Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea?

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By Aliyu Dahiru Aliyu

Initially, I didn’t want to say anything about Kadaria Ahmed’s controversial comment on the Zamfara Bandits documentary by BBC Africa Eye program. The comment was lengthy, and I don’t have enough time to dissect every aspect of her argument and do it justice. However, the way it trended after it was published by many new media platforms, including the page of her brother-in-law and Kaduna state governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, made me reconsider not answering some of the questions sent to me by my friends trying to understand my perspective as a conflict reporter with firsthand experience on the dynamics of conflicts in Northwest Nigeria, particularly in Zamfara state, which has been identified as a new epicenter of violence. Her lengthy comment, which she wanted someone working for the BBC in London to take note of, was so influential that I believe it was the driving force behind the Nigerian government’s decision to penalize the BBC and Daily Trust, which had previously done similar work.

As a conflict reporter, I’ve always been asked perplexing and sometimes naive questions that paint my job as a trap between the devil and the deep blue sea. Conflict reporting and counterterrorism research are two of my professional endeavors that I think are the most controversial. People regard professionals searching for the causes of terrorism as simplistic, and some even refer to their efforts as attempts to justify terrorism. Others have frequently asked for my sources, and when I show them that it is not as difficult or dubious as they think, they are usually disappointed because they did not get the corners they expected from me.

Throughout my experience as a conflict reporter, I learned that the profession is not as controversial as it appears. A media outlet reporting on conflicts is not attempting to spread propaganda, but rather to inform the public about the true causes of terrorism, which go beyond assumptions and accusations. Conflict reporting, like searching for a cure for cancer, delves deeper into understanding the complex environmental and other social factors that contributed to the emergence and spread of violence. The ultimate goal of the job is to bring to light all of the issues that are impeding authorities from protecting the lives of innocent people.

As I previously wrote elsewhere, accusations of being mouthpieces for terrorist organizations and of undermining the success of government forces have been major sources of concern for conflict reporters who are most familiar with what is happening on the frontlines. While the service they provide aims to raise the voice of the voiceless and portray the true image of victims, some readers, whether intentionally or unintentionally, choose to ignore the hard work they do. Conflict reporters face the difficult choice of professionally reporting the true picture of events that have direct consequences on people’s lives while also combating terrorist propaganda that seeks to disseminate its messages through the media. Reporters always weigh the risks of concealing and revealing stories in order to give adequate attention to the voiceless victims of terror.

While I expect other laypeople to question the ethical principles on which the BBC documentary on Zamfara Bandits was filmed, I never expected Kadaria Ahmed to be one of them. She is such a woman who is regarded as having a deeper understanding of journalistic experiences that her previous employment experience should never have clouded her reasoning into attacking what everyone has clearly understood. Except for government propagandists, no one has noticed the flaw she saw in the documentary. A journalist of her caliber should also be aware that the documentary revealed nothing new other than what other conflict reporters already knew.The only difference is that BBC Africa has a larger and more international audience than other platforms for conflict reporting. If the documentary attempted to show anything new, it was the causes of what has evolved from banditry to full-fledged terrorism and attempts to incite ethnic violence.The film did not glorify terrorists or whitewash their actions.

Some of Kadaria’s claims made me wonder if she really watched the documentary religiously. And when she asked why the reporter refused to notify authorities of the terrorists’ whereabouts, I realized she had a limited understanding of the situation. Is Kadaria of the opinion that terrorists who have been turbaned by traditional authorities at the presence of police officers are far from security agencies? These terrorists are not as far away as Kadaria thinks. She should travel to her home state of Zamfara and ask locals how far it is to the bandits’ hideouts. Dr. Ahmed Gumi met with Bello Turji at the same time security officers say they were looking for him.

The conflict in Zamfara is not as simplistic as Kadaria has demonstrated. She is looking at it from a single point of view. The conflict was not limited to “terrorists” versus peaceful residents. The documentary was more than just filming terrorists to spread their propaganda or glorify their heinous crimes. Instead of focusing on the documentary’s ethical principles by riding on the Jangebe abduction narrative, Kadaria should question why authorities are not stepping up efforts to protect civilians from terrorist attacks.

Instead of appreciating the efforts of a journalist attempting to resolve a conflict which has affected him from both sides, Kadaria interpreted an honest piece attempting to narrate events as strategic maneuvering to support the spread of propaganda, despite the fact that we all know that the first stage of solving a problem is understanding it. Her statement that the authorities are not listening and that we should avoid reporting it is equivalent to saying that we should stop speaking out against corruption because the authorities have not stopped and some people are attempting to imitate them.