At a seminar organized by the Institute of Security Studies, Bwari, Abuja recently, Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima listed seven conspiracy theories about the insecurity in Nigeria and encourages efforts to dismiss them. They are below:
To my mind, the most ignored, yet very dangerous threat to our Nation’s internal security and governance is the open and reckless linking of security issues with all kinds of conspiracy theories by the political class, to which I belong. Conspiracy theories are oftentimes effective and what makes them effective is the fact that they are usually built around certain logic that appeal to the moral, social and cultural emotions of a particular group of persons at an appropriate time. Those who know how to design conspiracy theories try to manufacture falsehood or assemble some instances that could have happened. They take these instances out of context so that the new context will fit into a narrative. They package narratives so well that a conspiracy theory would often sound more believable than the truth even if the truth were obvious. In Nigeria, we normally laugh and take these theories for granted. Perhaps, majority of us tend to ignore that conspiracy theories do not only sink into the minds of a large number of followers but they in fact equally manipulate the minds of some of those in positions of leadership. At the end, leaders who should solve problems become deliberately blind, deaf, and dumb. They attempt to neither understand problems nor care to solve them. After swallowing conspiracy theories, all that is left is to emphasize the magnitude of a crisis and point-accusing fingers to assumed culprits.
Ladies and gentlemen, politically inspired conspiracy theories are to me, amongst the principal obstacles to solving our recent security challenges. I will seek your patience in attempts to refresh our minds with some examples.
As Governor of Borno State, I think I should, with your understanding, focus on theories relating to the Boko Haram insurgency.
Boko Haram as plot to make Nigeria ungovernable for Ex-President Jonathan
I will like us to recall events in the build up and the aftermath of the 2011 Presidential elections. In the months of June and August 2011, the Boko Haram carried out separate attacks on the headquarters of the Nigerian Police Force, and the UN headquarters in Abuja. Immediate reactions to these attacks were open claim of a plot by northern politicians to make Nigeria ungovernable for President Goodluck Jonathan because the north had lost power to the south. Creators of this conspiracy theory quickly made reference to a certain online news, which reported that a northern PDP chieftain from Katsina, the late Lawal Kaita, had threatened that, Nigeria would be ungovernable if PDP jettisons its zoning arrangement in favour of Jonathan and against the north.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have tried to establish the credibility of that report but my search points to attribution of the same threat to two northerners who aspired for the 2011 Presidency.
Northerners killed themselves to frustrate Jonathan
My potential conclusion was that the so-called threat merely aligned with the theory of northerners killing their own people and making their communities unsafe mainly to frustrate President Jonathan. This conspiracy theory was openly marketed to millions of fellow Nigerians especially those who lived in the south. Proponents of this theory ignored the fact that although the Taliban as Boko Haram was then nicknamed, had attacked police stations in Yobe, Borno and Kano States in 2003, 2004 and 2007 respectively; the deadliest of their attack took place in July, 2009. That was when they declared Jihad in Maiduguri during the regime of late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua, a Northerner from Katsina State.
Unfortunately, the conspiracy theory of Boko Haram being a Northern agenda continued to grow from strength to strength. It reached an extent that some highly placed persons in the then federal government also bought into it.
Boko Haram was set up to eliminate Christians in the North
As I inferred during my Murtala memorial lecture last year, it appeared to me in 2013, that perhaps His Excellency, President Goodluck Jonathan himself may have initially saw Boko Haram as a sort of agenda rather than terror. For instance, when he visited Borno State on Thursday, 13th of March, 2013, the President requested to meet with officials of the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Jama’atul Nasril Islam and his body language indicated he wanted to meet the groups differently. He neither invited nor stopped me from participating but I understood he wanted to be alone with each group and he did the night of his arrival. I should acknowledge that to his credit, President Jonathan was on a fact-finding mission. During his courtesy call the following day, the President revealed that leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Borno State had told him that Boko Haram fighters were not targeting only churches and Christians, but rather, they had attacked many Mosques and killed many Muslims. The President went further to say that from his interactions; the Boko Haram had actually attacked more majority Muslim communities in Borno State. The President’s revelation was an indication that he probably did not understand the crisis before his meeting with the CAN leadership in Borno. I am not in position to say whether his initial understanding affected his response to the crisis between 2011 and 2013.
