Rewriting the Boko Haram story

By Tope Templer Olaiya

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statisticJoseph Stalin

1

THERE was no better way to wrap up a three-month course on Peace and Conflict Studies at the Rotary Peace Center, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, than the nine-day field trip to Cambodia, where in the short space of time available, I had a first-hand experience of the South Asian country’s majesty, tragedy and rebirth. All of the sites visited, including the remnant of one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Angkor Wat complex, could be classified in either of Cambodia’s majesty/heritage, tragedy or rebirth. It was an exercise that left lasting impact.

Having the rare opportunity to visit the Genocide Memorial & Killing Fields, Genocide Museum and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), instituted by the United Nations, while in session was very depressing. It was a journey of discovery on post-conflict transformation after a dastardly four years of genocide perpetrated by the Pol Pot regime between 1975 and 1979.

The Spirit House where over 8,000 excavated skulls are preserved for posterity.

The Spirit House where over 8,000 excavated skulls are preserved for posterity.

Walking through the mass graves and marching on bone fragments and dead victims’ clothing made visible by erosion was literally like walking through the ‘Valley of Death’ and not just its shadows. Only if the walls and trees could talk, the world would have been numbed by man’s bestiality and inhumanity to man that makes Adolf Hitler’s atrocity during the World War II pale into insignificance.

The world may find it hard coming to terms with how the German Nazi regime exterminated about six million Jews in six years, but for Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army to have more than half of his own people killed (nearly three million in four years) and the rest of the population displaced before the Vietnam invasion in 1979 brought an end to dark history, is still a mystery.

In conversation with officials of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), instituted by the United Nations (UN)

In conversation with officials of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), instituted by the United Nations (UN)

The story of Cambodia today is, however, inspiring. What is unique is the resolve of a new generation propelled by survivors of the genocide to step out of the ashes of the past and build a new future. They have been through all of that and they live in extreme poverty but they are some of the most sweet-natured people you will ever meet in your life. It’s a marvel how they can be at peace and be open and kind with what they have gone through.

I see a painful similarity between Cambodia’s tragedy and Nigeria’s ongoing six-year war with Boko Haram insurgency. The ruthless campaign of violence by the extremist Islamic group has devastated the northeast states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, displaced millions of citizens and taken a terrifying toll on an impoverished region.

A special moment with one of the survivors, Bou Meng, artist and prisoner of the S21 Prison. He is one of the seven survivors out of 20,000 people killed at the House of Death, one of the over 100 prisons in the country

A special moment with one of the survivors, Bou Meng, artist and prisoner of the S21 Prison. He is one of the seven survivors out of 20,000 people killed at the House of Death, one of the over 100 prisons in the country

Employing the benefit of the intensive study on peace and conflict, which afforded me the opportunity of using several conflict analysis models in preparing my public seminar on Boko Haram, one of my recommendations and in fact my ‘Theory of Change’ was the need to change the narrative about Boko Haram.

My humble submission at the public seminar in August was that if the media stops dividing Nigeria along ethnic and religious lines, we can as a united people stand against the perpetrators of violence and rebuild the ruins of destroyed cities.

Great to have been introduced to Peace Journalism by Dr. Jake Lynch, Director, Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. His long years of conflict reporting while with the BBC was worth listening to and learning from

Great to have been introduced to Peace Journalism by Dr. Jake Lynch, Director, Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. His long years of conflict reporting while with the BBC was worth listening to and learning from

The Nigerian Army Director of Information, Colonel Rabi Abubakar, once told newsmen that some reports on the activities of Boko Haram have helped promote their operations, explaining that the undue patronage and publicity given the sect has emboldened the terrorists in their deadly activities. It was, therefore, a reassuring and welcome development when the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, recently disclosed the intention of the Federal Government to set up a communication centre to provide adequate information to counter the violent propaganda of the Boko Haram insurgents. There are some concrete steps the government’s new initiative in the mould of a Centre for Crisis Communication (CCC) can take to match words with action.

A way to begin is training on Peace Journalism to reporters covering the northeast states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, including journalists on the military and defence beats on the stories they push out to the public.   Basically, Peace Journalism is when editors and reporters make choices – about what to report, and how to report it – that create opportunities for society at large to consider and to value non-violent responses to conflict. It was developed from research, which indicates that often, news about conflict has a value bias toward violence. It also includes practical methods for correcting this bias by producing journalism in both the mainstream and alternative media, and working with journalists, media professionals, audiences, and organizations in conflict.

