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So, can’t we count even our dead?

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By Tonnie Iredia

The indisputable breaking news of the immediate past week was the killing by suspected insurgents of several students of the Federal Government College, Bun Yadi, Yobe State. Whereas, different accounts of what transpired centred on about the same content, everyone had a different version of the number of students affected.  During a sympathy visit to the school by the state governor, Ibrahim Gaidam, a Senior Master in the institution, Ibrahim Abdul, confirmed that Twenty-nine students were killed. He added that 11 other students sustained gunshot wounds in the attack. Abdul’s report was corroborated by the Commissioner of Police in the state, Sanusi Rufai who also confirmed 29 dead.

By the time the media was reporting the reactions of different bodies, the figure began to fluctuate. For example, the Nigerian Union of Teachers and the Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union reportedly reacted to the death of 43 students.  They may have been influenced by the alleged revelation of a senior medical staff at the Sani Abacha Specialist Hospital in Damaturu that bodies of 43 pupils retrieved from the college were lying at the morgue. The figure was still 43 in the report by the French News Agency (AFP).

But reports on the reaction of UNICEF, moved up the number of dead students to 45. Hence the Chairman of the Parents Teachers’ Association of the College, Engr. Mohammed Kati Machina became visibly angry over what he saw as conflicting, misleading and arbitrary figures. Machina told The Nation Newspapers in Damaturu that the death toll still stood at 29. He was quoted to have also added that he had an authentic report from the hospital which said that only 29 students were killed; 21 of whom were killed by gunshots while eight were burnt.. He was probably on soft grounds when he revealed that some of the injured students had been taken away by their parents adding that of the 10 dead bodies that were brought to Damaturu, two were burnt beyond recognition.

Engr. Machina no doubt spoke with confidence as he was able to give what looked like persuasive details. But he seemed to have spoken too early going by the reports gathered by journalists at the Damaturu Specialist Hospital which put the death toll at 59. According to Reuters, fresh bodies were discovered in the bush after the students who had escaped with bullet wounds died from their injuries. The report also confirmed that the school’s 24 buildings, including staff quarters, were completely burnt by the attackers during the onslaught.

DAMAGE—Gov. Ibrahim Gaidam with Speaker Yobe House of Assembly, Adamu Dala Dogo (below left) inspecting the damage in the school, yesterday.
The damaged  school.

What the above suggests is that we do not seem to know how to count our people whether living or dead. Although some people were uncomfortable with the assertion of the immediate past Chairman of the National Population Commission, Festus Odimegu that we have never had a credible census, many knew it to be the truth. We have similarly never had an authentic figure of casualties in any crisis-a trend confirmed by the handling of last week’s tragedy at the Yobe College. Those who blame the development on mischief by the Nigeria media should take a few minutes to look through the coverage of last week’s episode by the foreign press. A common point to be observed is that they all feel that our military takes delight in publishing false casualty figures.

So did the military withdraw from a check point near the college a few days before the tragedy occurred?  The military’s response was that it had no security post near the school where the tragedy occurred or near any school in the area. If so, is it not curious that schools in the area are not guarded considering the report by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that last week’s episode was the fourth educational institution attacked in the state in the last eight months?. UNICEF involuntarily answered the question during the week when it publicly expressed deep concern on the repeated attacks on schools in the North East. In the words of UNICEF, “Since June 2013, four attacks resulted in school closures affecting thousands of students, many of whom have had no access to formal learning for months. When a school is under attack and students become targets, not only their lives are shattered, the future of the nation is stolen,”    The United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, also expressed worry over  incessant attacks on places of learning and advised that the perpetrators be swiftly brought to justice. The secretary-general specifically drew attention to what he called “the increasing frequency and brutality of attacks against educational institutions in the North of the country”.

Perhaps some people believed the response of the military but certainly not Governor Murtala Nyako of Adamawa State who suspects some collusion. Only 3 days back, Nyako himself a retired Admiral was quoted by the Press as having said that during an attack on a major air force base last year, soldiers at nearby barracks did not respond until militants had destroyed all five aircraft at the base. Obviously many people are disillusioned by the development. Among them are members of the Senate Committee on Defence and Army, which had to pass a resolution directing the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) to relocate his office temporarily to the 7th Division of Nigerian Army in Maiduguri for urgent and appropriate steps to quell Boko Haram’s repeated attacks on the North-East.

The committee also directed the Army boss to adopt new methods for curbing the sect’s excesses in Yobe, Borno and Adamawa states.

Painfully, it does not appear that the scope of the war is as easy to understand as our lawmakers imagine. This is because within the week of their resolution, another report surfaced again from Yola, Adamawa State of the killing of over 33 people. This time the report said that our soldiers who were outnumbered and outgunned, abandoned their checkpoints, leaving five villages and a town at the mercy of insurgents. The call for external help to resolve the issue may therefore be pertinent now but playing down the casualty list all the time may be our undoing

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