By Basil Okoh
In late 2015, the newly elected Buhari Government of Nigeria started to banish local and international media and their reporters from the Boko Haram war theatre and IDP camps of northeastern Nigeria.
News Reports of the bad behavior of soldiers at IDP camps, the losing strategy and tactics of war commanders who took over from the South African war contractors ‘Executive Outcomes’, the demoralizing collaboration and conspiracies between Muslim soldiers and Boko Haram fighters, started finding their way into foreign media and these were beginning to influence the attitudes of helpful foreign governments to the war effort. Commanders in the field didn’t like the media reports coming out of the war theatre.
Boko Haram was on the offensive to retake territory taken from them by the Nigerian Army as was previously led by the South African Executive Outcomes during the last days of the Presidency of Goodluck Jonathan.
The deployment of superior intelligence, better weapons and fighting tactics and an overwhelming strategy to defeat Boko Haram had driven the zealots to the fringes of desperation and defeat was looming for them before the ballots of 2015 removed President Jonathan for Muhammadu Buhari.
Coming in and changing strategy, commanders and fighting tactics, both the military headquarters and Buhari’s Government didn’t like the unflattering news seeping out of the newspapers and televisions of the world, particularly in the Western media.
Reports of rapes and impregnations of women inmates by soldiers assigned to guard IDP camps, seizures and diversions of food meant for refugees, harassment of workers of Aid agencies, all worked together to shine unfavourable media light on the disorder following the takeover of the fight against Boko Haram by the Buhari Government.
Worse to come was the discovery by foreign Governments helping Nigeria, of a well constructed system of sabotage of the war effort by Muslim soldiers and their unhelpful collaborations with Boko Haram forces. All the donated guns and weapons ended up with Boko Haram fighters.
Following the expressed disgust with the conduct of the Nigerian Government and the Nigerian forces, the armed forces of Nigeria instead of tackling its own demons forcefully chased the reporters away and banned them outright from the territory of the Northeast.
But negative news kept leaking out of the territory from IDP camps including reports of the infiltration of the armed forces by Boko Haram operatives. The camps were steaming with stories of rapes and impregnation by soldiers assigned to watch over and guard the camps, of food stolen by officials of government, of food sold by soldiers to aggressor Boko Haram terrorists.
The Federal Government was determined to control the narrative emanating from the IDP camps as well as the fighting zones even as Nigerian forces were being hemmed in, ambushed and unkindly butchered at the fronts because of leakages of war plans to the enemy.
And the international media was still reporting all these to the world. In order to cover its shame, the Federal Government was forced to enforce a ban on news not censored by armed forces authorities. Not only that, the Federal Government closed the activities of many humanitarian agencies and forced the operators out of the territory.
International News Agencies, AFP, AP, REUTERS and broadcasters like CNN, AlJazeera and France 24 were all forced to withdraw their reporters and crew and thereafter stopped reporting on the Boko Haram war altogether. Since 2017, the armed forces of Nigeria and the Federal Government have taken total control of news and information coming out of the Boko Haram territory of Northeastern Nigeria. Not even Local reporters are allowed into the territory of Boko Haram and the Northeast.
Just as usually happens with the forced control of news, the Federal Government started believing its own news fabrications and narratives, believing the false reports of commanders at the fronts thus inducing a complacency in the fight against the insurgents. However, the forces were losing massive numbers of men and equipment to Boko Haram.
The Nigerian Government blurred the facts and deliberately presented the world false pictures of its own losses, believed its own lies and lost the offensive and control of the Boko Haram war.
While the Nigerian Government lied that arms were flooding into Northern Nigeria from Libya and the rest of the Maghreb, the Western nations had better intelligence and knew that the arms and equipment deployed by Boko Haram were actually handed out to the terror groups by operatives of the Nigerian Government. Purchases of fighting vehicles, RPG’s, bazookas and much of the truck mounted guns by the terror groups were shipped in through Sudan.
