A Season of Killings

13 May 2013

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Security chiefs

Death has been stalking various parts of Nigeria in different forms, giving both the people and government concerns about the state of security in the country, write Olawale Olaleye and Nkiruka Okoh

Like it was in the beginning of creation when the earth was without form and empty, suddenly, the country seems some sort of a jungle. What appears sovereign is practical hate, religious and political intolerance, insecurity occasioned by terrorism, internecine clashes and kidnappings.

Since the onset of the Boko Haram Islamic sect, the country has never had it so bad. Attacks on public facilities and the killing of targeted persons with affiliation (direct or indirect) to government has become commonplace. The situation is nonetheless helpless as security operatives are clearly not prepared for such a challenge. Despite efforts to stem the tide, the somewhat organised anti-social groups are always a step ahead, striking at the least expected places and time.

But more worrisome now is the direct killing of innocent Nigerians in scandalous numbers and which has become a common feature in the last few months. Sadly, this is not limited to just Boko Haram. Other groups are active players in the latest orgy of violence in the country. What is happening in some parts of the North has further attested to the degree of hate and disrespect for human lives. It is called the killing sport and those who indulge in this activity do so with so much equanimity that suggests it is what they enjoy doing.

Why this has become niggling is because in most of these attacks, apart from the innocent citizens that are often caught in the crossfire, the police are usually the objects of the attacks. From the north to the South-south, especially the president’s home state of Bayelsa and the rest of the country, the police are accorded no respect and the lives of their men mean nothing to these criminals who have mastered the art of killing them like cheap animals.

A few weeks back came the story of the Baga killings in Borno State. The casualty figure became a subject of dispute between the government and the opposition parties.

It was April 16 and the Baga town had woken up to the reality of a new day, unsuspecting of anything. But something soon happened and it changed their lives for good. It was the aftermath of a gun duel between the soldiers of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and suspected Boko Haram members. That incident, according to initial report, left no fewer than 187 civilians dead.

Soon, several conflicting reports surfaced as regards the number of civilian casualties recorded in the attack. Many Nigerians and the international community condemned the attack and the high casualty figure in a strong term. This had prompted several unanswered questions but the reality from the Baga massacre is that no part of the country is insulated from the growing spate of insecurity that now threatens Nigeria's corporate existence.

President Goodluck Jonathan, who immediately reacted to the development by setting up a panel of inquiry, said preliminary briefings he received from the military at the time showed that the casualty figure reported by the foreign media was grossly exaggerated but assured the Nigerian people and the global community that the government placed a high value on the lives of all its citizens.

But the investigation order handed the Defence Headquarters and National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) on the Baga massacre continued. The findings later deepened the rift over the casualty figure. The probe established that contrary to initial report, the military team involved in the confrontation with Boko Haram elements was the MNJTF, and not the Joint Task Force (JTF).  The report indicated that the MNJTF’s initial mandate was to conduct military operations in the Lake Chad region and to facilitate free movement of the member states of the Lake Chad Basin Commission across their common borders.

The mandate was expanded in April 2012 to include the fight against terrorists, adding that the activities of task force were legal and needed to be sustained. The report also noted that whereas it was alleged that 187 people were killed by the soldiers of the MNJTF in Baga, the assessment team received a briefing from the commander of the MNJTF on April 24 that only 30 terrorists were killed in the course of the attacks while six bodies were recovered in Lake Chad, about 3 kilometres away from the action spot.

But the probe did little to change perception about the incident. Rather, the mode of operation of the military was called to question.
It is common knowledge that the Nigeria's JTF on terrorism has been engaged in fierce battles with the Boko Haram sect, which has basically adopted the guerilla tactics- attacking and sliding back into the shadows, mixing with the civilian populations in safe houses and whatever operational mode it deems best. However, in curtailing the insurgents, especially in areas where the Islamic movement seems to have established its most serious operational activities, the MNJTF and other security operatives have not observed as much caution as expected.

While the gory tales from Baga were yet to subside, Bama, another ancient city in Borno, was turned into a ghost town when members of the Boko Haram sect launched multiple attacks on police, military and prison installations in the town in the early hours of last Tuesday. The attack, which led to the death of at least 55 people, forced residents of Bama to either flee town or lock up their homes and businesses for fear of being killed.

The JTF, which took journalists to the town to assess the damage caused by the terrorists, said at least 22 policemen; 14 prison officials including the commander and prison doctor; 13 suspected members of the sect; three children; two soldiers; and one woman were all killed during the multiple attacks on the town.

