The Zabarmari Massacre and the Politics of Reality Distortion Grief, Terrorist Attacks and an Apathetic Government

The government’s response to the Zabarmari Massacre shows that there is a deliberate attempt at reality distortion, with the government more concerned about saving face than bringing an end to insurgency.

In October 2020, I was in my hometown of Shaffa in Borno State, North East Nigeria, with my father and brothers. It was the harvesting period and, every day, I, as well as my dad and brothers, would leave the house to our family farm to harvest what we had planted: rice, maize and groundnut. My father always left earlier, at dawn, while my brothers and I would still be asleep.

This happened in other homes, too—families waking before sunrise, heading out to their farms, their voices calling out to each other in greeting as they walked. My village, a sprawling field of rocky hills and mountains like many other villages across northern Nigeria, is a farming community with subsistence and small-scale commercial farmers.

On 28 November 2020 in Zabarmari, a village near the state capital of Maiduguri, a group of farmers left their home to go harvest their crops. The planting season had started around April, and for six months, these farmers worked laboriously to get a good harvest and ensure some income stability. But they never got the chance to harvest their crops, or even return home, as they were slaughtered by Boko Haram terrorists, their heads completely decapitated. 43 bodies were found, while the remaining 23 remain unidentified. Actual figures remain uncertain. I could not help but think that in an alternate reality, my father, my brothers and I could have met the same fate.

A TALE OF INSURGENCY

Borno State where I am an indigene of has, for the past eleven years, been stuck in a cycle of insurgency, with millions internally displaced and/or living in deplorable conditions in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). In January 2015, Boko Haram terrorists took over my hometown, Shaffa. My grandmother and uncles had to run away from the village, with barely enough time to gather their belongings. Regrettably, one of my uncles did not make it out of the village, as he was murdered by the insurgents while trying to flee. His body was found in a pool of his own blood by a roadside leading to the farms.

Two years earlier, my mother’s younger brother and his friends were out dancing under the moonlight. One of the friends was getting married the following day and, as is customary in my hometown, there was the wedding eve where everyone came around and danced in a circle. Boko Haram terrorists arrived on a motorcycle and shot at them, dispersing the crowd. My uncle did not survive the shooting.

My village was eventually recovered from Boko Haram and slowly people returned. They had been cut away from their homes and means of livelihood, and many could not wait to go back. The IDP camps were not the best places to live. People like my grandmother who had families outside Borno went to live with them, while those without families outside of Borno had no choice but to live in the IDP camps. Their status had changed overnight to Internally Displaced Persons, becoming people who relied on the government for a means of livelihood.

THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE

President Buhari rose to the presidency in 2015 largely on the back of on his promise to eradicate Boko Haram.  A good number of people in the North believed that if ‘we had our own in power’ perhaps then the insurgency in the region would be swiftly dealt with. During the first six months after President Buhari’s election, it seemed as though there was some validity to that belief. The Nigerian army recovered several villages in Borno and Adamawa that had been run over by Boko Haram, pushing the Boko Haram terrorists into the forest.

The Zabarmari Massacre garnered a lot of outrage from Nigerians and was   as ‘especially heart wrenching as we are recording this year some of the highest levels of food insecurity in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states’. In recent years, when a tragedy of this magnitude happens in the country, we have to beg and demand for a reaction from the President. On Twitter, President Buhari condemned the Zabarmari massacre as ‘senseless, barbaric, gruesome and cowardly’ and promised to ‘fight the insurgents on a continuous basis till the insurgents are rooted out’. That was not the reaction we wanted. We expected a speech from him, one that acknowledged the pain, the loss for the families of the victims, as the families of the murdered farmers likely do not have twitter accounts. All they heared, however, was the silence of the President and the croaking of pain in their chests.

In a BBC interview, Garba Shehu, the President’s media and publicity senior special assistant, mentioned that the massacred farmers should not have returned to the farms without military clearance. According to Shehu, the military was in full control of all parts of Borno State, but the farmers should have gotten clearance before they returned to their farms.

