The fighting begun on Friday when soldiers surrounded a mosque they believed to be housing Boko Haram members. The raid resulted into heavy fighting that saw the insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades, while soldiers spray machine-gun fire into neighbourhoods filled with civilians, mostly, women and children. The fierce gun battle was said to have sent the residents of Baga, a town well-known for its exports of dry catfish and host of the Federal College of Freshwater Fisheries, fleeing into the surrounding arid scrublands.
An official assessment of the area was conducted Sunday when government officials felt it was safe, only for them to discover that the area was littered with empty houses, unmanned businesses and abandoned vehicles.
The attack has been described as one of the deadliest involving Boko Haram, and it also shows an escalation in the insurgency in Northern Nigeria, with the sect using military-grade weaponry on the soldiers in coordinated assaults.
A local government official, Lawan Kole, told the Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima who had gone to the scene Sunday, that council authorities had found and buried at least 185 bodies; stressing that officials could not give a breakdown of civilian casualties, those of militants and the Islamic extremists because many of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition as a result of the fires that razed many sections of the town, and they were all buried immediately according to Islamic traditions.
The commander of the Military Joint Task Force in the area, Brigadier-General Austin Edokpaye who also visited the scene did not dispute casualty figures, but said that Boko Haram had used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the assault. He also said that the insurgents had killed a military officer before the assault started. General Edokpaye added that the extremists used civilians as human shields during the fighting – implying that soldiers opened fire in neighborhoods where they knew civilians lived.
“When we reinforced and returned to the scene the terrorists came out with heavy firepower, including (rocket-propelled grenades), which usually has a conflagration effect,” General Edokpaye disclosed.
But, local residents revealed that soldiers burnt down the community during the attacks. Previously, the JTF has been accused of violence by other security forces in the northeast of targeting civilians, and in many cases, it has been captured on video and widely documented by journalists and human rights activists. A similar raid in Maiduguri, Borno state’s capital, in October 2012 after extremists killed a military officer saw soldiers killing at least 30 civilians and setting fires across a neighborhood.
Fearful residents of the town had begun packing to leave with their remaining family members before nightfall, despite Shettima’s effort to convince the residents to stay.
According to Bashir Isa, a resident vegetable seller, “Everyone has been in the bush since Friday night; we started returning back to town because the governor came to town today. To get food to eat in the town now is a problem because even the markets are burnt. We are still picking corpses of women and children in the bush and creeks.”
Deterring and combating terrorism are two extremes of the same continuum that require different strategies. While the former may require a proactive approach the later may be solved reactively using ideological reconstruction and economic, social and political integration of all sectors of the society. The value placed on human live by the government becomes questionable when we weigh government reaction in relation to the protection of its citizens.
The military, by their nature, weapon, orientation and exposure, are not in good position to fight internal crisis. The civil authority is a better leader in this regard, driven by law enforcement while the military remains in the background. That the Military Joint Task Force in an attempt to raid a suspected extremists’ hideout killed about 185 persons mostly children and women is both embarrassing and inhuman. We must learn to value and respect human life.