Bama has just suffered wanton destruction similar to that of Baga. The attack on Bama occurred a few hours before the federal government arraigned four suspected terrorists believed to have been involved in the bombing of the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Abuja, about two years ago before a Federal High Court, Abuja.

According to sources, 300 suspected members of Boko Haram were said to have laid siege to Bama at 5am that Tuesday by first attacking an army barracks - 200 Tank Battallion - in the town with the intention of seizing the military facility. Also attacked were the magistrates' court in front of the Shehu of Bama's palace and the prison beside the palace. Reports revealed that as the terrorists attacked the barracks, they were repelled by the soldiers who killed many of them and forced them to retreat with the corpses of their members.
But in all of these, innocent Nigerians have continued to die and this was often blamed on the way the security agents carried out their operations. Some analysts were of the opinion that the "attack-and-pursue" method which held no respite for any living thing in sight and which the Nigerian military seemed to have adopted in its fight against terrorism was indeed worrisome, especially when it was being adopted in a largely civilian-dominated environment.

While it is unfortunate that Nigerians, especially those in the north, have been left at the mercy of the Boko Haram insurgents, observers are also worried that the military has not handled their operations with much professionalism. Observers believed that there is a world of difference when a faceless terror group unleashed attack on the people and when the security agencies turned their weapons against the hapless citizenry, contrary to the rules of engagements and thus violating human rights.
As if that was not enough, there have been tensions in the two states of Nasarawa and Benue in the last few days following attacks by members of a militant group and Fulani herdsmen during which over 20 policemen were killed in Nasarawa State and scores of others in Benue State.

Governors of the two states- Alhaji Tanko Al-Makura of Nasarawa and Hon. Gabriel Suswam of Benue have since sought federal assistance when it was clear the situation was beyond their control.
While briefing Vice-President Namadi Sambo on security situations in their respective states, they both urged the federal government to urgently step in and stem the tide of killing.

Al-Makura told reporters after meeting with Sambo that the policemen were waylaid and killed by cultists known as the Ombatse militia group at Alakio village, about 10 kilometres from Lafia, the state capital. He said the policemen were part of a contingent drafted to the state to dislodge the group that has been trying to destabilise the government of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) in the state.

According to him, the essence of the briefing was to seek the assistance of the federal government in curtailing the activities of the group, which the state government had a year ago dislodged before it re-surfaced some two weeks ago.
“Just yesterday (Tuesday), we had a very bitter security problem that caused the death of some security officers in the state. This is a situation that is so grave and I feel it is very important that I come to brief the vice-president about the security situation and to seek assistance so that we can handle the matter once and for all.

“Already, the group from Eggon extraction called Ombatse has been proscribed since the beginning of this year because of the activities of the members. They go from one place to another, harbouring arms, attacking any area that has any conflict with any of their members. The group is banned and its members are those causing this problem in the state and we feel it is necessary to bring this to the notice of the federal government.

“Before now, there were one or two arrests. But as a result of yesterday's (Tuesday) event, I am yet to be briefed on the number of arrests that have been made. Already, I learnt that security operatives are making arrangements to see how they can contain the situation. It is on that point that I will know how many arrests have been made,” he said.

The Nasarawa governor said the state government thought it had subdued the group about a year ago only for it to resurface with renewed hostilities by attacking and forcibly initiating people from their tribal group into their rank.

“Two weeks ago, we discovered a certain militia group holding arms and carrying out cultist activities in the state. Since January, this thing has not abated and in the past two weeks, it took a total different dimension. We decided to hold a security meeting to find a way of solving the problem. The solution was to go to the shrine and pick on the cult leader so that the problem will be solved once and for all.

“As security operatives were approaching the shrine, unknown to them that ambush had been laid for them, these people attacked them and this resulted in the death of more than 20 policemen.”

Al-Makura pledged that his administration would assist “victims of the attacks, those who are security operatives and those who are not. We will see how we can assist their families.”

On his part, Suswam also said his state needed the help of the federal government to tackle the insecurity in the area because scores of people, including women and children, were killed and property worth millions of naira destroyed in a clash between Fulani herdsmen and farmers in Agatu Local Government Area of the state.

Although, he did not put a number to the casualties from the crisis, the governor said 10 of the attackers, along with heavy weapons and many rounds of ammunition, were nabbed by the combined task force of the police the army and the State Security Service (SSS) operatives. He lamented the incident and argued that proactive measures must be taken to check the upsurge of violence sweeping through the country.

