By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
My friend’s eight-year-old daughter burst into tears while watching a Boko Haram video release on TV the other evening. The terrorist group has been receiving the kind of local and international media coverage that could make even a Hollywood megastar explode with envy. At the current rate, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, might as well be given his own reality show.
I understand the reporting of a bomb blast: the need to let the world know about 234 missing school girls is obvious. Updating us on the world’s efforts to rescue the abducted girls definitely makes sense. But why should law-abiding citizens be bombarded with the megalomaniac audio and video rantings of every Shekau recording forwarded to the press?
As news organizations around the world scrambled to make amends for their belated coverage of the kidnapped school girls, Boko Haram contributed to the media frenzy by releasing a video in which Shekau boasted that he would sell the girls for the equivalent of $12 each.
Since then, many of us have had to endure, from local and international media, several replays of the villain’s Idi Aminesque gloating into the camera.
The group’s earlier video released days after the bombing of a bus park in an Abuja suburb (which took place a few hours before the abductions) featured Shekau barking bombastic statements such as: “We are in your city but you don’t know where we are”, “(President) Jonathan, you are now too small for us. We can only deal with your grand masters like Obama, the president of America … even they cannot do anything to us … we are more than them,” and “So, because of that tiny incident that happened in Abuja, everybody is out there making an issue of it across the globe?”
These taunts and other details of the video were broadly reported by international news organizations, even at a time the world was paying little attention to the missing girls — when Nigerians were yet to know exactly how many students had been abducted, their names, and what they and their families looked like.
The media has also been sophisticating its coverage of Boko Haram’s activities. What looks to me like the effort of steamy thugs to stock up on females to meet their physiological and domestic needs — while grabbing major headlines in the process — has been glamorised as “an attack on the right of girls to education.” Additional reports that more girls were stolen from their homes — not school, this time — in Warabe and Wala villages of Bornu State, should have caused the media to finally acknowledge the abductions for the common criminality that they really are. Besides, anyone following the news closely might have heard that these abductions of females have been carrying on for quite some time, though never on the scale that has recently shocked the world.
Similarly glamorous motives were ascribed to Boko Haram’s bombing of two newspaper offices in Nigeria. Headlines described the April 2012 incident as “an attack on freedom of the press.” However, Shekau’s video release, which followed soon after, gave his actual, rather primitive reasons: “…Each time we say something, it is either changed or downplayed…I challenge every Nigerian to watch that video again. There is no place our imam either said he will crush President Jonathan or issued an ultimatum to the government in Nigeria, but nearly all papers carried very wrong and mischievous headlines.”
I can imagine the AK47-clad hoodlums scrambling to Google after each fresh aggression, frantically typing their leader’s name and some relevant key words. There was nothing complex about the group’s motives: The newspaper office bombings were a mere act of raw revenge.
Boko Haram is probably just a gang of plundering hoods masquerading as a group with higher motives that could warrant dialogue — never mind that they may have attracted the alliance of more sinister sponsors with more strategic purposes. The group claims “Western education is a sin” yet records its threats with hi-tech video equipment and employs advanced ammunition to destroy; it has no clear target and attacks willy-nilly, a la Wild Wild West; and its conduct is as Islamic as that of the street preacher who kidnapped and raped Elizabeth Smart was Christian.
The media and expert analysts are the ones who seem to be supplying Boko Haram with all the grand motives they may never really have thought about in the first place. As an author, who has had expert reviewers dissect my book and ascribe to my writing various meanings of which I had absolutely no idea, I am quite familiar with how something straightforward can suddenly be accorded impressive complexity.
We may not be able to take the guns and bombs out of the hands of Boko Haram and their ilk yet, but since they are not content to take full advantage of Instagram or Facebook — as many other attention-seekers of this age are — the media must stop fuelling their inner psychopaths. If they won’t travel to Hollywood and patiently wait tables until they get noticed by Quentin Tarantino, we must not offer them stardom on a platter. There has to be a better way of passing on the relevant information and awareness of danger about terrorists to the public, without creating superstar monsters.
Editor’s note: Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is the author of “I Do Not Come to You by Chance,” a debut novel set amidst the perilous world of Nigerian email scams. Her book won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Africa), a Betty Trask First Book award, and was named by the Washington Post as one of the Best Books of 2009. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author’s.