Rewriting the Boko Haram story

By Tope Templer Olaiya

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


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.


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


Hope rises for out-of-school children

By Tope Templer Olaiya
Somewhere off the Lagos coastline, on the Lekki Peninsula stretch is Marwa, a sprawling shanty settlement and haven to hundreds of homeless children. For many people who work or live in the hinterland of Lekki-Epe Expressway, Marwa probably only resonates as a designated bus stop at the second round-about.
From an outer-shell glance, the Marwa bus stop and the highbrow Lekki are characterized by grandeur, class and luxury. What is least known is that there is, tucked behind the hectares of magnificent real estate, a slum with its squalor, gripping poverty and hundreds of homeless children and families living without a hope for the future.
It is quite an irony that slums are almost an unavoidable feature of mega cities world over. For Lagos, the massive influx of people in search of greener pastures, both from within and outside Nigeria, into the metropolis presents an overflow of opportunities as well as a grave challenge in terms of land space constraint and rising population. This is now being depicted in the number of homeless people and slum settlement with unseemly shelter and sanitary condition.

Destiny 1

The Marwa kids

Marwa is one of the many squatter-areas in Lagos. Home to all sorts, especially street urchins, drug addicts and prostitutes, the residents live in shanties made of nylon twined to wooden poles, stuck in the white sand. This provides only the barest protection from the elements and at first sight; it is needless to say that the standard of living is far below average.
Perhaps more alarming is the large number of out-of-school children that call Marwa home. Children roam the streets of Victoria Island and Lekki, begging and cleaning car windshields in traffic. With Marwa, one wonders if the United Nations did not underestimate the population of Nigeria’s illiterate children when it revealed the country has the world’s largest out-of-school children at over 10 million.
However, as Nigeria celebrated her 54th Independence anniversary, a gleam of hope came to children at Marwa through the initiative of the Destiny Trust, a social intervention providing care, rehabilitation education and empowerment to homeless children and children in disadvantaged communities.
Despite the fact that the Lagos State government provides tuition-free basic education, many children in slums like Marwa still do not attend school for many reasons. Being illegal occupants of land, they live daily in fear of eviction by property owners and enforcement agencies. For this reason, they believe it is fruitless enrolling children in school when they can be taken from the proximity of the school at any time.

Destiny 2Some parents do not even know that the state offers tuition-free basic education. “I know there is a government primary school near Mobolaji Johnson Estate inside Lekki but I can’t afford the cost. They said registration is N7,000 and we will pay N2,500 per term,” a woman, who identified herself as Mama Favour stated. Others told The Guardian that they couldn’t afford the cost of school materials like books, bags and school uniforms.
Some of the children who had started school earlier dropped out. Chika, aged 12, said he quit schooling when his parents got separated, but said he does not mind returning if someone can assist his mother by providing him with learning materials.
Matthew is no different. He has had to serve as apprentice at a mechanic workshop for years now instead of getting an education.
Parents in Marwa have other fears that have kept them from enrolling their children in the nearby primary school, which is just across the road from the slum. Mrs. Mary Ifegbunam said some children have disappeared in mysterious circumstances and there is widespread suspicion that the rich in Lekki use them for money rituals.
They also expressed concerns about children crossing the major highway to attend a school due to the danger posed by movement of vehicles on high speed.
Speaking on the intervention of the Destiny Trust, coordinator of the group, Mr. Abimbola Ojenike, noted: “It is a serious concern to us that Nigeria has the unenviable status of the country with the world’s largest number of uneducated children. We know child illiteracy is depleting the nation’s human capital, increasing crime tendencies and poverty and the worst is yet to come if we don’t act.

Destiny 4

Coordinator of Destiny Trust, Abimbola Ojenike (right) presenting school kits to the children at Marwa, Lekki

“Although this is a broad institutional problem that individuals cannot completely solve, we believe that the combined effort of individuals can have major impact. For us, the starting point is to sensitize parents about the importance of education and the consequences of uneducated children to the nation. We are correcting the wrong assumptions that have misled some parents to keep children away from school despite the opportunity of tuition-free education offered by the state.
“Also, we are providing books, writing materials, uniforms and bags to children so that no one has an excuse for being out of school. Furthermore, we are organizing an after-school assistance programme to help the children cope with learning difficulties that may be due to delayed enrolment in school,” he said.
Matching words with action, the Trust is providing education sponsorship to 100 children with the support of compassionate Nigerians who gave to a social media campaign tagged: #1000HelpingHands. The campaign, which commenced on August 1, 2014 and lasted for a month, was able to raise funds from 1000 people giving at least N1,000 to support the education of 100 out-of-school children in various squatter areas and rural communities.

Destiny 3A few of the indigent children lacking parental care have been resettled into the Trust’s residential learning and rehabilitation centre at Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos. The Trust is supporting 43 children in Marwa and 57 others from Bogije and Okun Solu-Alade communities in Ibeju-Lekki.
According to Ojenike, the journey has only begun. “The Trust has set up a monitoring team to ensure that the children not only stay in school, but that they continue to have all they need to continue their education. The Trust also continues to seek the means to care for the children and empower parents to provide for their development.”
The Destiny Trust volunteers invaded Marwa on Independence Day and by the time they left later in the afternoon, the cheer had gone round the slum and the glee of children told the story of hope restored.