Dear General Buratai,
I thank you for inviting media executives and public relations practitioners, through the Deputy President, Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mallam Suleiman Gaya, for the interactive dialogue held in Maiduguri, Borno State last December, 2018. The event was friendly, frank and sincere, towards evolving stakeholders’ engagement and enhancing military-media relations.
However, a few days after the well-attended engagement, the Nigeria Army declared an activist, Dr. Perry Brimah, wanted over alleged fundraising for troops. The military also subsequently invaded the offices of leading national newspaper, Daily Trust, and arrested some of its journalists over an “exclusive” report it had recently published on the counter-insurgency strategy of the Nigerian Army.
I must tell you frankly that these incidences were worrisome and portends a huge minus to the desired mutual military-media relations being striven towards.
It might interest the Army, Sir, to note that similar media indiscretions during the previous administration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan were well-managed, when news editors were inundated with confidential information in the name of exclusive reports.
For instance, on the evening of February 13, 2015, almost four years ago, there was intelligence about a sensitive news story that had been filed to the headquarters of Daily Trust in Abuja by Hamza Idris, a war reporter who doubled as the Bureau Chief of the paper in Borno State and the current Political Editor.
The filed story coincided with the commencement of ruthless military operations in which many Boko Haram terrorists attempting to overrun Maiduguri were eliminated. The Nigerian Air Force had then intensified aerial bombardments of the dreaded Sambisa Forest, leading to the recovery of the towns of Monguno, Marte and others from the terrorists. President Goodluck Jonathan was billed to fly in an airforce helicopter to the liberated towns of Baga, Mubi and others.
At the time, I was assigned by the Security Service to ensure that a sensitive aspect of the filed story concerning special forces was not published. For several hours and into the midnight of that Friday, I was in touch with the Defence Correspondent, Ronald Mutum; the North-East Bureau Chief, Hamza Idris; Daily Editor, Nasir Lawal; and Saturday Editor, Abdulkarim Baba-Aminu, appealing to and finally convincing them of the implications of disclosing such sensitive part of the story to the public.
Lucky enough, in the newspaper published the following day, the sensitive portion of the cover story, which was subject of concern, had been expunged. Dozens of towns were later recovered and President Jonathan flew into Baga, Mubi and other liberated towns to felicitate with the gallant troops. That was when Jonathan honoured the late Lieutenant Colonel Abu Ali for his military prowess and valour.
General Buratai, sir, there were several instances in which the Nigerian media demonstrated excessive patriotism in protecting national security. During that period, Femi Adesina, who was President of Nigerian Guild of Editors and General Chris Olukolade, the Defence Spokesperson ensured that the security services put news editors in confidence about major operations and the media were very supportive treating highly classified information with the delicateness it required. And, those editorial gestures were at NO COST to the government.
Sir, you may be surprised to note that some of the harshest critics of the military during the Jonathan administration were mostly strong supporters of General Buhari’s candidacy for president. They included media practitioner, Omoyele Sowore of Sahara Reporters, civil society actors like Dr. Ahmed Idris of Citizens United for Peace and Stability and Dr. Issa Perry Brimah of Every Nigerian Do Something, among others. Then, the security services tolerated the excesses of critics of the administration to some extent, as some of their outbursts were borne of genuine concerns, which also influenced positive social change and the upgrading of security tactics and strategies.
Meanwhile, on your assumption of office, critics gave the Service Chiefs breathing space for sometime before resuming their “constructive engagements”, not necessarily of the military per se but of you as Chief of Army Staff, after the Zaria Shi’ite massacre and the Dubai property imbroglio.
Surprisingly, some of these persons, who are my good friends, bore me bitter for founding PRNigeria as a platform for alternative narratives on the performance of the military as an institution. Although public relations is a legitimate and profitable communications business, they fail to realise that since the appointment of the current National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno and service chiefs, the Media/PR outfit has never been paid a kobo for managing the reputation of the security agencies and promoting their activities. Yet, PRNigeria takes solace in the fact that we have unfettered access to very top officers and security spokespersons for credible, reliable and timely information in its work.
General sir, you need to establish a better rapport and engage with the media and other critical stakeholders closely, for them to appreciate your efforts as the Chief of Army Staff. Some of them even lack basic information about much of your past accomplishments in commanding troops and in the communities you served. They may have forgotten that as JTF Commander, you stabilised the Niger Delta region, having wrested it from the scourge of armed militancy; that as the Commandant, Nigerian Army School of Infantry, not only did you train cadets on guerrilla war tactics and counter-insurgency manoeuvres, you also endeared yourself to the troops before their eventual deployment as the first special forces to fight Boko Haram in the North-East. Your brief stint as the first Force Commander of the rejuvenated Multinational Joint Task Force, after the recovery of over two-dozen towns from the terrorists, further consolidated our military gains and sustained relationship with neighbours. Your hardline stance and no-nonsense approach to acts of terrorism, even while sustaining the personal losses of your country home in Buratai being burnt and security guard killed by Boko Haram.
The recent altercation of the Nigeria Army and the media is not the first in your tenure as Chief of Army Staff. You may recall that after the arrest of the publishers of Sahara Reporters and Premium Times in February 2017, I wrote an article titled: “Self-censorship and Security Report,” through which I cautioned that as a service chief you should be wary of busy-body consultants and lawyers who may wish to profit from the misunderstanding between the military and the media by instigating the taking of irrational steps. Like I pointed out there: “No one fights the press publicly, especially the credible media, in attempt to enforce censorship, not self-censorship, and gets away with it unscathed.”
In a nutshell, my dear General, the most recent military siege on the media could be well-managed if we consider the sacrifice and risk being taken by editors who have unfettered access to citizens and troops in embattled communities, with information at their disposal on some unpleasant developments in the North-East. They nevertheless remain steadfast and supportive, with fair and occasional self-imposed censorship in their reportage to protect the integrity of the Nigerian security system.
Much of the security challenges that have come up are associated with misinformation, disinformation and the lack of credible intelligence. While the military can claim to have strong weapons, with their guns and bombs, the media actually possesses stronger weapons, with their pens and keyboards, in changing mindsets, engaging in psychological warfare, strengthening the fighting of troops, boosting the confidence of citizens and weakening the morale of terrorists.
Sir, I dare urge that constructive engagement in information management is very essential at this crucial period our dear General, and the soldiers’ soldier.
Once again, I thank you for the last invitation as I wish you a more rewarding New Year and better-managed relationship with all the critical stakeholders in the Nigerian security system, and its administration.
. Shuaib, author of: “An Encounter with the Spymaster,” is a recipient of SABRE African Public Relations Award and International Public Relations Award on Crisis Management and writes from www.YAShuaib.com.