Exclusive: Islamist terrorists shocked the world with the killing of 17 people in Paris, but a possibly larger atrocity occurred a continent away in Nigeria where Boko Haram insurgents may have slaughtered as many as 2,000 in a remote village, reports Don North.
By Don North
With the world’s attention centered on Paris last week as terrorists killed 17 people, Boko Haram militants may have slaughtered as many as 2,000 people in assaults on Baga, a remote village of 10,000 in the northeast corner of Nigeria’s Borno State on the shores of Lake Chad.
Yet, the Baga massacre prompted few protests, editorials, condemnations or much notice from world leaders — and not even a rebuke from the ineffectual Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who sent his condolences to the French but made no comment on the Boko Haram atrocities.
Instead, President Jonathan’s chief spokesman for the Nigerian Department of Defense downplayed the shocking reports, apparently for political reasons because of the upcoming elections just five weeks away in which Jonathan’s handling of the Boko Haram insurgency is a central issue.
At a press conference in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, the spokesman, Major General Chris Olukolade, declared that no more than 150 persons, including many Boko Haram insurgents, were killed in the Baga fighting. “Unfortunately, the figure of 2,000 killed is now being bandied about in the media as if it has been authenticated. It cannot be true,” Olukolade said.
Given Baga’s remoteness and the dangers facing journalists and human rights investigators who venture into Boko Haram territory hard evidence of the massacre has been difficult to secure, with information mostly coming from terrified refugees fleeing the area and from generally unreliable government sources.
But Amnesty International, decrying Boko Haram’s “deadliest act,” reported that as many as 2,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in two raids on Baga by insurgents armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers. Amnesty International said most of the dead were women, children and the elderly who could not flee in time.
A CNN report cited information from residents and local authorities who described attacks starting on Jan. 3 and continuing throughout the weekend, with the Islamist militants spraying bullets as they arrived in trucks and armored vehicles. Boko Haram fighters on motorcycles then pursued residents who fled into the bush, firing indiscriminately, CNN reported.
Hundreds of bodies were reported strewn in Baga’s streets and adjacent jungle after the raids, with people who hid in their homes burned alive.
BBC cited Muhammad Abba Gava, a spokesman for a vigilante group that fights Boko Haram, as saying his group gave up on trying to count all the bodies. “No one could attend to the corpses and even the seriously injured ones who may have died by now,” he said, adding: “The human carnage perpetrated by Boko Haram terrorists in Baga was enormous.”
A multinational military base was located in Baga, but days before the attack the troops from Cameroon, Niger and Chad withdrew with no explanation, leaving only the Nigerian Army defending the village and soon routed by the attacks.
Military hardware abandoned at the base was reportedly seized by the insurgents and when reinforcements did not arrive, Boko Haram attacked again last Wednesday targeting the remaining residents. Even civilian vigilante groups that have recently been effective against the insurgents were overwhelmed, according to reports.
In Geneva on Tuesday, the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Office estimated that 11,320 Nigerians have fled the Baga area since the attacks and taken refuge in neighboring Chad.
History of Division
Nigeria, an oil-rich western African nation of 174 million people, is divided by extreme disparities in wealth as well as by religion with a mostly Christian south and Muslim north. Over the past few months, Nigeria’s economy also has been reeling due to the collapse of oil prices.
While the conflict between the Nigerian government and the Boko Haram rebels has received only spotty attention from the world’s news media, the one exception was the global outrage last April over Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok. Though more than 50 escaped, the fate of the rest has remained a mystery even as their plight was highlighted by international women’s rights advocates, including U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama.
According to some reports, the girls who remained captives may have been separated and hidden in the remote Boko Haram base in the Sambisa forest or across the border in Chad and Cameroon.
I recently spent several months as a visiting professor of journalism at the American University of Nigeria in Yola, just a few hours drive from the frontlines of the conflict. Using sources from the database in the AUN library as well as consulting several of Nigeria’s more responsible newspapers, local security advisers and diplomatic sources I was able to trace the history of the Muslim fundamentalist group Boko Haram back to its origins 34 years ago.
Its genesis began with a handful of Muslim clerics who followed the extremist Islam of the Saudi Arabian Wahhabis and Salafists. Boko Haram morphed slowly into its form today feeding on the poverty and illiteracy of northern Nigeria to form its ideology of fundamentalism and hatred. Nigeria also has a long history of religious strife.
