What we have learnt from history, including World Wars, civil wars and communal conflicts are what others are failing to learn from, as newer cycles of history unfold before our eyes. It is, no doubt, easier to tell lies about incidents than to go the inconvenient way of seeking the truth about situations and happenings.
In the last decade of my life as a humanitarian worker and crisis communicator, working closely with the media, the security and response agencies, I have found out that many crises situations are triggered by reckless statements, irresponsible behaviours, and unnecessary confrontations.
I was directly involved in managing the plights of internally displaced persons (IDPs) during the peak of Niger Delta militancy in 2009 (https://cutt.ly/lekkidelta); that of the victims of post-election violence in the North in 2011 (https://cutt.ly/lekkielection); and situations attendant upon the rampant Boko Haram suicide bombings across the Northern states and Abuja between 2011 and 2013 (https://cutt.ly/lekkiboko). I was also a member of a special team assigned to evacuate stranded Nigerians from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, during the turmoil of the Arab Spring (https://cutt.ly/lekkilibya).
My engagement as a consultant on crisis management by the former National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki (rtd.), also further exposed me to the reality of the conditions of service and sacrifices of personnel of the Nigerian military, paramilitary and intelligence services, who are working tirelessly to keep us safe (https://cutt.ly/lekkisambo). Although my official engagements in those regards terminated with the tenure of President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, however since emergency management is everyone’s business, I have continued to provide advisory services at NO COST to the same security agencies.
This mutual relationship has afforded me unfettered access to security sector spokespersons, as I volunteer my time in cementing the rapport between these agencies and the media, and by extension civil society groups.
When the protest against police brutality broke out a few weeks back, I ensured that as an independent forum, our news platform monitored and reported on the activities of the EndSARS protesters, as well as those of the ProSARS agitators. I also received regular updates from the spokespersons of the Police, the Department of State Services (DSS), the Customs, and the federal Correctional Service, among others that were in the frontline of response to the protests.
Surprisingly, while the Federal Government approved the disbanding of the Special Anti-Robber Squad (SARS), which was the original instance for the demonstrations, and acceded to other requests of the protesters, the situations rather grew worse.
Self-acclaimed freedom fighters, social media influencers and activists, aggravated the already tense situation, through the uttering of reckless and unsubstantiated statements.
In an audio broadcast, a highly divisive Igbo agitator, Nnamdi Kalu, incited the followers of his group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), against security operatives, leaders of other ethnic groups and their structures, as located in different host communities. Thereafter, Mujahideen Asari Dokubo, a former Niger Delta militant, responded by threatening Kalu and his followers with dire consequences if they dared to carry out any attack, or even assault on Muslims.
From Abuja, the nation’s capital, to other states, peaceful protests were turning violent. A prompt statement by Igbo leaders, denouncing Kalu’s provocative broadcast, averted what would have been a major ethnic clash in Nigeria’s most populous state of Kano.
Meanwhile, on the evening of Tuesday, October 20, the social media was suddenly driven into a frenzy as news came online that troops of the Nigerian Army were shooting at and massacring scores of innocent protesters.
Almost immediately and citing eyewitness accounts, the media and international community condemned what rapidly gained momentum as #LekkiMassacre. While these parties had genuine reasons to be concerned about the safety of citizens, it was a bit worrying to realise that the same level of attention, outrage and condemnation had not been paid by the global community to the atrocities regularly meted out to security personnel, who are also Nigerians, in the line of their duties. These included beheadings, arsonist attacks, assaults on security infrastructures, the looting of armouries, and also jailbreaks involving fatalities.
When our news platform reported on the subsequent disclosure of Governor Sanwo-olu of Lagos State that there had been no massacre at the Lekki Toll Gate on that Tuesday, except for an isolated case of a person who died from brute force to the head, we were accused of a one-sided report. (https://cutt.ly/lekki)
Rather than have our objective reportage discredited, we asked for contrary evidence that showed true information about the purported deaths from the protesters and eyewitnesses of that evening. All we received as evidence were pieces of mostly unrelated footages to the incident, including doctored images and manipulated videos.
Concerned about the integrity of the media in relation to responsible and credible reporting, I personally reached out to friendly media to insist on concrete evidence from eyewitnesses, so as not deteriorate the security situation in the country at that particularly very tense moment. I spoke to the Editor of Daily Trust, Hamza Idris; the Editor-in-Chief of Premium Times, Musikilu Mojeed, the Publisher of Daily Nigerian, Jaafar Jaafar; and the Aljazeera Chief Correspondent in Nigeria, Ahmed Idris. I also contacted respected columnist, Fredrick Nwabufo of The Cable newspaper; a prominent social media influencer, Gimba Kakanda; as well as a civil society activist, Auwalu Musa Rafsanjani of CISLAC. In addition, I engaged spokespersons of the Amnesty International and Emmanuel Onwubiko of HURIWA to help in facilitating the gathering of evidence on the alleged massacre.
In fairness to the media and civil society groups, they all spoke about relying on eyewitness accounts mostly from celebrities and social media influencers, without subjecting the information received to rigorous verification. There was also the admission that there was no authenticated footage of the said ‘massacre’ at Lekki Toll gate so far.
Equally disturbing was the fact that despite the increasingly widespread usage of the term “massacre” – which literally means an “indiscriminate killing of a large number of human beings” – to describe the Lekki incident, no single-family had stepped forward (even till date) to report the loss of a relative during the Lekki shooting.
In the aftermath of this confusion, the largest social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram, have continued to flag several contents containing the alleged images of the Lekki Massacre as false information, after these were subjected to scrutiny by independent fact-checkers.
Similarly, credible fact-checking sites have debunked footages purported to be from the alleged Lekki Massacre. Leading the pack in debunking fake images from the EndSARS protests is the world’s oldest news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP) which describes ‘bodies recovered from Lekki Toll Shooting in Nigeria as FALSE (https://cutt.ly/lekkiafp). It is followed by Dubawa, Nigeria’s first indigenous independent verification and fact-checking project (https://cutt.ly/lekkidubawa) AllNews.ng (https://cutt.ly/lekkinews), Aledeh (https://cutt.ly/lekkialede) and a very recent fact-checking site on the alleged Lagos Black Tuesday (https://lagosblacktuesday.org/).
Regrettably, many people share stories before they even read them, at a period when the social media landscape is bedevilled by the antics of dangerous and anonymous sources who, for ulterior motives, manipulate contents for the consumption of publics whose gullibility are exploited. The promoters of such deliberate disinformation spread false and misleading contents that confuse, fool and deceive their targets, with the sole aims of reinforcing sentiments, influencing bad judgement, aggravating anger, inducing mob attacks and plunging society into monumental crises and conflict.
While I personally support the objectives of EndSARS and similar protests towards good governance, the media and civil society groups should be wary of fake news on the social media by subjecting eye-witness accounts and other contents to critical verification and authentication before authorising their dissemination. Human society, as we know it to be, might one day depend on that crucial necessity of caution.
Yushau A. Shuaib is the Editor-in-Chief, PRNigeria.com. He can be reached via: [email protected]