Tag Archives: Boko Haram

Terrorism and the Nigerian media

For newspapers and television, acts of terrorism inevitably make good copy and compelling viewing. The hijacker and the terrorist thrive on publicity: without it, their activities and their influence are sharply curtailed […] they see how acts of violence and horror dominate the newspaper columns and television screens of the free world. They see how that coverage creates a natural wave of sympathy for the victims and pressure to end their plight no matter what the consequence. And the terrorists exploit it.

And we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. In our societies we do not believe in constraining the media, still less in censorship. But ought we not to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists’ morale or their cause while the hijack lasted?

The above was from a speech delivered by Margaret Thatcher, to the American Bar Association on July 15, 1985. The hijack Thatcher referenced, was the TWA Flight 847 which occurred in June that year. While the situation was ongoing and even afterwards, ABC, an American news network, aired extensive interviews with both hijackers and hostages, giving massive publicity to the hijackers.

The role of the media is to gather information, apply news values and judgement to that information – the ‘gatekeeping function’ – and transmit it onward to the viewer or listener. This is the way by which we are informed of events happening in our immediate environment and even far flung corners of the world, and this information helps us to act accordingly.

However, these roles of the media, when applied to acts of terror and the pronouncements of terrorists, comes dangerously close to furthering their agenda.

In warfare, the control of communication has always been very important, and in the war against terrorism, especially in the 21st century, this is even truer. Terrorists are ambitious people who know how to manipulate the media. They attack targets in a manner that is certain to draw media attention and give them a platform to push their ideology. Radical teachings and propaganda videos are also posted online to win sympathy for their cause. Like Robert Kaplan noted recently: “Passion, deep belief, political protests and so forth have little meaning nowadays if they cannot be broadcast”.

Many of us will remember Osama bin Laden’s use of media organisations like CNN to broadcast his videos, and other terrorist groups like Boko Haram and ISIS have followed this example. ISIS in particular have shown a great affinity for communication channels, using them to recruit disaffected Muslims from the West.

Another thing ISIS love to do is decapitate American and British citizens on camera and put the videos on the internet. The aim of these acts, carefully choreographed, is to project brutality, spread fear among Western citizens and to goad Western governments into taking rash actions.

Some people who have realized this ploy started a hashtag called #ISISMediaBlackout, pledging not to watch or share any of the videos, and it is about time that citizens of other countries battling with terrorism take a similar position.

Over the last two weeks, strong indications emerged that Shekau, or someone masquerading as him for the purpose of making videos, was killed by the Nigerian military. While it may not be an absolute certainty that the real Shekau is dead, it is also true that Boko Haram’s leadership have a vested interest in keeping their leader – or the idea of him – alive, in order not to dent morale.

With this in mind, the value of disseminating videos and statements of Abubakar Shekau is highly questionable, beyond selling papers and generating website hits. For all we know, news outlets and blogs are the life support keeping a dead terrorist leader alive in the minds of Nigerians.

In addition, some of the reportage about the ‘capture’ of several towns in Borno close to the border with Cameroon, last month, failed to reflect the context of a fluid battle situation, and rather gave the impression that Nigerian troops were being overrun, when this was inaccurate.

On the government side, there is a lot more it can do to put its message out there. The use of embedded reporters reporting live from the front lines can be very effective, and I do not imagine it will take that much to ensure their safety. The presence of the Defence headquarters on Twitter helps, but the handling of the account needs to be much more professional, and should include videos of the Nigerian military in action as often as possible, not just tweets.

War is not just fought on the battlefield. It is also fought in the hearts and minds of people, and the media is a key part of shaping perceptions. Our new media age means that all of us are simultaneously producers and consumers of media. We draw from, and contribute to, the stream. The implication of this is that there is a greater need than ever to be conscious of what we view, read, and share. Watching, viewing, and spreading messages of terror means that half the terrorist’s job is done.

Terrorism is theatre, and we must deny the terrorists a stage, whether on our television screens, the pages of our newspapers, and our social media streams.

As the violence escalates.

Since the bomb blast at Police Headquarters on June 16th, the Jonathan administration has been more concerned with pushing the single tenure bill and getting involved in a fiasco within the judiciary. Last friday provided another reminder of what should be important.

