Vice News and the war against Boko Haram

If you love violence and video games, watch the recent Vice News report, “The War against Boko Haram” posted on Youtube right before Nigeria’s recent elections. It features reporter Kaj Larsen (“the only journalist on the frontline”), embedded with the 103rd battalion of the Nigerian army as it tries to end a six-month stalemate with Boko Haram.

Initially posted in 3 parts, Vice News later posted the whole 29 minute report online:

I hesitate to call it a documentary because the main lesson you’ll learn is that the Nigerian army likes to kill Boko Haram followers. But you’d have learned that in one image, which passes fleetingly over the screen: the body of Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf, riddled from torture and abuse, pink flesh exposed.

Boko Haram has committed terrible atrocities. As both Muslim and Christian Nigerians say to Larsen, “They are devils.” But the Nigerian army has also committed its fair share. Larsen points out shot-out villages, depopulated by the Boko Haram insurgency and the campaign against them, he says explicitly. Against the backdrop of heavy criticisms of the Nigerian army’s slow and ineffectual response to Boko Haram, this show basically bludgeons viewers into choosing a side.

On the one hand, we have Abubakar Shekau’s maniacal laughter and disgusting rhetoric about Boko Haram’s right to steal girls and women. On the other, Vice News features a Nigerian soldier brandishing his commando knife and gleefully saying, “I slaughter them.” Another talks about fucking Boko Haram in the ass. When a soldier tells Larsen that the military had killed over 1000 Boko Haram fighters in the place where they stood, Larsen answers: “That’s incredible.”

Private Jeremiah Friday, who trains hard to fight easy, says relations between Nigerian Muslims and Christians are good. They watch each other pray. “We are all good, brothers, all friends, buddy buddy,” he says. The problem in the North, as Vice lays out, is the lack of “natural resources” (oil); it thus became a playground for radical preachers and violent insurgents. So all the Nigerian army needs to do is bring in some new toys—or are these old? We see a Cold War-era Russian-made Mi-24 HIND attack helicopter that can fire 4,000 rounds a minute. Larsen also notes the “time-honored African conflict tradition—use of private military contractors” (ahem, did the Americans really take this out of the African playbook?) but doesn’t elaborate, even though we know many of these hired hands are South African mercenaries. There is only a gesture to Nigerien and Chadian troops. As a tribute to the Nigerian army, it would be embarrassing to mention its failures until now and the timing of its apparent successes (the Nigerian army upped its offensive against Boko Haram after outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, facing electoral defeat, ramped up its assault on Boko Haram).

Larsen admits that the solution is not so simple. But the show isn’t about that. It’s not really about Nigeria, and it’s not for Nigerians. Nigerians’ proper names, place names, and Hausa translations are butchered (no, Elijah and Alhaji are not the same). Rather it’s a story, popular in America, about brave soldiers fighting terrorists. And viewers should feel sympathy with the Nigerian soldiers drinking what could be their last beer and feel lonely when Larsen does. But must we either be with them or against them?

Shobana Shankar

Shobana Shankar is an assistant professor of history at State University of New York, Stony Brook.

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