Boko-Haram-1

Another vital task that the special communication centre can be saddled with is documenting and preserving the history of this ongoing insurgency for posterity. So much may be lost in the nearest future if there is no recognized documentation centre in place to archive all available materials on Boko Haram, especially the painstaking effort to profile all those who have lost their lives to the violence.

Information gleaned from Boko Haram suspects and those who willingly surrendered to security forces that may not have been released to the public and embargoed on the ‘Need To Know’ clearance, can be chronicled and preserved with the centre. In the aftermath of the crisis, such documents and witnesses may be vital in the prosecution of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, should the government not proceed to a full court trial for crimes against humanity.

It should, however, be publicly announced that the purpose for this, if it should be embarked on, is not to compensate victims’ families but to institute a process that may lead to a befitting honour in the form of a monument by the time this war is eventually over. Sites of mass graves of the victims of insurgency need to be identified across the northern states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja to remain as a signpost of history for future generations not to go this present road ever again.

  • Olaiya, an editorial staff member of The Guardian, is a Rotary Peace Fellow.

 

Rewriting the Boko Haram story

Advertisements

Nigeria ranked 5th in Global Terrorism Index 2014… It’s a very long road to Peace

By Tope Templer Olaiya

Rotary Peace Fellows Class 19 at the Rotary Peace Center, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand

Rotary Peace Fellows Class 19 at the Rotary Peace Center, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand

It is Monday afternoon, June 8, after I had checked through custom and immigration before taking a peep up to inhale deeply Thai air and exhale loudly. It had been more than 24 hours when I last felt the sunshine, which was when I bid Nigeria bye at midday on Sunday, for the 20 hours flight to Bangkok, Thailand, with a three-hour stopover at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

From the airport to my exquisite accommodation at Room 2019, International House, Chulalongkorn University, it was a beautiful discovery of a new world of high rise buildings, alluring city landscape and fast-paced development, typical of the Asian world. I have my host counselor, retired banker and Past President of Rotary Club of Bang Rak, Sataporn Jinachitra, to thank not only for picking me up at the airport, but also introducing me to my first Thai meal, which was more than a memorable buffet.

Tope Templer

Tope Templer

Once I settled into my room, I had a whole day to relieve myself of the jet lag. The first 24 hours in Thai sped past like it was 24 minutes. Slept away more than half of it and spent the remainder connecting back to the world I left behind on social media, thanks to the free Wifi provided by the university.

On Wednesday morning, orientation classes for the Rotary Peace Fellowship began in earnest and I met for the first time 17 other Fellows selected from across the world, including two Kenyans, Moses Chavene and Mediatrix Shikoli. We were all lucky to be chosen as Class 19 of the three months Peace Program, which would be celebrating its 10th anniversary during our session.

We had two days of intense orientation about the program and living in Thailand. On Friday, it was fully devoted to the Individual Conflict Presentation (ICP) of all Fellows, which would be our project for the fellowship. Eight minutes of presentation and five minutes of discussion right on Day Three didn’t appear easy but turn after turn, each one had the chance to introduce the class to his or her home country and project.

Being welcomed into the fellowship by Past Rotary International President and former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, Bhichai Rattakul, as PP Andrew MacPherson and Prof. Surichai Wun'gaeo look on

Being welcomed into the fellowship by Past Rotary International President and former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, Bhichai Rattakul, as PP Andrew MacPherson and Prof. Surichai Wun’gaeo look on

For me, nothing else would matter than seeing an end to the mindless orgy of Boko Haram insurgency. Having shocked the world in a peaceful transition of government starting with a bloodless general election on March 28 and April 11 and the inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari on May 29, any thought of peace would be channeled towards taming the tide of the dreaded insurgents.

So, I discussed on the last six years of Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, with a special focus on the fate and future of hundreds of thousands of school-age children displaced by the terrorists in the three troubled Northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, particular the one incident that attracted the world’s attention and sparked global outrage, which is the abduction of Chibok girls. It was a subject I could relate to since by providence, I had in 2006, long before the bombings, did my National Youth Service in Borno and for 11 months lived in Baga – yes same Baga the Boko Haram rebels leveled last year and sacked soldiers from the Multinational Joint Taskforce – teaching students of Government Day Secondary School, Baga, English and Social Studies.

