Borno State is Nigeria’s self- acclaimed ‘Home of Peace’. That is the appellation. But you may not be wrong if you now describe it as ‘The Home of Ruins and Pieces’. The truth about the state is that it has become a theatre of a war unleashed by the Islamist group called Boko Haram. Insurgency has been the order of the day in the state, leaving in its trail bombings, shootings and deaths.
When the residents are lucky, the death toll is low, but sometimes it can be high. Some analysts blame the problem on the international borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroun which they believe is porous as to allow Islamic extremists from the countries to enter the state at will.
The Federal Government raised a military outfit under the aegis of the Joint Task Force (JTF) which it deployed to contain the Islamists. However, the efforts to abate the violence in the state have led to the JTF’s stand-off with the intransigent Islamists, claiming more lives. One of such incidents was the face-off of last week between the JTF and the Boko Haram elements which reportedly claimed about 185 lives – the JTF is the arrowhead of a multinational force working in the state to contain the insurgents.
The face-off took place at Baga, a remote village in Kukawa Local Government Area of Borno State, believed to have been a haven for the Islamist group. Most of those killed in the four-hour battle were said to have been civilians thus sparking national outrage.
The dead, according to reports, include women and children, while hundreds of houses were torched.
Baga, about 235 kilometers away from Maiduguri, Borno State capital, is a border town with Niger and Chad. It produces fish. Troops from Niger and Chad were reported to have been involved in the operation.
Until this incident, the last reported insurgent activity in the area was the killing of a Customs officer. This time, the multinational force took the battle to the ‘home’ of the Boko Haram Islamists. Reports said the civilian casualty was high as the Islamists used residents as human shields from the multinational force fire.
A Baga resident, who gave his name as Mallam Bana, said he survived the battle by whiskers. According to him, it all started at about 8pm penultimate Friday. “The soldiers were heartless that night in their approach; they killed and burnt our houses, chased everyone into the bush including women and children. So far, we have buried 185 corpses. – some were burnt beyond recognition; others are hospitalized with various degrees of injuries,” Bana said.
But the commander of the JTF, Brigadier General Austin Edokpaye, who confirmed the incident, while conducting Governor Kashim Shettima round the affected area, on Sunday, debunked the claim that scores of civilians were consumed during the battle. “We lost an officer during an attack on our men on patrol. We received intelligence report that some suspected Boko Haram members usually prayed and hid arms at a particular mosque in the town. It was around that mosque that our men were attacked with several of them injured and an officer died”, Edokpaye said.
“When we reinforced and returned to the scene, the terrorists came out with heavy firepower including RPGs which usually have a conflagration effect that caused houses with tatched roof or fencing to catch fire.”
The commander revealed that the fire that consumed the community and the resultant deaths should be blamed on the Boko Haram Islamists who opened fire on soldiers and using civilians as human shields. He denied the residents’ allegation that the shootout was unprovoked.
Edokpaye noted that in his many years of stay in Borno State, he had cultivated civil and military relations to the effect that Baga and environs had enjoyed relative peace.
He said those who died as a result of the incident could be victims of the crossfire between the soldiers and the Boko Haram gunmen, which he said was highly regrettable.
Shettima drove through the village with a large retinue of government functionaries, including the member of the House of Representatives representing the area, Hon. Isa Lawan Kangarwa, and the Secretary to the State Government, Alhaji Baba Ahmed Jidda.
The governor and his entourage also visited the General Hospital, Baga, where he commiserated with the women, children and aged men admitted for various cases of burns.The governor took time to pacify the aggrieved residents and pleaded with those in the bush to return home.
He directed that those in hospital with severe cases of burns be transferred to the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital where they could get better treatment.
Shettima later expressed his displeasure with the way the soldiers carried out their duties on the fateful day, just as he implored the commander to “take full charge” of his operation and ensure he personally supervises his field officers from time to time “in order to avert such nasty incidents in the future.”
Before he left the town, he inaugurated a high-powered committee, led by Hon Isa Lawan Kangarwa, to ascertain the extent of the damage and how the people could be helped out of their “seemingly irreparable trauma”.
