The government of Nigeria ordered “three Jokic vans loaded with armed soldiers” to raid two offices belonging to the Daily Trust, one of the nation’s largest newspapers, on Sunday in response to a report that troops had prepared a major operation against Boko Haram prior to the country’s presidential election.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, 76, is seeking a third term as head of the country in elections scheduled for February 16 – the first as a short-lived military dictator in the 1980s, the second as elected president in the nation’s first-ever peaceful transition of power in 2015. Buhari has repeatedly insisted that his government has defeated Boko Haram, declaring that Nigeria had “won the war” against the Islamic State terrorist group in December 2015, but has failed to truly eradicate the terrorist threat.
The Daily Trust reported on Sunday that the military was preparing to invade Baga and several other towns that the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), believed to be a breakaway faction of Boko Haram not loyal to Abubakar Shekau, invaded and overran last week. The government has denied that the Boko Haram attack occurred at all.
According to its own reporting on the incident, soldiers raided the Abuja offices of the Daily Trust before entering its Maiduguri offices. Maiduguri is the capital of northeast Borno state, where Boko Haram was born and remains its most active; Abuja, in central Nigeria, serves as the nation’s capital. The soldiers arrested Maiduguri editor Uthman Abubakar and journalist Ibrahim Sawab for writing and approving a story on the alleged operations planned to retake Baga.
The soldiers, the newspaper reported, “also loaded all computers at the head office into some of their vans before taking off.” It noted that the military appears to have established an indefinite presence at the newspaper’s headquarters.
The Daily Trust also noted that attempts to contact military spokesman Brigadier General Sani Usman to explain the operation failed and the government never explained to them directly why they had taken the action.
Premium Times, another Nigerian newspaper, ran an official statement from Usman on Monday that the Daily Trust was apparently not made privy to.
“Soldiers of the Nigerian Army along with elements of the Nigeria Police Force and other security agencies were indeed at Abuja and Maiduguri offices of the publishing company to invite the staff of the company over its lead story on Sunday Trust publication,” Usman said, accusing the Daily Trust of having “divulged classified military information, thus undermining national security.”
Usman confirmed that the story on the Baga operation had indeed triggered the raid, which occurred “with the best of intention in order to make them realize the import of such acts to our national security.” He claimed that the government wished to tell journalists “not to worry but engage in their responsive reportage and to be professional as the Nigerian Army has no intention of muzzling the press or jeopardising press freedom.”
At press time, the two Daily Trust journalists detained remain in government custody. It is not yet clear whether they will face criminal charges. Since they were arrested by military personnel, it is also unclear whether they will face charges in military or civilian court.
The raids have triggered a national outcry against Buhari, led by Daily Trust editor-in-chief Mannir Dan-Ali, who called the actions “unlawful.” Buhari’s past as a dictator has elicited particular concern. He took over Nigeria in a military coup in 1983 and used his power for a campaign that he alleged ended corruption and restored law and order to the country by using soldiers to violently enforce traffic regulations and public transportation schedules, among other government duties. Buhari himself was ousted from power in 1985 before running for president in 2015, winning by using his disciplinarian image to vow an end to Boko Haram.
Both the original Boko Haram, under Abubakar Shekau, and the Islamic State offshoot, under Abu Mus’ab Albarnawi, have escalated attacks in the past month, perhaps in anticipation of the presidential election. Shortly after Christmas, reports surfaced of major raids in Baga that resulted in thousands of Nigerian soldiers abducted and the Boko Haram flag flying over the town.
A week later, reports indicated that another five towns had fallen to Boko Haram. The Nigerian government denied the assault.
Sunday’s Daily Trust report that the military had planned a major operation at Baga, complete with photos and quotes from government sources, confirmed that the raids had taken place – the operation would not be necessary otherwise. The newspaper claimed the military “assembled thousands of troops and equipment in preparation for a massive operation to retake Baga and five other towns in the northern part of Borno State from Boko Haram.”
“More troops including ground troops, airmen and naval personnel are being deployed from different formations. They would join those on ground in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states for the operations,” one of the Daily Trust‘s sources is quoted as saying.
Buhari first announced that Boko Haram had been defeated in December 2015, months into his presidency. He most recently made the claim in October, intermittently repeating it throughout his tenure despite the fact that Boko Haram never stopped raiding and attacking villages in Borno and Adamawa states, in the nation’s northeast.