By Chidi Omeje
Opinion: I was woken up on Wednesday morning by the frantic calls on my phone from my politician friend, who is based in Port Harcourt. We could barely finish wishing each other good morning as I picked up the call before he launched into why I had to be woken up that early.
He said he had just forwarded a video to my WhatsApp number and that I should check it ‘because _wahala dey o_ . In a voice that conveyed an admixture of enthusiasm and trepidation, he blurted that the real trouble is upon Nigeria as terrorists have now acquired the capability to drop aircraft from the sky. He continued that the video he sent me showed it was the terrorists who brought down the Nigerian Air Force aircraft in Zungeru, Niger State, on Monday. Without even allowing me to see what he had sent; my friend went on and on about how terrorists now seem to have the upper hand in their battle with Nigerian security forces.
The one thing or two that I took away from my friend’s early morning hysteria and righteous indignation is the glee with which Nigerians share gory pictures and setbacks of our military operations on social media and the pervasive ignorance about the implications of such indiscretion. We will get back to this later, but it’s definitely something to ponder because it has become quite typical in this clime.
The undisputable fact is that the Nigerian military is currently facing two major battlegrounds in their war against terrorists and other adversaries: the battle of firepower that they wage on the battlefield and the unrelenting war of narratives taking place in the media, especially the ubiquitous social media.
In the trenches are where the troops engage the adversaries fire for fire (from ground and air), and in the media is where the military is confronted with an attritional battle of narratives waged by terrorists’ propaganda machinery, aided by fifth columnists and other unpatriotic elements who contemptuously believe that by diminishing and rubbishing the military in media they are getting at the federal government (I noted that in my friend’s almost enthusiasm when he was gloating about terrorists’ claim of new capability). In these two formidable battlegrounds, the war is indeed raging.
The thing about those two battlegrounds is that none can be ignored or taken for granted, as each reinforces the other. While the Nigerian military, expectedly, has the upper hand in firepower and has consistently pounded the adversaries whose biggest strength is hitting soft targets, the same cannot be said in the battle of narratives, where the terrorists have proven to be very adept at deceiving the gullible.
The terrorists’ propaganda machinery is definitely well-oiled and grinding. They know that in war, truth is the first casualty, and so they are always ready to murder the truth. Proficient in the manipulation and deployment of social media possibilities for their messaging and claims of invincibility, the terrorists also found a natural ally and partner in the hordes of very unpatriotic elements and agent provocateurs who are not only willing to buy into their propaganda, no matter how ludicrous, but desperate to orchestrate it using the instrumentality of the media.
Terrorists crave media attention. This is because publicity, which is best achieved through the media, is the lifeblood of terrorism and the oxygen of terrorists. Shut them out of media publicity, and they stew in their bubble. No one should therefore be surprised that these terrorists will stop at nothing to control the narratives in the media.
What is rather surprising is that some people have yet to see through this well-known gimmick that violent groups deploy. More curious is the fact that some folks are prepared to believe the propaganda efforts of the terrorists, hook, line, and sinker, and even go to the extent of using such fabrications and outright lies dished out by the group to paint a picture of their invincibility. We have seen this happen over and over again, but none was as brazen and mendacious as the claim that the ill-fated NAF MI-171 Helicopter was brought down by AK-47-wielding bandits.
It turned out that the video my friend forwarded to me was the wreckage of the crashed MI-171 helicopter with bodies of victims at Chukuba village in Shiroro Loval Government of Niger State. In the video, you could see gun-wielding bandits prancing around the bodies of dead military personnel and chattering about how they shot down the aircraft with their AK-47 rifles. Very typical terrorists! They are opportunistic criminals who will always seize every opportunity to embellish their claim of invincibility; it is their nature.
