Friday, May 3, 2013


                                       Mr Chidi Odinkalu, Chairman NHRC

Dear Mr Chidi Odinkalu,

As the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC),  I feel more comfortable addressing this correspondence to you than, say, writing to President Goodluck Jonathan for example, who, to mind, is overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges facing this country to the extent that he needs our prayers for God’s guidance on what to do. I have a lot of respect for NHRC and what you are doing in partnership with other civil society organisations for the protection and advancement of human rights in Nigeria. Though the word ‘independent’ is not part of its name, I assume that, under your leadership, the NHRC, in exercising its mandate, is more independent than Jega’s INEC which oftentimes gives the impression of acting at the behest of the ruling party. Doubtless, NHRC and the honourable members of its Board will not betray the confidence reposed in them by assenting to the dictates of anybody in discharging their responsibilities.

You were quoted in the media recently expressing your concern ‘over the killing of over 200 civilians including women and children in Baga, Borno State,’ and also calling ‘for a quick and diligent investigation that will lead to an open and transparent trial of persons behind this avoidable loss of lives and property’. You said, ‘In order to understand what happened, it is necessary to undertake an independent and credible assessment of the situation in the affected locations.’ (LEADERSHIP of Wednesday, May 1, 2013)

This is commendable given the fact that NHRC is a government establishment and the Executive arm of that government is playing ostrich with the actual number of fatalities in the Baga massacre. A motion was raised in the upper legislative chambers of the National Assembly by Senator Maina Ma’aji Lawal in which he averred that ‘between one hundred and eighty and two hundred human lives were lost and numerous others unaccounted for…’  This Distinguished Senator who is from the area also said that he personally counted 220 graves apart from eight other graves he was told were not in the two cemeteries he visited.  A local government official who witnessed burial of bodies said, ‘anybody who says the number of the dead is not up to 300 is not a resident of Baga’.

The Presidential Spokesman Reuben Abati relying on a purported report by NEMA said that ‘they found only 32 fresh graves in Baga while the Defence HQ team said 30 insurgents were killed in action while six more bodies were later found 3 kilometres from the scene of the violence’. But NEMA officials were denied access into Baga until 8 days after the MNJTF ‘fired indiscriminately at civilians, killing hundreds and’ setting thousands of home ablaze.

According to Abati, the Defence Headquarters, in a submission to President Jonathan, stated that the Multinational Joint Task Force’s activities are legal and need to be sustained. There was this mention of mass graves by the Defence Headquarters that ‘some locals were asked if they could take the assessment team to the mass graves where 185 people were allegedly buried, but the people denied knowledge of such graves. The Chairman of Kukawa LGA was approached on the same issue, he also did not know of such graves.’ On item (f) of the report, the Defence Headquarters continued, that ‘The chairman had earlier informed the team that Muslims do not bury more than one body in a grave.’ This is their own manufacture in order to muddle the waters. No body mentioned any case of mass graves in Baga. And this Kukawa LGA chairman was either not contacted at all on this issue or he does not know that Islaam has provision for mass graves if need be. Islaam has stipulated conditions, dos and don’ts during mass grave burials. But in this Baga case there was no such thing. All bodies were buried individually and the Senator said he personally counted them one by one until he recorded 220. There were no mass graves, and nobody mentioned that but this contrived report by the Defence Headquarters!

By the way, if President Jonathan has ordered a probe of the incident and the report of that probe is not yet out, is it not crass prejudice for Abati to predetermine the results by announcing that the number of civilian lives lost was grossly inflated? What explains why the press is not allowed from access to the ‘scene of the crime’?

The Human Rights Watch (HRW), as reported by LEADERSHIP Thursday, 02 May 2013, in its report on Wednesday, 01 May, 2013, has argued that satellite images and witness accounts on the Baga incident ‘raised concerns of cover-up, as images reveal massive destruction of civilian property from a military raid on April 16 and 17, 2013, in the northern Nigerian town of Baga, undermining the military’s claim that only 30 houses were destroyed’. In the said report, HRW further stated that ‘During security raids in communities where attacks have occurred, the military has burned homes and summarily executed men in front of their families. The Nigerian authorities have also arrested thousands of people in raids across the north. Many of these people have been held incommunicado without charge or trial for months or even years. In some cases they have been detained in inhuman conditions, torture, or killed.

