- DHQ: No clandestine graveyards in North-east
- 47 terrorists, 25 MNJTF troops killed in clash near Lake Chad
Chuks Okocha and Kingsley Nwezeh in Abuja
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar Thursday called on the federal government to set up a judicial commission to probe the alleged secret burial of 1,000 Nigerian soldiers killed by Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgents in the North-east.
Atiku made the call against the backdrop of a report by the United States-based newspaper, Wall Street Journal (WSJ), that over 1,000 soldiers killed by the combined forces of Boko Haram and the Islamic State for West African Province (ISWAP) in the last one year were buried unceremoniously in secret graves in Maimalari, Borno State.
But the Defence Headquarters has debunked the report, saying it has no secret graves anywhere in the North-east.
The furore over the WSJ report came as the news of the death of 47 terrorists and 25 troops of a regional force, Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), after a clash in Baga, near Lake Chad, broke.
The WSJ said in the report, published in its online edition on Wednesday, that “the bodies of these dead soldiers are laid by flashlight into trenches dug by infantrymen or local villagers who are usually paid a few dollars per shift.”
It added that the bodies of the soldiers were covertly transported from crowded mortuaries in the dark and delivered by trucks. It cited soldiers, diplomats and government officials, who spoke anonymously and corroborated the story.
“Several of my comrades were buried in unmarked graves at night,” said a soldier from the Maimalari Barracks, where more than 1,000 soldiers are based. “They are dying and being deleted from history.”
“The sprawling secret graveyard in Maiduguri and an official cemetery at the base, the operational command for the northeastern front in Borno State, now hold the bodies of at least 1,000 soldiers killed since the terror groups began an offensive last summer, according to soldiers and military officials—some of whom estimated a far higher death toll,” the report said.
“In November, Mercy Tamuno was told her husband, Adah, had been killed in an insurgent attack on an outpost in Cross Kauwa, a town about 100 miles north of Maiduguri. When she demanded to see where he was buried, she was taken to the official cemetery at Maimalari, where graves are marked with plywood headstones. There she was led to a spot marked with a plastic bottle with her husband’s name written on it.
“It was the only one marked in this way. I’m not sure it was his grave but that’s what the army told me,” the WSJ report quoted Tamuno as saying.
Two soldiers from Lance Cpl. Tamuno’s unit said he had been buried days earlier in the secret graveyard. The plastic bottle was prepared to appease his wife, they said.
“We know he was buried in the unmarked grave. There was no funeral,” one said.
As the secret cemetery at the Maimalari barracks grows, the military has expanded the site into neighbouring fields. “The farmland has been fenced off so they can bury the forces,” said Sarah James, a 50-year-old farmer whose husband is a retired soldier.
“Official secrecy and a weak economy have left Nigerian soldiers poorly equipped to fight. Soldiers who would ordinarily rotate out every few months have been on active operations for years. Morale is collapsing and discipline beginning to fray, said soldiers and the senior government official.
“Videos reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show Nigerian troops doling out gruesome punishments to suspected jihadists. The videos, which show dismemberment and killing of suspects, suggested the troops were suffering from trauma and needed human-rights training, said David Otto, director of a security firm, Global Risk International,” the report added.
But Atiku, in a statement detailing his reaction to the WSJ report, said: “I read the report by the Wall Street Journal that over a thousand Nigerian soldiers have been secretly buried at night by the General Muhammadu Buhari-led administration in order to hide the true state of the war on terror, with a sense of heartbreak and shock”.
The former vice president said he was heart-broken over the secret burial of the Nigerian soldiers killed by the insurgents, even where it was a single Nigerian soldier that was killed.
According Atiku, “heartbreak for the families and friends of those soldiers who, if the report is true, have lost their loved ones, without being allowed to bury them or even to have any sense of closure as regards their fate.
“Shock, that such a thing could happen under a democracy, such as Nigeria is supposed to be. I shudder to think that the cover-up of such an event of epic proportions can be true.
