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Borno residents cry…‘JTF/Boko Haram war strangling us’

As the battle between the Joint Task Force (JTF) and the Boko Haram sect heightens without any clear resolution, residents of Borno State where the…

As the battle between the Joint Task Force (JTF) and the Boko Haram sect heightens without any clear resolution, residents of Borno State where the battle has been hard-fought are caught in the middle, between soldiers who are angry with them for not providing enough information about sect members and the sect which is unforgiving towards those who cooperate with authorities and divulge information about their members.

The battle between the JTF and the militant Boko Haram sect is also being fought not only with guns but with propaganda aimed at winning the minds of the people as to who is winning or losing and who is responsible for the needless massacres of civilians recorded almost daily as soldiers and sect members engage with each other in the streets and market places.

These dimensions to the battle became glaring in the recent attack staged by the sect members against traders who arrested and handed over a sect member to the JTF in Maiduguri’s Baga Market, but where the JTF quickly intervened with several civilian casualties recorded.

About twenty people were killed at the Baga Market and the   immediate cause of the attack was the incidence of Thursday 16th February, 2011 when some traders and buyers in the market summoned courage and pinned down a suspected member of the Boko Haram who was pulling out an AK47 from inside his gown. The traders later handed over the suspect to operatives of the JTF.

Enraged by the action of the traders, the Boko Haram assailants descended on the market four days after and mercilessly killed many people. On that fateful day, some traders who witnessed the onslaught at the market said about five explosives went off at Jajeri, a ramshackle settlement behind the market and another one inside the market, close to where the Boko Haram member was apprehended. And while attempting to repel the attack, operatives of the JTF stormed the market and engaged members of the Boko Haram in a shootout. Expectedly, many people were killed in the process.

While some people saw what the military did as gallant, many others blamed them for using excessive force, occasioned by killing of many civilians and bystanders as well as the extra-judicial killing of Boko Haram members who would have been captured alive.

Yet, some security experts believe that with the guerilla warfare tactics of the Boko Haram members who always take advantage of any opportunity to kill security agents, it will be suicidal for the soldiers at the war front to keep their guns aside and pursue their target. The ultimate result of this ugly scenario is the loss of civilian lives as typified by Monday’s daylight confrontation at Baga Market.

Human rights expert and former commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission and the coordinator, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, Mr. Emmanuel Onwubuiko says, “If the security operatives are being fired at, they also have the right to return fire back so as to secure their lives. At that point or in that situation, one cannot claim any human rights violation. The moment you are up in arms and firing, if the military fires back and kills, they (military) would claim self defense and nothing can be done about that.”

The flip-side to the military’s right of engagement under emergency law though is excessive use of force risks the threat of alienating the people further whose cooperation will make the difference as to which side emerges victorious. “The fact is we want the Boko Haram men to kindly leave us alone,” an elderly woman said. “Again, we don’t want the military men also, let them kindly pack their things and go because we believe if the two warring parties are no more here, we would gladly manage our lives in peace.” Her feelings that there is a thin line dividing the military and Boko Haram sect as far as their safety is concerned is something that is shared by many residents in the state who spoke to Weekly Trust.

“What is unfolding in Maiduguri is scandalous because innocent people are being maimed and killed in the ensuing confrontation between the insurgents and the military operatives,” a senior citizen in the state who does not want to be named said.

“The military men are strictly applying the State of Emergency order which has no boundary while encroaching into civil liberty to exert maximum force in order to crush their enemies. In the process, many civilians are being killed. This is apart from the fact that the arrested Boko Haram members are also being killed without being prosecuted. What is happening in Maiduguri is strictly fire-for-fire,” he said.

A legal practitioner in the state who also prefers anonymity observed that the JTF operatives are “very angry” because most residents of Maiduguri “are not volunteering information” on how to end the imbroglio which has already defied many approaches. He said this might have triggered the occasional cases of civil casualties during confrontation between soldiers and insurgents.

However, while the soldiers are blaming residents for not doing enough, the Boko Haram sect is also blaming same residents, especially traders at the Baga market who suffered the latest onslaught for their complicity with the JTF. “We have forewarned that our targets include security agents, government functionaries, Christians and anybody that assist in attacking or arresting us,” Boko Haram spokesperson had said earlier in the wake of the attack on the market.

“We attacked the market because the traders facilitated the arrest of our member,” he insisted. “And when the JTF operatives came to repel the attack, God assisted us and we overwhelmed them. We want to assure traders that we have no business with them. We have succeeded in tracking down the traders that worked against us at the market. People should go about their normal lives without any fear.” The assurance to the people by Boko Haram betrays their need to also get the people on their side, something which the military wants as well.

