By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja
The Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, has defended himself in the wake of widespread condemnations that trailed an interview he granted to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), wherein he remarked that farmers murdered in a Boko Haram attack in Borno State had not gotten military clearance before visiting their farms, saying that he is ‘human, compassionate and sympathetic.’
Suspected Boko Haram members attacked Zabarmari, about 20 kilometres from Maiduguri, at the weekend, killing 43 rice farmers.
Shehu had told that ‘the government is sad that this tragic incident has happened. 43 or thereabout of innocent farmworkers, most of them had their throats slit by a heartless band of terrorists. People need to know what it is like in the Lake Chad Basin area.
‘Much of those areas have been liberated from Boko Haram terrorists. But there are a number of spaces that have not been cleared for the return of villagers who have been displaced. So, ideally, all of these places ought to pass the test of military clearances before farmers or settlers resume activities on those fields.’
Asked if he was now blaming the farmers for going to the area, the presidential spokesman replied: ‘Not exactly. But the truth has to be said. Was there any clearance by the military which is in total control of those areas? Did anybody ask to resume activity? I have been told by the military leaders that they had not been so advised and certainly, therefore, it was a window that the terrorists exploited.
‘The military is not present in every inch of space in that area. Even if the people are willing to go back, a lot of those areas have been mined and mine clearance needs to be carried out and those areas must be cast as being OK for human habitation or agricultural activity.’
But in a series of tweets on Monday, he said his comments didn’t mean he is not compassionate.
While reacting to the tirades of reactions over his comments, Shehu, who was part of a Federal Government delegation to Borno early on Monday said he did not blame the victims for the unfortunate incident.
The series of tweets posted on his verified Twitter handle, @GarShehu, read: ‘Today, I found myself leading the trends in the social media for the wrong reasons.
‘The State of Borno is essentially a military zone up till now that we are talking and much of what people do; much of where they go are governed by the exigencies of security.
‘Routinely, traders, administration officials and even UN agencies get the green light to go to many of the areas to avoid trouble.
‘Information from security agencies says that the Zabarmari marshlands are infested with land mines and movements in around those areas subject to military oversight.
‘No one is delighted with the massacre in Zabarmari and there is nothing anybody will gain by playing blame games.
‘The question I tried to answer on BBC was: did the security sign off on the area as being free of mines and terrorists? The honest answer is, no.
‘I’m human with tons of compassion and empathy, and could not have said that the victims deserved their fate for ignoring security clearance.
‘I was merely explaining the mode of military operations in the war zone of the Northeast. There are areas that are still volatile that require security clearance which is intended to put people out of harm’s way.
‘When tragedies occur, questions arise in terms of how something happened in order to avoid future recurrence. Informing the military of our movements in an area of volatility and uncertainty is intended to preserve public safety.
‘Explaining why something happened doesn’t mean I have no sympathy for the victims. I was just explaining the military procedures on the safe movement of the people and not supporting the death of the victims.’
Today, I found myself leading the trends in the social media for the wrong reasons.
— Garba Shehu (@GarShehu) November 30, 2020