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Baga and the beast in us

By Obi Nwakanma

The Nigerian military operation in Baga has drawn very severe criticism from many quarters for the extent of brutality unleashed in that town in the fight against terrorism. The “Baga massacre” as it is now generally described was supposed to be a targeted operation.

According to Nigerian military sources, the operation itself was a tri-national action comprising of Nigerien, Chadian, and the Nigerian Defense Forces, to root out Boko Haram terrorists who had massed in this area by the Lake Chad.

The Nigerian Joint Task Force on Terrorism has been engaged in fierce battles with the Boko Haram which has basically adopted guerilla tactics; attacking and sliding back into the shadows, mixing with civilian populations in safe houses that seem to traverse the entire old Kanem Bornu axis where the Islamic movement seems to have established its most serious operational activities.

File photo: Baga after the incident
File photo: Baga after the incident

According to Military Spokesman, Brigadier Chris Olukolade, two battalions of the Joint Task Force had massed following intelligence that established serious Boko Haram activity in Baga, and the engagement was fierce. By the end of the operation most of Baga lay in ruins with the Red Cross reporting about 185 dead civilians in what has been described as a massacre.

The senator representing Borno North in the Nigerian senate, Senator Ma’aji, put it quite pointedly during a senate session: “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.”

This heartfelt lament registers for us, the depth of anguish that flows out of this tragedy which has once again put a spotlight on the methods and operational doctrine of the Nigerian Armed Forces in war zones or in zones of slippery insurgency.

The senator compared Baga to the “Udi massacres” – the killing of mineworkers at the Udi mines in Enugu in 1949 by the colonial administration. I should certainly point out the incongruity of that parallelism: Udi was the action of an imperialist colonial government responding with force against the colonized workers right and their peaceful protest for more freedoms and resistance against colonial domination.

Nigeria is neither an imperial government over Baga, nor are the Boko Haram doves modeling civic peace. Baga can be compared more appropriately to Umuechem, Odi or Zaki Biam. In these places the Nigerian military registered itself as a brutal force with extremely scorched-earth methods that make very little distinction between a civilian population and an armed population. It is the “attack-and-follow” method which brooks no respite for any living thing in sight.

Just kill, and get it over with; ask questions later. It is a method which took root with the Nigerian civil war when military commanders ordered or partook in atrocities without consequence. Two most emblematic examples include, Benjamin Adekunle who boasted that he made no distinctions of his targets, “we shoot everything that is moving and everything that is not moving” – his boastful ways of painting the rather gory pictures of the atrocities of the Third Marine Commando Division under him.

The Asaba killings, in which all males from the age of fifteen were brought out to the public square – the Ogbo Ogonogo in Asaba in 1968 – and executed, is one more vicious and undying stories of that war, recorded by Emma Okocha’s unforgettable account in Blood on the Niger; it requires no further elaboration; or the slaughter of innocent and unarmed worshippers in Onitsha who had sought refuge in the Apostolic church but killed by the Federal Forces as they arrived the city.  Conflicts bring out the beasts in us, because very frequently, the reports of the actions of Nigerian soldiers in these places come swelling with rivers of blood.

Nigerians only snap their fingers in disgust but life continues without repercussion for the perpetrators of atrocities. Baga has joined in that history and narrative of unnecessary military atrocities perpetrated, not by an army of occupation, but by a National Defense Force which should treat their compatriots with respect and dignity, but who have learned to treat them rather as the scum of the earth.

There’s need of course at this point, to note that the Nigerian Armed Forces dispute the figures and the description circulated around their operational outcome. In his operational report, Brigadier Austin Edokpayi, Military Commander of the Joint Task Forces claimed that “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.”

In his words “ Only five civilians” lost their lives. Every civilian death is cause for worry and must be investigated. President Jonathan has rightly ordered a probe, but that probe must probe deeper into the more important issues: the operational doctrine and action of Nigerian Armed Forces. In the current era, the sworn forces – the military and the police – must be held at the highest levels of responsibility in the ways they treat civilian populations especially in situations of conflict.

But more important, perhaps it is time to reassess the strategies of engagement with Boko Haram. Because it is a shadowy insurgent force, the use of frontline military action seems to me counter-productive.

A special Task Force ought to be trained with the capability also of mingling with the crowd and in the woods in as asymmetric  a fashion as the Boko Harm fighters . This Task Force must be light, mobile, and equally shadowy and equipped with the latest technologies. It should develop greater targeted capabilities that would reduce the formal military presence of the Nigerian Army.


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