Residents of Nigeria’s north-east have lived in isolation for two years. Terrorists frequently target phone lines in order to cut off communication. Traders avoid the region. Journalists live under threat.
But a new radio programme is now bringing important information to three states – Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – which have been under a state of emergency since May 2013 and turned by the army into a battleground against Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.
Called Dandal Kura, the one-hour daily broadcast in the local language, Kanuri, provides a mix of news about government actions against the terrorists or updates on displaced and missing persons. It also discusses a range of other topics like farming, health, social issues and sports.
The airwaves even reach across the border in the Diffa region of Niger, Chad’s Lake region and northern Cameroon, where Kanuri is also the main language and Boko Haram has been launching attacks.
“With the advent of the Boko Haram insurgency, there was a feeling of dejection in the region,” says programme manager Umar Tudun Wada from the northern city of Kano.
“There was a complete absence of communication with the outside world. People felt nobody cares about them. They felt forgotten,” Wada explains.
Most radio stations in north-eastern Nigeria are government-owned and broadcast in Hausa or English. For the tens of thousands of Kanuri-speaking people, there is no independent source of information, only state-sanctioned news and Boko Haram propaganda.
“Boko Haram controls people by inducing fear. Without alternatives, people are very much under the influence of Boko Haram’s propaganda,” says Wada. “Through Dandal Kura, we try to work against the propaganda by giving listeners objective information.”
Dandal Kura, which means “the big hall” in Kanuri, was initially set up in January as a three-month pilot project funded by United States development agency USAID. Since April, the programme is managed and run by Freedom Radio, a private broadcaster based in Kano.
In one of Freedom Radio’s broadcasting studios, lead presenter Kachalla Kolo sits opposite his colleague Halima Abba Ibrahim, with whom he will moderate a show.
Kolo grew up in Borno State, and many of his relatives still live in the isolated, violence-torn state.
“I’m really happy I can make a small contribution to helping people affected by Boko Haram,” he says.
Kolo is part of a team of five presenters and technicians. Three freelance journalists from Borno, Adamawa and Yobe help to supply content. Six additional journalists will be hired in Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
The idea is to soon expand Dandal Kura to a three-hour show, with the hope of eventually turning the programme into a full-service radio station.
“We are hoping to create a sense of community and a space for information exchange,” says media advisor David Smith, who helped to set up Dandal Kura.
“One of the goals is to let people know that they are not alone in their suffering, that they can continue with their lives despite the emergency,” Smith adds.
What is special about Dandal Kura is not only the language. The programme is transmitted by shortwave, on 9940 kHz, instead of the commonly used FM frequency band.
Shortwave is especially important in rural areas across Africa where FM waves hardly reach, but shortwave radios are easily available for an affordable price. In northern Nigeria they can be bought at any marketplace for about 600 Naira (3 dollars).
There is another key advantage: The shortwave transmission system is located hundreds of kilometres away – on the Atlantic island of Ascension – which means it cannot be destroyed by Boko Haram.
An FM transmitter, in contrast, would have to be installed on the ground in northern Nigeria.
“If we had set up FM transmitters, there would have been a high chance that Boko Haram would take them out,” says Smith, who has experience in setting up radio stations in African conflict zones, including Somalia and Central African Republic.