US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, at the State Department in Washington, yesterday expressed concern at the abuse of human rights and extra-judicial killings that have accompanied the fight to stop Boko Haram.
Kerry spoke against the backdrop of the widespread condemnations that have trailed the report that about 190 people were killed last week in a gun duel between the Islamic militants and troops of the Multinational Task Force (MTF) in Baga, Borno State.
The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) also called for a probe into the allegations that foreign troops were involved in the killings at Baga, where military chiefs visited yesterday in a bid by the government to determine the death toll in the incident that has been put at between 36 and 190 by the MTF and other sources.
To stem the tide of the humanitarian crisis caused by the Baga clash, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the Nigeria Red Cross have set up camps in the community to assist in the resettlement of the residents.
However, amid the calls for a probe into the Baga killings, the House of Representatives also Thursday passed a resolution asking the federal government to construct a perimeter fence across Nigeria's borders with neighbouring countries in a bid to tackle the growing insecurity in the country occasioned by terrorist attacks by Boko Haram.
The House passed the resolution on a day security agencies accused gunmen suspected to be members of Boko Haram of killing no fewer than 11 persons, including six policemen, in attacks on two towns in Borno and Yobe States.
According to a statement from the Nigerian Embassy in the US, Kerry, during his meeting with Ashiru, harped on the need for Nigeria to ensure that civilian population and innocent neighbours of Boko Haram members are not made to suffer bodily injuries, loss of lives and property in the anti-terror war.
He also expressed hope that the 2015 elections for which preparations are already being made, would be a remarkable improvement on those of 2011.
He expressed concern at the recent pardon granted some former high profile convicts and also urged that democratic and human rights protection institutions are strengthened through constant upholding of the rule of law.
Ashiru, in his remarks, assured Kerry that Nigeria was taking adequate steps to protect the civilian population in the terror-prone north.
He added that the government was making efforts to open up areas for economic development and generating employment, especially in northern Nigeria, as a long term strategy to eradicate the susceptibility of the population to easy recruitment into Boko Haram.
“He (Ashiru) reiterated Nigeria’s commitment to democracy, human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, consultation as a means of preventing and resolving conflicts and thereby ensuring peace and stability in the global hemisphere,” the statement said.
Defending the pardon granted some ex-convicts, he explained that it would not reduce Nigeria's commitment to the anti-corruption fight, giving the assurance that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) would continue to prosecute all those involved in oil subsidy scandals and other forms of corruption.
Other matters discussed at the meeting included Nigeria's bid to diversify its economy and reduce the reliance on oil, as well as Mali.
Both parties agreed to hold outstanding meetings of the Bi-National Commission, which remains an effective framework for implementing the strategic global and regional objectives of both countries.
As criticisms continued to trail the Baga killings, ACN has urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to probe the alleged massacre of civilians.
It also called on the National Assembly to investigate how troops from foreign countries became part of the task force now battling the insurgents in the north.
The party said the killing of people, mostly women and children, in Baga might constitute crimes against humanity for which the attention of the ICC would be needed, especially because the federal government was either unwilling or unable to prosecute those involved.
In a statement yesterday by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the party said beyond the call for the judicial commission of inquiry into the Baga massacre, leaders under whose watch the killings were perpetrated should be held to account.
Reacting to the ACN’s statement, the presidency last night wondered why the party must “play politics with everything.”
In a statement by the president’s Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, Dr. Rueben Abati, the presidency said: “Reducing the Baga incident to another opportunity for name-calling and the politics of blame and abuse is irresponsible to say the least.
“In no manner can President Goodluck Jonathan be accused of having incited the security agencies or the insurgents against the people of Baga during his visit to Yobe and Borno States. To make such an allegation is preposterous and insulting.”
Abati warned that for promoters of the aphorism that a lie when reported too often may begin to sound like the truth, they must begin to realise that they cannot fool the people all the time.
He stated that the president had ordered an investigation into the incident in Baga and has publicly condemned it, “including clear assurances that whoever is found behind the incident will be sanctioned accordingly, and where rules of engagement have been violated, appropriate cause of action will be taken.”
Abati further expressed surprise that the ACN spokesman was ignorant of the MTF that was set up under the auspices of the Lake Chad Basin Commission to ensure security along the joint borders, involving Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroun.