“The men and women of our armed forces are our first, second and last defence against our domestic and foreign enemies and should be treated with love, respect, dignity and appreciation for the invaluable service they render to Nigeria.
“I cannot fathom that in the space of a year, 1,000 of these great patriots were killed and buried secretly without their families being told. I hesitate to believe that deceit on such a grand scale is even possible,” he said.
He called for the setting up of a judicial panel of inquiry to determine the veracity or otherwise of the report.
“To ensure that we get to the bottom of this matter, I urge that a Judicial Commission of Inquiry headed by a non-partisan and reputable jurist, be inaugurated to investigate the findings of the Wall Street Journal. While this is occurring, I also strongly urge that a panel of inquiry comprising distinguished former military officers be set up to investigate and report to Nigerians the true state of the war on terror and what must be done to ensure Nigeria brings a speedy end to the ongoing insurgency,” he stated.
He said Nigeria must ensure prudent use of finances so it could redistribute national resources in such a way that the military and security forces would be well catered for.
“Even the death of one soldier affects me. But the alleged cover-up of the deaths of one thousand soldiers is a national emergency that should shock all statesmen and leaders of thoughts into action to save Nigeria,” Atiku added.
Publication Created Sacrilegious Impression, Says DHQ
But in a swift reaction the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) debunked the WSJ report, saying the publication created a sacrilegious impression in contrast to time-tested military tradition of according honourable burial rights to fallen soldiers.
DHQ also denied the existence of such secret graves.
A statement by Acting Director, Defence Information (DDI), Col. Onyema Nwachukwu, said: “The Defence Headquarters has noted with dismay an Online Article by “Wall Street Journal” purporting that the Nigerian military maintains secret graveyards in the North-east theatre of operation. This insinuation can only emanate from an uninformed position of the author of the said publication.
“It therefore becomes necessary to inform the public that the Armed Forces of Nigeria has a rich and solemn tradition for the interment of our fallen heroes. Therefore, it must be unambiguously clarified that the Armed Forces of Nigeria does not indulge in secret burials, as it is sacrilegious and a profanity to extant ethos and traditions of the Nigerian military.”
According to the Defence Headquarters, in accordance with military tradition, fallen heroes are duly honoured and given befitting funeral of international standard.
“The cemetery described in the publication, which is situated in Maimalari Military Cantonment, is an officially designated military cemetery for the Armed Forces of Nigeria in the North-east theatre, with a cenotaph erected in honour of our fallen heroes.
“The official cemetery has played host to several national and international dignitaries, where wreaths were laid in honour of the fallen heroes. It is therefore a far cry from the sacrilegious impression being painted by “Wall Street Journal,” the statement added.
47 Terrorists, 25 MNJTF Troops Killed in Clash Near Lake Chad
Meanwhile, fierce clashes between a regional force, Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and IS-affiliated fighters, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Borno State have left 25 soldiers and at least 47 jihadists dead, two military sources and a militia leader said Thursday.
ISWAP launched a dawn attack on Monday against a base near the town of Baga on Lake Chad, setting off fierce gun battles that killed 20 Nigerian and five Chadian troops, the sources said.
“The terrorists killed 20 Nigerian troops and five Chadian soldiers in the intense fight in which soldiers killed 47 of the terrorists,” a military officer said.
The head of a local anti-jihadist militia confirmed the military death toll and put ISWAP losses at “more than 40.”
In a statement on Monday, the MNJTF said 10 jihadists and a soldier were killed at the base while five troops were injured.
The MNJTF is a five-nation anti-military force headquartered in the Chadian capital N’djamena, comprising troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin set up to fight jihadists in the Lake Chad region.
The military is known to downplay its losses in the fight against the jihadists.
The sources said that the jihadist raid on the base was repelled and the fleeing fighters were then met by a convoy of Special Forces bringing supplies from the regional capital Maiduguri.
“They ran into Special Forces who had been alerted by the troops in the base and more of the terrorists were killed in a brief encounter,” a second military officer said.
ISWAP on Wednesday claimed that it had killed 15 soldiers in clashes near Baga.