On July 29, the convoy of Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum was attacked in the town of Baga (map), possibly by Boko Haram. The incident has generated competing narratives and speaks to the wider “information war” that is a core part of the crisis – even Boko Haram’s own leader Abubakar Shekau has referred to the centrality of the “information war (yakin bayani).”
In the aftermath of the attack, some of the main contention is between the governor and the Army. Various videos of the attack (see here) have circulated, including one clip from the vantage point of a driver in the convoy, and one short clip of Zulum arguing with a Nigerian Army officer. Zulum has also been quoted as saying to the Army officer:
You have been here for over one year now, there are 1,181 soldiers here; if you cannot take over Baga which is less than 5 km from your base, then we should forget about Baga. I will inform the Chief of Army Staff to redeploy the men to other places that they can be useful. You people said there’s no Boko Haram here, then who attacked us?
Some of Zulum’s staff have also been blunt in their criticism of the military:
MNJTF here refers to the Multi-National Joint Task Force, which includes the militaries of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon with some participation by Benin as well. Note too that part of the information war concerns not just who perpetrated the attack, but also how serious it was or wasn’t.
In remarks to the press the day after the attack (see also here), Zulum appeared to imply that there were no actual Boko Haram fighters involved in the attack, and that there was “serious shooting by the Nigerian armed forces.” These remarks are tricky to parse. The prominent Nigerian analyst Bulama Bukarti has implied that the military staged the attack (or feigned being under attack?):
I’m not convinced. It seems to me that if the Army wanted to block Zulum from Baga, it could have done so without staging a kind of theatrical performance. But anything is possible.
Zulum also stressed, in that press interview, the economic importance of Baga. He suggested that eventually it may be necessary for the military to leave Baga, if they cannot secure the town, and for the local population “to take destiny into their own hands.”
In additional remarks that were, I believe, delivered over the weekend, Zulum noted that the situation in Borno since 2015 has been different, and in his view better, than in the period 2011-2015, but he made headlines (even more so than for the other interview) for referencing “sabotage within the system” as a (the?) reason why the insurgency persists.
More coverage of Zulum’s remarks can be found here.
Amid the competing narratives, part of what’s at stake is that the governor’s ability to move around the state is, both practically and symbolically, inseparable from his ability to demonstrate control – both in the face of the jihadist insurgency and vis-a-vis the military. Threats to his free movement are also threats to his political capital.
In the aftermath of the attack (as beforehand), Zulum has emphasized his direct physical outreach to Borno’s most vulnerable populations. I don’t think such gestures are cynical or empty, but I also think they have a political dimension:
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Nigerian Army has framed the attack as a Boko Haram attack but also as “an isolated and most unfortunate incident that occurred in a territory where normalcy has since been restored with socio-economic activities picking up.” We see a hint of a gap between the statements of the officer who appears in the video I linked to above, who can be heard saying “there is no Boko Haram inside the town,” and the official Army statement, another portion of which reads, “The good people of Baga town and indeed the entire Borno State are enjoined to continue to provide credible information that will assist the security agencies to successfully combat terrorism as well as apprehend and flush out the perpetrators of the attack.” The Army is keen to present itself as being in control, but there is the faintest acknowledgment here that they do not have the human intelligence they need. The reasons for that are manifold, but one obvious reason is the Army’s own past history in Baga. The statement has also promised an investigation into the incident.
The Army is also keen to control the narrative about the trajectory of the conflict – in other words, the Army would like audiences, local, national, and international, to believe that the trajectory is positive. This convoy attack, however, has prominent voices in Borno and beyond saying that the situation is deteriorating – the State’s foremost religious leader, the Shehu of Borno, said, “If a convoy of such highly placed person in the State will be attacked, I repeat, nobody is safe. The matter is getting worse, I urge everyone to raise up our hands to seek Allah’s intervention.” This is precisely how the Army does not want people to feel.
There are multiple audiences in play. One is President Muhammadu Buhari – Zulum explicitly said, in his remarks about sabotage, that this is something he is conveying to the president. The Army, obviously, also wants Buhari to be convinced that they are making progress. Another key audience is ordinary people (and voters) in Borno. And there is an international audience too, obviously.
Who controls what now, in Borno? The picture is constantly shifting, but humanitarian access maps give one perspective – here is one June 2020 map of educational activities in Borno, for example. For context, Baga is located in Kukawa Local Government Area (LGA), northeastern Borno State. The map does not classify Kukawa as inaccessible but it does mark two nearby LGAs, Abadam and Marte, as red zones. Adjacent Monguno LGA is also very dangerous. Contrary to the military’s claims, Baga is still very much part of the conflict zone.
Finally, for further context, this is not the first time a Borno governor’s convoy has been attacked – Zulum’s predecessor, Kashim Shettima, was attacked on the road between the state capital Maiduguri and the northeastern town of Gamboru in February 2019.