. The ‘Boko Haram is back’ narrative is gaining traction not just because of renewed attacks but due to the fuel supplied by the military’s pompous PR. Denials like this are the reason the people find it hard to believe that Boko Haram was ever driven out of Sambisa, or that the war is being won at all. The military must rethink its information management strategy, else it will end up winning the war yet losing the people for whom it went to war in the first place.