The fishing community of Baga, Borno state, was under siege by militants of Boko Haram, for a week at the beginning of January. Amnesty International described the ensuing bloodbath as the “deadliest massacre” by the sect, estimating that some 2,000 persons were killed. President Jonathan, who condemned the “dastardly terrorist attack” against Charlie Hebdon cartoonists within hours of the tragic event in Paris, did not say a word about this tragedy.
Baga and its environs have become ghost towns in the aftermath of the assault. The Prime Minister of Chad said that 2,500 Nigerians and 500 Chadians fleeing from Baga have sought refuge in the country. Subsequently Boko Haram fighters launched attacks into Chad but were repelled.
The response of the Federal Government and its cronies has been offensively insensitive. It started with lies and denials. For a week, the Defence Headquarters said it could not confirm the number of casualties. Subsequently, the army spokesperson stated that the total number of people killed in the bloodbath, including soldiers was “just” 150. He then attempted to wipe the slate of blood of the soldiers from 2013, with the current massacre. According to him, this “confirms” that insurgents, and not soldiers, were responsible for the 2013 massacre, which the army previously denied ever happening.
This is the second massacre in Baga. On April 16, 2013, Boko Haram fighters killed a soldier during a shootout in the town which had to a great extent come under the sect’s control by 2012. The soldiers reinforced, returning en masse with armoured personnel carriers. Survivors reported that for several days, they shot indiscriminately and torched all houses in sight. The town was then locked down, with journalists and activists denied access to verify what actually happened.
The army claimed then that “only” 6 civilians were killed, while soldiers killed 30 Boko Haram militants. It also denied that houses were razed to the ground. But satellite images showed that over 2,000 houses were burnt down. Verifiable evidence also confirmed that not less than 200 civilians were killed.
The 2013 Baga massacre set the stage for the declaration of a state of emergency in the three north eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, a few weeks later. But the spate of carnage in the north east (and other parts of the north) only worsened. More people have been killed in the past 20 months than those killed in the four years preceding emergency rule. By August 2012, Boko Haram declared Gwoza a caliphate, seizing swathes of territory in the north-east. The sect now controls 70% of the landmass of Borno
A military solution appears utopian, not the least because of collaboration between sections of the ruling class and the sect. The low morale of ill-equipped and underpaid rank and file soldiers also contributes to the cul-de-sac of this option. Instead of addressing their legitimate fears which have led to desertions and protests, the state has sentenced 87 soldiers to death, for mutiny. The question for working people, particularly those trapped in the warzone of the north-east remains, “what is to be done?”
The Civilian JTF (CJTF) gives an idea of the answer. The state (governments, army and other security agencies) cannot be relied upon to salvage the situation. On the contrary, it is part of the problem, utilising institutional terror against non-militant residents and the Boko Haram Jihadists alike. The security services have killed as many of the nearly 20,000 people who have lost their lives in the war as has Boko Haram, according to credible reports from both local and international NGOs.
The CJTF’s armed resistance has to a very great extent routed Boko Haram from Maiduguri. Similar groups have played central roles in pitched battles which reclaimed some of the towns that had been seized by the sect. But the CJTF is just a shadow of the armed independent self-activity of the working masses required in the region, for two related reasons.
First is its class composition. It is made up largely of unemployed lumpen area youths. Second is its relationship with the state. While it was formed independently in April 2013, its name would suggest some sense of affiliation to the state’s Joint Task Force which has now been disbanded and replaced with the army’s 7th Division. The CJTF’s leadership presently reports to the General Officer Commanding the 7th Division. Quite contentious is the employment of CJTF militants by state governments’ agencies, such as the Borno State Youth Empowerment Scheme (BOYES).
The missing link is leadership by the organised working class. The trade unions need to be more actively involved in the resistance. There are legitimate fears by union leaders at both state council and shop floor levels that this could make working class activists targets of the sect. But already, hundreds of union members are known to have been killed. Several unionists have taken commendable actions in the ongoing multifaceted struggle.
We must not give up. With our collective power, we can change the dynamics of the war in that region. The trade union leadership nationally needs to take decisive steps, not only to inspire working class activists in the region, but because the tragedy of war in the north east is a tragedy for the working people as a whole. An injury to one is definitely an injury to all.
Apart from condemnation of the different attacks by Boko Haram and support for military action against it on several occasions, the trade unions do not appear to have a robust position on the war, and the tasks for the working class nationally and in the zone in combating the twin terrorisms of Boko Haram and the Nigerian state. The forthcoming national delegates’ conference of the Nigeria Labour Congress presents an opportunity to address these issues.
We cannot allow the Baga massacre to end up as just another statistic. The bosses are too concerned with their election campaigns to be much bothered by the massacre, as President Jonathan’s silence loudly tells us. Working class and civil society activists and other well-meaning citizens, in Nigeria and beyond the shores of this land must lend their voices, limbs and heads to defeating the twin terrors gripping the poor masses in the north east. We must stand up now, against the pillage and plunder, murders and massacres, for #we are all Baga.