Boko Haram sponsored by Jonathan to prosecute genocide in North
Ladies and gentlemen, a year after President Jonathan’s trip to Borno State came a far more dangerous conspiracy theory. In April 2014, then Governor of Adamawa State, retired Vice Admiral Murtala Nyako reportedly authored a memo he titled, “On-Going Full-Fledged Genocide in Northern Nigeria” the whole of which was published by Premium Times. The memo introduced a serious allegation that the Jonathan Presidency was behind massive killings in the north. Nyako’s memo came at a time when attacks on northern communities by Boko Haram were on their largest scale and they looked unstoppable. That conspiracy theory naturally raised concerns because Nyako was not just a former service chief but he was credited for setting up a military intelligence unit of the Nigerian Navy. Some northerners believed Nyako’s theory and celebrated him while others did not. I remember disagreeing with his theory in an interview published by Sunday Trust of May 4, 2014.
Soldiers were behind the increasing attacks in northern Nigeria
Let me recall, that before Admiral Nyako’s theory, one man claiming to be a soldier granted a radio interview to the Hausa service of Voice of America. He made wild allegations that his colleagues, soldiers, were behind increasing attacks on communities in northern Nigeria. It was another theory against the Jonathan Presidency. I remember dismissing that interview in a statement published February 8, 2014.
Chibok girls never abducted; hidden at Borno Government House
Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it is perhaps important to note, that Nyako’s memo came at a time when another conspiracy theory was sold to Nigerians. It was in reaction to the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls at a Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State on April 14, 2014. As most of us here may have heard or read, a good number of persons close to the Presidency expressed doubts over the Chibok abduction. As for those who believed it happened, a conspiracy theory was immediately cooked up, alleging that the APC masterminded the abduction in order to destroy the Jonathan Presidency and return power to the north. In fact, some persons publicly alleged, that the girls were hidden at the Government House in Maiduguri under my watch. I thought the whole theory was a joke. However, I became disturbed when in my presence at the Presidential Villa in May, 2014; the President himself harassed Borno’s Commissioner for Education and Principal of the school, clearly raising doubts about the abduction. I however must acknowledge, that it was to the President’s credit, that a non politically partisan fact finding committee was set up on the Chibok abduction. The committee had serving and retired intelligence officers, and representatives of local and international bodies. A good number of persons believed to be close to the Presidency served as members. At the end, the committee not only established that the abduction took place but also unraveled the circumstance and who to blame for it.
Nevertheless, let me add, that in spite of that presidential fact finding committee, there were still many Nigerians particularly in some parts of the country who did not believe there was ever abduction in Chibok. This, ladies and gentlemen, should remind us of the power of conspiracy theories in the manipulation of citizens.
I think majority only came to admit the Chibok abduction after a similar incident happened in February 2018 when over 100 schoolgirls were abducted in Dapchi, Yobe State, under an APC led administration that is presided by a northerner.
Dapchi girls abduction stage-managed by APC administration
Ironically and disturbingly, we have heard and read about another conspiracy theory with respect to Dapchi. A month after the abduction, the PDP national leadership issued a statement alleging that the abduction and release of schoolgirls in Dapchi was stage-managed by the APC administration, perhaps, to show competence as against the Chibok incident under the PDP. Originators of that theory ignored the fact that not only was the Dapchi abduction a major blow to the APC Presidency, the refusal of Boko Haram to release Leah Sharibu over her faith was, and still a major problem. One might ask, if the APC stage-managed the abduction to prove competence why then will it allow the only Christian schoolgirl held back despite the serious political implications and our relationship with western allies that are majority Christians?
Fulani president gives Fulani herdsmen authority to kill Christians
Talking religion, I suppose, brings me to another ongoing conspiracy theory. This concerns persistent and unfortunate killings by satanic armed bandits in places like Benue, some parts of the North Central, Zamfara and Kaduna States. The current narrative is that Fulani herds-men have been given free hand by a Fulani led President, to attack majority Christian communities in northern Nigeria. Originators and promoters of this theory ignore the fact that the same mass murderers have been sacking communities and killing hundreds of people in Muslim majority Zamfara State. They also ignore the fact that a good number of the indigenous people of Zamfara State have Fulani ancestry even by their looks. The originators equally ignore that these affected States are part of the President’s political base where he has always raked in votes. The President did well in Benue back in 2015. What then will he benefit is he loses the goodwill of Benue ahead of the 2019 election? There are persons, who rightly point to the President’s delay in visiting Benue State after these attacks. If I were to respond, I will say that until October last year, the same President didn’t visit Borno even when Borno has been the most troubled State in Nigeria and his strongest political base in the northeast. His visit in October was restricted to the military barrack, not even an IDP camp. I think the President has his own style of governance which not everyone, including members of his party totally agree with. However, it would be most unfair to raise questions about his nationalism and love for all masses of this country. Supporting attacks on any community in Nigeria is not a character ever associated with President Buhari.
