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Published On: Sun, Apr 20th, 2014

The politics of abduction and military retraction

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By Labaran Saleh

It is quite unfortunate the controversy over the statement by a military spokesperson on the abducted students of Government Secondary School, Chibok, in Borno state.As a member of PRNigeria Mailing List for Press Releases distribution from spokespersons of government, especially security agencies in Nigeria, I realise that two press releases were issued by Major General Chris Olukolade, Director, Defence Information on the abducted students before the denial by officials in Borno.

The first press release in the evening of April 16, 2014 with a title “More Students Of Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok Freed; Normalcy Returns To Wukari,” the spokesperson only used one paragraph to provide information on the development on Chibok which goes thus: “More of the abducted students of Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok in Borno state have this afternoon been freed as troops pursuing the terrorists close in on the den of those believed to have carried out the attack. A total of 129 students had earlier been abducted by a group of terrorists.”

About an hour later, another Press Release came with a title “Update on Abducted Students.” The storyline made the press release as most controversial ever issued by General Olukolade who had been a spokesperson on several military operations under ECOMOG and UN Peacekeeping Missions.

The controversial Press Release goes thus: “More students of the Government Girls’ Secondary School, Chibok have been freed this evening in the ongoing Search& Rescue operations to free the abducted students. With this development, the Principal of the school has confirmed that only 8 of the students are still missing. One of the terrorists who carried out the attack on the school has also been captured. The military intervention and search and rescue operation to ensure the safety of the remaining students is ongoing in the suspected areas.”

While most of the media celebrated the cheering news with different captions the following day, the Principal of the School came out to fault the military’s statement. The Principal Mrs. AsabeKwambura said she was shocked when she heard of claims by Nigerian military authorities that only eight girls are yet to be found.

She was quoted to have said: “There is nothing in the military statement that is true about our abducted girls. Up till now we are still waiting and praying for the safe return of the students; all I know is that we have only 14 of them, and the security people especially the Vigilante and the well-meaning volunteers of Gwoza are still out searching for them.

“The military people too are in the bush searching. So we have not received any information that they have gotten the students yet. So let it be clear that all the information passed on the media by the military concerning 107 girls is not true. I, as the principal, did not tell anybody any figure on released students other than what our Governor, His Excellency KashimShettima had informed the media,” she said.

The conflicting reports became the major item in various social media. It was therefore not surprising that the Director Defence Information had to issue another press statement (the third on the abducted students) under a title “Update on the Abducted Students of Government Girls’ Secondary School Chibok.” The press release goes thus: “The controversy that has been generated around the efforts at securing the lives of the abducted students of Government Girls’ Secondary School, Chibok is unfortunate. The ongoing frantic efforts of security forces along with vigilante groups including hunters working to locate and free the abducted students have continued to be keenly monitored at the Operation Centre of the Defence and Army Headquarters as regular progress reports are being received from troops on the ground.

“In this regard, a report was filed in from the field indicating that a major breakthrough had been recorded in the search. There was no reason to doubt this official channel, hence the information was released to the public immediately. Surprisingly however, the school principal, one of the sources quoted in the report has denied all that was attributed to her for whatever reasons. This is an unfortunate development indeed, yet the Defence Headquarters would not want to join issues with anyone.

“It has to be reaffirmed however, that the report forwarded to the public on this issue was in good faith and not intended to deceive the public as is being interpreted following the denials by the School principal and Government of Borno State. Like all other citizens, the military is deeply concerned to ensure that the students are safe and freed alive. There is indeed no reason to play politics with the precious lives of the students. The number of those still missing is not the issue now as the life of every Nigerian is very precious.

“In the light of the denial by the principal of the school, the Defence Headquarters wishes to defer to the school principal and Governor’s statement on the number of students still missing and retract that aspect of earlier statement while the search continues.”

While the military has sincerely retracted the statement, it is worrisome to observe the preference of hunters and vigilantes over the military in the ongoing operation in some stories attributed to people and official of affected communities. We should avoid statement that could demoralise our military and dampen their spirit. Many of them are sacrificing their lives to keep us safe. We should also avoid playing politics with the life of the people.

Labaran Saleh is reachable on salelabaran@yahoo.com

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