‘The Nigerian authorities have repeatedly denied allegations of security force abuses, labelling those who report such abuses as ‘Boko Haram sympathisers’.

Mr Chairman, residents in almost all the places that the JTF has operated have said that the troops invade civilian homes around 12 mid-night, ask for the whereabouts of the menfolk, and summarily kill any male from the age of 15 upwards. If a single empty can of any brand of soft drink like Coke or Maltina was found in such a raid, nobody will be spared in the household – they will all be mown down and the house set ablaze.

In some cases the entire male teenagers of a town were arrested and taken to the JTF camp in either Maiduguri or Damaturu. They are tortured and even killed; their parents would be coerced to sign an undertaking affirming that their wards were members Boko Haram, and pay N20, 000 to claim their bodies.

Many will remember how it took the efforts of Al- Jazeera television to show that the police killed the leader of the misguided sect, Mohammad Yusuf; and that they killed innocent people including the crippled in cold blood as part of the ‘fight against terror’ in Northern Nigeria. Are we having a repeat albeit more sinister and better executed version of that gruesome event?

I know that the unenlightened, the bigots (tribal and religious), the Islamophobes and hate mongers in our midst will immediately accuse yours truly of either being a sympathiser, sponsor or member of the deluded group called Boko Haram; that is to be expected. Afterall, why did I qualify them in such unendearing terms to begin with? What I do not expect is that those who know better should either be quiet because it is not their part of the country or covertly support the JTF for “giving it to those scoundrels”.

The actions of Boko Haram are haraam for any sane Muslim; and the leaders of Boko Haram do not appear or act sane. Their actions are evidence of their lack of understanding of Islam. Killing any innocent person is a most grievous crime in Islam; even in error. How can anyone then justify killing hundreds, nay, thousands of both Muslims and Christians who have done nothing but being in the neighbourhood of the roving madmen? Every time Boko Haram strikes, Islam is placed on trial and Muslims are seen as guilty until they can prove themselves to be innocent. In an age where truth is the first casualty at the outbreak of any conflict, it is an impossible task. More often than not, Muslims have to rely on right thinking, unbiased non-Muslims to defend them. Some people are not so intelligent as to isolate a crime from a religion.

The most amusing and saddest argument in support of the Baga massacre is that the people of Baga harboured the insurgents and so it was OK to kill them. The military also said Boko Haram men used civilians as human shields. If this is the case, movie lovers and those who know little about military laws would assume that the rule of engagement is to fire at the insurgents even in a dense civilian population. Two American movies; Collateral Damage and Rules of Engagement were used as propaganda tools to explain away high civilian casualty figures in Afghanistan and Iraq. It took Wikileaks to show the world the truth.

The reality is different; people were systematically dragged out of their homes and shot in cold blood. Witnesses recounted how the soldiers were saying aloud on the streets that they would treat the villagers like the insurgents since they could not bring them out. Yet the truth is that if the villagers dared to expose the criminals, they met their end at the hands of the terrorists. If they failed to mention where they hide, they were still executed by the MNJTF! This has been the dilemma of those living in these troubled spots and who have nowhere else to call home. In other parts of the sane world, witnesses are protected from harm but in Nigeria, you are on your own!

All this is apart from the fact that the frequent murder of innocent lives by the security forces has eroded any thoughts of cooperation from the minds of many of the inhabitants of the troubled spots. The world condemned the massacres at Odi and Zaki Biam during the Obasanjo years for the same reasons that some people are now applauding the MNJTF! What has changed is the tribe and religion of those at the receiving end. Imagine for once that Baga is your village and picture uncles and cousins and aunts and grandfathers wiped out because the military found insurgents in the area. You will not fail to see how terrible the crime is.

Mr Chairman, NHRC has autonomy to bring about an independent investigation into what actually happened in Baga. You have vowed to do just that, and Nigerians do not expect anything less from you.

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