The first casualty, when war comes, is truth
–Hiram Johnson (1866-1945)
The events of the last week revolving around the outbreak of monkeypox should make us sober. Logic was turned on its head, and common sense took a dive into the bushes. A whole region was gripped in a mass hysteria that was almost apocalyptic in scope. The atmosphere is reminiscent of wartime – when confusion and lawlessness usually create a dark enterprise for merchants of death.
The South-East geopolitical zone was thrown into confusion after claims on social media went viral that some soldiers entered some primary and secondary schools and were forcefully injecting pupils and students with poisonous substances allegedly causing the dreaded emerging epidemic monkeypox. Parents and guardians rushed to schools to pressurise the school authorities to allow them take away their children and wards. The story was the same in Imo, Anambra, Abia, Ebonyi and Enugu states. Within hours, almost all schools in the states were shut, and the rumour brouhaha continued on the social media: The Army was using a so-called medical exercise to depopulate the South-East!
However, for someone like me, who was very much in the know about the ongoing public relations drive of the Nigerian Army for some months now, I could only shake my head in sadness. With the general distrust of anything Federal Government in the South-East, the monkeypox epidemic was a ready tool in the hands of mischief makers. And, to worsen the situation is the lack of comprehensive public relations strategy on the part of the Army.
For one, Nigeria is a country where many people distrust “uniformed men”. The old Nigeria Police Force public relations tag-line, “The Police is your friend”, has become a punch-line for national lampoon. And unlike in the West where people view military personnel as iconic national heroes, many over here view them as gun-toting nuisance. Even traffic wardens and Federal Road Safety Corps officers are so despised that some drivers devise ways to “embarrass” them into the bush while these officers stand in front of their speeding cars carrying out their legitimate duty to the nation.
Secondly, unlike what is obtainable in many developed countries where soldiers are known for coming in to help impacted communities in times of emergencies like natural disasters and epidemic outbreaks, over here, our collective psyche can only visualise the Army as holding no other tool or implement but the Kalashnikov. It will take a Nigerian civilian with extra imagination to be at home with an image of a soldier feeding a sick or malnourished child, or salvaging a flooded neighborhood, or driving a tractor in a tomato farm.
Therefore, the Nigerian Army could not have just started community relations outreach without a well-thought-out, extensive and intensive enlightenment programme in order to – as we are wont to say – “carry us along” in their service to the ordinary Nigerian on the street. And of course, if it would require extra effort to recondition the mindset of the ordinary citizen to get used to the “human face” of the army, one then can imagine the up-hill task of convincing the average Southeastener, who already perceives the Nigerian Army as the bayonet end of the Federal Government machinery of repression.
For the avoidance of doubt, I was in Enugu at the middle of the year, when I witnessed a community outreach project of the army which focused on environmental sanitation. I was so moved that I drew up an outline for a draft article with the slug: The human face of the Nigerian Army. The piece never got finished when the monkeypox hit town. Today, everything is fast unravelling that it has become obvious that the idea has been overtaken by events.
Nevertheless, let me paint a vivid picture for illustration of the need for a more public relations-driven approach to community relations by the Nigerian Army, going forward. Enugu is a relatively calm city with most urban dwellers engaged in public sector jobs – the civil service and its linear support services clusters. Because of this, everybody waits for the government to fund and execute social service projects. Unlike in a place like Anambra State, for instance, where enterprising moneybags can undertake road construction, culvert clearing, rural electrification and so on, most Enugu communities wait for the “government” to solve its problems.
Now, there was a problematic refuse dump hub in Enugu, near Ogbete Main Market, which had posed a serious challenge to people living in the area. Even the state environmental agency had been evading working on them. But, suddenly the army from the 82 Division, Enugu, deployed to the refuse dumps and evacuated the waste, as part of their community service programme. It was widely reported in the local media and applauded by the people.
In a related event, this time in Anambra State, the army on July this year, engaged in environmental clean-up. Interestingly, The Sun News of July 12, 2017, titled the report, “Soldiers in Onitsha drop guns to clean up environment”, where it was reported that the Idemili Local Government Area Chairman, Chief Raphael Asha Nnabuife, commended the army for dropping their guns to embark on the cleanup of some Idemili communities.
Incidentally, when the army last month scaled up their services by embarking on a medical mission, it coincided with the outbreak of the now dreaded monkeypox, a rare viral zoonosis (a virus transmitted to humans from animals) with symptoms in humans like those seen in the past in smallpox patients. As it swept through some Nigerian states, palpable fear gripped every citizen. But some e-insurgents had to spin the tale to cause mass panic in the South-East. In an uncanny manner, it is a sad reminder of the way the northern part of Nigeria was thrown into mass hysteria concerning polio vaccination. The tale was that the exercise was a plot to “depopulate” the North!
When the dusts settled, one discovered that the so-called “injection/immunisation” in the South-East never really happened. The Army medical team, comprising ophthalmologists, dentists, general medical practitioners, pharmacists, medical laboratory scientists and physiotherapists, was there only to carry out an activity it had been carrying out annually for some years now. And contrary to the information that was spread, the exercise took place in a church, far from the nearest primary school in the area, at St Michael’s Catholic Church field, Amakwa Ozubulu.
Reverend Father Jude Chetanna Chukwuneke, from Egbema, Ozubulu, who said he witnessed the medical exercise before the confusion set in, said there was nothing wrong with what the Army did as they were only there to help the people medically. Fr Chukwuneke, who works at the College of Medical Sciences, Nnewi Campus of Nnamdi Azikiwe University as a Chaplain, happened to be my primary school classmate, and my childhood friend; an ordained Roman Catholic priest, who was baffled that such a medical outreach became a fodder for hocus pocus.
The way things are going in Nigeria, there is no more demarcating line between the informed and non-informed, the educated and uneducated, and the learned and unlearned. Any small scrap of rumour will have the required effect as long as it is barbed with ethnic or religious innuendo. This is very sad.
Advanced societies are known for maintaining a boundary between facts and conspiracy theories. Although there is an emerging problem in the West today regarding the questions raised by the emergence of the so-called fake news, there is still a general resistance against blatant rabble-rousing. This has maintained the sanity of its democracy. In contrast, it takes no prophet to see that because of the non-existence of vital intelligentsia, Nigeria’s democracy, and indeed existence, is threatened.