He said his meeting with Sambo agreed on the need for a national conference to resolve the matter. “I came to brief the vice-president on the security situation in Benue. You must have heard that there are serious altercation between the Fulani and the local farmers. This time it happened in Agatu Local Government, which is one of the local government areas that the Senate President represents, they almost overrun the local government, and there were a lot of killings and a lot of property destroyed.

“I felt that I should come to brief the vice-president who is holding forte for the president and I also discussed other sundry issues that relate to the general security situation in the country,” he said.

But while Al-Makura claimed 20 policemen, including an Assistant Commissioner of Police, were killed in the attack in his state, sources said out of the 11 trucks of riot policemen and SSS operatives sent to arrest the leader of the cult, Baba Alakyo, and recover arms in his possession, only two trucks returned safely with 20 policemen, out of whom nine had suffered varying degrees of gunshot wounds with 40 bodies of dead policemen recovered from the forests, much later.

Some of the bodies of the policemen were brought to the state capital, Lafia, to a large crowd of sympathisers and relatives waiting at the Dalhatu Araf Specialist Hospital (DASH). Most of the bodies, reports said, had been burnt beyond recognition.

One of the surviving policemen, while narrating his ordeal thought the militiamen had prior knowledge of their coming and had laid siege to the narrow road leading to the Alakyo village, where they were supposed to arrest their spiritual leader and recover arms said to be in his possession.

According to him, “The road was narrow and they allowed us into their midst before opening fire on us at close range. Effort to return fire and scare them into hiding was futile as bullets did not penetrate them.”

The policemen added that the militiamen, dressed in black shirts and caps, kept approaching the police amidst heavy gunfire which forced their Hilux vehicle to turn back being the last van on the convoy.
“Due to the nature of the road and ensuing gun duel, our men could not turn back and 10 of us in our van were able to manoeuvre our way out but not without sustaining bullet injuries,” he added.
The officer added that their driver was shot on the leg but lucky enough one of those with him in front could drive and immediately took over, saying many of the other officers took to the bush but being hugely outnumbered by the militiamen who knew the terrain better, pursued and killed them.

“As soon as they kill an officer, his rifle was immediately taken off him,” he lamented.
A staff of the Red Cross Society, who was part of the team that evacuated the remains of the victims, spoke on the condition of anonymity to a national daily. He said the militia men gave conditions that no armed security officer should accompany them as they still kept close guard on the village, adding that they seized their phones on entry and returned them after the evacuation.

Wives of the slain policemen later protested the killing of their breadwinners and blocked the Akwanga-Lafia highway for many hours. The women were said to have come out in a large number and set bonfire along the highway with many of them wailing uncontrollably and raining curses on those who perpetrated the acts. The protest which was said to have taken place in front of Squadron 38 MOPOL base in Akwanga left travellers stranded for many hours.

Jonathan, on hearing the development, last week cancelled his scheduled visit to Namibia to personally oversee efforts by security agencies to contain the new security challenge in Borno, Nasarawa and Benue States. The president, who was on a state visit to South Africa, was expected to proceed to Namibia in continuation of his investment drive across Africa but suspended his Namibian trip.

A statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, said: “In view of recent developments at home, Jonathan has cut short his visit to South Africa and aborted his state visit to Namibia.”

On arrival in the country, the president met with the Chief of Defence Staff, the service chiefs, Inspector General of Police and heads of national security services to review the security situation in the country and how best to contain the prevailing situation.
Ahead of that, the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar had said the killing of officers and other members of the rank and file of the force in parts of the country with impunity, had reached intolerable stage and added that the reign of terror would be brought to an end henceforth.

Abubakar spoke through the Police Public Relations Officer, Frank Mbah, in Abuja. He said: “We must put an end to this endless circle of impunity. Enough is enough.”

Also, the House of Representatives, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), and Suswam, condemned the killing of the policemen and officials of SSS, saying the action was not only unacceptable but also “revolting.”

Fresh facts however revealed that two police insiders allegedly leaked information to the Ombatse cult group. The two police officers have since been paraded before Al-Makura by the state Commissioner of Police, Abayomi Akeremale. While the ill-fated Alakyo, Lafia operation led to the death of many police officers and other security agents, four police officers are still being held by the cultists, according to Al-Makura.