The suicide bomb attack on the UN building is the fourth in Abuja in the last ten months, and the situation is tragic and embarrasing in equal measure.
Insecurity in Nigeria did not start today. It is interesting that Aliyu Gusau, who has been National Security Adviser for nearly nine out of twelve years of democracy, has completely escaped scrutiny for failing to properly handle Boko Haram since they appeared on the radar in 2005. That said, Goodluck Jonathan has been in office long enough to assume ownership of the situation and must now do everything to get it under control. First off, the lack of information about the identities, capabilities, motives, tactics and targets of Boko Haram (or whoever is using their name) is startling. They are faceless. There is no picture of any key Boko Haram operative anywhere. Whenever the group is talked about in the press, the picture is one of late Muhammed Yusuf. Then we have phone calls to media houses. That is all. There is so much we do not know: Have they gotten more ambitious? Do they have outside help? If they do, to what extent? How do they get funding? WHO are the leaders of Boko Haram? These and many more questions must be answered before the attacks can be stopped. If we do not even know who the enemy is, all kinds of conjecture and conspiracy theories will take root, as is already happening. Confusion reigns because there are more questions than answers.

Those currently in charge of our nation’s security apparatus seem distinctly incapable of supplying those answers. The most crucial part of stopping terrorism is human intelligence, but instead of focusing on this, the State Security Service are more at home with arresting and watching the homes of opposition politicians. Anywhere else in the world, this level of security failure should have seen the resignations of the heads of our security agencies, yet they remain in their jobs. The President is a very loyal employer.

For as long as Nigeria cannot come to grips with this challenge, we can expect a shaping of the narrative by western media. The ‘muslim north, christian south’ analysis still exists. There is also an attempt to link Al Qaeda to Boko Haram with little or no hard evidence.
Citizens hope to take comfort in the words and actions of their leaders in trying times, and much was made of the President’s delay to address the nation. When he did speak, it was no consolation at all: ‘of course, wherever you have terrorist attack in any country, Nigeria is not an isolated case. Many countries have suffered from terrorist attack, maybe it is the turn of Nigeria. But we are on top of the situation’. In addition to the pointlessness of rotational presidency, surely Nigerians cannot be expected to put up with rotational terrorism as well.

Here’s the thing: The Federal Government cannot negotiate this one away. It cannot bribe, or give political appointments to these terrorists to pacify them. This is becoming a war, one that we are unprepared to fight. In a nation where strong institutions are non-existent in every area, this violence is merely a symptom of far greater problems.

Each year, unknown sums of money are set aside as ‘security votes’ for the use of elected officials, yet we are more insecure than ever. What is that money used for? The Northern borders are porous, hundreds of children die there each month of preventable diseases, millions more have never been to school.
At election time, politicians get jobless youths and arm them as thugs. Those politicians eventually become governors, senators and ministers, safe in their immoral immunity, while everyone else is left to contend with the Frankenstein monsters.

I think Friday, August 26 2011 could go down as a turning point. We might finally see concrete steps taken to address the growing terror threat, or it could be the moment when things get out of hand. For so many reasons, I hope it is the former.

Postscript: the Nigerian Television Authority has been a joke for a long time, but it sunk to new lows for its lack of coverage in the hours following the blast. In a world where media organizations rush to break the news, the NTA is reminiscent of the 1970s. This is what happens when government cash sustains anything: mediocrity reigns.

My Boko Haram solution

A lot has been said and written about the JAMA’ATU AHLUS SUNNAH LID DA’AWATI WAL JIHAD, also known as Boko Haram, who have dominated the headlines for over a month now with bomb attacks on a nearly daily basis. Operating out of their strong-hold of Maiduguri, several reports call them the creation of former Borno governor Ali Modu Sheriff, who employed them as political thugs, who have now morphed into insurgents. Modu Sheriff has denied this. An alternative account says they were a sect who separated themselves from the state, but were radicalised when their leader Yusuf Mohammed was killed in an extrajudicial manner by security operatives in July 2009, along with several others. A more detailed account can also be found here.

When you have extreme cases of state failure in any part of a country, groups like MEND and Boko Haram are the inevitable result. It is not a surprise that the North and South-South lag behind the rest of the country in virtually all measures of development. The vast majority of children in the North have never been to school, and the 3 states with the highest unemployment figures are from the South-South.

Incidentally, the same conditions that give birth to these groups, are the very conditions that make it difficult to stop them, because more than often than not, a country unable to provide a basis for its citizens to prosper economically, is also unable to secure lives & property.

Therefore, the issue of Boko Haram is a security issue, but the solution doesn’t end at security. What follows is my attempt to proffer solutions, based on my observations, and drawing from examples in other parts of the world.

