The recent fall of the town of Baga, north-eastern Nigeria, to Boko Haram is one of the militant group’s most serious assaults against the Nigerian state. The consequences are severe: it claims heavy civilian and military tolls, delivers a big blow to the Nigerian authorities and worsens regional insecurity.
Just how deadly the attack was, though, remains the subject of confusion.
Some reports, quoting a government official, had earlier suggested that an estimated 2,000 lives were lost as the result of the assault – but other reports, quoting a local traditional ruler, lowered the death figure to the hundreds.
Both accounts give horrifying pictures of what happened. A government official in the area, Musa Alhaji Bukar, was reported by the BBC as saying about 2,000 people might have been killed. Baga town was now “virtually non-existent”, he said: “it has been burnt down”. Bukar, who was speaking from regional capital Maiduguri, said fleeing residents had told him that corpses littered the streets of the town as they had been unable to bury the dead.
However, in an interview with a Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust, Baga’s district head, Alhaji Baba Abba Hassan, gave a lower estimate of deaths.
“Of course, Baga is a big town and many people have been killed, but it is outrageous to say 2,000,” he said. “What I know is that hundreds of people, especially the old, children and women, have been killed by the insurgents.”
He said it was a well-coordinated attack by hundreds of insurgents from Nigeria and Chad. “Since the day of the attack, they did not move an inch; they are in Baga and they are going from house to house, searching for people and killing those that are not lucky.”
The capture of Baga is a strategic nightmare for both the Nigerian military and the neighbouring republics of Niger and Chad.
A major fishing town with a population of about 10,000, Baga is located along the shores of the Lake Chad, near Nigeria’s border with Chad and not too far away from Niger. It is also the military base of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), made up of Nigerian, Nigerien and Chadian troops. The task force was originally set up in 1998 to fight cross-border crime in the Lake Chad region, but its remit was recently expanded to tackle the Boko Haram crisis in the area.
Reports indicate that only the Nigerian troops were around when the Boko Haram fighters captured the town; Niger and Chad had apparently withdrawn their troops prior to the assault.
There was no comprehensive explanation as to why, but Niger’s foreign minister, Mohamed Bazoum, was quoted saying Niger decided to pull its troops out “after Boko Haram captured Malam-Fatori town in October and continued to operate in the area with impunity”. He warned that “unless the town is recaptured from them, we will not send back our troops”.
But he also asserted that “we are still determined to work with our neighbours Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria to contain the situation – it is a problem for us all”.
The massive assault on Baga follows a series of other attacks in which the militants swept through vast swathes of territory in north-eastern Nigeria since August 2014, when they switched from their initial tactics of “hit-and-run” to a “capture-and-retain” strategy.
They now control many towns and villages in three north eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. Senator Maina Maaji Lawan, a Nigerian lawmaker whose constituency is now virtually under the control of the militants, said Boko Haram controls 70% of Borno State.
The Nigerian military has had some successes against Boko Haram before, recapturing some towns – among them Gombi, Hong, Maiha and Mubi in Adamawa State – and blocking the group from carrying some major assaults on the Borno State capital Maiduguri on several occasions.
But such successes have been widely undermined when Boko Haram gained new territory. And in that vein, the capture of Baga is a major setback for an army that is increasingly losing its fighting edge.