France and Nigeria terrorism: Dramatically different coverage

In April 2014, almost 300 girls attending a secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria were kidnapped from their school in the middle of the night. They were abducted by an Islamic extremist group dubbed Boko Haram, who have been launching attacks against schools and villages in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.

Sadly, they targeted the girls in part because of their belief that the “inauthentic” colonialism-descended education system is a sin. The girls’ schooling was detrimental to their mission to overthrow the Nigerian government in order to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state. Making things worse was the lack of media coverage of the kidnapping. It seemed that the information about the kidnapping only reached international headline news after a heavy Twitter campaign, under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

The little coverage that it did receive was short lived, and in some ways disrespectful. The French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, even depicted the kidnapped girls as pregnant, Black and Muslim Welfare Queens. The cartoon ignores the fact that the kidnapped girls were kidnapped from a Christian school and are most likely Christian themselves. It also belittles the fact that the girls are being forced into marriages and are victims of sexual assault. Instead, the cartoon relies on racist tropes for the sake of “satire” (satire being in quotes because comedy at the expense of the oppressed isn’t satirical and rarely funny).

Last week, 8 months after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, a shooting occurred at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, and 12 people were killed. The media was quicker to pick up on this story and the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie rapidly became a trending topic all over the world, almost drowning out the news that Boko Haram massacred as many as 2000 people and razed 16 villages in a 5-day span the same week as the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Human Rights Watch satellite analysis of Doro Gowon. (Credit: Human Rights Watch)

Above: Human Rights Watch satellite analysis of Doro Gowon, Borno state, Nigeria, one of the towns attacked by Boko Haram this month. 57% of the town is estimated to have been burned down based on this image. Click for full image and article in a new window. (Credit: Human Rights Watch)

The instant support of Charlie Hebdo and the struggle for support for the Chibok girls says a lot about the narrative that the US and European media wants to compose when it comes to which victims are worthy of sympathy. Despite the offensive cartoon drawn about the Chibok girls by the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad – which is the reason why Charlie Hebdo was specifically targeted by the extremists – it seems as if the magazine has been pushed into almost martyr status.

Marches and rallies are happening all over Europe in solidarity with the magazine, while attacks on Mosques in France are being ignored. Cartoonists have even gone so far as to create the hashtag #CartoonistLivesMatter as an attempt to express the importance of their freedom of speech.

There are hundreds of schoolgirls missing, for most of the past year. Thousands have been displaced in just the past two weeks, with possibly thousands more killed. There are entire generations of families murdered in Northern Nigeria.
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Boko Haram humiliate Nigeria government: What deal?

Finally ending a lengthy silence of several weeks, the man that Nigeria claimed (again) to have killed in September issued a video confirming that there is no ceasefire deal and there is no deal on the kidnapped Chibok girls, contrary to the claims of Nigeria’s government:

In a video released on Friday, [Boko Haram leader] Abubakar Shekau said: “We have not made ceasefire with anyone. We did not negotiate with anyone. It’s a lie.

“We will not negotiate. What is our business with negotiation? Allah said we should not.”

Shekau also claimed that the militants were holding a German national, thought to be a teacher, who was kidnapped by gunmen in July.

There was no indication of when or where the group’s latest video was shot.

The BBC’s Tomi Oladipo in Lagos says the video will come as a huge embarrassment for the Nigerian government after it said it had secured a ceasefire with Boko Haram.

Nor is there likely to be a deal (tragically):

But the Boko Haram leader said the girls were “in their marital homes” after being married off by the group.

Last week, Human Rights Watch said in a report that Boko Haram was holding more than 500 women and young girls captive and that forced marriage was common in the group’s camps.

I don’t root for failure in a terrible situation like this, but I have to point out that I predicted exactly how this would pan out. There was never a deal to begin with, as everyone should have suspected from the moment that there was no matching announcement by Boko Haram. This video is actually the first comment on the situation at all. This was either a gigantic mistake by the Nigerian government or a spectacular lie. Whichever it was, it sounds like time has run out (potentially quite a while ago) for the girls taken in May and probably many taken since then, due in large part to the ongoing ineptitude of the Nigerian government and military.