Persistent ethnic and communal killings as some experts have pointed out are partly due traced to a competitive race for shrinking agro- economic land resources. Between the early 80s and 90s, Nigeria’s population was hovering around 73 to 95 million citizens. In less than 30 years, our population has sky rocketed with an increase of over 100 million people. Meanwhile, as we have increased to nearly 200 million now, the land resource for farming and cattle grazing was not even the size we had when we had far lower population. Land for agriculture is being lost every day. More settlements of humans are taking over outskirts that used to be farmlands and grazing routes. Rivers and Lakes, which used to provide access to water for fishing and Irrigation farming, are continually receding. These environmental challenges deepen poverty and frustration. Weak citizens take up arms to become criminals in all forms of activities that include rural armed banditry, cattle rustling and kidnapping. To cap it up, proponents of conspiracy theories exploit the frustration of victims of these crimes. They sell to them narratives that are politically motivated, tell them who to blame for their problems. Out of frustration, citizens go bloody.
How to tackle dangerous conspiracy theories
Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, the more important question we should ask at this point is what is the way forward.
To my mind, the starting line is the federal executive, the legislature, the judiciary, other leaders and all well-meaning citizens recognizing conspiracy theories as very serious problems that threaten our nation’s security. The main thrust is that these theories violently incite citizens against themselves and incite citizens against institutions of Government, especially security agencies. The theories block citizens from understanding issues bothering on their own security and manipulate painful situations for political goals. Ultimately, effective governance becomes difficult because some citizens tend to be suspicious of every policy. We are all living witnesses to the ethnic, religious and regional-based reactions that trailed the federal government’s plans for cattle colonies. To be blunt, support and opposition against cattle colonies policy was nearly along the north and south. Within the north, it was almost along religious lines with majority Christians opposed to it and Muslims in support. All of these happened because a conspiracy theory of Muslim majority Fulani herds-men allowed to freely kill Christians without being stopped by their kinsman has been sold and bought. This theory has deeply penetrated some Nigerians in a section of this country. The conspiracy theory has also led to divisive reactions, which I am afraid, could go on until after the 2019 elections. We must admit that conspiracy theories heighten public vulnerability to communal violence and they attack our creed of unity that many Nigerians had laid their lives in trying to preserve and defend.
The second step would be for the National Security Council to build a consensus around the Legislature. We need laws that will strongly criminalize conspiracy theories and create legal framework for whoever spreads them to be prosecuted in court unless he or she is able to proof such theories with incontrovertible evidence. The legislation should come up with stiff penalty for those found guilty of spreading theories that can incite citizens against themselves and Government institutions. However, I should add that we must be very cautious in how we go about it. Such legislation should be restricted mainly to issues of security so that we do not undermine constitutional freedom of expression. In addition, the law must never come from the executive. I can assure you that any attempt by the executive to criminalize conspiracy theories will be fought through the introduction of another conspiracy theory. The Senate and House of Representatives have got committees that deal with our military, police and para-military establishments. Lawmakers in these committees can be persuaded to introduce bi-partisan legislation. The lobby instrument is that any Nigerian can one day become a victim of these conspiracy theories.
Ladies and gentlemen, I will also suggest the need, if not already in place, that the National Security Council identifies and pencils down names of patriotic and respected Nigerians at least one from each of our 109 Senatorial Districts who should be advocates of national security conscience. They should preferably be detribalized senior lecturers in our Universities who must not be cornered to promote any Government establishment or political party. Their job should be limited to factual enlightenment of vulnerable Nigerians whenever serious issues of national security arise.
Your Excellencies, our dear course participants, ladies and gentlemen, it is my hope that I have not wasted your time by introducing this perspective. From experience, I have come to recognize that conspiracy theories are serious hindrances to our collective security and the governance of our country.
I hope we keep this conversation going. I hope we act on it. And I thank you for listening.
May God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.