The Damasak Tragedy: Silence, Denial And The Nigerian Government – Japheth Omojuwa

Japheth Omojuwa


How successful is Nigeria’s fight with Boko Haram? The Nigerian army says it has recaptured the Boko Haram “hedquarters” town Gwoza, while the federal government denies claims of hundreds being allegedly kidnapped from the town of Damasak. Writing for, Japheth Omojuwa, a respected Nigerian social media expert and columnist, warns the authorities against following the scenario that unfolded when hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram from Chibok town in April 2014.

When the Chibok girls were abducted last April, it took the Nigerian government over two weeks to admit the fact that Boko Haram had taken away the over two hundred Nigerian schoolgirls.

The government was completely silent in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s destruction of Baga where some 2,000 citizens got killed.

The killing of 59 boys at Buni Yadi one year ago this month only received attention from President Jonathan some days ago, when he sent one of his ministers to express his “grief”.

Now, it is Damasak’s turn to grieve alone. Boko Haram have reportadly abducted over 500 women and children and killed about 50 of them.

The Punch reported that “troops of the African Joint Forces last week found the bodies of at least 70 people in an apparent execution site under a bridge leading out of Damasak, where the streets remained strewn with debris and burnt-out cars after the fighting.”

The abduction of over 500 women, boys and girls was initially met with absolute silence from the Nigerian government. Even the local dailies were mostly uninterested. As the international media got in on the story, the predictable response from the Nigerian government has already been filed by the usual suspect: Mike Omeri.

National Orientation Agency’s Omeri, who also doubles as National security spokesman, told AFP on Wednesday: “There is no fresh kidnapping in Damasak.” Mr Omeri must be looking to see how far the denial card will go.

According to the BBC report, Omeri said Boko Haram did not kidnap as many as 500 people; according to him, the number was lower. As if the number being lower makes it less of a tragedy. Omeri claims that some women and children were released while the militants fled, but his report is in direct conflict with those from Damasak residents who have lost relatives to the latest Boko Haram abduction.

Damasak is some 200 km away from Maiduguri, the capital of the much-troubled Borno state in the northeast of Nigeria. The town has been under Boko Haram control since the latter part of 2014, up until Regional Forces regained control just weeks ago.

To quote the United Kingdom minister for Africa, James Duddridge, MP: “I am appalled at reports that up to 500 young women and children have been abducted from the town of Damask in northern Nigeria. I condemn Boko Haram’s abhorrent practice of abduction in the strongest terms and call for all those taken to be released immediately. The UK stands with Nigeria and its people at this difficult time, and will continue to support the region in countering the threat posed by Boko Haram.”

Contrast this with this quote from president Jonathan. Apologies, no quote. President Jonathan has not uttered a word on the Damasak abduction. How can the UK effectively stand with Nigeria if the Nigerian government has not even come to terms with its own tragedy? 

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed events in Nigeria over the last few years. By the time the president gets interested enough to pay attention to what happened at Damasak, expect him to set up a “fact-finding” committee, like he did with the abduction of the Chibok girls. If the Damasak script follows that of Chibok, it’d be tragic for the abducted citizens, their relatives and Nigerians generally because there’d be little hope for their rescue.

Nigeria’s fight against the Boko Haram insurgency has suffered from accusations of corruption as soldiers on the frontline admitted they were outgunned and outmanned by the insurgents. There was no credible onslaught against the insurgents until the recent offensive by Regional Forces. The offensive also coincided with the postponement of  the Nigerian elections initially scheduled to be held on February 14, 2014. With elections already offering a major distraction to all and sundry, it would be crucial to see a lot more local media houses and civil society organisations raise their voices so that a direct response to rescue the abducted will be put in place.

The ease with which Boko Haram continues to abduct children, girls and women is embarrassing and unacceptable, to say the least. Nigeria cannot continue to pretend it has a successful war against Boko Haram going on. We are far from being successful. Fleeing insurgents often find a way to either regroup and offer a counter offensive, or choose to flee with initially abducted citizens.

The Damasak incident further accentuates every failing around Nigeria’s challenge with fighting against terrorism in the North: the absence of a trusted information source to ascertain basic facts around the war, the Nigerian government’s penchant to “deny first, admit later,” and the ever-present threat of having women and children kidnapped. All of these have been recurring realities over the last five years. It remains to be seen whether the government would advance a much faster response to Damasak, or, God forbid, it goes just the way of the Chibok abduction. The Nigerian government have the answers. Or should I say, the Nigerian government ought to have the answers. They, of course, don’t often provide the right one.


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