Some of the most virulent conflicts were those stirred up by Muhammad Marwa, a Muslim preacher from Cameroon who settled in Kano, a large city in north-central Nigeria, and attracted many followers. Marwa’s objective was the purification of Islam and establishing Sharia law. He raged against Western education and its products.
His bitter condemnation of the Nigerian state led to him being known as Maitatsine, a Hausa word for “he who damns.” In 1982, a government crackdown on Maitatsine and his followers led to violent riots that killed some 4,000 residents of Kano, including Maitatsine. But his movement lived on and in the following year resulted in continued riots in which 1,000 more were killed.
The mantle of Maitatsine was picked up by a charismatic preacher named Mohammed Yusuf in Maidiguri, capital of the Borno state. He had studied in Saudi Arabia and demanded justice for the poor through Sharia law. He was well-educated, spoke English and lived lavishly with four wives and drove a Mercedes-Benz. Yusuf was often arrested, but always released through the intervention of politically powerful friends.
A spellbinding speaker, Yusuf denounced modern ideas of evolution, round earth and even the evaporation of water. His group, fashioned after Afghanistan’s Taliban, began to be referred to by Nigerian journalists as Boko Haram, which translates as “Western education is forbidden,” because of the group’s rejection of the West’s ideas.
The most recent spark for violence between Boko Haram and the government came in late 2009 when police watching a funeral procession through the streets of Maidiguri saw many mourners riding motorcycles without helmets which was a rule the police were determined to enforce. Boko Haram members resisted, as one must remove traditional Islamic caps to wear a helmet. The police attacked the funeral procession to arrest those not wearing helmets. Three died. Riots erupted.
A few days later, the police surrounded Yusuf’s compound, arrested him and took him to the station. To make sure Yusuf was not released again by his supporters, he was executed. In the days following Yusuf’s murder, riots continued and the police killed many of his followers including family members, racking up a death toll of over 1,000. The aftermath of Yusuf’s murder was captured on a cell phone video and broadcast over northern Nigeria, assuring his status as a martyr and giving impetus to Boko Haram.
Yusuf had initially believed that an Islamic state based on Sharia law could be achieved without violence. His deputy and successor, Abubakar Shekau, argued that success would require an armed struggle and the group increasingly resorted to the murder of their critics and opponents. He normally communicates through videos speaking in Hausa and Arabic and the occasional English phrase. In one of his public videos he said, “I enjoy killing anyone God commands me to kill the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams.”
The flames of the terrorist insurgency are being fed by a failure of Nigerian security forces, the army and police to effectively stem the violence. The once respected Nigerian military forces are often blamed for ineffective battles with the insurgents, but demoralized Nigerian soldiers claim they lack food and ammunition and are often outnumbered and outgunned by Boko Haram. Over one hundred Nigerian Army officers and men are awaiting death sentences by firing squad for alleged mutiny and desertion.
Seventy percent of Borno State is now controlled by Boko Haram and the insurgents’ occupation of villages surrounding the state capital city Maiduguri is now complete, putting Boko Haram in position to press an attack on Maiduguri, a city of over 1 million and recently home to many of the 1.6 million refugees displaced by Boko Haram.
The insurgents are believed to want Maiduguri as their capital of a new Caliphate state because of its central role in the founding of Boko Haram last decade. It has a largely Muslim population but also a substantial Christian community.
Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme, the Catholic Bishop of Maiduguri, has been a reliable source of information for me on Boko Haram and the siege of his city. The Bishop regularly visits villages decimated by Boko Haram. He also has been an outspoken critic of the Nigerian Army and President Goodluck Jonathan.
Contact with Maiduguri is difficult as there are only a few hours of electric power each day and Internet communication is intermittent. But the Bishop sent me the following e-mail: “We thank God that we are able to reach the new year among the living. I celebrated new year masses in Mubi (a village recently captured by Boko Haram) and good number of our members have come back. I was amazed by the faith of our people. In all the parishes I went, people came out in great numbers to welcome me.
“But the Boko Haram members are still on the rampage. You have heard what happened in Baga. Even though the group has been repelled one wonders for how long we will continue like this. Yet, we trust that God will not let his children down. He is our ultimate hope. We trust that one day God will put an end to this terrorism.”