First of all, no negotiation must be entered with the insurgents, because it will only continue the pattern started in the case of MEND. The amnesty given to the militants was a result of the government’s inability to deal with the real problems, namely the underdevelopment in the region and weak security apparatus. Kidnapping has since become an industry as well, because no kidnapper has ever been caught. Till now, those problems remain. As we speak, MEND are preparing to resume hostilities, despite ‘amnesty’. Any negotiations will be further confirmation that the Nigerian government can be bombed into submission.

Negotiation is not an answer, and neither is brute force. Boko Haram, like the Viet Cong in the 60s, like the Mujaheddin in the 80s, like Al Qaeda, and various other groups that have used insurgency tactics throughout history, cannot be defeated by conventional military force or structures. That is what the US have found out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is needed is infiltration of their ranks by intelligence agencies, to find out the following:

1. How are they being funded?
2. How and where are they making their bombs?
3. Do they have any accomplices among the political class?
4. Do they have a central authority, or do they have independent cells?
5. How do they select their targets?

Once gathered, the intelligence can be used to:

1. Destroy all bomb making centres and materials
2. Apprehend bomb makers, financiers, key figures and other accomplices.
3. Stop further attacks before they happen.

The above approach goes beyond just paying informants, who can give false information. Our security agencies must have their own people inside Boko Haram’s operations in order to destroy them from within. They must also possess the ability to act on information quickly, without unnecessary protocol, especially with regard to stopping bomb attacks.

Boko Haram have no address and no postal service. Their movements are fluid, and they can strike at any time. They wear no uniforms. Osama Bin Laden only got caught when he stayed in a huge compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, sacrificing constant movement for comfort. When he was constantly on the move, he was elusive. My suggestion would be that no serviceman or police officer wears a uniform or uses an armoured personnel carrier. Why? It makes them static, easy targets. They stand out when they should blend in. Hanging out at beer parlours also makes them soft targets, and endangers innocent civilians. It would also confuse the terrorists, by giving them nothing to attack.

Funke Aboyade’s account of the lockdown in Abuja last week, gives the impression of a truly clueless security apparatus. There is a compelling case for the removal of IGP Ringim, SSS DG Ita Ekpeyong, and NSA Owoeye Azazi, not just because of incompetence (we have put up with that before), but because the tactics they seem to be employing are inadequate to deal with this kind of situation. New eyes and new methods are needed, methods that do not include pointless displays of menace. It might be helpful to bring in outsiders, because it is baffling why some of the most obvious steps are taking so long to implement. For example, it is high time a database of fingerprints is compiled. Instead of another costly project, the information capture by the telecoms companies for the sim registration are a very good start, and together with obtained during the INEC registration, about 70 million names, addresses, fingerprints and phone numbers can be gotten with relative ease and used to narrow down on the identities of some of these terrorists.

The relationship between citizens and the police must change. Over several years, that relationship has deteriorated because of high-handedness and brutality that is a continuation of military era mentality. A key event in Boko Haram’s evolution is the extra judicial killing of Yusuf Mohammed, then leader of Boko Haram, along with many others. The policemen involved are standing trial now and hopefully, justice is done. Those in charge of law enforcement cannot be allowed to practice jungle justice. Everything must be done to improve the relationship between police and the citizens. A big part of the reason why Boko Haram has overrun Maiduguri, is because people are not coming forward with information that will aid the police. This must change not just in Maiduguri, but all over the country. A stage must be reached where soldiers are no longer deployed within our borders for any reason. Their training has a different relevance.

In the 21st century, the brute force manner of enforcing law and order has to end. Emphasis must be placed on human intelligence, that enables security agencies to be ahead of any threats. Border control must be a priority, as should computerization of and real time access to citizen records.

I said earlier that the solution is not just a security solution. It has to do with basic standard of living as well. This is where the governors of the Northern states come in. The education situation in the North is a scandal. If there aren’t enough schools, the schools should be built. If there aren’t enough teachers, those should be gotten as well, especially those sent to the North for NYSC. After service year, they can be retained and given good working conditions that will help them put in their best. This will reduce the teacher/student ratio. Adequate teaching aids must also be procured, and teacher training must also be a priority. Religious leaders must preach the message: SEND YOUR CHILDREN TO SCHOOL. Frankly, there is no other way. Did I mention primary and secondary education must also be free?

