Rewriting the Boko Haram story

Boko-HaramA single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic – Joseph 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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