Colonel Victor Ebhaleme, the field operations officer of the JTF summoned an emergency meeting at the market on Tuesday following reported case of mass exodus and told the traders not to flee. At the meeting were many traders, their officials, Nigeria Red Cross and NEMA personnel among others. “We are here to protect your lives and your business interests,” he told the traders. “There is no need for you to leave the market. We also want to advise you that whenever you hear gunshots or blast, the best thing is lie flat at the place you are at, instead of running amid the confusion.”

This battle to win the hearts of the people has led to denials about who was responsible for the civilian casualties in the Baga Market attack between the JTF and Boko Haram. Spokesman of the JTF Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Mohammed who spoke to journalists few hours after the incidence said no civilian was killed but that the military men had succeeded in killing eight Boko Haram members.

According to him, “Some suspected Boko Haram members stormed the Baga Market and shot three civilians. The men of the JTF immediately came to the rescue and engaged the sect members. The three civilians did not die. We rushed them to a hospital for treatment.

“Our men succeeded in detonating 3 explosives at the market and killed 8 members of the sect. Large number of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and other weapons has been recovered. The whole market has been cordoned off and we are currently searching the market to track down the fleeing members.”

But the spokesman of Boko Haram addressed a teleconference two days after the incidence said, “We are responsible for the attack at the Baga Market because traitors among the traders have connived with security men and arrested one of our members.” He claimed they carefully identified the traders that participated in the arrest of their member and killed them, a claim which is contrary to that of the JTF that said no civilian was killed. He denied the claims of the JTF spokesman that his men succeeded in killing eight of the sect members in the gun battle at the market. “The military was only trying to hide its weaknesses in the face of truth. They didn’t kill any of us,” he said.

Those who saw what happened at the market noted that it will be difficult to strike a balance on what actually happened, whether it was Boko Haram members who shot innocent civilians while exchanging gunfire with the military or whether it was the JTF in the course of arresting the sect’s attack.

Security experts say that is the more reason why the JTF must work hard to introduce a rule of engagement that will differentiate it from the sect members. Thus far, experts say, the people are finding it hard to make that distinction.

“The military personnel are expected to be highly professional and know where what right is in place and where their boundary stops because nobody is above or immune to prosecution where he errs intentionally,” says Mr. Onwubuike.

However, Mr. Onwubuike says people are bound to face difficulties in terms of exercising their freedom of association, freedom of movement (to some degree) and other sort of rights that are ordinarily supposed to be in place where there is no such military operation. He says nevertheless, “Regardless of the fact that the military is in charge of security does not mean there wouldn’t be prosecution where mandatory rights are abused.”

Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch said in one of the body’s report on the Boko Haram menace: “The Nigerian authorities need to ensure that all law enforcement operations in response to Boko Haram are conducted in full accordance with international human rights standards. The most effective way to counter the abhorrent tactics employed by groups like Boko Haram is to scrupulously adhere to respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

However, some JTF operatives interviewed by Weekly Trust lament that human rights and civil liberty organizations are not fair to them. “Most stakeholders find pleasure in discussing the issue of people that we allegedly killed but nobody cares about the fatality we are recording on daily basis,” says a soldier who does not want to be named. In fairness to the JTF, even the people they are sent to protect have little or no understanding of the implication of living under emergency rule and how they ought to conduct themselves to safeguard their lives.

Lawyer, Patrick Ediale Esq says the mere introduction of emergency rule suspends rights and liberties. He says this in response to whether rights can be enforced under emergency rule and in apparent reference to complaints by residents of cities like Maiduguri, Kano and Kaduna where the military have been co-opted into the fight against Boko Haram. In these cities, residents are expected to submit to checks at road blocks and those riding on motorcycles are expected to dismount some few metres from checkpoints and pedestrians expected to raise their hands in the air. Residents of these cities see such measures as humiliation and encroachment on their rights. Ediale disagrees, citing the case of F.R.A. Williams and Dr M.A. Majekodunmi (1961/ 1962). Mr. Ediale says the Supreme Court upheld the restriction order issued the applicant by the Western Region administrator under the Emergency Powers (Restriction Orders) Regulations, 1962 and dismissed the motion of Williams. He says, “What is relevant under an emergency is for the restoration of good order and peace of the Federal republic of Nigeria.”

Mr. Onwubuike adds some clarification, saying, “When you talk of right to life, freedom from torture just to mention some very basic few, these are fundamental rights that must be obeyed by whosoever is handling security in that domain. There is no negotiating these rights in whatsoever situation.”

For now, residents of Borno say the insurgency that has claimed more than 2,000 lives between 2009 to date is long overdue for resolution and pray that a lasting solution will be found.


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