Bishop Dashe has organized a program of aid and rehabilitation for the hundreds of widows and orphans of those killed in Baga and other villages under siege by Boko Haram.
“The widows suffer a lot once the husbands are gone,” says Bishop Dashe. “Our major target is to help them take care of their children, for many of them are left with six to ten children with no work and they need assistance.”
The Baga attack was not the only terrorist atrocity in Nigeria last week. On Saturday, in the main Maiduguri market, a girl around ten years old had explosives detonated that were strapped around her body, killing 16 and injuring 27. It is not known if she triggered the explosion herself or if it was remotely detonated by others nearby.
To the west of Borno in Yobe State, two female suicide bombers rode three-wheeled bikes into the market in Potiskum and detonated explosive vests killing five and injuring more than 40. In November, another female suicide bomber killed 48 young boys in a Potiskum school.
Boko Haram has recently sent scores of women as suicide bombers into areas where crowds gather. They are believed to be the women taken prisoner in raids by the insurgents and children of Boko Haram insurgents. Although it has not yet been proven, some of the female bombers may be girls kidnapped from a school in Chibok last April.
Anger at Washington
Tensions in the U.S.-Nigeria relationship are at their highest level in years. Western diplomatic sources in the Nigerian capital Abuja told me a vigorous U.S. response to Nigerian requests for aid in tracking the kidnapped Chibok girls was apparently thwarted when “actionable intelligence” from drone flights was turned over to Nigerian military commanders but ignored.
The lack of response was blamed on mutual mistrust between U.S. and Nigerian officials. American military officers did not include raw intelligence data because they believed that Boko Haram had infiltrated the Nigerian security services.
Fifty U.S. Army Special Forces trainers started work last July with a battalion of Nigerian Army troops, most of them recruits who were not associated with the army’s questionable human rights record. But after several months training and before the troops started training with “crew served weapons,” the training was halted as it could not be decided who would supply the weapons.
After an impasse of two months, the U.S. sent an official letter to the Nigerian government suggesting the training be resumed. The result: the American team was ordered to leave Nigeria.
Nigerian government officials angered by what they say is a lack of American military aid despite U.S. promises are reported to have sought training for their troops from Russian Special Forces. A deal for 12 attack helicopters is being negotiated by the Nigerian government with the Czech Republic and Belarus.
France, Britain and the U.S. had been Nigeria’s main military partners, but gradually backed off from Nigeria’s quirky and corrupt military which could be prickly about meeting conditions for military assistance, giving Western trainers full access to military bases and improving their human rights record.
James Hall, a retired Colonel and former U.K military attachÃ©, recently told the BBC that the sale of military equipment to Nigeria is prohibited by U.K. law because of the army’s human rights abuses. Similarly in the U.S., the Leahy Amendment is a human rights law sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont that prohibits providing military aid to units violating human rights “with impunity.”
The Baga attacks come just five weeks before Nigerian presidential elections which are likely to lead to more bloodshed and thus further threaten the country’s stability. The election is scheduled for Feb. 14 with the incumbent Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led by President Jonathan, a southern Christian, facing General Mohammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim of the All Progressive Congress (APC).
The PDP has won every election since Nigeria went from military to democratic rule in 1999, but the APC formed last year from a coalition of opposition parties, now threatens that dominance.
In the last election in 2011, violence left more than 800 people dead in the 12 northern states. There are indications that this year’s campaign could see severe violence as well. Illegal weapons are flooding the country and many politicians have armed their supporters.
Analysts also say the contest will be close with President Jonathan vulnerable over his handling of Nigeria’s endemic corruption and his inability to counter Boko Haram’s violence.
On the campaign trail, opposition candidate Buhari recently asked, “Shall we continue in a situation where 250 of our daughters have been abducted and the government has been unable to rescue them or provide credible information about what steps they are taking?”
Last week, two campaign buses adorned with photos of President Jonathan were set ablaze by angry youths in Jos, a large city in central Nigeria.
Don North is a former war correspondent in Vietnam and the Middle East for ABC and NBC News. He is the director of Northstar Productions, Inc. in Fairfax, Virginia, and author of the recently published Inappropriate Conduct: Mystery of a disgraced war correspondent.