Monday, 13 February 2012

Budum community, Maiduguri Nigerian Army use ARSON as a weapon of war! By Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri


By Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri

Pandemonium, fear, anxiety and bloodshed characterized the Joint Task Force’s (JTF’s) manhunt for members of the Boko Haram sect in Budum community, Maiduguri on Sunday night, February 12, 2012. There are deep concerns that the human rights of local residents may have been threatened or violated in the course of JTF’s anti-insurgency operations.

The first call came in at 9.15 p.m. The Hausa accent was too thick, and I could hardly comprehend the information being conveyed to me. But from the tone of the messenger, there was trouble. Few minutes later, another call came in from a local contact that calls me regularly. Fear, apprehension was clearly evident in his entire narrative. Without the regular exchange of pleasantries, he informed about the heavy presence of soldiers in their community, and some buildings were allegedly being burnt with occupants inside. The caller hung up immediately, giving me no time to interrogate his claims.

Almost immediately, another call came through. “I am very afraid. Villagers and young men are trooping to my house to hide. Deafening gunshots have caused residents, especially our women and children to scamper for safety. Soldiers are moving from house-to-house looking for our men, and burning down some houses. Please come to our help”. That was the local Imam that lives beside a small mosque in Budum community, near the Shehu of Borno’s palace. The news left me speechless and confused for several minutes.

I was jolted back to consciousness by two subsequent calls from unfamiliar numbers and callers. I always pick my calls as long as its work related. Somebody must have spread my number round urging people to call me. Then, the 5th caller or so came through, this time around a woman. I could hear the screams of children in the background. I could hear several voices and jostling feet as though people were running. That call came in exactly at 10.01 p.m. That particular call hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew right then that it wasn’t a hoax.

Based on my firsthand understanding of JTF’S combat engagement strategy, any area used by the sect to perpetrate their operations is designated as a military target. “Persons who allow their surroundings or frontage to be used by the Boko Haram sect to attack people or security agencies would be considered as collaborators, and will be treated as criminals,” JTF told SERAC last year. During a similar July 2011 reprisal attack by soldiers in Budum community, in Maiduguri, the JTF conducted a house-to-house search specifically in search of men. The unlucky one that were found were shot dead right in front of their homes. Could that be the reason why the men escaped at the sight of the soldiers?

First off, I sent text messages to some senior members of the Joint Task Force in Maiduguri. I began to call everyone I knew that had some influence and access to the people “above”, including my contacts and colleagues in the local media, Amnesty International, United Nations and other international organizations. Lucky enough, I was able to speak with the JTF authorities exactly at 10.05 p.m. They confirmed the incident, explaining that some of their men had been attacked and killed by the Boko Haram sect hiding among residents within Budum community in Maiduguri. Two soldiers were allegedly, severely wounded and hospitalized. “Yes, we have launched a house-to-house search, but we are observing the rules of engagement. We are rescuing the women and children first….But they must produce their husbands. We are looking for the men”, said JTF.

For me, the JTF’s statement was a corroboration of the community narratives, or at least, it helped to fill in the blank spaces. At about 1.00 a.m., I got additional information about the chaos in Budum community. I learnt that few hours earlier, Boko Haram members had embarked on a beheading spree, with about 9 victims matcheted to death. Also, some soldiers were allegedly killed and wounded during a bloody counter-attack operation that left additional people dead and severely wounded. The JTF had to launch a house-to-house search to fish out the assailants and rescue some of their men. From the various narratives of the residents, the JTF, and private citizens, it is easy to deduce an extremely violent reprisal attack had taken place. The number of casualties remains unknown but it hovers between 12 and 15.
Something strange happened at about 1.30 p.m: the telephone lines of all the community contacts that I had been communicating regularly with all went dead. They were suddenly switched off. All of them! Up till this time, I have been unable to speak with local community leaders and residents. All desperate attempts to confirm their whereabouts and state of health have been futile. Based on the findings of the July 2011 fact-finding mission to Maiduguri, there are ample reasons to doubt that capacity of security operatives to undertake anti-insurgency operations in ways that minimize risks to civilians.

The Social and Economic Rights Actin Center (SERAC) conducted a fact-finding mission to Maiduguri between July 24-27, 2011 to gain first-hand information into the root causes of the Boko Haram insurgency. As stated in the mission report, the ‘The Killing Fields of Maiduguri”, the Nigerian Government must take urgent and concrete measures towards reviewing and re-directing the operational methods, processes and procedures of the Joint Task Force to be in tune with the democratic environment and attributes of the rule of law, due process and respect for human rights. When the state fails to prevent systematic denials or violations of citizen’s right, and paying due regard to the special needs of women and children especially in periods of emergency, this failure is a fundamental human rights violation.

Absolute mistrust, suspicion, and fear characterize the relationship between the security operatives and the local populations, undermining intelligence undertakings that would lead to the definite identification and extirpation of the sect’s members and activities. Areas lived by the poor are often criminalized and labeled as Boko Haram hideouts to justify the extreme security surveillance and violent incursions by soldiers. Often, these incursions are accompanied by severe violence, with victims on many occasions arrested, detained and in some cases, killed.
Based on the sentiments shared by several persons interviewed in Budum Community in July last year, SERAC found that the greater the force employed by the JTF in the areas designated as military targets, the greater the sympathy those affected communities have for the Boko Haram sect, to the extent that majority of them are hesitant or outrightly unwilling to provide information to the police on the hideouts and activities of the sect members.

While acknowledging the bravery and commitment of the JTF soldiers toward stamping out vicious elements behind the violence, insecurity and fundamentalism witnessed in the northern part of the country, concrete steps must be taken to integrate respect for human rights into their engagement strategies, peacekeeping and peace-building efforts. Most importantly, strengthening respect for human rights is a critical step towards the re-establishment of a climate of peace in the region.