'Je Suis Baga'? World ignores Nigeria's tragedy

February 1, 2015
Members of the Civilian Joint Task Force, organised to fight Boko Haram.

The fishing community of Baga, by Lake Chad in Borno state, Nigeria, was under siege by armed Islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram for a week at the start of January. Amnesty International described the bloodbath as Boko Haram’s “deadliest massacre”.

Amnesty estimated about 2000 people were killed. Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, who condemned the “dastardly terrorist attack” against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists within hours of the tragic event in Paris, did not say a word about this tragedy.

The attacks on Baga, and more than 16 towns and villages in its local government area, started on January 3. The insurgents overran the headquarters of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) of the Chadian, Nigerien and Nigerian armies.

Fleeing soldiers, men, women and children from Baga were pursued into the villages and bushes, killed and buildings set ablaze.

Baga and its environs have become ghost towns in the aftermath of the assault. The dead were left unburied, as “bodies lay strewn” on the streets according to widely circulated eyewitness accounts.

About 35,000 people have been displaced. Most are now in camps at Maiduguri and Monguno in Borno state.

Chad's prime minister, Kalzeubet Pahimi Deubet, said 2500 Nigerians and 500 Chadians fleeing from Baga have sought refuge in the country. Boko Haram fighters launched attacks into Chad, but were repelled.

Not all those trying to escape to Chad made it there alive. Several died as fragile canoes they packed themselves in capsized. More than 500 were trapped on the many “mosquito-infested islands” dotting Lake Chad. Quite a number of refugees in cramped camps died from starvation, poor shelter and malaria.

‘Offensively insensitive’

The response of the federal government and its cronies has been offensively insensitive. It started with lies.

The chief of defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, initially denied that the MNJTF’s base had been seized and residents killed. News Express, a conservative newspaper, also reported on January 5 that Boko Haram had been decisively dealt with in the clashes at Baga.

And on January 10, Dr Doyin Okupe, a senior aide of the president, tweeted that the reported death toll was exaggerated.

For a week, defence headquarters said it could not confirm the number of casualties. Army spokesperson Brigadier Chris Olukolade then said the total numbers killed in the bloodbath, including soldiers, was “just” 150 people.

He even tried to wipe the blood off army guns from 2013, using the current massacre. Olukolade said the incident “confirms” that insurgents, not soldiers, were responsible for the 2013 massacre, which the army denied ever happened.

Baga is in many ways a metaphor of the war in the north-east. The lies and hypocrisy of the Nigerian state and Western governments, the equal culpability of the army and Boko Haram in shedding the blood of poor working people, and signposts of changing moments in this bitter war, are critical examples.

This is the second massacre in Baga. On April 16, 2013, Boko Haram fighters killed a soldier during a shoot-out in the town, which had largely been under the sect’s control by 2012.

The soldiers returned en masse with armoured personnel carriers. Survivors reported that for several days, they shot indiscriminately and torched all houses in sight. The town was then locked down, with journalists and activists denied access.

The army claimed then that “only” six civilians were killed, while soldiers killed 30 Boko Haram militants. It also denied that houses were razed to the ground.

Yet satellite images showed that more than 2000 houses were burned down. Verifiable evidence also confirmed that no less than 200 civilians were killed.

Brigadier General Olukolade described everyone who did not believe the army’s cock-and-bull story as sympathisers of Boko Haram.

The United States government condemned that massacre and called for the army to respect human rights. These were empty words which played to the gallery of global outcry.

Nigeria’s federal government also announced that it would conduct what it described as a “full-scale investigation” into the “allegation” of massacre. Nothing came out of the investigation.

State of emergency

The 2013 Baga massacre set the stage for the declaration of a state of emergency in the three north-eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. But the carnage in the north-east (and other parts of the north) worsened with the state of emergency.

More people have been killed in the past 20 months than those killed in the four years before emergency rule.

Kidnappings also grew. The case of the “Chibok girls” drew international attention. #BringBackOurGirls campaigners have been harassed and demonised by the government.

By August last year, partly inspired by ISIS, Boko Haram declared Gwoza a caliphate, seizing swathes of territory in the states under state of emergency.

The recent Baga massacre took place in a context where the sect controls 70% of the state of Borno. It has organised prison breaks in places far away from Borno as Kogi in the north central region.

The federal government told the world it had reached a ceasefire agreement after secret negotiations with a faction of Boko Haram in October. Less than 24 hours later, the insurgents attacked Maikadiri and Shaffa in Borno.

This raised fears that the war cannot end through negotiations with the “terrorists”, but a military solution equally appears utopian, not the least because of collaboration between sections of the ruling class and the sect.

The low morale of ill-equipped and underpaid rank-and-file soldiers also contributes to the cul-de-sac of this option. Instead of addressing their legitimate fears, which have led to desertions and protests, the state has sentenced 66 soldiers to death for mutiny.

Civilian Joint Task Force

The question for working people, particularly those trapped in the war zone, remains, “what is to be done?”

An inkling of the answer to this question can be gleaned in the phenomenon of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) — a civilian force that has arisen to defend the people from Boko Haram.

The state could not be relied upon to salvage the situation. It is part of the problem, using institutional terror against non-militant residents and Boko Haram alike.

The security services, for example, have killed about as many people as Boko Haram since the war started, according to reports from NGOs.

The CJTF’s armed resistance has, to a very great extent, routed Boko Haram from Maiduguri. Similar and aligned groups have played central roles in pitched battles where towns seized by the sect were reclaimed, albeit temporarily.

But the CJTF cannot but be a shadow of the armed independent self-activity of the working masses in the region required to reclaim its soul for two related reasons.

First is its class composition. The CJTF is made up largely of unemployed lumpen youths. Second is its relationship with the state.

It was formed independently — spontaneously — in April 2013, but its name suggests some sense of affiliation to the state’s Joint Task Force, which has now been disbanded and replaced with the army’s 7th Infantry Division. The CJTF’s leaders report to the general officer commanding the division.

Also contentious is the employment of CJTF militants by state government agencies, such as the Borno State Youth Empowerment Scheme.

The missing link is leadership by the organised working class. Given the stature of the unions in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, a more active involvement of the trade unions would help sharpen the class lines of the armed resistance.

There are legitimate fears by union leaders at both state council and shop floor levels that this could make working-class activists targets of the sect. But already, hundreds of union members are known to have been killed, particularly teachers and health workers.

We cannot allow ourselves to be cowed. Indeed, some of the boldest union leaders I've met are in this war-torn region.

Trade union leaders nationally need to take much more decisive actions, not only to inspire working-class activists in the region but because the tragedy of war in the north-east is a tragedy for working people as a whole.

Beyond the fact that the insurgency has spread well beyond the north-east, an injury to one is definitely an injury to all.

Apart from condemning attacks by Boko Haram and supporting military action against it on several occasions, the trade unions do not appear to have a strong position on the war — or the tasks for the working class nationally to combat the twin terrorisms of Boko Haram and the Nigerian state. The forthcoming national delegates’ conference of the Nigeria Labour Congress is a chance to address this.

We cannot allow the Baga massacre to end up as just some other statistic of the war between Boko Haram and the government of Nigeria. The bosses are too concerned with their election campaigns to be much bothered by the massacre — as the president’s silence loudly tells us.

[Abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Baba Aye is a trade unionist and editor of Socialist Worker (Nigeria) and is the national convener of United Action for Democracy. He blogs at Solidarity and Struggle.]

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