Controversy continues to trail the actual number of persons killed and houses destroyed in the confrontation between anti-terrorism military forces and Boko Haram, in Baga, a fishing community in Borno State
| By Olu Ojewale | May 20, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
THE dust raised by the military killings in Baga Community, Borno State on Tuesday, April 16, may take a long time to settle. Irked by the controversial large number of people reportedly killed in the community during a military confrontation with Boko Haram, an Islamic sect, the United States government dispatched a team of investigators to Nigeria on Monday, May 6, to meet with government officials with the aim of carrying out an independent probe of the incident. Ade Adefuye, Nigerian ambassador to the US, who confirmed the arrival of the team, said it had met with officials of the Nigerian Foreign Affairs Ministry, Justice Ministry and the National Security Adviser, among others, over the issue.
The US government seemed to have been jolted by the report of Human Rights Watch, HRW, a US-based non-governmental organisation, which accused the Nigerian military of being responsible for the massacre of about 200 people in the troubled area. Added to that, a satellite imagery showed on the website of the HRW, claimed that the Nigerian soldiers might have set on fire a total of 2,275 buildings, and severely damaged 125 others. The HRW report cum many western media reports also suggested that the Nigerian military was responsible for the carnage in the largely fishing community. They accused the troops of exceeding their engagement rules and violation of fundamental human rights in the Baga battle.
In its report, the HRW had said that given the number of buildings destroyed as well as their distribution across large sections of the town, the destruction was done intentionally “and not inadvertently sparked by the detonation of rocket-propelled grenades or improvised explosive devices.” It added: “Baga residents told HRW that soldiers ransacked their town after the Boko Haram militant Islamist group attacked a military patrol, killing a soldier. Community leaders said that immediately after the attack, they counted 2,000 burned homes and 183 bodies. Satellite images of the town analysed by HRW corroborate these accounts and identify 2,275 destroyed buildings, the vast majority being likely residences, with another 125 severely damaged.”
But the government said that was not true. To demonstrate its non-culpability, the federal government has promised to show satellite images of Baga as captured by the nation’s earth observation satellite, otherwise known as NigeriaSat-2, on Monday, May 13. Ita Ewa, minister of Science and Technology, said the satellite images would be shown in a public ceremony in an attempt to counter the claim of the HRW.
Chris Olukolade, brigadier-general and director of defence information, and a member of the military team sent to Baga to investigate, told HRW after his visit that reports of civilian casualties and homes destroyed were “grossly exaggerated.” He said “the atrocities, if any, were carried out by the insurgents in an attempt to cause destruction and attack people not sympathetic to their cause.” Olukolade said the military team visited two graveyards in Baga but could only identify 32 fresh graves. Although, the military operations were carried out in conjunction with other forces from Chad, Cameroon and Niger, Nigeria has been the only one fingered for the offence perceived to have been committed in the area.
Nevertheless, President Goodluck Jonathan recently directed the Defence Headquarters and the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, to investigate the incident. A joint preliminary report of their findings was submitted to the president on Friday, May 3. The report said the number of casualties was exaggerated as only 36 people were killed in the confrontation with the Boko Haram sect. Speaking in a television interview on Saturday, May 4, Reuben Abati, special adviser to the president on media and publicity, said there was no case of more than 200 people or 158 persons killed, and that there were no mass graves in Baga, as being reported in the press. According to him, the investigations revealed that “30 Boko Haram terrorists died, one soldier and some bodies were found in Lake Chad, a few meters away from the scene of the confrontation.”
On the torched houses in the community, Abati said: “The report also made it clear that arson is a usual method adopted by the Boko Haram terrorists, and that some of the weapons seized from them included rocket grenades, bombs, AK47s, and a lot of sophisticated weapons. And that in the process, many of the buildings around the area of the confrontation were set on fire by the Boko Haram terrorists.” On the whole, he said only 32 fresh graves were discovered during the investigation.
The president’s spokesman, also said that NEMA had set up an intervention programme, including units for internally displaced persons, and that 642 persons had been accommodated at the internally displaced persons unit. “In terms of population, Baga is a very small fishing community on the border between Nigeria and Chad. And even in terms of the number of houses in that community, you don’t have up to 1,000 houses. So, where was this information coming from that 3,000 houses were burnt, 4,000 houses were torched. So, NEMA concluded also that there has been a lot of misinformation,” Abati said.
But that has not pacified a number of people and organisations who are blaming the Jonathan administration for the carnage. For instance, Lai Mohammed, national publicity secretary of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, does not believe the government’s figure on the number of people killed in the conflict. ‘’Contrast this with NEMA’s conclusion that far less than 1,000 homes were destroyed, or the military high command’s finding that only 36 people were killed, and it becomes glaring that something is wrong somewhere,” Mohammed said in a statement recently.
Besides, the party said Nigeria would have been spared the global criticism resulting from the Baga tragedy, had the government and the military carried out a more diligent investigation of the incidents. Instead, it said, they both acted in a defensive manner and by trivialising the destruction done in conflict by saying most of the destroyed houses were made of thatched roofs. “In case the government has not seen the report of Human Rights Watch on the Baga tragedy, here is a quote from it: The Nigerian military has a duty to protect itself and the population from Boko Haram attacks, but the evidence indicates that it engaged more in destruction than in protection…The glaring discrepancies between the facts on the ground and statements by senior military officials raise concerns that they tried to cover up military abuses,’’ the party said further.
On its part, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, a non-governmental organisation, wants the International Criminal Court, ICC, to investigate the alleged human rights abuses by forces engaged in the anti-terrorism battle in Baga. In a letter written by Femi Falana, SAN, its counsel, and addressed to Fatou Bensouda, ICC prosecutor, the SERAP wants the prosecutor to visit Baga to investigate allegations of unlawful killings, destruction of civilian property and widespread cases of extra-judicial executions in Nigeria in general. The letter said in part: “use your good offices and position to facilitate the visit of the court to Baga in Borno State of Nigeria and other parts of the country in order for the court to assess the situation, interview important witnesses and collect vital evidence that can be used to bring suspected perpetrators to justice for international crimes.”
Be that as it may, Abati, on behalf of the federal government, has insisted that there was no massacre in Baga as being propagated in the media. Besides, he said, “the reports by investigators also made it clear that the Boko Haram terrorists were the ones who set houses on fire, and the ones who have turned Baga into an enclave within the Nigerian State. And to the extent that that is true means that the terrorists are determined to violate the sovereignty of Nigeria… President Jonathan has said that the investigations should continue, and that where it can be established that there has been any misdeed or misconduct, that the administration will do everything to ensure that justice is done.”
As the case stands, it is obvious that it would take government more than mere posturing and statements, to convince Nigerians, on one hand; and international community on the other, that it is not trying bury the truth. And perhaps, another source of concern is how the controversy may affect its war on terrorism.