“He could simply have done a little research to know this. Having failed to do so, I recommend that simple exercise to him now and always, as a reality check before he makes his usual wild and incorrect allegations,” he said.
As part of efforts to unravel how many people were killed in Baga, top officials of the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) yesterday visited the town to start an on-the-spot assessment of the situation.
The leader of the team, who is also the Chief of Training and Operations, DHQ, Major-General Lawrence Ngubani, while on a courtesy call on Borno State Governor, Alhaji Kashim Shettima, said the committee was mandated to find out the veracity or otherwise of the casualty figures as widely reported by the local and international media.
According to Ngubani, the committee was constituted at the instance of the Chief of Defence Staff, (CDS), Admiral Ola Sa’ad Ibrahim, due to the global outcry that greeted the incident.
The military chief added that the latest preliminary assessment proved that the casualty figures being reported were far from the truth, and were actually exaggerated.
“The assessment team visited Baga town and had audience with the victims and other relevant persons. We visited two separate graveyards where the victims were purportedly buried.
“What we saw was extremely below what was reported. However, we are not undermining the death of a single Nigerian, in fact it is a great loss to the nation,” he added.
Shettima regretted the Baga killings, saying the number of the victims should not be of great concern now since the deed had been done.
“The time for who to be blamed for the incident should not be an issue for now, rather we should all concentrate on how best to restore peace and normalcy,” he said.
But the death toll from Boko Haram attacks in the North-east, which has become the epicentre of terror activities, rose further yesterday as gunmen linked to the Islamic militants killed no fewer than 11 persons, including six policemen, in two attacks on Gashua, Yobe State and Bama in Borno State.
A statement from the Joint Task Force (JTF) in Damaturu said the Islamic militants, in the wee hours of yesterday, attacked JTF location in Gashua town, the Police Area Command and Gashua Divisional Police Station.
But JTF spokesman, Lt. Eli Lazarus, said troops deployed in the town were able to repel the attack, adding that two police officers were killed in the attack, while five of the suspected terrorists also lost their lives.
He said some of the suspected terrorists escaped in two vehicles with injuries, while others are believed to still be in the town.
He explained that security agents recovered a Toyota Corolla car, a Peugeot 406 saloon car, an Isuzu van, one AK47 rifle, a police riot gun, a locally-made pistol, a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), a generating set and a large quantity of ammunition.
Following the attack, the Yobe State Government has imposed a curfew from 7 am to 1 pm on Gashua town to allow security agents comb the area for the terrorists.
Boko Haram members were also suspected of being behind the attack on Bama in which four policemen were killed while several houses were torched.
Security sources and residents of the town said the attack led to many residents fleeing the town.
It was also gathered that the gunmen attempted to kill the divisional police officer (DPO) of the town who was lucky to escape with bullet injuries.
Sources told journalists that several houses around the police divisional headquarters in the town were torched during the shootout between the gunmen and security forces.
A civil servant in Maiduguri, who identified himself as Muhammed Ali, and whose family lives in Bama, said he received a distress call from his wife that their house had been torched.
A top security source, who pleaded anonymity, confirmed the killing of two
policemen but declined comments on possible civilian casualties.
The Police Public Relations Officer, Gideon Jubrin, who also confirmed the attack on the town, also failed to disclose the number of casualties.
Meanwhile, NEMA and the Nigeria Red Cross have set up camps in Baga for those displaced by the attack on the town, during which about 10,000 people are said to have lost their homes and livelihoods.
As part of steps to reduce the sufferings of the people, NEMA has also started the distribution of relief materials to them.
Materials distributed included food items, mats, cloths and toiletries while those who needed medical attention were treated.
Also thursday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution asking the federal government to construct a perimeter fence across the nation’s borders with neighbouring countries as a way of checking the insecurity in the country.
It mandated its Committee on Interior to liaise with the Ministry of Interior and the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) to explore the possibility of constructing the fence to properly demarcate the borders and check the indiscriminate influx of illegal aliens, whom security agencies have identified as recruits of the terrorist group into the country.
The House, after considering a motion sponsored by Hon. Hassan Saleh (PDP/Benue) in which the lawmaker drew the attention of the parliament to the porous nature of Nigerian borders with other countries, proposed that the fence should be equipped with sensors and cameras to track illegal migrants.
This, the lawmakers added, would help NIS have proper statistics of persons going in and out of the country.