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A reckoning over methods and journalism's big problem
When is it worth it to call out a problem?
"The thing with lying and fudging is it tends to accelerate as it becomes the normal tool to be brought out when handy. There are always excuses to cut corners." - Brian Morrissey
On Sunday, David Hundeyin's article, "cornflakes for Jihad," rattled the internet. It's been discussed on Twitter threads, uploaded on WhatsApp statuses, and are you even in a WhatsApp group if it hasn't been debated there already? The article is an investigative report on the origins of Boko Haram, and it takes many interesting turns. It names Ahmed Idris Nasreddin, the now-dead multimillionaire founder of the NASCO group as a financier of terror. Significant as that claim is, the article's central theme, and arguably why it has struck such a chord, is that it advances the argument of the "Islamization" of Nigerian politics.
In the lead up to the 2015 and 2019 elections, a few people expressed fears that Buhari would Islamize Nigeria — what that broadly means is still difficult to explain clearly. The closest to what seems to be a coherent argument is what one Twitter user calls the dangers of "political Islam." While the Islamization worry didn't gain ground in 2015 and 2019, it is a compelling idea today. It's easy to see why, as deep divisions in Nigeria are furthering the notion of a Northern ruling class that doesn't care about the Southern region. This is the spectacular achievement of Hundeyin's article; it taps into now-familiar fears, some of which are valid, and whips it up into a missive that one person suggests should be printed out as pamphlets and shared to people all over Southern Nigeria.
There is only one problem: Hundeyin's work, which makes some of the biggest claims in contemporary Nigerian journalism, doesn't deliver on many of those claims. Perhaps the boldest claim in the article is this: "Using money made from selling market-leading FMCGs to Nigerian consumers, a cross-border network of terrorism is being nurtured that will someday kill the very kids eating NASCO cornflakes every morning. And it’s all thanks to this nice gentleman [Ahmed Idris Nasreddin] from Eritrea." Hundeyin's assertion is backed up by one WikiLeaks cable that debates the involvement of the NASCO group and this article from the LA Times.
The LA Times article, which rightly questions why Nasreddin was later delisted from the U.S terror financiers watchlist, contains more context than cornflakes for Jihad.
"The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control “reviewed all of the information in its possession, including the information upon which Mr. Nasreddin’s original designation was based, additional information, and Mr. Nasreddin’s submissions in support of his delisting petition,” the statement said.
Treasury also said that “a primary basis” for Nasreddin’s earlier designation was his support for Youssef Nada, co-founder and co-director with Nasreddin of the prominent Bank al Taqwa, and Nasreddin’s support for the bank itself. The bank and Nada, who according to the Treasury Department holds a controlling interest, were first designated as financiers of terrorism in November 2001 by the Bush administration and United Nations. They remain on the blacklist."
Taken in context, there are questions around the decision of the US to delist Nasreddin as a terror financier, but nowhere has anything sinister been put forward. There's also no single fact to support the claim that money from the NASCO group in Nigeria funds terrorism. Even more puzzling is this claim from the article; "The Nigerian jihadis being trained in Algerian camps in 2002 will later return to Nigeria and make up the core of what will later become known as “Boko Haram.” And - what a coincidence - NASCO is also based in Jos, which so happens to be the headquarters of the Izala Movement and its many North African dalliances."
It's difficult to get over the fact that, despite the title, the author doesn't take great pains to establish a link between Boko Haram and NASCO. But there are more minor but important errors, like the fact that the author conflates Yakubu Musa Kafanchan and Yakubu Katsina, interchanges them at a point and uses the former's picture for the latter. While one is a Salafi cleric, the other is Shiite. This article also does a good job of pointing out some other errors. Hundeyin has now made two amendments. I expect that more amendments will follow as more facts continue to be checked. In a sense, it is here that I find some of the biggest problems.
Many will argue that some of the problems with Hundeyin's article are small errors and that people like me who point it out are merely nitpicking. But like one tweet points out, "a supposedly well-researched investigative piece having holes is a big deal. It is not something you wave away with 'but does it matter - what about the main point?' It does matter. A lot." The "small holes," in this instance lead the author to conclude that the discussion about grazing routes was prompted by a Jordanian NGO's 2012 report. It also leads him to say that the same report "is prima facie evidence of a coordinated international campaign of strategic disinformation for the purpose of framing the reality of terrorism in Nigeria in a way that is completely dishonest." In reality, discussions about grazing routes as a solution to farmer-herder crises in Nigeria date back to the first Republic (1963-1966).
Ironically, Hundeyin accuses the Jordanian NGO's report of the one thing he's guilty of: making claims "without citing data to support [the] conclusion." The overwhelming sense one gets from cornflakes for Jihad is of a journalist who has an answer in his head and then works his way backwards. But facts are stubborn things, and sometimes they don't allow our neat little narratives to take shape. When we are confronted with evidence that our leading hypothesis is incorrect, we're forced to either modify our hypotheses or muddy the facts. The current problem is that the author of cornflakes for Jihad has shown, time and time again, that he's likely to muddy the facts to achieve a dramatic landing.
This has become a worrying but broader pattern with Hundeyin's work; a reluctance to be rigorous because of a belief that he's fighting a bigger war. Five months ago, Hundeyin's article alleging the existence of an organ trafficking ring in Uyo, contained significant factual errors. Some of these errors were avoidable with a Google search. In the end, the publication that published the article made a raft of changes to the article, and stated that it had been "updated in the light of new facts." The publication also had to apologise and retract a claim that an NGO named in the article was involved in an organ trafficking ring. The argument is not that journalists do not make mistakes. It is that there is a danger in masking serious issues in sensationalism, even if your intentions are noble. It is the mark of professionalism to inform your audience, treat tricky subjects with appropriate care, present the grey areas of difficult conversations and trust them to make their conclusions.
Some may argue that in a country where stories of corrupt politicians hardly inspire public anger, Hundeyin's methods work and spark a fire. It's a method other well known publications are also using to great effect. The debate about the net positives of the Hundeyin method is up for debate, but it is worth pondering if our journalism must sink to the levels of the people we spend so long criticising.