Religion,ethics and journalism: The NASCO story



By Jonathan Ishaku

One of the setbacks of tackling terrorism in Nigeria today is the tendency to conflate it with religion. As a multi-religious society, journalists need to be faithful in the rendition of the terrorism narrative without sacrificing truth or objectivity. That, however, starts with the understanding of what terrorism is and what it is not! Even at that they will have to abide by their professional ethics in their reportage in order to not only safeguard professional integrity but also to protect national security and unity.

This is for the reason that an unprofessional handling of the terrorism narrative often drives two opposing extremes; those who, on the basis of religion, simply deny the existence of terrorism in its entirety, on the one hand, and those who erroneously equate Islam with terrorism, on the other. This has severe consequences for the society in countering the threat.

The first tendency hinders consensus in tackling terrorism in its embryonic and subsequent stages. To buttress this,   I once quoted Prof. Yakubu, a Muslim scholar and former Vice Chancellor of University of Abuja who told a gathering at a book launch organized by De Minaret International at Abuja in May 2012 that “the country was under attack by bad elements within the Muslim community and Muslim leaders were not doing enough to fish out the suspects.” (Daily Trust, May 7, 2012). Indeed, many Muslim leaders had criticized the designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist organization because they argue that they were Muslims.  

The other extreme is equally invidious; it is divisive. The article “Cornflakes for Jihad: The Boko Haram Origin Story” by one David Hundeyin which went viral in the first week of October 2021, in my opinion, illustrates this tendency. As one who had published a book, titled “Boko Haram: How Religious Intolerance threatens Nigeria,” in 2009, and reputed to be one of the first books on the subject, I was naturally intrigued. I went through Mr. Hundeyin’s article several times.

In the end I concluded that Akwa Ibom-born Mr. Hundeyin, whose real name is David Inyene-Obong Nugboyon Oluwaseun, leaned too heavily on the notion equating the Islamic religion with terrorism. His analysis provided no evidential linkage between NASCO, the manufacturers of Nigeria’s leading cornflakes brand and Boko Haram, the terrorist group which he dressed in the religious toga of jihad except reinforcing the erroneous notion that  Muslims and Muslim leaders are sponsors of terrorism. I do not dispute that Boko Haram sees itself as waging a jihad, using terrorism, but donning a Muslim-owned corporate entity like NASCO such a label would require substantial proof of evidence that it indeed actually involved itself in the crime of terrorism. It should be clear that Boko Haram is NOT being fought because it claims to be a radical or extremist Islamic group or that it is an acclaimed jihadist movement, no. Boko Haram is being prosecuted because it is involved in the crime of terrorism; killings, bloody sieges against communities, kidnappings, insurgency, and many acts of terror and violence against the people! Radical movements exist in all religions, it is no crime but when they begin to resort to violence they cross into the threshold of terrorism and criminality.

Alex P. Schmid, a leading scholar on terrorism, warns the linkage between radicalization and religious extremism is tendentious. Schmid said, “While both stand at the same distance from mainstream political thinking, the first tends to be open-minded, while the second manifests a closed mind and distinct willingness to use violence against civilians.” (Schmid, 2013). Radicalism gave the blacks equal rights in the US, independence to Nigeria in 1960, ousted Apartheid in South Africa in 1990, brought about the liberation of Southern Sudan in 2011, etc. Extremism, however, fuels violent terrorism. Although a majority of such violence is religious, among the plethora of modern-day extremist groups with known terrorist track-record are: secular/political/anarchists, right-wing, left-wing, ethno-nationalists and single-issue extremists. For example, the Ombatse killings in Nasarawa State in which over 60 security operatives were killed in 2013 fell into one of these categories. Which category does the bandits who attack Christians and Muslims equally, and kill worshippers in churches and mosques, fall? Any reporter that cannot figure out the distinction shouldn’t report on terrorism!

