Thursday, October 2, 2014

Vanguard’s Boko Haram reportage as propaganda

By Okechukwu Nwafor

It is necessary to cast our memories back to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 to understand more deeply the corrosive effect of acts of propaganda. In doing this we need to note very carefully how the Rwandan state framed genocide through the media. It is already well known that the Hutus’ willingness to take part en masse in the genocide had little to do with material calculations; it had everything to do with a ruthlessly efficient system of propaganda, and perhaps the misuse of Rwanda’s dangerous history to mystify the sources of social conflict in contemporary Rwanda.  

Historians eventually concluded that the perpetrators of Rwandan genocide understudied their history, and were skilful propagandists. Radio broadcast, for example, created an atmosphere of fear by repeatedly reporting that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which comprised mainly of Tutsi refugees who came back from Uganda, were attacking unarmed civilians and wanted to wipe out the Hutu of Rwanda in a campaign of ‘ethnic purification’. This singular broadcast ignited the killing spree by the Hutus who massacred the Tutsis in their thousands.  In just 100 days, almost one million mainly Tutsi were murdered. It was estimated that about 70% of Tutsi population was exterminated in the genocide. It could be established that the search for a secure form of identity was not the sole or even the main cause of Rwandan genocide of 1994 but the government deployed this tendency to rally and coerce many Hutus to kill their neighbouring Tutsi, through acts of propaganda. The above analysis is very crucial in our understanding of what I have chosen to describe as ‘propaganda’ by the Vanguard Newspaper in their Boko Haram reportage. I have incontrovertible facts to back my proposition.

On 10 September 2014, while other newspapers bore captions promoting the gains made by the Nigerian military against Boko Haram, The Vanguard newspaper undermined these gains in their news. For example, while The Nation newspaper started its news article with, “Attempts by the insurgents to hit Vimtim, Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh’s village, were repelled by troops”, Vanguard started with: “The military, yesterday, engaged the Boko Haram terrorists in a fierce battle at Vimtim....”  Obviously the levels of severity in the two reports are anything but incongruous. The words ‘attempts’ and ‘repelled’ as used by The Nation and the phrase “ fierce battle’ as used by The Vanguard are disagreeable metaphors of calculated moderation and excessive distortion respectively. To further endorse their apparent bias, Vanguard went ahead and added, in the middle of the news: “We are in control of Bama, Michika, Mubi - Boko Haram”. This negativity was only found in the Vanguard report of that day and never in any other news print in Nigeria. The victory by the Nigerian military may have never been as potent as that of 10 September in the history of the fight against Boko Haram, yet Vanguard insisted on Boko Haram’s control over large territories. 

In a similar vein, Vanguard on its 15 September, 2014 news concerning the missing aircraft of the Nigerian army reports: “Sources told Vanguard that the (AA) anti-aircraft guns used by the Boko Haram insurgents may have been used by the terrorists on the aircraft.” This submission aims to terminate the least bastion of public faith in the Nigerian military. Not only that the major part of the 15 September report impugns the reigning narrative of victory by the Nigerian military, the journalistic mentality is conspicuously opposed to other news report on that same day such as The Nation newspaper’s which reads:  “Villagers in Lala State Development Area in Adamawa State claimed yesterday to have seen the wreckage. An administrative officer in Gombi Local Government Area of Adamawa State said villagers assisted a military search team in an effort to locate the plane after rumours that it crashed between Ngalga and Barda in Gabun ward.” The same Vanguard report also contradicts The Punch of the same 15 September which says: “An Air Force source said the plane was found through the help of some villagers.” Going through the entire report of The Punch, there is no indication of any tone of despondency as suggested by Vanguard reports. The question is why did Vanguard avoid a report suggesting that there were search efforts to locate the plane or why didn’t Vanguard show a slightest verisimilitude of hope expressed in the field as reported by The Nation, The Punch and others?  This is only if the Vanguard reporters are ever on the field to access primary news; does it mean that their journalists are armchair reporters who prefer to feed the public with secondary news especially as it concerns terror fighting in Nigeria? 

There is a problem in the Vanguard report on Boko Haram. It is obvious that their reporters are not happy with the glory the government enjoyed in the fight against terror, especially as it is credited to President Jonathan. Their terror reports resonate with an air of despair and pathetic vulnerability thus obliterating the slightest promise of credence the military would have enjoyed. They, thus, valorise Boko Haram’s deadly exploits. To prove this, on 20 September 2014, Vanguard reported thus:  “Boko Haram, which has seized swathes of territory in Borno and in neighbouring Yobe and Adamawa states, has been running short of food....Their insurgency has claimed more than 10,000 lives since 2009 and left more than 700,000 homeless”. The unfortunate part of this report is that it reminded us of the historical fatalities, in human numbers, of Boko Haram onslaughts without a veritable source that can be confidently cited.  While this may not be our worry, it is obvious that by amplifying the colossal human damage, it intends to degrade the military might and inject an air of discontent in the system. This is an act of propaganda. 

One can go on recounting such Vanguard’s unhidden predisposition towards the violent sect in almost all their reportage. While the general public is becoming discontented with this unwholesome journalistic tendency, it is necessary for the editorial board of Vanguard to have a rethink. Journalism must be balanced for it to make a meaningful impact in the society. Again, in critical and sensitive matters of national concern caution must be applied to avoid heating up the polity. This may suggest that the nature of reportage in our local fight against terrorism must be geared towards halting the spate of violence. This will enable Nigeria avert crisis similar to the Rwandan genocide which was obviously occasioned by the media campaign aptly crafted as propaganda by critical historians.

Dr Okechukwu Nwafor, a Senior Lecturer and former Research Associate at ICGC, University of Minnesota, is the current Head of Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka.  Email:

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