When Nigerian soldiers in pursuit of Islamist militants reached the northeastern town of Baga, fish trader Mohammed Adawu had no time to save his sick 72-year-old father.
“We all ran for our dear lives before they set our house ablaze and my father was burnt to death,” Adawu said on April 30 outside three destroyed buildings by a market. Other residents crowded around him and told of their escape from attacks by soldiers last month in Baga, a fishing town on the shores of Lake Chad.
While local officials and a senator from the area, Maina Ma’aji Lawan, put the death toll at between 185 and 228 people, the army says 30 insurgents, six civilians and a soldier were killed, and 30 houses were burned down. New York-based Human Rights Watch said satellite images of Baga show at least 2,000 homes were destroyed.
The violence at Baga signals that the Nigerian army’s lack of respect for human rights is undermining its four-year-old war against the Islamist Boko Haram group in Africa’s biggest oil- producer, according to Fred Saugman of IHS, an Englewood, Colorado-based research company, and Clement Nwankwo of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre in the capital, Abuja said.
Nigerian security forces “have lost trust, which is obviously the vital component” in fighting an insurgency “where the support of the people is the most critical,” Saugman said by phone. “It’s really hard for the president to gain back what’s been lost through this incident.”
Nigeria’s Senate has started its own investigation of the violence and leading opposition parties accuse President Goodluck Jonathan of indifference to army abuses. While the National Human Rights Commission said it will conduct an independent investigation, the fallout continues to spread, raising the stakes for Jonathan before elections in 2015.
“The breach of fundamental rights by security agencies isn’t one incident or one event,” said Shehu Sani, president of Civil Rights Congress, a human-rights group based in the northern city of Kaduna. “It’s become automatic and institutionalized.”
Boko Haram, which means “western education is a sin” in the local Hausa language, started its violent campaign to impose Sharia law on Nigeria after police killed its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, while in custody during clashes with the security forces in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. More than 700 people, mostly his followers, died in the violence.
Since then it has carried out gun and bomb attacks across the north and Abuja, the capital, that have killed more than 1,500 since 2009, according to Human Rights Watch. Africa’s most populous country of more than 160 million people, is roughly split between a mainly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south.
On May 7, militants wearing army uniforms attacked a military barracks, a prison and a police station in the northeastern town of Bama, killing at least 42 people, and freeing 105 inmates, according to military and police spokesmen.
Jonathan canceled a one-day visit to Namibia, which was scheduled to start today on his way back from the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, “due to security situation at home,” presidential spokesman Reuben Abati said on Twitter.
The fighting in Baga began after the fighters attacked a military patrol and killed a soldier near a mosque where they previously stashed weapons, according to Austin Edokpaye, a spokesman for the joint military task force in the region.
Analysis of high-resolution images from April 6 and April 26, before and after violence in the area, “confirms massive destruction of civilian property,” Human Rights Watch said.
The military denies it targeted civilians with Defense Ministry spokesman Chris Olukolade saying Boko Haram fighters, armed with weapons including rocket-propelled grenades, set off incendiaries that destroyed the houses.
Jonathan’s office said in an e-mailed statement that preliminary reports confirm the military’s death toll, adding that “the total number of houses in the town is far less than 1,000.”
This wasn’t the first time the Nigerian army has been accused of retaliating against civilians when its members were killed by militants. In 1999, the army attacked Odi in the oil-rich Niger River delta after alleged militants killed 12 soldiers. Almost the entire town was burned to the ground, according to Human Rights Watch.
In Baga, Adawu and other residents said the army targeted at least some civilians and burned houses. “All we know is that the military were responsible for the killing of my father,” Adawu said.
Another Baga resident, Mallam Ibrahim Modu, said six of his neighbors were shot dead that night. While he doesn’t know who killed them, “what I can still recall was that some soldiers came into my house that very day and ordered me to come out before they set my house on fire in my very presence,” he said.
Islamist attacks have been restricted to Abuja and the mainly Muslim north, leaving oil facilities and financial markets in the commercial hub of Lagos, in the south, undisturbed. The Nigeria Stock Exchange All-Share Index has advanced 27 percent this year, the world’s 10th-best performer.
Jonathan is weighing giving amnesty to Boko Haram as a means to end the violence and has set up a committee to advise him on the plan.
The government’s consideration of dialogue “should not be seen as a weakening of its resolve and determination to use all the forces at its disposal to crush all brazen affronts to the powers and sovereignty of the Nigerian nation,” Abati said in a statement yesterday.
The fighting in Baga may have torpedoed any hopes of ending the violence through talks, according to Sani of the Civil Rights Congress.
“The massacre in Baga will undermine any attempts at peace and dialogue,” Sani said in a phone interview. “Breach of fundamental rights, which include extra-judicial killings and mass murders like this, will not in any way help in the cause of peace or in the process of dialogue.”
The Baga attack, happening at a time the government was considering reaching out to the Islamists, may suggest a military out of the control of political authorities, according to Saugman of IHS. “If you can’t control your military then you can’t ensure that the amnesty is effectively enforced,” he said.
To roll back the influence of the militants and defeat the insurgency, the government needs to be able to protect people from attacks and win their trust, according to Nwankwo.
“If the human beings who should provide you with information about the activities of terrorists are afraid of the security services who are supposed to protect them, then there’s no way that you can win,” he said.