By Kingsley Omonoi, Uduma Kalu, Luka Binniyat, Emman Ovuakporie & Joseph Erunke, with agency reports
ABUJA—Following the outrage that greeted the alleged killing of about 185 persons including women and children in a shoot out between soldiers and Boko Haram insurgents in Baga, a fishing community in Borno State, last Friday, the military yesterday explained that six civilians, one soldier and 30 terrorists died, while 15 others were injured in an operation that was carried out by a multinational force comprising troops from Nigeria, Chad and Niger Republic.
This came as the United Nations and the United States have expressed shock and sadness at the high number of civilian casualties in the operation and called on all extremist groups to cease their attacks in the country even as the Senate has commenced investigation into the massacre.
Reuters, quoting Nigerian Army spokesman Brigadier-General Chris Olukolade, yesterday said a joint force from Nigeria, Niger and Chad, comprising over 100 soldiers was assembled after intelligence was received that Islamist militants Boko Haram had moved into Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad.
“The force that hit them was a multinational force involving Chadian and Nigerien troops who has been cooperating on the border for about a decade”, Olukayode said.
Nigerien and Chadian officials have reportedly confirmed their involvement, adding that they were surprised by the firepower they faced there.
There are still no official confirmation of the number of those killed. The Red Cross reported a death toll of 187, many of them civilians, with dozens more wounded. while President Goodluck Jonathan late Monday ordered a “full-scale” probe of the killing. The investigation will determine whether or not the military complied with the established rules of engagement during the operation.
Meantime, Commander of the Multi-national Joint Task Force, Brig-General Austin Edokpayi has said that only six civilians lost their lives while 10 others sustained injuries.
According to Edokpayi, “one soldier was killed, five were injured while 30 Boko Haram terrorists lost their lives, as five were arrested with many escaping with bullet wounds”.
Only six civilians lost their lives —Army Commander
The Commander who gave an update on the encounter said: “Multi National Joint Task Force troops on routine patrol at Baga – Mallam Garati Road had an encounter with Boko Haram terrorists at about 7.30pm on Tuesday, 16 April, 2013”.
“During the encounter, one soldier was killed and 5 other soldiers were injured. While 30 Boko Haram terrorists lost their lives, five were arrested and many escaped with bullet wounds. Unfortunately, six civilians lost their lives and 10 other civilians were injured in the crossfire”.
The following items were recovered: “Three Rocket-Propelled Grenade Launchers, two Rocket-Propelled Grenade Bombs, four AK 47 rifles, 435 assorted ammunition, several quantities of IED materials, while three Land Cruiser Vehicles of the terrorists were damaged”.
A statement signed by Brigadier-General Olukolade added that: “Contrary to media speculation that hundreds of houses were burnt, instead, it was the explosion from Boko Haram terrorist Rocket-Propelled Grenade Bombs, Anti-Aircraft Guns and sophisticated IED materials that triggered fire to about 30 thatched houses in the predominantly fishing community”.
UN, US react
Meantime, a statement sent to Vanguard yesterday from office of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said: “The Secretary-General is shocked and saddened at the reports of high numbers of civilians killed, and homes destroyed, as a result of violence between military forces and an extremist group in the North-Eastern town of Baga in Borno State, Nigeria, on 19 and 20 April. He expresses his condolences to the bereaved families and calls on all extremist groups to cease their attacks. The Secretary-General reiterates his firm conviction that no objective sought can justify this resort to violence. He underscores the need for all concerned to fully respect human rights and safeguard the lives of civilians.”
United States also condemned the violence. US State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said: “We support the Nigerian authorities in their efforts to bring the perpetrators of violent acts to justice, and stress the importance of respecting human rights and protecting civilians in all security responses”.
Senate orders probe, House of Reps react
The Senate, yesterday, ordered its committees on Defence, Police and National Security to carry out a full-scale investigation into circumstances that led to reported killing of 185 civilians in the shoot out.
The Senate action came after Senator Ma’aji Lawan, ANPP, Borno North, raised a Point of Order under Senate Rules to intimate the upper legislative chamber of alleged massacre carried out by the multi national task force.
Ma’aji, in a personal letter he read at the Senate plenary, asked his colleagues to intervene by investigating the killings that he said, took place in Baga, his hometown and senatorial district on the fateful day.
He said: “I stand before you today a very sad man. My zone, the Borno North Senatorial district, is today a no-go-area for normal operations of the government and for that matter, my normal regular civil conduct; be it business or social.
“My hometown of Baga is today in total ruins, with between 180 and 200 human lives lost and numerous other unaccounted, 2,000 homes, 62 cars and 284 motor cycles and tons and tons of food stuff destroyed”, he added.
Continuing, he said: “At this point I do not want to immerse myself in the blame game of whether it is multinational task force, JTF or the insurgents that carried out the atrocities, but it bears the hallmark of the Udi Massacre. Whoever did it, that level of atrocity is condemnable and it is hereby condemned. I call for a full-scale investigation to unearth the truth, as this is a recurring decimal in all such past instances in Borno State”.
After his presentation, Senate President, David Mark, who was the only person to respond, said the matter was a security one and considering the security implication, there shouldn’t be any debate on it by the Senate.
“I don’t want any debate on it because there is already a committee set up by the Federal Government to investigate it”, he said.