My Week One presentation

My Week One presentation

Looking for a fun way to start the presentation, I made reference to the theme song of the South Africa 2010 World Cup. Two songs were commissioned by two competing brands for the competition. Pepsi had Shakira do the ‘Waka Waka’ song, which means ‘This Time Africa’ but my favourite theme song was the one adopted by Cocacola and composed by Somali-Canadian artist, K’naan titled ‘Waving Flag’.

I re-echoed the song originally written for Somalia and the aspiration of its people for freedom:

When I get older

I will be stronger

Then call me freedom

Just like a waving flag

And then it goes back

   I now drove the presentation home by linking it to the bleak future of the thousands of children and older people littering various camps in northern Nigeria, whose hope of being free like a waving flag has been dashed and is almost irredeemable unless the wave of insurgency is arrested.

IMG_2114

The Global Terrorism Index 2014 findings are really scary, especially when you are outside looking in at the spate of violence caused by Boko Haram. Across the world, 7,958 people were killed in terrorist attacks last year, that is 61% more than the previous year and 82% of all deaths from terrorist attack occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria. Luckily, we have among the countries Fellows from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine, and we all compare notes on the situation with terrorism in our home countries.

Last year, terrorism was dominated by four groups: Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS and Al Qe’ida. And what do these five countries have in common: Gross human rights violations, political instability, extrajudicial killings and rise of Sunni extremist ideology. It is really a long walk to world peace.

Peace Fellows listening with rapt attention

Peace Fellows listening with rapt attention

The situation is getting deadlier with the support the sect is getting from ISIS and the new dimension introduced by the sect where little children were used as human shield, suicide bombers and sex objects.

However, all hope is not lost and concerned citizens of the world interested in global peace and conflict resolution must collaborate to in waging a spirited war on the insurgents, so that in days and years ahead, we can have the transformative story of Pakistan’s Nobel Laureate Malala replicated in the lives of the troubled children of the northeast and together they can all blossom in fulfillment of freedom like a waving flag.IMG_2363

Receiving kind remarks from my host counselor, PP. Sataporn Jinachitra

IMG_2364

Short of words in retaliation

 

Peace Fellows in a group activity

Peace Fellows in a group activity

Thai 3

My first Thai meal courtesy of my host counselor, PP Sataporn

Boko Haram: Time to rethink North’s value system

By Tope Templer Olaiya
“LET’S not beat around the bush. We are dealing with a monstrosity. We are dealing with an affliction the likes of which the nation has never encountered,” our respected world citizen and Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, last week.
“This menace has to be internationalised; every country has to be involved in finding solutions to the problem. It is not a Nigerian problem but the problem of the whole world. From the activities of the group and the response of the government since this madness started, it is clear that this government cannot handle this problem alone,” he said.
I completely agree with the professor on this. What I may wish to add is how the North can internalize this problem and come up with homegrown solutions that their leaders, henceforth, can be held accountable to, particularly a rethinking of the North’s value system and its appreciation of education in bridging the wide gulf between the wealthy elite and its general populace.
But how did Nigeria get to be brought to her knees, at no other auspicious time than days leading to the World Economic Forum on Africa, which the country hosted last week.

Templer (left) riding on our Mobile Utility Machine in Baga Town, Borno State

Templer (left) riding on our Mobile Utility Machine in Baga Town, Borno State

In the midst of pondering over this and being inundated with the global #BringBackOurGirls campaigns and protests, I recall how as a youth corps member serving in Baga, Kukawa Local Government Area of the now dreaded Borno State, I was witness to how the seeds of this insurgency were sown and nurtured to what has today rattled world leaders in unison.
Dateline was 2007, a significant period in the history of Nigeria. It was an election year and there were desperate attempts to break the jinx in the country’s history of a civilian administration not successfully transmitting power to another civilian administration, but while on national assignment in Borno, the political battle ongoing was the re-election of the incumbent governor.
The Batch B National Youth Service Corps members arrived Maiduguri in September 2006 in the mix of a heated political climate and we were sternly warned in camp to keep our heads low and not get caught in the ensuing scramble for power. Months before then, there was an orgy of violence in Maiduguri after a Catholic priest was hacked to death.
It was hard to decipher this hot political climate we were warned of. All we could see were beautiful posters of incumbent governor, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), popularly called SAS and his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) challenger, Kashim Ibrahim-Imam. After three weeks in orientation camp, I was posted to Baga, a commercial town very close to Lake Chad and popular for its fish market, but more than three hours drive from Maiduguri, to serve as a teacher in Government Day Junior Secondary School.
I stayed in the elite part of town, Mile 3, with other corps members posted to Baga at the Federal College of Freshwater Fisheries Technology (FCFFT), a full-fledged tertiary institution sadly with no students. We were assured of safety due to the presence of a Multi National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) comprising soldiers from Nigeria, Niger, Cameroun and Chad not too far from the college. Its operational head at the time was Colonel Olubunmi Oyebade.