But the truth is that it doesn’t even have to take a discerning eye to see through the ludicrous claims that the MI-171 Helicopter, the most modern version of the Mi-17 military helicopter with improved flight and operational characteristics, high survivability and flight safety, as well as a powerful unguided and guided armament complex, which was on an evacuation mission around Shiroro general area, was shot down with an AK-47. And so, anybody believing such claims can believe anything! In any case, the authorities of NAF have promised to make public their findings of what led to the crash of the aircraft on that eventful day but the lesson from this incident is that Nigerians must resolve to be more circumspect in handling or accepting the propaganda enterprise of this blood-thirsty groups and always take them with a pinch of salt.
Indeed, Monday, August 14, 2023, was as eventful as it was tragic for the Nigerian military. It was one of those bad days, and no military operation the world over is immune to bad days. As narrated by the Director, Defence Media Operations, Maj Gen Edward Buba, while conducting offensive operations around Kundu general area in Shiroro LGA of Niger State, troops got into an ambush. Following a firefight that ensued, 3 officers and 22 soldiers were killed in action, and 7 soldiers were also wounded in action.
“Subsequently, the NAF MI-171 Helicopter was dispatched to evacuate the casualties. While outbound to Kaduna, the helicopter crashed with 14 of the earlier killed in action personnel, 7 of the earlier wounded in action personnel, 2 pilots, and 2 crew members”. According to him, operations are ongoing to recover the bodies and investigate the cause of the air crash, which will be communicated.
In a statement issued by the Nigerian Air Force through the Director, Public Relations and Information, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, the resolve and determination of NAF and indeed the Nigerian Armed Forces to bring the current security situation in Niger State and indeed all troubled spots in the country under control remain unshaken. While calling on all Nigerians to continue to support the Armed Forces and other security agencies as they jointly confront the common enemies, he said the military is more than ever before determined to take on the enemy frontally until they are brought to their knees.
Debunking the viral video of the fallen NAF Helicopter, Gabkwet urged citizens to be wary of the kind of contents spread on social media that are perpetuated by “criminal elements who want to divide us as a nation”.
He said accidents are normal occurrences that we should not be ashamed of. He noted that in other countries, citizens rally round their Armed Forces to see them win, but back home, the case seems to be different.
Meanwhile, a follow-up story on the incident by PRNigeria gave a vivid picture of a typical day in counterinsurgency operations by the Nigerian military. According to the online newspaper, contrary to reports that the NAF helicopter was gunned down by armed bandits in Shiroro Local Government Area of the State, the ill-fated aircraft was actually on an evacuation mission airlifting injured troops who had engaged terrorists at some communities in Rafi, Wushishi, and Lavun local government areas.
According to the paper, “Credible sources have it that the terrorists raided several villages in the aforementioned local government areas in Niger State wherein they killed some locals and also rustled their cattle between Sunday and Monday. It was gathered that the air component and ground troops had responded to distress calls made by members of the raided communities and engaged the terrorists. Though airstrikes and the intervention by ground troops halted the violent activities of the terrorists, some soldiers lost their lives in an ambush set by the terrorists, and others were injured, together with local vigilantes”.
“It was quite a hectic day in the counterterrorism campaigns as the bandits were raiding different villages simultaneously and rustling hundreds of cattle. We responded decisively against the bandits at the Jiwawa axis, while we also had another group at a community in Wushisi LGA early in the morning. Surprisingly, while the operations were going on, we got more distress calls that the bandits had infiltrated other communities in Lavun and Rafi local governments. Troops and vigilantes that were mobilized exchanged gunfire on their routes, including along the Zungeru-Kontagora road”. All this happened in just 24 hours!
In spite of various challenges and obstacles, including sabotage, meddlesomeness, distractions, toxic reviews, a multiplicity of flash points and so on, which assail them, our military has remained resolute, resilient and relentless in carrying out their constitutional obligation of defending Nigeria from external aggression and internal insurrection.
Nigerians have every reason to appreciate the gallantry, patriotism, and sacrifice of our troops.
*Chidi Omeje is Editor, Security Digest (www.securitydigestng.com)