Nigeria’s security forces and Boko Haram are swapping claims, counterclaims and denials faster than confused journalists can type them up. Finding the facts in the midst of it all is almost impossible, so SIMON ALLISON doesn’t even try; but even analysing the spin tells us a few things about where Nigeria is at the moment.
It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in Nigeria. Even the usually unflappable Reuters News Agency struggled with the latest incident to come out of the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, unable independently to verify any of the claims and counterclaims flying between the principal antagonists.
Here’s what happened. At least 12 people died in some kind of confrontation between Boko Haram and the Nigerian army in Maiduguri, one of Boko Haram’s strongholds. Boko Haram issued a statement claiming the dead were slain soldiers, and that some civilians had been killed as well. “Yesterday (Sunday) we carried out an attack... in the selected areas of Maiduguri where we killed 12 soldiers and many civilians,” Abu Qaqa, the Boko Haram spokesman, told reporters by phone. Remember that name, because it will appear again in this strange story.
If true, this is a major setback for the Nigerian security forces, which have been powerless to stop previous Boko Haram violence. It’s also an almost casual show of strength by Boko Haram; an up-yours to the establishment, which keeps promising to enforce safety and security, but can’t deliver.
But the Nigerian army was quick to deny such a major defeat. Its version of events is rather different. In fact, it’s completely contradictory. “Yesterday soldiers of the Joint Task Force were attacked in Budum ward of Maiduguri by Boko Haram sect members. In the exchange of fire following the attack 12 sect members were killed while two members of the Joint Task Force sustained injuries.”
This is a far more palatable story as far as the security forces are concerned. Their loud and repeated guarantees to protect the civilian population from the violence haven’t been backed up by anything of substance, so 12 dead Boko Haram members would go a long way towards rehabilitating the army’s battered reputation. And it comes after a week of good news that began with the recapture of the man behind the Christmas Day bombing of a church in Abuja, and ended with more astonishing revelations about Boko Haram’s internal disarray – revealed by none other than imprisoned Boko Haram spokesman Abu Qaqa.
So, how did Abu Qaqa claim responsibility for ongoing Boko Haram activity while in prison? Good question. The State Security Service (SSS) took credit for his arrest at the beginning of this month to great fanfare. And since his sojourn as a guest of the Nigerian state, he’s been a fount of information about Boko Haram’s inner workings, and particularly its failings. Like the one this week headlined How 41 million Naira tore Boko Haram apart. It was about how some group members stole about R2-million, most of which was intended for charitable use, and how this was causing huge rifts in the group. Also reported in the article was that the group’s leader distributes the widows of the 'martyrs' to other group members, like handing out candy, keeping the ones he wants for himself. The revelations unfailingly paint a very ugly picture of Boko Haram’s true nature, portraying them as thieves, liars and greedy hoodlums with dubious sexual habits who are happy to take advantage of the poor they claim to represent. The revelations are so damning, in fact, that the SSS would have struggled to come up with worse if they had written Abu Qaqa’s confessions themselves (and not for a moment are we ruling out this possibility).
So, as far as the security forces are concerned, Abu Qaqa is locked up safely and whoever is speaking on behalf of Boko Haram now is just using his name. One official went so far as to suggest that Abu Qaqa is just the name under which Boko Haram releases all statements; an alias that can be assumed by whoever needs it.
Again, Boko Haram has a rather different version of events. It claims the SSS has managed to confuse itself, and that sitting in custody is not Abu Qaqa but another senior Boko Haram member called Abu Darda. Abu Darda is apparently head of Boko Haram’s “department of public enlightenment” supposed to handle negotiations with the government. Boko Haram – through mystery spokesman Abu Qaqa – said this is a sign of bad faith on the part of the government and that proposed negotiations are just a trap to arrest more Boko Haram members.
So who’s right? Who is in prison? Did 12 soldiers die in the latest attack, or 12 militants? Is Boko Haram making it up as it goes along, or is Nigeria trying to spin its way out of a PR nightmare?
The truth, as so often happens, is lost in the myriad details. The one thing we probably know for sure is that neither Boko Haram nor the Nigerian authorities are telling it. DM
- Nigeria’s sect Boko Haram says kills 12 soldiers on Reuters Africa.
- How 41m Naira tore Boko Haram apart in Nigeria’s Vanguard.
Photo: People walk past burning roofsheets. Standoffs between Boko Haram and the Nigerian army are commonplace. REUTERS.