Boko Haram And Military Atrocities By Minabere Ibelema
The photos are grim. Dead bodies — all men to the extent one can determine — arranged like sardines on the ground. According to reports being circulated internationally by Amnesty International and the Associated Press, they are casualties of the Nigerian military’s campaign against the Boko Haram.
What is disturbing about the reports, however, is not that the terrorists are taking considerable casualties. It is that too high a proportion of the dead are civilians who are presumed to be Boko Haram combatants.
Exactly how Amnesty International and the Associated Press could tell who is truly a civilian is not clear. After all, Boko Haram is a shadowy group, whose members reside even with Nigerian government officials.
Even then the allegation that the Nigerian military are not being sufficiently discriminating has a ring of credibility. For evidence, I can go back to the grim days of the civil war and draw from the experience of my two older brothers.
They were arrested early in the civil war, following federal troops’ amphibious takeover of Bonny.Both in their late teens, they were presumed to be Biafran soldiers, which they weren’t.
They had no incriminating evidence on them: no military gadgets or paraphernalia, no smell of gunpowder. The only “evidence” is that they had shoe marks on their ankles, the logic being that only soldiers wore shoes.
And for that they were brutally pummelled with rifle butts to the head and all over. It took the intervention of chiefs who testified as to their identity to get them released after several days of detention.
The older of the two brothers, who apparently got the worse of the battery, never fully recovered in physical and mental acuity.
Unlike the BokoHaram insurgency, the civil war was a conventional war that openly pitched two armies. If two innocent young men could be mistaken for rebel soldiers in that context, how much more in the context of BokoHaram’s terrorist warfare?
It could be argued that Nigerian soldiers today are much more enlightened. But a war is a war, and it tends to bring out the worst in those who fight it.
This is even more so when soldiers have to deal with a group that is as shadowy, lethal and brutal as BokoHaram.They have repeatedly massacred worshippers and schoolchildren and inflicted significant casualty on the military themselves.
Whenever any group metes out that scope of violence, the understandable tendency is to hit them hard even if that means considerable collateral damage and casualties. That’s why the United States continues to rain down missiles from drones wherever terrorist groups are known to operate.
Whether they are Pakistani villages or Afghan or Yemen enclaves, if they have al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives, the drones would hit them. In most of such attacks, civilians — including the wives and children of the targeted terrorists — are killed.Protests by the governments of these countries and human rights groups have hardly deterred the U.S. military.
Yet, besides the moral issue of killing innocent people, civilian casualties have repercussions. They place the violence of the military at par with the violence of the terrorists. And they create resentment against the military and government and turn vengeful survivors into terrorists themselves.
In effect, the most lethal means of stopping terrorist groups may ultimately aid them. On the one hand, this is a dilemma for which there is no ready solution. On the other hand, it is a dilemma that can’t be ignored.
After years of opting to err on the side of a maximum military solution, the United States has lately begun to reconsider. The drones still drop their lethal ware, but not as frequently. Apparently, the policy now is to wait for the most opportune moments in order to save innocent lives.
President Barack Obama, of course, has his particular reasons for the aggressive pursuit of terrorists. With opponents who treat his national healthcare plan as if it were a nuclear bomb hurtling toward the United States, Obama knows too well that any major attack on the United States would get his political foes claiming that he is too weak a president to protect them.
President Goodluck Jonathan, as well as the Nigerian military, faces a similar dilemma. Every instance of a Boko Haram attack brings hollering anew about his weakness and the military’s ineffectualness.
Even the very human rights groups who have castigated the Nigerian military for indiscriminate killings in the war againstBoko Haram also criticise them for not doing enough to contain the group.
After Nigeria was elected to the United Nations Security Council, for instance, Philippe Bolopion, the director of the U.N.’s Human Rights Watch, criticised Nigeria’s human rights record. Nigeria “should lead by example and end chronic impunity for abuses by its security forces as well as protect civilians from Boko Haram’s horrific violence.”
Bolopion didn’t say what more the Nigerian government should do to protect civilians from Boko Haram. Perhaps, it should place a platoon of soldiers with armoured tanks at every school, church, offices and all places people gather. But then that would raise another set of human rights problems, wouldn’t it?
When confronted with a dilemma or an intractable problem, the Ibani, of Rivers State, are wont to say that there is no shortcut to crossing an ocean. It is a saying that is sadly applicable to the challenge of dealing with Boko Haram.
Another equally applicable Ibani saying (this time in the native language) is, “O kelekelemengi ye, wanama be kuabe.” Translation: it is by cautiously approaching an animal that one has the best chance of apprehending it.
It’s quite significant in this regard that civilians in the North are beginning to rise up against Boko Haram. A few days after the Associated Press’s and Amnesty International’s reports on Nigeria’s military atrocities, the New York Times carried the headline, “Vigilantes Defeat Boko Haram in its Nigerian Base.”
“Boko Haram has been pushed out of Maiduguri largely because of the efforts of a network of youthful informer-vigilantes fed up with the routine violence and ideology of the insurgents they grew up with,” the Times reported last Monday.
The Times is, perhaps, unduly optimistic in the headline. But if Boko Haram is ever going to be contained, the revulsion of the grassroots in the group’s areas of operation is critical.
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