The Baga battle this time
Sadly, Baga in Borno State of Nigeria has since been made popular and entered into global reckoning by the activities of Boko Haram. Its most strategic feature is its location – on the shores of Lake Chad, a natural resource that binds Nigeria, Niger and Chad together, which is also consideredby the insurgents a jewel to be captured and controlled. In assessing the effectiveness of the operations of the agencies involved in the war against Boko Haram, it is important to take another look at the events recorded there, especially in January 2015 and, then, a couple of weeks ago. The two occurrences have a queer feature in common. They took place only weeks before the general elections of 2015 and, now, 2019. While one may not be able to draw more co-relationships between them, the official reactions and, consequently, military responses that followed each of the incidents, is worth examining.
Between January 3 and January 7, 2015, the world witnessed a gruesomely diminished Baga. The town’s aerial view shown on cable television left no one in doubt about the bloody viciousness of Boko Haram. A perturbed human family watched helplessly as it was treated to a cocktail of petrol bombings, mass killings and total destruction of livestock and property. Amnesty International called it the “deadliest massacre” in the history of the terrorists. A newspaper columnist lamented that people were being killed like insects. Mass media across the globe put figures of fatalities between 150 and 2000. Baga and 16 other towns and villages were razed. According to reports, 35,000 peoples were displaced; many of them got drowned while attempting to swim across Lake Chad; while others were caught on the surrounding islands. That huge move by the insurgents enabled them to extend their control over two-thirds of the entire Borno State.
As if not wanting to leave anyone in doubt about his resolve to continue on the path of infamy, the leader of the murderous group, Abubakar Shekau, in a video that quickly went viral, assumed responsibility for the carnage. The international community that was trying to make some sense out of the Chibok Girls trauma was now also faced with yet another evidence of a country in a seemingly unmanageable distress of unprecedented proportions. To compound the tragedy, the armed forces at the time went into denial, claiming that the losses were exaggerated by the media. They were evidently more concerned with their image than seeking remedies to the despondent situation.
Sadly, beyond those saddled with the duty of physically prosecuting the war, apathy appeared to be generally setting in at home. The then President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, did not help matters. Some days before the invasion of Baga, the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack took place in Paris. Curiously, however, during his campaign trip to Enugu, rather than dwelling on more pressing issues like the festering Baga bloodshed, Jonathan commented on what had happened in far-away France. That ‘Afghanistanism’ did not go unnoticed. It elicited damaging criticisms from all over the world. His credentials as commander-in-chief were brought to question. A nation was bleeding yet its leader, who incidentally was about to face the polls, was having difficulty in demonstrating commensurate sensitivity and responsiveness.
One unforgettable comment at the time came from Julius Malema, the fearless head of the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of South Africa: “Goodlook or Goodluck or whatever his name is, or bad-luck, I don’t know… He is quick to release a statement about the killings in Paris; but doesn’t say anything about the killings in his own country. That’s an irresponsible leadership.” Political watchers then attributed the official lukewarm attitude to Baga and many other aspects of the campaign against insurgency to the politics of re-election. It was believed in many quarters that the government was afraid of being thought weak or clueless if it accepted the severity of the moment and the wanton ruin of lives and property. Unfortunately, a lot went wrong in the course of downplaying those ferocious assaults – in terms of negative perception, lowering of morale and more defeats.
The incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, who was then the opposition flag-bearer, put the national pain and predicament succinctly thus: “Nigeria has become a place where people no longer feel safe, where the armed forces have neither the weapon nor the government support required to do an effective job of protecting Nigerian citizens and their property.” That was four years ago. And in a twist of fate, the same terrorists stormed Baga late December last year, forcing thousands of men, women and children to flee. The self-styled Islamic State of West Africa (ISWA) overran the naval base, sacking the multinational force stationed there. Many buildings that included homes of chiefs, politicians and community leaders were completely burnt down, not only in Baga but also in the neighbouring Doron Baga. Hospitals, clinics and schools were not spared. At the height of the short-lived conquest, more than 2000 troops were trapped and about 700 declared missing.
It could be argued that the military had learnt sufficiently from the missteps of 2015. But whichever way one views the swift retaking of Baga from the rampaging crusaders, much credit must go to the Nigerian government, military high command and the rank and file who seized the moment to bring hope to the long-suffering Nigerians. The feat by the Nigerian soldiers even assumes a greater meaning when one considers the fact that the defeat was that of the regional forces in the first place. We should not miss any opportunity to praise or commend result-yielding efforts of those responsible for the nation’s security at all levels.
While not playing politics with a disaster that predates the current administration, this is one area Buhari and his team liveup to their electoral promises. Although we cannot jubilate fully right now, those enemies of our beloved country are aware that they can no more slice any portion of Nigeria and go away freely with it as they used to do. More than ever, all neighbouring stakeholders, particularly Chad, should step up their collaborative support to rid this part of Africa of these deviant elements. The recent victory in Baga indicates that as difficult as it seems, absolute triumph is possible.
• Ebube, Public Affairs Analyst, wrote from Abuja
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