A sweeping and independent investigation by Nigeria’s human rights commision is underway into last week’s deaths in Baga community of Borno state where several residents were killed in a deadly confrontation between government troops and members of the extremist sect, Boko Haram.
Although a government establishment, the National Human Rights Commission, headed by Chidi Odinkalu, has a special autonomy to conduct independent probes into crimes as it deems necessary, and if needed, establish a commission of inquiry, fully independent of the government.
Mr. Odinkalu said on Monday the commission was reaching to its wide powers to unlock the truth behind a series of conflicting details of how many civilians were killed in the bloody battle in Baga, a scene of what many widely called a massacre that has alarmed the world and has put the federal government’s crackdown on the deadly sect on the spotlight.
“In order to understand what happened, it is necessary to undertake an independent and credible assessment of the situation in the affected locations,” Mr. Odinkalu, a renowned human rights activist and academic , said in a statement late Monday. “As an independent and statutory national institution for the protection of human rights, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has a responsibility to undertake this assessment.”
Baga residents say they buried 185 people, killed mainly in an inferno set off by the soldiers who were trying to clear the community of insurgents. Some residents said the attack was the highpoint of a longstanding hatred of the community by the military Joint Task Force, which accused the locals of shielding insurgents who hide behind women and children to attack government forces.
They also claim thousand of houses were torched.
After visiting the community, on the shoreline of Lake Chad, more than 400 kilometers from Maiduguri, the state capital, Governor Kashim Shettima said more than 100 people were killed.
Maina Lawan, the senator representing the area, gave the most troubling figures of the casualties, claiming he counted 228 victims buried in mass graves and 4000 burnt homes.
But the military, which deployed a high-powered team from Abuja last week, maintained its earlier position that the figures were grossly exaggerated, a position backed by President Goodluck Jonathan.
By Monday, the National Emergency Management Commission said survivors, without homes, were still in the bushes.
The Human Rights Commission said its team will visit Baga and other communities affected by similar violence in the north east, and will monitor and undertake an assessment of the wider humanitarian situation in the region.
“As an independent institution, the NHRC must act with fairness, rigour and professionalism and we are committed to doing so,” the commission said.
The announcement came after reports of a similar massacre in another community in the state named Bama. At least 17 people were killed on Monday in the town after extremists allegedly attacked a police patrol van killing five personnel, the commanding military officer of Bama barracks, A. G. Laka, said.
A reinforced government force stormed the sect’s hideout killing at least 10. One soldier died in the attack, according to the version of the story narrated by the JTF.
It is not known yet whether civilians were killed in the shootout, as the authorities are notorious for playing down casualties or covering them up entirely.
A PREMIUM TIMES reporter saw hundreds of houses and commercial buildings burnt.
The Human Rights Commission requested those with information about the crises to volunteer same to its staff and office in Abuja. It said it remained in touch with relevant international and regional institutions and will keep all apprised of the progress and findings of its investigations.