Chibok Girls in the De-securitising Paradox of Storming Sambisa Forest
By Adagbo ONOJA
This Special Report follows a slightly different format by starting with the data before raising the problem the data responds to. So, the data takes the whole of the first section, leading us to the second and concluding session.
In a May 11th, 2014 front page lead “Soldiers Storm Sambisa”, Sunday Sun told us how the Nigerian military had begun what it called a massive operation into Sambisa forest amidst growing global scepticism about the military’s capacity to free the girls. What is more interesting about the story written by its reporter in Maiduguri are its riders and there were two of them. One was: ‘Time Ticks for Shekau’ and the other was ‘We’ll Comb the World for the Schoolgirls – Jonathan’. From the point of view of power in conflict management, the interest here is on that component of the story. There is a quote in the report that might be cited as its core: “…Already, USA, UK, China, France, Israel, Spain, Cameroun, Chad, Congo, Benin Republic and others have joined the search. Interpol of Nigeria and other nations are ready to search the whole world to get them”. That was Goodluck Jonathan speaking as president and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. Last point here is how the innovative but frightening fatigue Nigerian troops adorned while advancing into Sambisa last week was also Sunday Sun’s graphic as early as May 2014. Uhm!. Was this photo shopping? It is worth noting how The Nation reinforced every aspect of Sunday Sun’s story on May 11th, 2014 although its own lead was titled “Abduction: Nigeria Rejected Help for Weeks, Says US, UK”. Otherwise, they ran riders saying similar things: ‘No Hiding Place for Boko Haram, Says Jonathan’; ‘MOSSAD, Interpol Join Search for Schoolgirls’ and ‘Cameroun, Chad Says Girls Not in Their Territory’.
The Blueprint reported a slightly different dimension of power presence in a May 12th, 2014 inside page story which it, however, promoted on the front page, “Chibok Girls: Israeli Counter-Terrorism Experts Arrive Soon”. It was reporting Reuben Abati’s statement on a telephone call to President Jonathan by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister. The Nation that day gave a front page treatment to that story as “More Foreign Experts Join Search for Abducted Girls” with the rider: ‘Pope Calls for Prayers’ and went on to do more things. One of that was a front page picture of CNN’s Christine Amanpour and Tony Blair carrying the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ signature tag. In the case of People’s Daily, it was a story with the kicker ‘Abducted Schoolgirls’ then followed with the headline main: “Govt ‘In Contact With Boko Haram’”. It concluded with two riders. One being ‘Rescue Will Be Very Difficult – US Defence Chief’ and the other, ‘We’ll Surely Find Them’.
Blueprint led with “Shekau Gives Condition for Chibok Girls’ Release” on May 13th, 2014, a story with three riders. These were ‘Their Conversion to Islam, War Against Christianity – CAN’; ‘We Are Still Studying Video, Says FG’ and ‘Borno Governor Asks Parents to Verify Clip’. Simply note the power status of all those speaking in this story: Shekau; CAN, the FG and Borno governor.
From The Guardian came the front page lead story on May 22nd, 2014, “US Deploys Troops to Find Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls”. The story had five riders, four out of which were on power players in the Boko Haram story. It goes as follows: ‘UN Security Council to Designate Group Today’; ‘Delegates Reject Swap Deal With Terrorist’; ‘APC Celebrates, Benefits from Terrorism’, Says PDP’ and ‘Obasanjo, Moghae blame Crisis on Poor Leadership, Corruption’. The following day, May 23rd, 2014, The Nation told us in the front page lead, “Chibok Girls: US Air Force Men, Drones Go Into Action”, escorting it with ‘UN Slams Sanctions on Boko Haram’ and ‘Cameroun, Chad Draw Battle Plan’. Again, note the powers mentioned in this story which are the US/US Air Force; UN, Cameroun, Chad and Boko Haram. Still with The Nation on May 24th, 2014 which shouts its presence with a page Three story promoted as lead on the cover, “FG May Swap Boko Haram’s Wives, Kids for Abducted Girls” with the rider: ‘Fact-finding panel meets Chibok leaders, War Commanders’.
The first point to make is how the newspaper selection here is absolutely a convenience sampling which has nothing systematic about it and, therefore, says nothing about the reportorial or corporate standing of any of them. It is completely convenience. The second point is the assumption that, for the issue at stake, what the newspapers reported power brokers as saying on the abducted girls in May 2014 is a sufficient jump off point. One good reason for choosing May 2014 is that it was the period the initial doubt over the kidnapping had cleared. The number involved had also become clear and the power actors were at their best in terms of what each would bring to the table. It was still not the practice in all Nigerian newspapers but the early risers had started counting the number of days on the front page, a very sharp, clever interrogative practice as far as pressure on the state to act is concerned. So, media coverage of Chibok girls drama gives us an idea of the loudness of power on the crisis as to validify or otherwise the contention for resolution in this report.