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. There are many ways of creating them. The fastest way? Build something. Build many things. roads, boreholes, public toilets, hospitals, railways and so on. The infrastructure gap is huge. The construction of just one railway to link farms in the north with markets in the south can employ thousands, not to mention two or three. A decent day’s work for a decent day’s pay. It could even be on ‘shift basis’: work in the day, go to night school or vice versa. That way, a contractor works round the clock, project is completed faster, and the youths also improve themselves while they are working on site. Someone who is busy round the clock will have no energy to be a thug.

Those who are interested in small scale businesses can also thrive. Micro-generation of solar energy can be used to ease electricity concerns. Farming is also a big avenue for jobs and prosperity, if state and federal governments will support our farmers to be competitive internationally, like other countries do for their own.

A recourse to the old ways of handling security issues in this county will only result in temporary victories. Now is the time to rethink the entire methodology of law enforcement, and also to address the social problems that make insurgency an attractive option for the disaffected. Every day and month wasted will extract an ever higher price.

The right to criticise

Mallam Nasir El-Rufai calls himself a Certified Ruffler of Feathers, and indeed, he has been ruffling the feathers of the current administration a lot in the last few weeks. The general public would assume however, that since Boko Haram -or whoever is using their name- have ruffled those feathers more vigorously for a lot longer, they deserve the undivided attention of the State Security Service.

This is not the case. Instead of devoting every available resource to the gathering of intelligence on the group, especially human intelligence, they somehow found a few spare men to arrest him at 5.25am, July 2nd at Abuja International Airport. In times past, we would have found out about this only the next day through the print media, but the power of a tweet is quickly supplanting them, to the extent that tomorrow’s news might as well be yesterday’s.

What crime did Mallam El-Rufai commit to warrant such VIP treatment from the SSS? Did he throw a bomb into a group of patrons at a beer parlour in Maiduguri? No. Did he detonate the bomb that went off at Police HQ? No. His crime was that he dared query the size of the nation’s defence budget, relative to the nation’s defencelessness. Ever since the elections ended, he has written a series of brutal critiques on a variety of platforms, pointing out the cold, hard facts of President Jonathan’s more than one year at the helm. In an attempt to counter him in the press, first George Kelly (Coordinator of ‘the Jonathan Project’, which published a quite flimsy advertorial in THISDAY yesterday), and Reno Omokri have resorted to personal attacks, scarcely addressing any of the issues raised. Perhaps, that is because there is simply no answer.

That having failed, the recourse is to barely disguised intimidation. It is a throwback to a darker, more sinister time we would rather forget. The SSS seems good for only two things: ‘screening’ ministerial nominees, and ‘inviting’ citizens for ‘chats’ at the Yellow House. It seems like our security agencies remain stuck on May 28, 1999. The quiet effectiveness necessary in a democracy is absent. Bombs are going off left and right, but no heads are rolling, no one is being brought to justice and those politicians who are supporting these groups remain unknown, yet the softest of targets remain the focus.

For quite some time, intolerance of dissenting views has been on the rise. Every valid issue that was brought up pre-election was successfully framed as North v South, Christian v Muslim and those-in-government v those-who-were-left-out. When inconsistencies and missteps continued to mount, Nigerians said: ‘we are voting for the man, not the party’.

The verdict on the direction of this administration cannot be passed for now, but one thing is clear: the arrest of Nasir El-Rufai is an utter disgrace even to this wasteful, inefficient and dysfunctional democracy we call our own. We had better pray (like we always do) that this is not a sign of things to come.

What gives agents of the state the right to deprive Nasir El-Rufai of his right to criticise the running of a country that he has served? Indeed, the insights of former government officials are important in understanding the motivations of those who control the levers of power. So long as they stick to the facts, their views will be a welcome addition to what should be an ongoing national conversation, a habit we badly need to cultivate in these climes.

This administration has only succeeded in increasing his already considerable profile, while they look small in the process. To get arrested, all Mallam El-Rufai had to do was stick to the facts and figures. Until those facts begin to change, this new policy of intimidation is a lose-lose situation. Until we reduce the mindless, zombie sycophancy practiced by jobbers, rent-seekers and outright charlatans so that we can, first of all, come to terms with where we are as a country, and have an honest intellectual debate about the solutions, we will continue to go round and round in circles.

The President will be better served by making the tough choices he needs to make for his four years to be a success. The reputation of our security agencies will also be improved by focusing all their attention and resources on issue number 1: disrupting, dismantling and defeating Boko Haram and other security threats, not waiting at airports like errand boys for opposition figures to enter the country. I hope another bomb doesn’t have to go off to remind them of this.

Oh wait. Another one went off yesterday.