Sunday Vanguard checks revealed that food and other basic needs became a problem in the community throughout last weekend as a grocery merchant, who lost his house and business stall in the conflagration, Malam Bashir Isa, said, “Everyone has been in the bush since Friday night; we started returning to town because the governor came today. To get food to eat now is a problem because even the markets are burnt. We are still picking corpses of women and children in the bush”.
To cushion the effect of the hardship faced by the surviving residents, the Federal Government ordered the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, North East Zone to collaborate with Borno State government to mobilize to site on Wednesday to assist the victims with relief materials. Consequently, NEMA officials were deployed to the area.
National outrage trailed the killings. The Senate and the House of Representatives mandated separate committees to probe the massacre. President Goodluck Jonathan also raised a committee to carry out a full-scale investigation into reports of high civilian casualties in the confrontation.
In the Senate, three committees were asked to jointly probe the killings of those the senators called “the innocent.”
The probe committees, which are the National Intelligence, Police and Defence, were asked to turn in their report within 14 days. The decision of the Senate followed the intervention of Senator Maina Lawan (Borno North), who raised the issue under matters of urgent national importance drawing from Order 43 of the Senate Order Rules.
Maina, who hails from Baga, said that following the military operation, which lasted three days, the community was currently in ruins, with 180 to 200 lives lost and numerous others unaccounted for. According to him, 2,000 homes, 62 cars and 284 motorcycles and tons of food stuff were destroyed.
The lawmaker, who said he would not like to delve into the controversy of the possible perpetrators of the act, however, noted that the scale of atrocities were condemnable. He prayed the Senate to “call for a full scale investigation to unearth the truth, as this is a recurring decimal in all such past instances in Borno.”
Maina urged the upper legislative chamber to “call upon all concerned agencies of government, NEMA, states and local governments as well as good spirited individuals to come to the aid of the surviving victims, women, children and the aged who are in dire need.”
Senate President, Senator David Mark, also condemned the alleged high civilian figures occasioned by the action of the security operatives.
He said the task force must operate under globally accepted military standards as well as the rule of engagement prescribed by the military. According to Mark, “We cannot have this high number of Nigerian casualties at a given time. The military task force must conduct itself within the rules of engagement provided for them as well as the global best practices.”
While fielding questions from newsmen after the Senate session, Maina revealed that members of the Boko Haram Islamic sect had sacked about one third of the Borno local government councils. He said that in some of the council areas, the sect also sacked the police, the Immigration Service and Customs.
The lawmaker described the situation in some of the councils as complete breakdown of law and order. “The truth of the matter is that when JTF intensified their operations in Maiduguri , of course, they concentrated in Maiduguri understandably because it is the state capital, it was too hot for them (Boko Haram)”, he said.
“They ran out and fizzled into the countryside. In the countryside, there is no police presence. In Borno North, there is no police outpost or divisional office standing. There are some areas that government officials don’t go for the fear of their lives.
“Ask the Immigration or Customs officials when last they visited their Banki outposts. Where there are supposed to be an inspector and three constables and they are not there and when they are not there and there is somebody with a gun, he rules.
“So when newspapers reported that officials of government had abandoned their posts, whether federal or state, in Borno, apart from areas where the military are operating, I am afraid, it is largely true. And that is exactly why we are talking of this brute application of force. About one third of the neighbourhood in Maiduguri are closed already and you can see grass as tall as myself.”
The House of Representatives also urged the Federal Government to institute an inquiry into the killings. The House made the call after it passed a motion sponsored by Muhammed Tahir Monguno and seconded by Hon. Abdurrahman Terab, both of ANPP-Borno. Monguno brought the motion under matters of urgent national importance.
He warned that if government continued to ignore the killings, there was the possibility that the people might begin to sympathize with the sect. “If the Federal Government continues to ignore calls to address the cases of indiscriminate shootings and killing of civilians in Borno and Yobe states , there is the tendency that members of the public would begin to sympathize more with the sect and it will help the sect recruit more hands”.
