Rewriting the Boko Haram story

By Tope Templer Olaiya

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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Short of words in retaliation

 

Peace Fellows in a group activity

Peace Fellows in a group activity

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