This should also “come as a huge embarrassment for” all the Western media outlets that reported it as fact, despite its obvious absurdity.

Arsenal For Democracy Radio Conversation – October 29, 2014:

Why is Western media reporting on Nigeria so bad?
Part 1 – Nigeria – AFD 105

Still image (via AFP) from the Boko Haram video communiqué received October 31, 2014.

Still image (via AFP) from the Boko Haram video communiqué received October 31, 2014.

There was never a truce in Nigeria, just so we’re clear

On Friday, the world media foolishly decided yet again to take the Nigerian military at its word when they announced a truce with Boko Haram and a deal to release the kidnapped girls from Chibok. I explained, with a laundry list of evidence, why there was no reason to trust that this huge claim was true, especially with zero confirmation or comment from Boko Haram.

It only took a day for “we have a deal” to become they have “agreed in principle” to a deal, with negotiations to follow. And then came the explaining away of ongoing violence after a purported ceasefire.

A senior public affairs aide to the president, Doyin Okupe, told VOA that Boko Haram leadership is on board with the truce and that the violence was perpetrated by “fringe groups” of fighters who likely had not gotten word of the agreement.

Over the weekend, the violence continued to mount, undercutting any case that a ceasefire actually existed.

Suspected militant Islamists have shot and slaughtered people in three villages in north-east Nigeria, despite government claims that it had agreed a truce with them, residents say.

Boko Haram fighters raided two villages on Saturday, and raised their flag in a third, residents said.

The government said it would continue negotiating with Boko Haram, despite the alleged breach of the truce.

It hopes the group will this week free more than 200 girls it seized in April.

Boko Haram has not commented on the announcement made on Friday that a truce had been agreed, and that the militants would release the schoolgirls abducted from the remote north-eastern town of Chibok.

The government tried to point to the recent release of dozens of Cameroonian and Chinese prisoners as evidence that the purported negotiations were making progress, while skipping over the fact that they were released days before any such deal had been announced and were probably unrelated.

Moreover, the Nigerian government claims to be negotiating in nearby Chad with a man named Danladi Ahmadu, which has immediately raised all kinds of red flags… Read more

The Farce that is Nigeria’s Armed Forces

Today the global media was aflutter with an announcement by senior Nigerian military officials that a deal had been reached with Boko Haram to have a ceasefire and get back the kidnapped northern girls. Boko Haram did not confirm or deny…or say anything…according to every single news report around the world that I heard or read.

I flat-out do not believe any such deal has been reached. Not even a little bit. The only thing that will convince me otherwise is when those girls are actually back home with their families and the world media can verify that fact.

Why don’t I take it seriously? In addition to the lack of any confirmation from the deciding player in the situation (Boko Haram), this year has been marked by one long series of increasingly vast fabrications and demonstrations of incompetence by Nigeria’s military and security forces.

Below are just a few of the completely absurd things that either actually happened in Nigeria or have been made up entirely by the military, just in one week of September. It’s genuinely hard to decide which ones — the facts or the fictions — are more flabbergasting. But either way, there’s no credibility anymore.

One shining week of lies and failure: Compiled September 27, 2014

From the People Who Failed to Bring Back The Nigerian Girls Comes…the receiving end of the most boring A-Team heist of all time:

Last week it was reported that government agents took $9.3m (£5.7m) in cash to South Africa to buy weapons.
South African police said last week customs officials seized the money in $100 bills in three suitcases that arrived on a private jet from Nigeria at Johannesburg’s Lanseria airport earlier in September. The two Nigerians and an Israeli allegedly did not declare the money and it was impounded.

Parliamentary inquiries into the affair were immediately stonewalled for “national security reasons.” Then, after re-affirming everyone’s lack of trust in them, the Nigerian government and military proceeded to initiate the most epic and ham-fisted scramble to get out of trouble probably since “the dog ate my homework.”

First they tried to claim that the kidnapped girls had been rescued only to have retracted that within hours. This is the second time they have tried to pull this.

Then they went for a lie so big it might almost work, except again for having no way to prove it or even prevent it being disproven… They announced that Boko Haram’s leadership had been dispatched with extreme prejudice and the group was rapidly collapsing overnight.

