ABUJA — Despite a four-month-old military campaign against the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram, deadly violence continues across parts of northern Nigeria. But with the three most volatile states locked down in a state of emergency, the rest of the country relies on statements from security forces and the insurgent group to know what’s going on. Analysts examine how both sides use the media to improve their chances of winning on the ground.
At a conference in the Nigerian capital last week, army spokesperson Brigadier-General Ibrahim Attahiru tod journalists about a new division of soldiers battling Boko Haram insurgents in the north.
“The division continues to conduct counter-terrorism and counter insurgency operations with a more agile and robust posture to meet the full spectrum of asymmetric warfare challenges,” he said.
The conference is the second in as many weeks, but the first since dozens of students were killed in an attack September 29 in Yobe, one of three states under emergency rule.
Despite the attack, the army said the security situation was “good” and Attahiru urged people to come forward if they had any information that could help the military fight insurgents.
Boko Haram doesn’t hold news conferences. Instead, it distributes videos to journalists, often taking credit for bloody attacks, condemning authorities and issuing threats.
In this late September video, Abubakar Shekau, the man widely believed to lead at least a large portion of militants collectively known as Boko Haram, declared himself alive, despite recent reports of his death.
Shekau has previously advocated for his version of an Islamic state in Nigeria and encouraged militants to kill teachers and administrators of schools that teach subjects like English, math and science.
Clement Nwankwo, the director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Center, said both the military and Boko Haram were providing information to the media not because it’s true, but because it helped their position.
“There’s a constant manipulation of the media that goes on. It makes it difficult for anybody to really say what the truth is. So sometimes when I see things in the media, I’m very cautious,” he said.
Both sides, he said, used the media to project an image of strength, hoping to scare the enemy.
“If you make yourself strong in the media and appear to intimidate your enemies it then means that you are able to put your enemies on the alert,” said Nwankwo.
Boko Haram has been blamed for thousands of deaths since 2009, with attacks on churches, markets, government buildings and, more recently, schools. International rights groups have condemned the violence while criticizing security forces, who they say have reacted to attacks by shooting before making arrests and detaining people without charges or trials.
Wole Olaoye, a journalist in Nigeria for nearly four decades, said the media’s role in this has largely been to report what it was told, with much of the conflict zone being too dangerous for independent observers to operate in.
“What you have now is propaganda. It’s more than information - it’s warfare. Warfare for the minds of the people,” said the journalist.
He said the military would have a better chance of winning the minds of the people if it first won the minds of the journalists that relay the information.
“I’m not saying it should divulge security information, but it should make the media have the ownership of the war. When the media is trusted and they have enough information than it becomes their war,” said Olaoye.
Boko Haram has threatened reporters and media houses that publish stories it doesn't like and in 2012 it bombed several newspaper offices, killing at least nine people.
Nigeria’s press is considered large, unruly and generally free. The trick to using a free press to win a war, Olaoye said, was to get them more information, more quickly than the other side.