Apart from understanding the subject of investigation and the pursuit of objectivity, professional integrity is also crucial in reporting terrorism. When a reporter reports on terrorism his or her motives shouldn’t be opened to questioning. Journalists are guided by the principle of telling the truth, not half-truths, but “the whole truth.” Mr. Hundeyin was on a thing when he reported that the late founder of NASCO International, Dr. Ahmed Nasreddin, was on the United Nations Security Council’s list of sanctions back in 2002 over suspicion of terrorism financing. In the research for my 2009 book, I also discovered this, but it never appeared in my book because that wasn’t “the whole truth.” The truth is that suspicion alone doesn’t constitute culpability.

Dr. Nasreddin’s plight came in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorism bombing of the World Trade Centre twin towers and the Pentagon. As in all panicky situations, both the USA and the UNSC, without resort to the legal principle of presumption of innocence, embarked on sanctions against some suspected individuals and corporate entities. One of such entities was Bank Al Taqwa owned by Youssef Nada, and a bank in which Dr. Nasreddin was a director. Although NASCO International was never implicated, owing to the inclusion of its founder, it was equally blacklisted and suffered some sanctions in Italy, Switzerland, Turkey Morocco, and the Bahamas. However, NASCO Group Nigeria, which operated independently was never closed down aside the proceedings in a Nigerian high court referenced by the author. In 2008, however, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) determined that the UNSC blacklist was arbitrary and a violation of human rights. Meanwhile, after a thorough investigation by the UN Al Qaeda and Taliban Committee between late 2007 and early 2008, on January 17, 2008, the UN Security Council fully exonerated Dr. Ahmed Nasreddin and NASCO International of involvement in terrorism financing, vide UNSC Resolution S/2008/25. This is the whole truth regarding Hundeyin’s story “Cornflakes for Jihad”. So why did the journalist choose to omit this vital information from his report? Did he have a hidden agenda then? Why did he prefer to run with the half-truth than “the whole truth”?

Furthermore, when reporting “the whole truth,” many trained, as opposed to social media emergency reporters, are adept to the principles and practice of restraint and responsibility. My professor illustrated this point with the allegory of “fire in the crowded cinema hall.” If you notice an outbreak of fire at the back of the crowded hall, will you scream “Fire!” knowing very well that many people will die or be injured in the ensuing stampede? I don’t know what training in journalism or public relations the police Public Relations Officer in Jos, Plateau State had received, but I knew he was untrained and unfit for the office when at the unfortunate killing of 22 travelers from Bauchi en route Ondo State, in Jos, on August 14, 2021, he went on air to announce that “Muslim travelers were killed by Christian Irigwe youths.” The reaction to the announcement was predictable, Jos went up in flames!

From the outbreak of violence on the August 14 and August 25, when “unknown gunmen” killers invaded a community in the vicinity in Jos killing 38 people, till the end of September 2021 that normalcy gradually returned, the peace in Jos was quite fragile indeed, with the University of Jos and several businesses under lock. It was under these circumstances, that on October 3, 2021, Mr. Hundeyin released his bombshell, guaranteed to set NASCO on fire and rekindle another bloodbath of religious clashes in the city. For what purpose? Half-truths packaged in incendiary language targeting the largest employer of labour in tensed Jos! Did the author ever consider what the people had just passed through? Did he exercise restraint and responsibility in consideration of the interests of the inhabitants, the returning students, economic activities, and growth of the state in particular and national security and unity in general?

The religious sentiment beclouding terrorism reportage could of itself turn into a weapon of violence. But for the general caution of the public, the aforesaid article would have plunged Jos city into another orgy of violence, while the author is ensconced in the comfort of his self-styled exile somewhere abroad.

Both Christians and Muslims are victims of terrorism. Terrorists spare no one. That is why both Muslim and Christians have called on the Federal Government to declare the bandits, killers and kidnappers in the North West and Middle Belt as terrorists because of the mayhem they have unleashed on the people not because of their religion.

Ishaku is a journalist and writer. He is also Member of the Editorial Advisory Board, The Independent Newspaper.