Monguno lamented the massive loss of lives in the two states as he disclosed that, because of the porous state of “our borders in those states”, Nigeria had joined forces with Chad and Cameroun in the battle against Boko Haram.
He said that soldiers were killing civilians in their hundreds for every death of a soldier and, therefore, called on members of the sect to “embrace the amnesty offered by the Federal Government”.
The House adopted the motion and directed that the Federal Government “set up a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate the circumstances leading to the death of the soldier and 185 civilians” and that NEMA should provide relief materials to the victims who lost property.
Shehu Sani, an expert on religeous violence, in his own reaction on the massacre, accused the military of widespread atrocities in the campaign against Boko Haram, including killing of scores of civilians.
“The details of the alleged military atrocities in Baga are still emerging, but it could mark a major setback in Nigeria’s effort to end the insurgency. Baga’s location near Chad and Niger Republic is problematic for Nigeria’s security forces as people from the three countries move freely through porous borders,” Sani said.
“The security forces struggle to identify the insurgent and criminal groups migrating in the region, a confusing and lawless environment that has led to the reckless targeting of innocent civilians.
“The security agents are very much confused as to who is an insurgent and who is not.” In its reaction, the Northern Elders Forum, NEF, called on the Federal Government to deploy only Hausa speaking soldiers to Borno, Yobe and other states facing insurgency, just as it expressed fear over the composition of the amnesty committee headed by government officials.
Spokesman of the group, Prof. Ango Abdullahi, said, during a visit to Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, secretariat in Kaduna , that using soldiers to curtail insurgency would aggravate the situation.
The group demanded the setting up of a judicial commission of inquiry into the Baga killings, adding that it should expand the terms of reference for people to come out and testify. NEF said: “This is because most of these soldiers posted to these areas are not only known as soldiers but they are also coming from totally different backgrounds.
“If you want a peace keeper in Borno, you need a person who can speak Hausa, somebody who can speak Kanuri, somebody who can speak Shuwa and most of the soldiers posted there cannot even communicate in Pidgin English.
“This certainly is not the way an operation like this should be conducted. That is why we believe the president needs not just a probe. We need a judicial commission of inquiry to unravel what has happened in Baga.”
On the amnesty proposal for Boko Haram members, he said: “Where the government has one of its ministers as chairman of the committee and the secretary of the committee coming from the government, this will not give the kind of confidence one expects to get because the other side was saying they don’t need amnesty because it was the government that offended them.
“The only worry in some quarters is about the independence and neutrality of the committee because of its chairman and secretary.”
The Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, also condemned the killings.
In a statement issued in Lagos by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the party warned the JTF against engaging in extra-judicial killings, saying the security agencies must respect the relevant rules of engagement in their ongoing onslaught against the sect in order to spare the lives and property of innocent civilians.
Without jumping to any conclusion on what really transpired in Baga, we hasten to say that the military, in fighting an asymmetric war against insurgents, must ensure a strict observance of its rules of engagement to avoid the kind of deaths that were recorded in the border town”, ACN said.
In the meantime, Borno State government says the number of persons killed as well as houses destroyed in the Baga affair have not been accurately ascertained by any competent authority as government awaits the report of its committee, or any reliable source of information to ascertain accurate figures. It said in a statement that Governor Shettima had ordered the state Ministry of Works to immediately mobilize to the community and start the reconstruction of houses which were destroyed, take records of all those killed or injured, take stock of all houses destroyed and recommend compensation.
The statement said reports claiming 185 persons were killed and 200 houses destroyed in the incident were solely based on accounts by some residents of Baga who spoke with the governor during his visit without any independent verification for accuracy and with no form of investigation whatsoever.
Rescue workers, meanwhile, last week, struggled to reach the community. The National Coordinator of the Red Cross, Umar Mariaga, said, on Wednesday, that his staff were still struggling to reach Baga, because of the uncertainty of the security situation there.
“We are making efforts to get clearance from the security agents to get in and assist the victims of the violence,” he said.