With Brigadier-General Adeniyi Oyebade, then Commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force, Baga

With Brigadier-General Olubunmi Oyebade, then Commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force, Baga

I immediately settled in to my new environment and interacted with the locals, with a deep appreciation of the essence of the NYSC scheme. It didn’t, however, take too long before some obvious contradictions about what the future holds for my country assaulted my sensibilities.
At the heat of the 2007 general elections, the campaigns began to take a threatening dimension, but we were told by the locals to relax and just be at peace with ourselves, but avoid being caught in the ensuing crossfire from the political divides.
“Nothing is strange here, it is just that politics is the mainstay industry in the North and elections could appear to consume everyone, but it’s just hot air that would die down,” I recall.
It was bizarre to me that an incumbent governor would mobilize thousands of youths following his long convoy in motorbikes to rallies, all brandishing glittering curve-ended swords that look like sickles, and chanting Sai SAS.
When the governor came to campaign in Baga, I was bewildered that a quiet community I had stayed in for over six months could turn up thousands of youths, many of whom were too excited to do some theatrics with the long swords – the visible item of identification to show you were for the ruling party.
The weapons display was meant to scare political opponents away by dousing any dissenting voice at the rally. The holder simply stretches the sword towards the dissenter’s head and pulls it back to sever the head from the body, as if one is harvesting some fruits. This was a few of the horrors I witnessed.

Controlling crowd at the Baga market when corps members did a HIV/AIDS sensitization rally

Controlling crowd at the Baga market when corps members did a HIV/AIDS sensitization rally

According to our chaperon to the rally, it was important we saw it to be fully prepared for our duty as INEC Ad-hoc staff for the 2007 elections.
The day after the rally, I moved around town, I couldn’t find traces of the vicious youths anywhere; not at the schools, markets or motor parks. They had simply returned with the governor’s convoy. There and then, I could decipher where the ugly future lies for these bands of vicious youths.
At the college where I was lucky to be provided a decent accommodation, it was a big institution left to rot. There are only three of such specialised institutions in this country, the Federal College of Fisheries and Marine Technology at Victoria Island, Lagos; Federal College of Freshwater Fisheries Technology at New Bussa, Niger State and the college at Baga.
Their locations are strategically placed to the study of fisheries and underwater bodies with the Atlantic Ocean in Lagos, the Kainji Lake dam in Niger, and the Lake Chad basin at Baga. As at 2007, the colleges at Lagos and Niger were operating in full throttle, while Baga was in snooze mode.
The reason was pretty obvious, the institution offering certificates in Ordinary National Diploma had almost all facilities for tuition in place, except students. From the Provost (Dr. Femi Daddy at the time) to the academic and administrative staff, all were resident in the college and reporting for duties at their offices, but there were no students to teach. The only academic exercise going on during my 11-month stay was the college’s staff primary school.

Standing in front of the Federal College of Freshwater Fisheries and Technology (FCFFT), Baga

Standing in front of the Federal College of Freshwater Fisheries and Technology (FCFFT), Baga

Other things that were strange to me included using Hausa language as the language of instruction even to conduct the morning assembly and the tacit approval of educational authorities for examination malpractice. During my stay in Borno, I invigilated examinations for the junior and senior secondary West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) and on these two occasions, we were told the norm was for answers to be prepared and written on the board for students to simply write down. Our job as invigilators then was to ensure students write the answers correctly and legibly.
This was complied with and scripts sent to the exam body at Maiduguri. Some weeks after, corps members were engaged to mark the papers. By this time, it wasn’t shocking anymore to receive some august visitors at our Corpers Lodge, who were officials from another local government in Borno.
They had visited us to ensure we show some leniency in marking of the WAEC scripts that would later be sent to us from Maiduguri. I couldn’t be more awed considering how I had sweated to get my five credit passes in the same examination nearly a decade earlier.
We may pretend to continue to live in denial that some of these misconceptions are real, but they are now staring us in the face and about to tear us apart. So, when a group violently professes that education (Boko) is Haram (forbidden), the northern leaders who have for years allowed this toxic idea to fester should be held responsible.
• Olaiya is an editorial staff of The Guardian