Guns from Libya were quite minimal in the arsenal of Boko Haram as the Libyans needed the guns in their own factional wars. Boko Haram/ISWAP stockpiles of arms, ammunition, mines and tank busters were plundered from Nigerian Armories.
There were T72 main battle tanks, gun trucks and at least a missile system abandoned to the insurgents as soldiers fled from the firepower of a resurgent Boko Haram and ISWAP. There were no media presence to report on these shameful engagements and so the plunders continued.
AFP, the French News Agency, in the aftermath of the expulsion of the media from the Northeast sent a reporting team to Northern Cameroun and Southern Chad to report on the Boko Haram war but they too were blanked out by the Multinational Joint Task Force Commanded by Nigerian Generals.
The absence of local and international media has reshaped the war against Boko Haram, emboldened both the Nigerian soldiers and the insurgents to commit all sorts of war crimes in the war theatre as well as violate IDP camps continually. The world does not know and does not care because northeastern Nigeria is one of the poorest regions of the world and of no strategic interest to any world power
While many shameful battle performances of the armed forces have gone unreported and unknown, the war itself has stalled because the Military high command loath further engagements. Commanders have performed so woefully that the Nigerian military ratings continue to cause embarrassment to its high command. The troops are tired of bad leadership and are not keen anymore to engage the enemy. Nigerians may not know but those with military or strategic interests across the world do feel sorry for Nigeria.
Currently, the Armed Forces continue to suffer such low assessment by international bodies that hardly anyone gives a chance for Nigeria’s survival in the face of a strong military challenge.
The presence of the media in the Northeast would have helped control the excesses of the armed forces and also help plug the sources of arms flow into the region long before Boko Haram grew into its present strength of capturing and blowing up tanks and even fielding fighters to hold down battalions.
Now the Buhari Government is moving ahead to do worse. Its recent order stopping all media organizations from reporting on the war on terror is blatantly illegal and holds the grimmer prospect of hiding truth from Nigerians and hiding from public view the failures of Nigerian forces.
Since the American Civil War in 1865, the first widely reported war in the modern era, reporters and the media have been embedded in wars by both national armies as well as by non-state fighters. Moreover, there are rules of warfare which reporters are demanded by the practice of their profession to help monitor. A hidden war carries with it all the atrocities and illegalities that the Geneva Convention expressly prohibits. The fight against insurgency in Northeastern Nigeria shows itself not to be an exception to this truth.
The Nigerian armed Forces is reporting on its own wars. Perhaps it has a new thing to teach the world other than the growing cowardice and bad fighting tactics displayed in the battlefields. Unable to make progress in the war, it has now resorted to the strategy of bribing fighters of Boko Haram with Government money to abandon their insurgency.
An ongoing example of good military performance can be seen in the fighting efficiency displayed by the forces of Rwanda and South Africa in the war against Al-Shabbab Muslim terror group in Mozambique. In a matter of days, these national armies are routing the Muslim terrorists without disrupting the populations to the admiration of the world. They didn’t have to shut out the media.
The battlefield and organizational failures of the Nigerian armed forces are not due to the asymmetric nature of the war it is engaged in against Boko Haram. It is the result of the originating contradictions within both the Nigerian political establishment and the armed forces. Its skewed recruitment practices and institutional corruption undermine its battlefield efficiency.
You cannot recruit dunderheads from certain parts of the country and make them fight like champions, no matter the training they undergo. You cannot also produce a champion fighting force from a deeply corrupt establishment.
Thus the gagging of the media is a clear indication that the Nigerian Government is unable to hold itself to account for its internal security practices including the conduct of its fighting forces. The gag orders are meant to hide the shameful performance of its forces.
That it cannot defend the conduct of its armed forces signals a loss of control and a weakness of state that goes farther than the armed forces into a gangrened political establishment. In the end, a country can only be as strong as the armed forces it projects.
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