Residents of Zabarmari village, people from Borno State, other Nigerians including Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and security experts yesterday demanded an unreserved apology from the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, for saying the 43 farmers killed in Borno village did not seek permission before they went to their farms.
Shehu had said in an interview with the BBC World Service, on Monday that he was not blaming the dead farmers but: "the truth must be told considering that they did not get clearance from the military before they went to the rice fields."
He said the government was worried that 43 innocent farmers were slaughtered, but that the people should avoid some places that may be dangerous.
"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," he said.
"Much of those areas have been liberated from Boko Haram terrorists but there are some 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," he said.
Reacting to Shehu's claims, a former Chairman of Rice Farmers Association in Zabarmari, Mallam Hassan, said it was rather unfortunate for the presidential spokesman to make such claims.
"The dead deserves respect; Malam Shehu should have reserved his comments because of the tensed situation," he said.
"We have never collected any clearances from the military or any security operatives. We have been farming in these areas since when I was a child; these places are not far from Maiduguri.
"We have never been exempted from farming. We planted our seedlings during the rainy season took care of the fields up till this moment without taking any permission from anyone," he said.
Another resident, Abdullahi Yahaya Ali, said, "It is the responsibility of government to provide security for us but we are left helpless. We are surprised that someone living in Abuja would come out and discredit us, he should apologise to us instead of trying to justify the killings.
"We are not going to allow these people to change the narratives; they have failed, so he needs to tender an apology to all of us the relations of the victims," he said.
The Chairman of Civil Society Organisation in Borno State, Ambassador Shehu Ahmed said the statement credited to Garba Shehu was uncalled for.
"For the past eight months, these people have been farming. I think it would have been better for him to have kept quiet... What he said was like accusing the dead to exonerate the government."
The attack on Garba Shehu was also visible on social media. "The primary duty of all government is to secure lives, wealth and ensures the safety and secured environment for its citizens" said Muhammad Jabir on his Facebook page.
"You people have woefully failed in that sector. We were slaughtered like ram and now you even have the guts to tell us a person must get a license before cultivating what to eat? You have failed the North," he said.
Yakubu Samaila viewed the statement as the controversy of the highest order. "Not one thing is true about them, yesterday, Boko Haram has been defeated and IDPs are returning to their homes and today, they have not been cleared to go to the farm... Continue until we meet outside the villa."
Ajanaku Folayan said there was confusion in the Aso Rock because "President Buhari condemned the killing while Garba Shehu justified the killings."
Abdulkadir Gamawa described the statement as "inflammatory", which shouldn't have come from the presidency. "Whatever it is, you need to sympathise with them at least."
A former Chairman of Nigeria's National Human Rights Commission, Chidi Odinkalu, queried: "since the farmers do not have the clearance to be on the farm, do the killers had clearance to massacre them because the farmers didn't have permission to go to the farm?"
A Twitter user @DesCartes said, "The recent blame game and rhetoric from government aides such as Garba Shehu, Femi Adesina, Lai Mohammed and the rest in the face of widespread terror attacks by bandits and Boko haram shows the boys at Sambisa are just decoys, the real terrorists are in Aso rock."
Also, Zainab Nasir Ahmad viewed Garba Shehu as a major problem to Buhari's administration. "Instead of him to say something appealing to the family of the victims, he ended up blaming them. With the type of advisers @MBuhari has, you know we still have more to suffer from."
Mohammad Saleh called for the sacking of all service chiefs "because they lacked insights to restore peace in restive areas in the nation."
According to him, "We are all aware the security architecture lacks the focus to fix the problem of insecurity but PMB keeps silent."
Abdulazeez Abubakar stated that Kano State Governor, Abdullahi Ganduje sacked his commissioner for celebrating Kyari's death and suspended his media aide for criticising President Buhari's style of leadership. "But the president does not dare to sack anyone."
A security expert who is also the National Network Coordinator and Secretary to the Board of West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) Nigeria, Chief Bridget Osakwe, said that it was inconceivable that farmers had to get permission from the military to go to their farms.
"I must take permission from the military to go to my farm? That is where we are as Nigerians? I know that the primary responsibility of the government is the security of the citizens," Osakwe said.
On his part, the Executive Director, Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRICED), Dr Ibrahim Zikirullahi, said it was unfortunate and condemnable for a presidential spokesman to ignore the tragedy and engage in what appeared like blaming the victims for such the monumental loss of lives.
"Garba Shehu's utterance shows the lack of empathy, which has characterised the government handling of insecurity across the country. If things were right in our country, such an insensitive comment will earn the spokesperson a serious reprimand from the government," he said.
I didn't blame the dead
Responding to all the attacks rained on him, Shehu yesterday evening denied blaming the farmworkers killed in the Zabarmari community.
In a statement posted on his Twitter handle @GarShehu, the presidential spokesman said he had found himself leading the trends in the social media for the wrong reasons.
He said his assertion during the BBC interview does not mean he had no compassion.
"Today, I found myself leading the trends in 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. Some areas 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 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 victim," he said.