Now by this point in the week there was NO WAY I could believe anything the Nigerian military claims, let alone something as gigantic as that, without outside proof and yet it rapidly circulated in Western media:

The military claims Mohammed Bashir was an imposter posing as Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, thought to have died in 2009

General Chris Olukolade of the Nigerian military said that Mohammed Bashir, who was killed in the latest offensive against Boko Haram, was a lookalike.

The Nigerian military has said that more than 260 Boko Haram militants have surrendered in north-eastern Nigeria.

Purely coincidence that they accidentally lose a ton of cash to South African customs officials, then suddenly start trying to claim they’ve rescued the kidnapped girls, and then when that’s proven false claim they’ve killed the lookalike and real leader of Boko Haram. I’m not sure they grasp how distraction tactics or plausible lies are meant to work work.

By the way: Nigeria and Cameroon’s armed forces have between them claimed to have killed the head of Boko Haram — or one of his doubles — multiple times over 5 years. Some experts think he’s been dead the whole time, like Bruce Willis. Others think he’s still alive.

Meanwhile, the claim that Boko Haram is collapsing was based on an unverified assertion of two separate incidents involving surrenders of fewer than 200 fighters … out of thousands. In contrast to those claims, Boko Haram staged multiple dramatic attacks in the 24 hours following the announcement of their purported collapse.

Wow, that held up all the way to the next day.

Trust us, this time

Again, all of that happened in, essentially, a roughly 7-8 day period preceding September 27. Now, less than a month later, we’re meant to believe that the previously “collapsing” Boko Haram has struck a major ceasefire deal and will be returning the girls, whom we’re told (without much evidence) are being treated well and are fine.

Here’s the thing: These lies matter, and they don’t mean nothing. They are deeply propagandistic, however incompetent, and this means the global media (or Western media, particularly) is complicit in this disgusting charade. There are few if any other countries where false claims of this magnitude are readily and regularly repeated with so little criticism or investigation.

Reporting false or unverified deals with insurgent groups is unwitting propaganda because it makes subsequent lack of progress appear one-sided. As in, if Nigeria’s military announces a deal and then fighting continues, it must be that Boko Haram broke the deal, instead of that there was never a deal because the government and military didn’t put in the work to make it happen. (For all we know, nothing was ever even negotiated!) We see this happen quite often during civil conflicts, as a way to score public approval points.

If a country or military announces a ceasefire or peace deal with rebel or terror group and then peace doesn’t happen, the default assumption is that the rebels/terrorists sabotaged the deal. Which is certainly plausible in many situations, but that assumption actually makes it easier for the authorities to exploit. Thus, governments have an incentive to announce non-serious or even imaginary peace offers as a done deal, to strengthen their “peacemaker” credentials. They get to say “Look, we tried to make peace and they stabbed us in the back!” and then keep fighting, and the media dutifully reports that version of events.

How the media should report on claims by Nigeria’s military
  1. Until Boko Haram confirms a deal and until those kidnapped girls are back, there is no deal.
  2. The Nigerian military lies regularly, constantly, and spectacularly. Anything they assert, at this point, should be assumed false until proven true.
  3. Stop repeating anything they say, without absolute confirmation. Official sources are only worth something when they’re usually reliably factual.

It’s pretty simple. Don’t splash those headlines all over the web, TV, and radio, unless and until you have absolute proof that it’s not made up. Don’t even report unverified “progress” announcements with the caveat that it can’t be confirmed. There’s no room for benefit of the doubt anymore with the Nigerian military’s statements.

We usually don’t see such epic and false proclamations from top military officials except in North Korea, and we don’t see U.S. media outlets unironically and uncritically reporting the claims of wondrous majesty and prowess by the Dear Leader. The claims by Nigeria’s military and government on the situation in northern Nigeria consistently proven untrue within about 48 hours, but buy them a little extra time and faith that isn’t warranted. Stop helping.


#BringBackOurGirls: US will send hostage team to Nigeria

If you want to see a multi-national popular pressure / “awareness” campaign that has actually made a difference, you’ll want to check out the #BringBackOurGirls effort all over social media in the United States and Nigeria.

