It did not seem to belong here. Not in a democracy, where President Muhammadu Buhari has vowed to be penitent and born again. He had pulled off the soldier’s slough and replaced it with the flamboyant sobriety of the babaringa.
I recalled the famous world press conference and the martial flourish of his fury: “The press? I will tamper with it.” His face, screwed into a scowl, promised coals of fire.
It brought my mind to the nervous days of the soldiers. The Daily Trust of all newspapers was shut down. I scurried to read the news item that triggered the episode. I didn’t see anything and I know enough of this business to detect what harms national security and what endangers the army in the maelstrom of war. The report contained nothing sudden, nothing surprising. It did not endanger the soldiers.
I learnt the top brass of the army had met with some editors and provided them perhaps classified information about an impending sortie. If that counterattack involved a massive troop deployment on land and in the air, and its intention was to retake Baga and a slew of territories Boko Haram had corralled in the past weeks, I don’t see anything classified about it. It did not speak of operational details like time of each ground attack, routes, names of officers, types of weaponry, etc. most of the story is familiar, and a backgrounding flavoured by the reporting of the past weeks.
Eventually, the army did attack, and took back some of the territories including Baga. Journalism often has to be wary not to play the tortoise that knows too much and sets its own house on fire. Journalists also understand that they need a country to survive in order to perform their duties.
But the tendency in this profession is for those who think they know more than the professionals to tutor us on the limits of liberty. Boko haram had unleashed a gale of attacks resulting in the outpouring of Nigerians onto the main towns, especially Maiduguri. A state of bloody augury had engulfed the state, and the army had been caught off again. An Mi35 fighter jet had fallen, soldiers eviscerated, army posts sacked. Nigerians were on edge again with images of the slaughter and rapine of the Jonathan era. A sense of our military collapse terrified those who had thought we were past these moments of anxiety. “Something startled where we thought we were safest,” wrote novelist George Lamming. Safety had given way to waves of ragtag butchery again.
In these circumstances, did we not expect the army to launch counterattack, and had the military not assured Nigerians they would regain the lands, and was that a massive attack what should follow? Was that not what Daily Trust did?
Those who defend the army in one breath for rage over the publication should understand that the Daily Trust story did not endanger anyone, including our military. It only reported a coming offensive, without reports of details and strategy. Even well-known armies, including the United States, have been known to even announce strategies ahead of war. For instance, Collin Powell as the chairman of Joint chiefs of staff, belched out ahead of the Iraqi war under the late George H. W. Bush: “Our strategy for defeating the Iraqis is very simple: First we are going to cut them off, then we are going to kill them.” The details were a different kettle of fish.
Now Buhari ordered the army to lift its siege to Daily Trust. From the presidency’s reaction, it was obvious the army acted without consulting the commander-in-chief. He may be a repentant soldier, but his lieutenants need to follow Buhari’s credo when he was a GOC in Jos. Then he defied his boss in Lagos and asked soldiers to start reading the Constitution of Nigeria. His officers need to read the Constitution. The officers didn’t on the Daily Trust matter and they should have known that this is a democracy, and press freedom is tenet. The army was trying to divert attention of its failures on an innocuous news report. They focused on the hoodlums and sacked them, and that is great news, and it shows that we need discipline from the army, not punishment of editors.
What is more worrisome is that this lack of operational or strategic discipline is creating two contrary trends in Borno State. One, is the massive work of Governor Kashim Shettima’s infrastructural repair and renewal, the educational rebirth, and a new mushrooming of housing projects going on in the state, especially since the Buhari administration took charge and won a breath of victory that prompted an earlier infantile boast that Boko Haram had been defeated. Is it the roads and highways that had been done?
The schools like Yerwa Girls Secondary School with ecstatic young pupils in an ambience of new, air-conditioned classrooms, and tiled floors and walls shimmering with new paints? Or is it a school also in Maiduguri that Governor Shettima wants to name after either Angela Merkel or Michelle Obama? A school of hostels, quadrangles, bullet-proof doors, dining blocks, kitchen, air-conditioners and fans, high walls that would make a Chibok girls redux a suicide attempt. Schools like these are all over the state. What of the housing projects that have been all over the state to absorb the many displaced citizens of the past years of depredations.
This explains why Shettima spoke with liquid eyes to President Buhari on the Boko Haram torments and the fear that all the billions of Naira, imagination, physical exertions of the past few years may dissolve with onslaughts of the zealots. Shettima’s likely successor Umara-Zulum has been in the trenches as the commissioner in charge of reconstruction and must be aghast at the omen of war flushing out all that he has risked life and limb to achieve.
On network television, Shettima noted that the urgency of handling the war on terror. We recall he once said in the Jonathan era that our soldiers were outmanoeuvred, and outrun by the enemies. Today, with huge resources deployed, many analysts want to know what happened. It is still a conundrum to many.
The war on terror cannot be won by just arms alone, even if we need a lot of it. It cannot be won by soldiers alone, although we have too few of them. We must look at whether accountability of money and men is taking place. Are some people not seeing the war as cash cow?
Knowledge is a principal weapon of war. We need to have our intelligence to work. The attacks have come because they surprise us, a la Metele. So, we don’t want the riotous rhythm of gains and losses. Today they come and conquer. Tomorrow, we ache and take back. It is the sort of thing that philosopher Friederich Nietzsche has described as “eternal return.” We have been through this before and we may go there again. That is not the way of progress.