Last week, Nigeria found itself in the international media spotlight with reports of intense fighting in the Northern Eastern town of Baga. The Nigerian government was quick to highlight the fact that it had successfully killed 30 Boko Haram militants as a sign that is winning the fight against the terrorists. However, reports slowly emerging since the end of hostilities indicate that the greatest losses have been suffered by the ordinary citizens of Baga.
Human Rights Watch accuses the Federal Army of widespread abuses and attacks on civilians which results in close to 185 deaths and countless destroyed homes. Despite numerous assertions by the Nigerian government that these reports have been exaggerated, recent satellite images seem to corroborate HRW’s account. If Baga marks the beginning of a trend in the fight against against Boko Haram, Nigeria may find itself losing this battle.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time the Nigerian army has crossed the line in its pursuit of Boko Haram — it has in the past been accused of extra-judicial killings. As I have written about in the past, the real prize in Nigeria isn’t territory or control but the hearts and minds of its citizens. Inequality, poverty and neglect by the Federal Government have led to a deficit of trust which has allowed Boko Haram to flourish in Northern Nigeria. Human Rights abuses by the army — agents of the central government — will undoubtedly only help the cause of terrorist organizations who want to position themselves as viable alternatives to the government. I have also previously argued that bold and transformational leadership is desperately needed to achieve lasting solutions to Nigeria’s myriad of problems.
However, the response to events in Baga has been woefully disappointing. Instead of siding with residents of Baga, many of whom have lost friends, relatives and homes, Nigeria’s director of defense information, Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, rejected their stories, arguing, “the burning, the killing is done by Boko Haram, not by the soldiers. Anybody blaming the soldiers must be a sympathizer with Boko Haram.”
While I can sympathize with the frustrations of fighting an evil and ruthless group like Boko Haram, especially in areas like Baga, where they enjoy widespread support, statements like these only serve to remind the population that the government is not on their side.
Unfortunately, the behavior of the Nigerian army is a trend that has been repeated in other conflicts across the continent. The Congolese army, fighting in Eastern Congo, is notorious for brutal attacks on civilian populations, sometimes even worse than those committed by the numerous armed rebel groups they are supposed to be fighting. Similar accusations have been leveled against the Malian army recently engaged in Northern Mali. In most cases, leaders of the army respond to such accusations by reminding us of the difficulties they face fighting dangerous, and well organized groups in difficult terrain, with few resources.
These incidents serve as a reminder that military support to African countries from the West is useless unless it is accompanied by responsible government-to-government engagement that emphasizes respect for human rights and basic democratic ideals. It is also a reminder that the international community must be consistent in the way it interacts with African nations. It is not enough for countries (both in Africa and outside) to conveniently ignore authoritarian rule and widespread corruption in countries like Nigeria and Mali for decades, and then suddenly react with venom when a tragedy on the scale of Baga occurs. We cannot expect accountability in large matters from governments which have been allowed to get away with so much for so long.
On Wednesday, President Goodluck Jonathan gave indications that some measure of accountability will be forthcoming, pledging to punish any soldiers found guilty of misconduct. However, his statement stopped short of admitting any wrongdoing, promising instead to “end the intolerable threats to national security which have necessitated such confrontations.”
I can think of no greater threats to the security of the Nigerian state than poor leadership, an undisciplined army, and an uncaring government that refuses to admit when it has failed its people.