“A 9-year-old boy, dressed for school, turns to say goodbye. Within the twinkle of an eye, a bullet from an AK47 rifle makes its way through his body. I watch him drop dead immediately. His crime? He wore a school uniform and was headed for school”.
Sixty-three-year-old veteran journalist Ahmed Juba immediately breaks down in tears as he tries to recall all that had happened that fateful day.
“That was when I knew this is war. I was headed to the office, running after a story, then I held back; I carried the lifeless body of Musa, a story was before me,” he said.
Journalists from the front lines, from the fringes of Madagali in Adamawa State to the trading communities of Potiskum in Yobe State and of course the renown tragic abductions in Chibok in Borno State, narrate the tales of surviving Boko Haram and fulfilling the resilience of a society that lost everything except its sense of hope.
According to a report by the third edition of the Global Terrorism Index, Boko Haram had overtaken ISIS as the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation, accounting for 6,600 deaths, displacing 2.3 million people and forcing 250,000 to flee to Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Invariably Journalists became the under-reported casualties of the tragic insurgence. Channels Television’s Akogwu Enenche and the NTA Cameraman Zakkariyya Isa killed in Borno are popular because of the traction their deaths elicited. However, there are more and more reporters whose tale of resilience is just emerging — tales that explain why the North East became a media black hole. .
The crisis affected the day-to-day activities of media organisations. Jamila Bako said male casters were asked to work in the evenings as the streets were mostly deserted and unsafe for female staff, who had regular encounters with the insurgents, being caught in between the volley of bullets from soldiers and insurgent.
“As a newscaster, I went on air tensed and in most cases, my voice battled with the sound of bomb explosions and gunshots while on air. We then moved our news bulletin from 7pm to 5pm, and the worst part was when our cameraman was killed. The insurgents called us to explain to us why he was killed; they had all our phone numbers.”
Jamila, a middle-career journalist, also narrated how her colleague was asked to visit the family of late Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf’s in-law to inquire the purpose of then President Olusegun Obasanjo’s visit — only for the interviewee to be killed.
“The reporter immediately fled; he was on the run, left Maiduguri to Bama and later moved to Cameroon for safety. That episode was terrifying, residents stopped talking to the press and especially NTA, because talking to the media was signing your own death sentence.”
The terrorists also wanted to be known by a particular name initially and the journalists were told what to do. An instance was when roving reporter, Mariam Aaron, said the insurgents were very upset that journalists called them Boko Haram instead of the name they wanted to be identified with at the start of the crisis: Jam?’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jih?d.
“I was repeatedly called to stop using the name Boko Haram if I wanted to stay alive with my family members,” Aaron, a television reporter said.
“They were very upset to be referred to as Boko Haram, a name they felt was given to them by the West. We were forced to stop calling them the names they hated.”
Amnesty International constantly issues reports about the detention of children and men at Giwa barracks in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, many of them arbitrarily rounded up during mass arrests — often with no evidence against them. Once inside the barracks, they are incarcerated without access to the outside world or trial. A news reporter’s accounts gives credence to what the Human rights agency documents.
Pressman Bello Gaidam was forced to flee Maiduguri to Adamawa and then Yobe after filing a story that ruffled the terrorists so badly he and his immediate family members were penned for death.
“All that needed to happen for us to be raided was for insurgents to attack anywhere on our street. The military will ensure they raided everyone’s home,” he said.
“Every male child was picked up and detained at the ‘notorious’ Giwa Barracks. Most of the kids were in JSS 1 and Jss 2, and they died of suffocation in the process.”
As he spoke, he struggled to hold back tears dredging up the harrowing experience in itself. “We had to contend with Boko Haram and the Nigerian military,” he said. “It was a tough call but we had to, we’ve also asked ourselves: who is the lesser evil?”
Reporting Boko Haram forced him to change his name, identity and looks “but somehow they still knew me, and told me to my face”.
And Maryam Sule, a known radio producer who presents one of the most popular programmes in the region, talks about the misrepresentation of the North East and journalists reporting the conflict..
“We are not talking about the protection of journalists; we are not debating the rights of one reporting conflict; we are saying we were in it, part of it and in it all, tried to perform the surveillance function. Mercy how do you do that? Tell me. We’ve heard people criticise Nigerian journalists from this region; some say we are doing nothing.
“Boko Haram will call me, instructing me on how to file my stories. There was a time I reported the victories of the Nigerian army in Boko Haram-controlled territories. I was immediately threatened to rewrite the story or get killed.”
She also spoke about the welfare of Nigerian journalists, especially those in the northeast region. “I have no insurance at my work place, I have no security protecting me like journalists who visit here. Most of the international journalists are accompanied with more than 10 security personnel. My family is here so at some point I had to listen to them and I was even ready to do what they wanted.”
Journalists in the northeast aren’t only reporting the crisis, they struggled to survive the conflict as well. The key actors, such as the military and the Boko Haram were not all there was to the story. Abdullahi Danlami sheds light about dealing with Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF).
“The emergence of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) also had its implication. The youths wanted all young boys to take part in hunting for the terrorists; we had sleepless nights, we were reporting all that was ongoing and you get random young men knocking at some point threatening to break down your door to enroll your kids and take them to the bush to hunt for terrorists and when you fail to allow your 10-year-old to join, you’re in trouble.
“I must commend the CJTF but it was a nightmare knowing that your kids had to be turned into terrorist hunters. Those that came back alive were never the same. Most of them had to start smoking and drinking, and then you are faced with reporting the crisis when you are also the story. What do you do?”
Danlami added that he then had to sleep in his station for about six months or more and even in the station, there was no security. “I was waiting for the day the terrorists would come take over the station and force us to put them on air!”
These tales highlight some of the tragic and traumatic instances journalists faced while working to tell the multifaceted story of the Boko Haram insurgency.
Editor’s Note: To protect the identity of the journalists, the names in this piece are pseudonyms. However, all the quotes and testaments are true.