The Governor said the operation which was led by an Assistant Police Commissioner, Mommoh Mohammed, was properly planned for success with all safety measures put for the security operatives. “This is what betrayal has caused not only you, but the rest of the nation,” Al-Makura told the widows, assuring them that “the blood of the heroes will not be shed in vain.”

However, Akeremale, who paraded the suspects, said one of the cops whose name was simply given as Corporal Enugu, was arrested after a team of detectives monitored his behaviours since the day of the ill-fated operation. He said Corporal Enugu who drove one of the patrol vans with registration number NPF 6997 C, was one of the men who returned alive from the operation.

“A team of detectives monitored him carefully. They first stumbled on charms in his vehicle (official vehicle). Then, they followed up and stormed in on him at his residence. But before our men got there, the information had already reached there. But my men were fast to get him, and a second policeman in his house,” the police commissioner said.

He displayed three AK47 rifles, a sack of charms of various brands, alongside Corporals Enugu and Haruna Joseph; took the governor to the front of the police van and pointed at a red sticker with an image of a machine gun with a chain of bullets, by the registration number.

“Our investigation has shown that this sticker was put so that his members can notice, separate and spare him. This is just the beginning. It is like the beginning of a river, which is usually small; it will lead us to track down all members of the sect,” he said.
Typically, political parties also seized the opportunity of the development in the country, especially the Baga and Bama killings to spar and further knock the Jonathan administration on its head.

The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said there was the need to set up an independent probe panel to establish the truth about the April 16 reported confrontation between members of the Boko Haram and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF).

The party, therefore, rejected the military and National Emergency Management Agency preliminary reports on the tragedy and said the account presented to Jonathan by the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ola Ibrahim, was “everything but thorough. It is actually worse than what has been reported.”

For the Bama killings, ACN said while every human life was sacrosanct, it was particularly saddened by the mindless killing of security personnel in the course of carrying out their duties of ensuring the protection of life and property. It also described as barbaric and callous, the killing of defenceless citizens, especially women and children, saying the perpetrators of the senseless killings have lost their sense of decency and humanity.

“Nothing in the world can justify the kind of killings we have witnessed in recent times, and it is high time those who are behind these orgy of violence stopped and retraced their steps.”

While condemning the development, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) attacked the president for not visiting Baga after the incident. In a statement by the National publicity secretary of the party, Rotimi Fashakin, CPC accused the government of showing more interest in controlling the information on the casualty figures instead of ensuring rehabilitation of the victims of the Baga disaster.

But Abati responded to CPC’s criticism, and stated that the president ordered an immediate probe by the military high command and the intervention of rescue and aid agencies that have been working with the Borno State Government and other agencies of state to ensure that the victims were rehabilitated and assisted with relief materials. “These steps surely do not give an impression of insensitivity or aloofness,” he said.

There is also a school of thought that the Boko Harm menace and other insecurity are being fuelled by some political actors who are keen on taking over the control power and at the same time advocating the return of same to the North. Those who share this position believe that political leaders should be wary of their statements on the security situation in the nation.

A source close to the corridor of power cited a certain political leader who was quick to inflating the numbers of casualties and the damage done but has since retracted same. He, therefore, pleaded with political leaders to watch their comments and remarks as such can further aggravate the level of insecurity.

The source also argued that the withdrawal of military occupation from some of the affected areas is not the solution to the insurgence, adding that the Boko Haram sect is made up of Nigerians and Chadians who have ties with international terrorist groups. He argued that the mode of operation of the sect which is often around border towns suggests that the military operations around border towns should also be fortified.

Many are however worried that if such massacre of innocent citizens could occur in Baga and Bama in a space of weeks under whatever guise, then, no other parts of the country is completely safe. Particularly instructive, observers have noted, is the need for security operatives to adopt a more effective strategy since the old tactics appeared to have failed both in Baga and Bama, resulting in a huge loss of lives.

Observers contend that it would be double tragedy for the Nigerian people to continue to dread the Boko Haram sect, armed robbers and kidnappers on the one hand and then, the security operatives on the other hand. This is because institutional fight against terrorism and the likes is believed to have created more fears than guarantee the safety of lives of the Nigerian people.

Although, many observers agreed that the security operatives are doing well given their limitations, there is the need to distinguish between them and the anti-social groups by observing professionalism in their mode of operations. This way, they can guarantee the safety of lives of the Nigerian people and curb the spate of killings in the country.

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