The northern Nigerian separatist extremist group “Boko Haram” — background briefing here — recently kidnapped over two hundred girls from a boarding school as child brides for their members and sympathizers (and as a source of revenue). The Nigerian government, which has been more or less overwhelmed in the face of wave after wave of massive terrorist attacks by Boko Haram in the past several years, initially responded with relative indifference — essentially writing off the girls as just more unrecoverable casualties of the terrorists.

This prompted very justified outrage within the country — which is Africa’s largest economy, most populous nation, and the biggest power in West Africa — and within the major Nigerian diaspora population in the United States. This led to the creation of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign targeting three groups of people: Nigerian government officials, U.S. media and celebrities, and U.S. officials. After a slow start at the beginning, it caught fire and has gone viral. Tonight in particular, it is finally blowing up on Twitter, especially among celebs, although fortunately the two governments had begun grinding into action already.

The first and third groups of people are, of course, the ones most empowered to do something about the situation. But the celebs and U.S. media are key in force-multiplying the pressure on the U.S. officials. And that’s what we’ve finally seen happen, at very high levels.

Reversing course, Nigeria’s government and (very sizable) military have vowed to make an active effort to rescue the kidnapped girls — which is a huge improvement over the plan to do nothing.

And rather than ignoring the situation (or trying to find a way to bomb the problem away), the U.S. government is making specific and useful commitments to help bring the girls back, by sending a team of experts in hostage negotiation and recovery. According to Thompson Reuters reporting:

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the American embassy in Nigeria is “prepared to form a coordination cell” that would include U.S. military personnel and law enforcement officials with expertise in investigations and hostage negotiations.

The U.S. “coordination cell” also would include people who could provide expertise on providing victim assistance, Psaki said.

It’s a reasonably small and easy commitment to make but it could make a very real difference.

Keep up the pressure. This effort has affirmed, in my mind, that a persistent social media campaign with clear, narrow, and specific goals to mobilize government resources in multiple countries is possible. And it’s a much worthier cause than some of the other viral campaigns we’ve seen.

Unfortunately, the New York Times reported today that Boko Haram has kidnapped more girls in a new, smaller attack. Let’s hope the U.S. effort will result in everyone coming home as safely as possible.

Beyond that and the immediate Nigerian government response, the only true countermeasure in the long-term to the overall terror campaign raging across northern Nigeria will be to inject substantially more development aid and investment into the country’s north. That can provide jobs to disaffected and disenfranchised potential recruits, discouraging them from joining such terrible organizations.

Want to put names to the numbers? Here are 180 names of those girls kidnapped in Nigeria in the initial attack.

Backgrounder: Who are the Boko Haram?

Basic Facts

Location: northern Nigeria (and somewhat into southern Niger, the country to the north, where the U.S. has a military drones base)

  • Northern Nigeria is mostly Muslim, southern Nigeria is mostly Christian
  • Always a tenuous balance of resources distribution and national leadership affiliation (north vs. south)
  • Boko Haram established circa 2003 but only became seriously active in last few years
  • Hausa language name = “Western Education is Sinful.” [Edit, 5/7/14: Apparently, more properly translated from Hausa as “Fraudulent Colonial Education is Sinful,” a local phrase developed in response to British colonialism and the Roman alphabet being imposed into the country’s North.] Full translated name = Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad.
  • They advocate for the imposition of total Sharia law, instead of the partial Sharia found in most northern states in Nigeria.
  • Violent, coordinated attacks against civilian, Christian, educational, political, military, or police targets across Northern Nigeria
U.S. Perspective / Longterm Outlook
  • U.S. government/military asserts close ties to “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (and thus to Arabian funding and Al Qaeda global network) – however, it may be more of a looser affiliation of convenience (see note at bottom).
  • Boko Haram uprising led in 2013 to an invocation of a state of emergency in the entire northern half of the country by Christian president Goodluck Jonathan. He is originally from the Niger Delta region, in the south, which was the site of a much older terrorism campaign by a different group. Pres. Jonathan has sent a lot of troops north, with mixed success.
  • Local leaders in the north say military approach is doomed to fail and only answer is development and job creation.

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