He thereafter directed the Senate Committees on Defence, Police and National Security to investigate the incident and report back within 14 days.
But Mark directs the Senate joint committee to call the Chief of Army Staff with a view to ensuring that the military task force in the area keeps to rules of its engagement.
“You should call the Army Chief and ensure that our boys adhere to the rules of engagement”, he said.
The Senate subsequently observed a one-minute silence in honour of the victims.
Speaking with newsmen later, Senator Ma’aji admitted that the insurgents, according to reports available to him, first attacked the military that, he said, were on a routine patrol in the area.
But he faulted the retaliatory action by the military, saying it was wrong for them to have involved civilians in their action against the insurgents just as he said the resort to using higher fire power against the insurgents was not the best way of arresting the Boko Haram insurgency in the country.
“The resort to arm in fighting terrorism in the country is a lazy way of going about it”, he insisted.
Senator Ma’aji who confirmed that the Boko haram have taken over 10 local government councils in Borno State, blamed it on security personnel, whom he said, abandoned their duty posts.
“I can confirm to you that there is no security outpost standing in Borno State now. All those needed to man these security posts have abandoned their areas and when you are not there, the person with the gun rules”, he said.
He said the “ultimate solution to this insurgency is a genuine dialogue that must necessarily address the immediate and remote underlying causes of the insurgency”, even as he commended President Goodluck Joathan for setting up a committee not only to probe the Baga massacre but consider amnesty for those linked with Boko Haram activities in the country.
He appealed to concerned agencies of government and spirited individuals to come to the aid of the surviving victims, whom he said, were mostly women, children and the aged, saying they were in dire need for assistance.
The House of Representatives on its part urged President Goodluck Jonathan to set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate the massacre following the adoption, without debate, of a motion brought by Hon Mohammed Tahir Mongonu.
The House presided by the Speaker, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal yesterday also called on the Boko Haram Sect members to embrace the amnesty offered by the Federal Government, just as it further urged the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to provide relief materials to the victims who lost their property.
ACN cautions JTF against extra-judicial killings
In its reaction, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in a statement issued by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, 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.
“No matter what defence the military may put forward, the mass deaths and destruction in Baga during the JTF-insurgents’ clash portray the Nigerian military as having little or no respect for human rights and the sanctity of lives. This is not a flattering portrayal for a military that has made its mark in global peacekeeping,” it said.
The ACN also criticized the Federal Government’s handling of the killings, calling it slow and disrespectful to the sanctity of human lives.
Northern Elders condemn killings
Also the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) yesterday, condemned the alleged killing of Baga residents, alleging that the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) in Borno State carried out the alleged killings to avenge the death of one soldier ostensibly killed by the Islamist militants, Boko Haram in the town.
The NEF then asked for a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the incident, in place of the probe of the violence as promised by President Jonathan Goodluck.
The forum also said that it does not have confidence in some members of the committee set up by President Jonathan Goodluck to look for ways of engaging Boko Haram for a possible amnesty, as it was headed by government officials instead of those who have the trust and confidence of Boko Haram.
Former Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University , Prof. Ango Abdullahi, spoke to the Press on behalf of the group during a meeting the NEF had with the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) in Kaduna.
Said Ango: “We met with the National Executive Committee of the ACF to address the issues. We, elders of the north came to ACF to exchange ideas and views on the state of the nation generally and the state of the north in particular”, he said.
On the Baga violence he said: “Most of these soldiers that are posted to these areas (Yobe and Borno) are not only raw as soldiers, but they are 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 solders that we are aware are there cannot even communicate in pidgin English.
“They are put together and posted to these areas as peace keepers and this is why so far they have failed and we have thousand of people being killed at the smallest incident.
“Let us take this latest one (Baga violence). The commandant himself said they lost a soldier. Is it because one soldier was lost that is why 200 people should be killed? If you are wearing a uniform, you are wearing it to die in duty. And the fact that a soldier died in duty does not justify the excessive force used at night! Shooting people as they moved in the bush and virtually razing their houses to the extent that you drive them out of their houses and in running to the bush you shot them like animals.
“This is certainly a failure on the part of the so called security apparatus that are supposed to keep peace in Borno and Yobe State.
Wants Judicial Commission of inquiry
“We advised against it much earlier than now. The fact that the president is saying there should be a probe he is not saying more than he has said before. Because there so many people who might have been mercilessly killed in their sleep their houses being ransacked in the name of searching for Boko Haram members.
“This certainly is not the way an operation like this should be conducted. That is why we believe the president need not just a probe. We need a judicial commission of inquiry to unravel what has happened in Baga. The commission on inquiry should have expanded term of reference for people to come before it to raises issue that have been happening in Borno and Yobe States.
Lack of confidence in FG
“It is important for me to say that when your are trying to set up a committee to reconcile what is required from both side, it is mutual confidence - mutual trust to a large extend. It is the lack of mutual confidence, mutual trust that led to the failure of the first attempt to engage the group in dialogue. What we recommended is for the government to set up a committee that appears to be away from it. In fact what we recommended was a Reconciliation/Amnesty Commission and this is usually a creation of law and once they are created by law, they acquire certain independence from those who created them.
“But where you the government has one of its ministers as chairman of the committee and the secretary of the committee coming to be the Secretary to 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 independent and neutrality of the committee because of its chairman and secretary. I hope it will work. but a lot of effort most be put in place to make sure that it will work.