President Goodluck Jonathan has offered the federal government’s assistance to Borno State to rebuild Baga, a border town in the state in which between 36 and 190 people were killed in a gun duel between troops of the Multinational Task Force (MTF) and Boko Haram insurgents penultimate weekend.
A presidency source confided in THISDAY at the weekend that the presidential offer was one of the decisions reached during a closed-door meeting held at the State House, Abuja, on Friday between Jonathan and Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima.
Although the agenda of the meeting was not made public, it was learnt that the governor came to Abuja to update the president on the incident in Baga, where the displaced residents were still trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after the orgy of killings and destruction in their town.
As the controversy over the actual death toll in the incident rages, a fact-finding team constituted by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Admiral Ola Sa'ad Ibrahim, to ascertain the exact casualty figures, has presented its findings in which it said contrary to reports and allegations by some northern leaders, no mass grave was found after two days of searching in the town.
But the Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF) yesterday faulted the military high command’s account of the incident and made a case for the redeployment of the MTF commander as well as the withdrawal of the multinational troops.
However, a Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), has urged the federal government to direct the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate the Baga massacre and all cases of extra-judicial killings in the course of the anti-terror war to avoid government officials being reported to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for conspiracy and crimes against humanity.
THISDAY learnt that Shettima was at the State House on Friday to brief the president on the destruction of lives and property in Baga and seek the assistance of the federal government in re-settling victims.
He also sought financial assistance from the federal government so that the state could upgrade its intervention in the beleaguered area, which has become the enclave of the insurgents since 2009.
Shettima, it was gathered, outlined the security challenges the state was facing and ended his presentation with the situation in Baga, which he said would require the federal government’s assistance to rehabilitate the residents.
The presidency source said: “President Jonathan acquiesced to the request of the governor whom he had taken a liking to after his visit to Borno and Yobe a couple of weeks back.
“The president agreed to do everything possible to rebuild Baga town and also give the state some financial leverage to enhance its security operations against the Boko Haram insurgency.”
Shettima, who attended the meeting with the president with an unidentified aide, declined comments when State House correspondents approached him after the meeting.
Dismissing the high death toll reported in the media, the fact-finding team constituted by the CDS, after a three-day visit to the town, said there was no evidence of mass graves to justify the high death toll.
The Defence Headquarters (DHQ), in a statement yesterday by the Director of Defence Information (DDI), Brig-Gen. Chris Olukolade, said contrary to reports and allegations from some northern leaders, no mass grave was found after two days of search.
It said the team, which was led by the Defence Chief of Training and Operations, Major-Gen Lawrence Ngubane, interacted with the commander, officers and troops of the MTF as well as some community leaders, the police, aid workers and residents of the town with a view to getting their accounts of the incident.
It explained that the team also went round the town interviewing those who participated or witnessed the encounter between the terrorist group and the troops in a bid to ascertain the casualty figure and the conduct of the troops.
“In its particular concern to ascertain the claims of massive loss of lives, the team was taken to cemeteries in the town as it tried to locate where the reported large number of civilian casualties were buried.
“It however found no mass grave after nearly two days of search,” it added.
The statement, quoting the report by the team, said: “The district head of Baga, Alhaji Babagana Zanna, who was accompanied by the (immediate past) Kukawa Local Government Area chairman, Alhaji Lawal Kone, while responding to enquiries from the fact-finding team, told the members that he had not received any report of mass burial in his domain.
“Kone, who was earlier quoted to have given some figures, said he was not in the town during the incident and as such he did not know the number of civilians who died in the incident.
“Earlier, MTF Commander, Brig-Gene Austin Edokpayi, who briefed the team on how the operation was conducted, said the situation in the town had stabilised until the arrival of some politicians and government officials who addressed the community, making a series of allegations, which raised fresh tensions.
“He added that they were the ones behind the campaign of the high death toll, which was being levelled to discredit the military.
"Edokpayi had explained that the operation was only targeted at stopping Boko Haram terrorists who had established a pattern of burning buildings and property as a mode of operation in the area.
“He had cited instances of how the terrorists used arson as a terror tool in communities such as Duguri, Metele and Kangarwa where they operated recently.
“Edokpayi also briefed the team on details of the casualties recorded during the encounter, stating that some civilians who were wounded were treated at the task force medical facility and were subsequently discharged."
But faulting the military's account of the Baga incident, the northern elders queried the rationale for involving troops from foreign countries in the anti-terror campaign and demanded the redeployment of the troops’ commander.
Their spokesman, Professor Ango Abdullahi, expressing concern over the involvement of foreign troops in fighting terror in Nigeria, explained that it would be dangerous for Nigeria to align with any country that appears to nurse a phobia for Islam.
Abdullahi, who had spoken in Bauchi last week, was reacting to a statement credited to the military authorities that the Baga incident that led to the killings of civilians was conducted in conjunction with troops from Nigeria, Niger and Chad.
He said people were suspicious that Nigeria was going into another multilateral agreement with other countries on the security situation in the country, querying in what forum, agency or level of discussion was the decision taken for military troops from Niger and Chad to fire guns at Nigerians.
He had expressed dismay that the Borno military commandant was involved in the operation in which about 200 Nigerians were killed and thousands of houses razed.
He recalled that some months ago, the commandant at the Jaji Military Cantonment, Major General M.D. Isa, was not only posted out of Jaji but retired for what was then described as his lapses in the Jaji bomb explosion.
Also reacting to the Baga incident, Falana, in a statement at the weekend, urged the federal government to order the human rights commission to probe the death and destruction in the town and other extra-judicial killings in the course of the anti-terror war.
He said this was necessary so that the ICC would not add the Baga case to the list of extra-judicial killings in Nigeria being probed by the commission.
According to him, the ICC special prosecutor had previously confirmed that the commission was investigating allegations of rampart extra-judicial killings in Nigeria by security forces.
He said the investigation was confirmed by the ICC Special Prosecutor, Mrs. Fatou Bensouda, in an interview published in the August/September 2012 edition of the New African Magazine when she said: “The OTP is currently conducting preliminary examinations in a number of situations, including Afghanistan, Georgia, Guinea, Columbia, Honduras, Korea and Nigeria.”
Falana explained that the ongoing inquiry was sequel to a petition he had lodged with the special prosecutor two years ago on behalf of the Socio-Economic and Accountability Project (SERAP).
Falana urged the federal government to show the world that it does not condone extra-judicial killings by ordering a probe into the Baga incident to avoid a situation whereby some highly-placed public officers and security personnel are reported to the ICC for conspiracy and crimes against humanity.