THE Boko Haram (Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād) insurgency has been on for over 12 years. During this time, it has not only transcended its physical epicentre in Northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state by spilling into neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon, but it has also gained a global presence through the establishment of an accessible digital presence for engagement far beyond the Chad basin.
Nigeria reported its first case of COVID-19 in February 2020, and less than two months later, user generated content (UGC) was identified showing Boko Haram’s then leader, Abubakar Shekau, purporting himself as an altruistic information-force in uncertain times, he said “I want to enlighten the world, even though they are blocking our information, God still has ways of delivering it.”
Boko Haram’s scepticism over COVID-19 and associated health mitigation measures are not isolated views within Nigeria. Powerful religious leaders, such as Chris Okotie, founder of the Household of God Church International Ministries, claimed that COVID-19 vaccines would turn recipients into vampires.
Even those in Government have added fuel to Nigeria’s mis/disinformation fire. Yahaya Bello, Governor of Kogi state, claimed in March 2020 that the furore around COVID-19 was 90 per cent driven by “political, economic, financial [or] material gain” and the other 10 per cent “[relates to] ordinary flu”.
A February 2021 report from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), highlights the threat posed by such commentary, indicating that more than half of respondents surveyed in Nigeria feel that the threat from COVID-19 is exaggerated.
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It is expected that Boko Haram have both contributed to this metric, and (perhaps unwittingly) capitalised on it, producing content and authoritative dialogue which presented COVID-19 response protocols as specifically targeting Muslims. According to Shekau in an April 2020 speech, “you only hear of Corona, but you are telling Muslims not to pray and you close mosques”.
The UGC identified from June 2020 shows Boko Haram members continuing to ignore social distancing regulations enforced across Nigeria at the time, with Eid celebrations being conducted without masks, hands being shook and hugs shared between adherents.
As recently as April 2021, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter-cell of Boko Haram, have shared similar UGC, showing similar disregard for COVID-19 safety and physical distancing measures.
Haruna Mohammed Salisu, a resident of Borno state and publisher of the Wikki Times (a Nigerian digital media platform), described the situation in the North-East as “a double pandemic”.
Salisu stated that, due to security concerns, aid workers and government officials were unable to access some communities in Boko Haram controlled areas. This has left these individuals without adequate access to either COVID-19 inoculation or treatment, or authoritative sources of information on the pandemic and the risks associated with the disease.
For these people, the ‘double pandemic’ refers to the insurgency and both the threat of COVID-19 and the continued permeation of mis/disinformation throughout their information sources.
According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), as of 08-Sep-2021, Borno state had recorded 1,344 ‘lab-confirmed’ cases of COVID-19 (from a state population of at least 5.8 million, as of 2016). This figure most likely misrepresents the actual number of cases, and deaths caused by, COVID-19. The ‘double pandemic’ almost certainly contributes to this misrepresentation.
Since 2015, when the group shifted its information campaigns to YouTube and Twitter, accounts operated by Boko Haram, or purporting related content, have regularly been identified and subsequently removed.
In his June 2021 response to being censored by Twitter for breaching the platform’s Hateful Conduct policy, President Muhammadu Buhari effectively censored the Nigerian public. Although not done for the purposes of minimising extremist dialogue online, it did lose Boko Haram its domestic Twitter audience.
This isn’t to suggest the content stopped flowing – instead, it continues to be shared through less overt and less accessible means. WhatsApp, Telegram and other closed-access messaging services allow content to be shared on a large scale to both individual users and groups. And for Boko Haram and its associated splinter-groups, they are well prepared for content take-downs, with research from 2020 showing at times up to fifty active WhatsApp groups in operation for content dissemination.
More traditional methods are still under employ also, with researcher interviews amongst Boko Haram members showing that peer-to-peer sharing, such as through Bluetooth, is still being used to disseminate extremist content and disinformation, alongside more traditional (and physical measures), including preaching and flyer distribution.
Although content moderation is too contested a topic for discussion in this short article, one of its effects in the Nigerian context – combined with access restrictions to Boko-Haram controlled areas – is that messaging is still being received by the public; but is less likely to be identified and dispelled by authoritative bodies who maintain public trust.
The activities of extremist groups in the information sphere both directly and indirectly undermine public health responses in combating COVID-19 and have far-reaching negative effects if left unchecked.
This post forms part of a larger investigation into the COVID-19 disinformation and extremism nexus in and around Nigeria. This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored.
Edit: P8 ‘User Generated Content’ was changed to UGC | ‘a’ was removed from P19.