Nigeria: 'Je Suis Baga'? The world ignores the tragedy of Baga

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Nigerian troops patrol Baga after the previous massacre in 2013.

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By Baba Aye

January 17, 2015 – Links International Journnal of Socialist Renewal -- The fishing community of Baga, by Lake Chad in Borno state, Nigeria, was under siege by Boko Haram for a week at the beginning of January. Amnesty International described the ensuing bloodbath as Boko Haram’s “deadliest massacre”, estimating that some 2000 persons 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 of these are now in camps at Maiduguri and Monguno in Borno state, including 3200 registered by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) just last weekend. Kalzeubet Pahimi Deubet, the prime minister of Chad, also announced that 2500 Nigerians and 500 Chadians fleeing from Baga have sought refuge in the country. Subsequently 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, described the reported death toll as exaggerated in a tweet.

For a week, the defence headquarters said it could not confirm the number of casualties. Subsequently, Brigadier Chris Olukolade, the army spokesperson, stated that the total number of people killed in the bloodbath, including soldiers, was “just” 150 persons. It did not stop at that. He attempted to wipe the slate of blood from the guns of soldiers in 2013, with the current massacre. According to him, this “confirms” that insurgents and 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 shootout in the town, which had to a great extent come under the sect’s control by 2012. The soldiers reinforced, returning en masse with armoured personnel carriers. Survivors reported that for several days, they shot indiscriminately and torched all houses in sight (one cannot but recall similar retaliatory massacres in Odi in 1999 and Zaki Biam in 2001, after irate youths killed security personnel). The town was then locked down, with journalists and activists denied access to verify what actually happened.

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. But satellite images showed that more than 2000 houses were burnt down. Verifiable evidence also confirmed that not 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 with which it 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 has come out of this.

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, on May 14. But the carnage in the north-east (and other parts of the north) has worsened with the state of emergency. More people have been killed in the past 20 months than those killed in the four years preceding emergency rule.

Kidnapping took on added steam. The case of the “Chibok girls” drew international attention before the presidency spoke on it three weeks after the abduction. #BringBackOurGirls campaigners have been harassed and demonised by the government.

By August 2014, 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 landmass of Borno, encompassing two thirds of the state’s Local Government Areas. It has organised prison breaks in places far away from Borno as Kogi in the north central.

The federal government informed the world that it had reached a ceasefire agreement after secret negotiations with a faction of Boko Haram in October. Less than 24 hours after this, the insurgents attacked Maikadiri and Shaffa, in two different Borno state LGAs. 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 warzone of the north east 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 (governments, army and other security agencies) could not be relied upon to salvage the situation. On the contrary, it is part of the problem, utilising institutional terror against non-militant residents and the Boko Haram jihadists alike. The security services, for example, have killed about as many people as Boko Haram has since the war started, according to credible reports from both local and national NGOs.

The CJTF’s armed resistance has to a very great extent routed Boko Haram from Maiduguri. Similar and aligned groups to it have played central roles in pitched battles were some of the 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. It is made up largely of unemployed lumpen “area” youths. Second is its relationship with the state. While it was formed independently (in the sense of spontaneously) in April 2013, its name would suggest 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 leadership presently reports to the general officer commanding the division. Quite contentious as well is the employment of CJTF militants by state government agencies, such as the Borno State Youth Empowerment Scheme (BOYES).

The missing link is leadership by the organised working class. With 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 in the line of duty in the zone, particularly teachers and health workers. We cannot allow ourselves to be cowed. Indeed, some of the boldest union leaders I have ever met are in this war-torn region. Even in this trying period, several have taken commendable risks in the ongoing multifaceted struggle.

The trade union leadership nationally needs 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 where it rages like wildfire, an injury to one is definitely an injury to all.

Apart from condemnation of attacks by Boko Haram and support for military action against it on several occasions, the trade unions do not appear to have a robust position on the war that grasps the evolution of the sect and its insurgency, the current and worsening situation in the region, and the tasks for the working class nationally and in the zone in combating the twin terrorisms of Boko Haram and the Nigerian state. The forthcoming national delegates’ conference of the Nigeria Labour Congress presents an opportunity to address this.

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

Working-class and civil society activists and other well-meaning citizens, in Nigeria and beyond the shores of this land must lend their voices, limbs and heads to defeating the twin terrors gripping the poor masses in the north-east. We must stand up now, against the pillage and plunder, murders and massacres, for #WeAreAllBaga!

[Baba Aye, a trade unionist and editor of Socialist Worker (Nigeria), is the national convenor of United Action for Democracy (UAD). He blogs at]