Boko Haram: Is The Military Protecting Civilians? - by Bayo Olupohunda

The timeline of the ongoing onslaught against Boko Haram by the Nigerian military began after the postponement of the elections. The military which had earlier expressed concern about its ability to guarantee security during the earlier scheduled elections had required a shift in dates for six weeks. Since then, it has commenced counter-insurgency operations against the Boko Haram insurgents. 

Since the beginning of the current military operation, Nigerians have been inundated with news coming out of the battlefield about a series of successful operations recorded against Boko Haram. As the military engages the insurgents, we have heard of how the six-year terror war that has ravaged the North-East zone and claimed thousands of innocent lives is about to be won.

According to information provided by the military high command, the counter-terrorism operation has so far been successful. The soldiers have claimed to have re-captured many towns and villages previously held by the insurgents. It is gladdening to see that the military that had once been accused of cowardice are now confronting insurgents with renewed determination to protect Nigeria’s territorial integrity. Reports from the battlefield indicated that some Boko Haram insurgents fleeing from the Nigerian Army advancement drowned in Lake Chad. There have also been reports of how about 300 insurgents were killed in a single operation. In its recent operations, the military had also claimed it had recaptured Baga, something that is significant. The village has been the theatre of two major massacres since Boko Haram began its terror campaign six years ago.

In April 2013, the Nigerian military was accused of killing about 200 defenceless villagers in retaliation for Boko Haram killing of soldiers. Then, in January, Boko Haram insurgents invaded the village yet again and reportedly killed about 2,000 villagers. Both killings have created controversy with the military denying their involvement in both incidents. That the town is recaptured is good news for the residents who have been traumatised by the siege to their town. The intervention of the multi-national forces has also ensured that Boko Haram is facing stiff resistance across the borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The army has also revealed how it has beaten back Boko Haram insurgents from Gworza, Gamboru and other villages.

However, as the counter-insurgency operation intensifies, a few questions have been left unanswered by the Nigerian military. While I do not doubt the authenticity of reports coming from the frontlines, some issues need clarification. First, why is the information coming from the battlefield only from the Nigerian military? Since the operation began, it is only the Defence Headquarters or the military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade, that has been releasing reports. To me, there is something fishy about this.

While I do not disagree that the military are actually routing Boko Haram, the fact that it is only the military that can inform Nigerians about the operations puts a question mark on the whole operation. How can Nigerians independently verify the claims of the military? Since the operations began, I have watched Olukolade as he keeps Nigerians updated about the operation. Why is it that we do not have war reporters both home and abroad embedded within the operation? During an insurgency like this, war reports by independent observers carry more credibility. As it is now, Nigerians should not be blamed for being sceptical given their experience with the Nigerian Army. One question that has also been asked is if current gains will be sustainable. Why is it now that the army is actively engaging the insurgents, something it had failed to do in six years? Are we going to see a pyrrhic victory that will see Boko Haram regroup after the elections? Another worrisome trend as the military battles Boko Haram is the fate of civilians living in the North-East. Since Boko Haram began its terror campaign in the region, the civilian population has suffered losses due to the atrocities committed against them.

According to statistics, Boko Haram insurgents have killed close to 30,000 Nigerians. The war has displaced about 1.5 million people. Many of the displaced have fled to other states within Nigeria and many are across borders. As I write, many of the displaced are either dead or living in sub-human conditions in Internally Displaced Peoples’ camps. Fleeing civilians have also been reportedly caught between the brutality of the insurgents and heavy handed counter-insurgency operations launched by the Nigerian military. The Baga attack in which the army was alleged to have killed about 200 villagers in retaliation was denied by the defence headquarters.

As the war intensifies, Nigerians must begin to take a second look at the military. They must begin to ask hard questions. When the military tell us they have taken a town or village from Boko Haram, we should ask about the fate of the indigenous population. Are they safe? Were they evacuated before engagement began? These questions have become pertinent because many innocent Nigerians have died needless and painful death when the military carry out operations without respecting or observing the rule of engagement. The notoriety of the Nigerian Army during internal military operation has been well-documented.

The military may deny the international reports by the Amnesty International and Human Rights Report but the truth is out there. For example, the military denied that its soldiers were involved in the Baga massacre of April 2013 when eyewitnesses narrated how they entered the town and almost wiped it out. Yet again, when another report by Amnesty International was released in 2014, the Nigerian Army denied involvement and accused the international human rights watchdog of engaging in a witch-hunt. The 2014 report was damning. It revealed the level of atrocities the military can commit when it fails to conduct its operation within the ambit of international rule of engagement.

All over the world, military forces who are engaged in wars often commit war crimes. But the difference is that the military high command of those countries often responds to investigate and punish perpetrators of human rights violation. When the United States’ soldiers allegedly desecrated the Quran in Afghanistan, the US investigated and the perpetrators were punished. In Nigeria, the military high command will engage in blame game even in the face of evidence linking our soldiers to human rights violations.

The 2014 Amnesty report titled, “Welcome to Hellfire: Torture and Ill-treatment in Nigeria”, documented alleged abuses by the Nigerian Army and the Civilian Joint Task Force. In a video, Nigerian soldiers were seen allegedly shooting at pointblank range Boko Haram suspects. After the video was released, it created so much anger among Nigerians that the military promised investigation. But nothing has been heard yet of the promise to probe the incident. While I commend the military for their patriotism and recent success as they engage Boko Haram, it must know they owe a sacred duty to the oath to protect civilians. The war must be won, but not on the blood of innocent and defenceless Nigerians in the North-East who are already traumatised by the atrocities committed by the insurgents.