Is Boko Haram Gasping for Breath or What?
With a return with vengeance involving a successful strike in Adamawa last Friday and in Maiduguri today, Sunday, Boko Haram compels the question as to whether it is gasping or has reinforced and come back to slug it out with the Nigerian military. The lack of carpet coverage of the counter insurgency (COIN) operation against Boko Haram by the Nigerian and even the global media might have created a false sense of security as to the true state of the war but most observers of the COIN would say the military has devastated the insurgents. Statements emanating from the military high command indicate the day of reckoning seems to be at hand. The Chief of Army Staff is pointing at returning troops to the barracks by early 2017. For Major-General Lucky Irabor, the commander of Nigeria’s counter-insurgency operation, troops have entered the definitive phase of the test of strength, a reference to Sambisa forest believed to be where Boko Haram has fortified itself. In other words, this should be the closing phase at last notwithstanding desperate operations such as was carried out last week in Madagali and the one reported earlier today.
Normally, terror groups are never able to hold their own against the fire power of the war machine of the typical state. Hence, their resort to devastating style of communication with state power by targeting marginal groups even as the capture of state power is their goal, irrespective of the advertised ideology. Very rare has any terrorist group succeeded in capturing state power. Guerrillas have successfully captured state power but not a terrorist group yet. And this might be the problem Boko Haram could be facing: a highly factionalised group which may be considering many options although its ability to master a successful strike in each of Adamawa and Borno is worrisome. It raises the question of whether we have not been led into a false sense of security in relation to how determined the rump of Boko Haram might be and how this war might become a total war in need of more than men under arms to vanquish Boko Haram.
In that sense, many would say that one major feature of the military operation against Boko Haram is missing. That is the near exclusion of the media from the process. As such, an operation that has been on since 2009 has none of those interviews, game changing pictures, dramatic moments, dramatic surrenders and other such turning points and quotable quotes from the theatre of battle. Not only that, the representation of Boko Haram as well as the Nigerian military and its successes remains clumsy, generally. It is doubtful that the Boko Haram in action now is still the Boko Haram that the Nigeria Police engaged in 2009. But, the question of who or what or which Boko Haram is sustaining the fight against the Nigerian State lies in speculation. Above all, the absence of media coverage of the war means that the media’s narrative of Nigeria in the context of the war can hardly be ascertained.
Beyond that, terrorism is essentially a communicative event. That is, without the media, there could still be a terrorist attack on Madagali market in Adamawa, with the same or even worse casualties but such an attack would, in all likelihood, take more than a month before anybody outside that locality hears about it. By then, the message of fear and intimidation would have evaporated. In other words, without the modern media, terrorism would not work for terrorists. Similarly, in a war on terror, the media is at the heart of it, depending, of course, on how it is deployed.
The ferocious nature of Boko Haram and the frightening prospect of reporting a war against it might explain the near total absence of the media from the war front. This is more so that very few Nigerian journalists are well paid or insured as to muster the high mindedness that underpins such an absolutely risky undertaking, even if the military had made arrangement for embedding journalists. But these are challenges Nigeria cannot run away from in spite of the risky implications. It goes against the powerful wisdom that has borne fruits for other nations and which is that in the age of the military-industrial-communication-entertainment complex, (MICEC) as opposed to the more known Military-Industrial-Complex, (MIC), it is neither possible nor advisable to keep the public out of the conduct of wars because it is the media itself that determines the victor and the vanquished. In the language of its scholars, information management has become a major part in war strategy, involving the deployment of the media to get tactical advantage over the enemy in the public sphere.
The media coverage of war seems to be one area where there will always be tension between the media and the military/government but it is in the management of that tension that some accommodation is worked out. Without the drama from the war front, how does the government show up Boko Haram for what it is and be more able to conscientise the populace and ensure its defeat in the popular minds? Today, it is Boko Haram, tomorrow, it could be some other sub-nationalistic forces engaged in subversion.