December 29, 2018
The progressively widening and deepening bloodbath in Zamfara State is made even worse by at least three narrative conspiracies that mask the real extent of the heartrending humanitarian disaster the people there are contending with.
The first narrative conspiracy is a media one. The institutional news media in Nigeria lack ready-made, stereotypical mental representations with which to frame the conflict, so they either avoid reporting it altogether or minimize its horrors if they report it at all. The news media thrive on Manichean binaries, conflictual differences, and sensation. The Zamfara mass slaughters don’t lend themselves to that.
It would have made a “better copy” if the murderers in Zamfara were from a different ethnic and religious group from their victims. Imagine a headline like, “Igbo Christian militia kill 200 Zamfara villagers” or “Tiv yam farmers invade Zamfara village, kill hundreds, including district head.” Sure, the headlines would be guilty of sensationalizing and exploiting difference, but they are sadly the only kinds of headlines people are drawn to.
It’s easy to feel righteous indignation toward journalists for exploiting difference as a schema for framing news events, but the truth is that news stories are both texts to be read and commodities to be sold. They won’t sell if they are bland, predictable, and unexciting. Plus, we have been socialized to expect news to be displacement of routine.
In Zamfara, the villains and the victims share common primordial identities—or so the news media think. Nevertheless, it is the same set of people that the news media have (mis)characterized as “Fulani herdsmen” when they slaughter farmers in the Middle Belt and in the South that they simply call “bandits” when they murder men, women, and children in Zamfara.
A headline like “Fulani herdsmen kill farmers in Zamfara” won’t excite passions and might even be dismissed as counterintuitive in some parts of Nigeria since Zamfara farmers are a mix of Hausa, Fulani, and Hausa-Fulani people. A popular Yoruba quip says, “Gambari pa Fulani ko lejo ninu,” which roughly translates as “If a Hausa person kills a Fulani person, there is no case,” implying that the Hausa and the Fulani are indistinguishable and that their internal strife is no outsider’s business. This predisposition has partly informed the reporting on the continuing Zamfara bloodbath.
Nevertheless, a far more insidious strain of this attitude is the conspiracy of silence by the direct and indirect victims of the violence. Several people in Zamfara actively work to suppress news of the mass murders of innocent farmers because they reckon that publication of such tragedies will lengthen Buhari’s catalogue of failures, weaken his estimation in the country, and make him “look bad.” As incredulous as it sounds, people actually fast and pray in the North so that news of mass massacres don’t make it to the news media because of their “love” for Buhari!
In fact, everyday folks who share news and photos of mass slaughters of men, women and children in Zamfara on social media have been threatened by unpaid, unappointed defenders of Buhari in the state. Scores of people from Zamfara inbox me periodically on Facebook and entreat me to help publicize incidents of mass slaughters that have been kept away from the media. I have taken a personal decision not to allow people who are too cowardly to come out in the open to tell the truth about the tragedies that happen in their communities to ride on my coattails. In any case, defenders of the government will always question my locational bona fides to impeach the credibility of such stories.
It is precisely the same scenario that is playing out in Borno and Yobe states. The vocal minority in these states are so hypnotized by their “love” for Buhari that they cover up Boko Haram attacks, threaten people who publicize them, and lie to the world that everything has been hunky-dory since Buhari became president. There is no precedent for this depth of mass stupidity in Nigeria.
Even after the Shehu of Borno told Buhari on November 30 that, “the people of Borno State are still under Boko Haram siege,” that “Nobody can dare move out of Maiduguri by 10 kilometres without being confronted/
attacked by Boko Haram,” and that “Quite a number of farmers are being killed and kidnapped on a daily basis,” several people from Borno still go on social media to lie that Boko Haram is now history in the state.
When people who are the direct victims of an unending sanguinary fury don’t want anyone to acknowledge their pain because of their misguided “love” for a president who swore to protect them but who is either unwilling or unable to do so, others can’t be blamed for honoring their wishes. An African proverb says the most difficult person to wake up is a fully awake person who is pretending to be asleep.
The last narrative conspiracy against the mass murders in Zamfara is government propaganda. The Buhari regime is deeply invested in its mendacious, self-absorbed narrative that it has recorded “tremendous success in the area of security” in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary. So government actively suppresses or minimizes any news that has the potential to give the lie to its claims of success in security.
A Premium Times reporter by the name of Nicholas Ibekwe revealed on Twitter recently that a government minister invited journalists in Abuja, bribed them with N1 million each (he said he rejected the bribe) and pleaded with them to suppress news stories about Boko Haram butcheries in their papers.
Government certainly also encourages the suppression of news about the Zamfara massacres. Government is so invested in the narrative of its “success” in security that President Buhari regurgitates it like a preprogramed robot even when he is commiserating with people who are mourning the loss of loved ones. For instance, while on a forced sympathy visit to Taraba State in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest communal upheavals in the state in March 2018, he said, “Today, even our worst enemy can attest to the fact that the APC-led federal government has done well in the area of security.” It was one of the worst examples of a tragic presidential dissociation from reality.
Buhari is the ultimate blamer-in-chief. After his election at 73, he blamed his age for his slow start. At 74 and 75, he blamed Goodluck Jonathan and “16 years of PDP misrule” for his awful missteps in governance that precipitated a devastating recession. At 76, he has now shifted the blame to the “system.” The man is an expert at shifting cultivation of blames.
The “system” forced him to wait six months to appoint ministers and to not replace ministers who resigned or died. It made him wait three years to constitute governing boards of government agencies and to appoint dead people into them. Several are still unfilled as I write this. The “system” made him to not prosecute Babachir David Lawal, “budget padders,” Maina, etc. The “system” made him to unduly delay forwarding Walter Onnoghen’s name to the Senate for confirmation as Chief Justice of Nigeria until VP Osinbajo saved the day while he was away in London.