The reader must have guessed by now that this report has to do with the province of power in the management of Boko Haram rather than an assessment of media coverage of Boko Haram. Though as limited as the sample is, there can be observed clear cases of uncritical stance to news on the part of the media, leading to instances of manipulation of the media and a high incidence of de-contextualised reporting, those are not the issues in context in this report. What is at stake in this report is what a paradox that the mystery forest called Sambisa would be retaken from Boko Haram only to be followed by relative silence on the fate of nearly 200 girls seized from Chibok in Borno State mid-April, 2014! That observable silence is contrary to the observable loudness of power in the early days of the abduction, which the storming of Sambisa should have recreated. Is not the case that silence in the aftermath of the military’s demystification of the spatial image called Sambisa amounts to de-securitising the Chibok girls abduction? To de-securitise means to take an issue off the security threats agenda. Though the point must be made that, aside from the BringBackOur Girls, (BBOGs) movement, it is not that Nigeria itself has ever exploded in symbolic actions on the Chibok girls. That has been a bit incomprehensible because, important as personal cries, prayers and private sorrows are, it is popular action that, ultimately, expand the space of freedom and secures a people.
Does the above ‘evidence’ showing that power was loud in respect of the Chibok girls sometimes back contrary to period after the storming of Sambisa not lead us to pose the question of de-securitisation as a political practice of power when it comes to security? Power here is not defined exclusively in terms of the Nigerian State but the Nigerian State and its security establishment, the international community, the global civil society, peace practitioners and the (global) media. The global is bracketed here not because of disagreement with the category of global media but to distinguish the domestic from the global corresponding to the differing challenges in covering Boko Haram for the two entities. Otherwise, the concept of global media is an uncomplicated one, referring to media platforms that claim the global space in their editorial canvass. The concept of global media should, therefore, not be confused with the notion that the internet has globalised all media. Yes, internet has done that but it is not all media platforms that have defined themselves in terms of global transmission. Some explicitly define themselves the other way.
It could be part of the complexity of negotiating their freedom that has advised all players in the process to maintain tight lips on what next about the remaining Chibok girls but doesn’t that amount to de-securitising the threat to collective humanity that their condition speaks to? Some peace practitioners would argue that raising this question cannot be avoided because to do otherwise is to be complicit with power in the definition of security.
The world is still thrilled by the intervention in the historical debate about what security is, a question they consider more important to answer than what is a security threat. Before the end of the Cold War, some scholars such as Richard Ullman had become very sensitive to the puzzle about what exactly constitutes security. But it was after the Cold War that others sank their teeth into the question. Interestingly, it was not radicals that were yet doing this since neither Ullman nor Professor Barry Buzan (who led the way in the ‘Widening and Deepening’ research agenda in security studies) could be called radicals in an ideological sense. These were mainly realist scholars of International Security. But it was when the critical (not necessarily radical) scholars entered this business that it changed completely.
So much have happened in this that reference can only be made to Professor Ole Weaver’s truly ground breaking theorisation of security as nothing but a speech act. Security and a security threat is not any objective threat standing there as such but what securitisers say it is. It is a speech act, it is the pronouncement that constitutes security, not the other way round. That is basically what Ole Weaver said to the extent that he can be summarised.
Professor Ole Weaver and his students stand the risk of being stoned today were they to be brought to Nigeria and introduced as the scholars of securitisation theory. Because the question would be: do you want to tell us that Boko Haram is not a security threat? Do you want to tell us that we need any securitisers to tell us that Boko Haram is a security threat? But Professor Weaver might answer his interrogators: Why has herdsmen violence not acquired the same threat profiling as Boko Haram even as both of them kill and destroy? Neither the global media, the US, the UN nor the Nigerian State have spoken about herdsmen violence in the same way that they have spoken about Boko Haram even as both have the same dangerous implications, ‘objectively’ speaking.
Then the crowd would most likely embrace instead of stone Weaver and his students. But it would not be over yet for the Norwegian. Why does he make state officials the only securitising voices? Why can’t anyone and everyone securitise? Weaver has tried to answer this question. He has not satisfied everyone. Others have entered the debate. Yet, it is remains a point of controversy. Some, such as Michael Williams at the University of Aberystwyth in the Wales have gone ahead to even consider the media as greater securitisers than state officials. While academics bother about the resolution of that aspect, the question here is how Sambisa brings up the ‘silence’ on the Chibok girls as a case of de-securitisation in the name of security. That is, power is now quiet on the girls for no objective reasons (everything is subjective in securitisation theory) contrary to the loudness of the same set of actors in the past. It all suggests that the meaning of security or of a security threat is not static. It changes. It is subjective as everything else.
Of course, the reader must bear in mind the background to this controversy which is the unending quarrel between realist and non-realist scholarship in International Relations. But it is a quarrel over issues that shape the social world and the quarrels are, therefore, neither theoretical nor just academic. After all, it is theories that sing reality into being. So, we must be interested in theoretical claims and their implications at the popular level. That is, ‘We, the people’ by pressurising the powerful, from the global, continental and national levels to re-securitise the Chibok girls along with whatever discreet processes that might be going on behind the scenes. There is no contradiction between the two.