I was at work when a friend came to show me the news article on what the President’s aide had said. We stood and stared at each other, our lips struggling to find words. After a few seconds of shocked silence, I let out a sigh. We both know what it feels like to lose a loved one to terrorists and, in that moment, we could not help but feel the opening of old wounds. I could not imagine losing my father in such a gruesome and inhumane way only to hear from the presidency not condolences or comforting remarks but victim-blaming comments; comments that put victims’ death on their blood-stained and already decomposing shoulders.

FACTS VS POLITICAL FICTION

If the military was in full control, as asserted by Shehu, how then were the farmers able to return to their villages, embark upon a planting season and reach the harvest season without the awareness of the military? How were the Boko Haram terrorists able to make it to the villages if the military was in full control?

How can the military be in full control if daily, in different parts of Borno, people get kidnapped and killed? And these are only the incidents we know about. Many incidents of insurgency go unreported since they occur in rural areas where there is low media penetration; thus, real time reporting of these incidents is rare.

In December 2015, the Buhari administration claimed that Boko Haram had been technically defeated. However, for many people who live in Borno, Boko Haram is as real as their shadows. The insurgency is as alive as the air we breathe, occurring in the shadows, and going unreported. Everyday there are kidnappings in villages across the state. The roads leading to the state capital are death traps, a tragedy waiting to happen as you could be kidnapped or killed while traveling. These days, traveling to Maiduguri from my village, Shaffa, require taking a different and longer route where we break out into Gombe State and from Gombe, we re-enter Borno and make for Maiduguri because the usual routes are unsafe.

I crave collective outrage from the North, a shaking of the earth that will make the government respond. However, the non-existent outrage and the silence about the persistence of the insurgency in the North is political in nature. During the previous administration, the political elites in the North wielded the insurgency in the region as a political tool against then-president Goodluck Jonathan. They labelled Jonathan as incompetent and as someone who cared little about the region because he was not from there. Currently in the North, the insurgency is the least of elite concerns, as evidenced by their silence, and preoccupation with other matters. Do the lives of ordinary Northerners not matter?

THE DISTORTION OF REALITY

Recently, the federal government has sought to end what they regard as endemic fake news and northern governors have voiced their support for this agenda. The apparent ‘crack down’ on fake news was in response to the recent #EndSARS protest, which they erroneously believe was instigated by fake news. In the works currently, is a bill to regulate social media in Nigeria and many have seen this as an attempt to suppress free speech and to suppress dissenting voices. To elevate, above all else, the voices the government wants to be heard, thereby distorting reality as it happens.

The statement made by the presidential spokesperson in relation to the Zabarmari Massacre is a deliberate attempt at distorting reality. It also undermines the urgency of what happened by blaming the victims for being attacked. In fact, the statement made by the military spokesperson, John Enenche, made no mention of farmers needing military clearance to return to their farms. Additionally, Enenche made no suggestions of Zabarmari being a volatile area as claimed by the presidential spokesperson. This not only implies that the presidency has no regard for the lives lost daily but also suggests that the Buhari administration has no plans whatsoever to bring a lasting solution to the insurgency in the region. Saving face is what the President seems to care about by denying the obvious, which is an irony as the ‘real face’ of the government is open for all to see. One might wonder if the presidency’s attempts at distorting reality area way of officials deluding themselves that Nigeria is not in a state of crisis. Citizens and the international community, however, are well aware of the utter lack of regard for lives and democracy shown by the present administration.

‘Is Zabarmari a war-torn volatile area?’ I asked my cousin who lives in Maiduguri.  ‘No’ he said. ‘Zabarmari is a ward under Jere Local Government and contrary to the claim made by the presidential spokesperson, Jere is not a volatile area, and neither is it a war zone. Jere is one local government that had previously experienced Boko Haram attacks in the past but could hardly be characterized as a war zone. People have been living there peacefully and farming has been going on without any terror attacks.  No one needs clearance to go to the farms.’

‘There are military checkpoints before you get to Jere’, my cousin told me. How were the Boko Haram terrorists able to slip past these checkpoints?

There is a posture many have adopted in the North amidst the insecurity, one of raised hands, of surrender, where the hope for a sustainable end to the insurgency fades with each day. And we go about our lives, manoeuvring through insecurity, becoming desensitized to it, trying to cheat death till it finds us. And on days we go out and return alive, we praise God for keeping us

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