As the world focused on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, a massive atrocity was unfolding in Nigeria. On January 3, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram attacked the northern town of Baga and surrounding areas. Over the next several days, hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians were killed. Fleeing residents were chased into the bush and shot dead, others reportedly drowning in Lake Chad as they tried to swim away. Scores of homes were burned to the ground, and bodies were strewn in the streets. Estimates of the death toll range from around 500 to up to 2,000. Some 30,000 people were also displaced. Amnesty International says the assault on Baga could be the deadliest of the Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency. The group has waged relentless violence in a bid to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. We are joined by Adotei Akwei, managing director of government relations for Amnesty International USA.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: As the world focused on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, a massive atrocity was unfolding in Nigeria. On January 3rd, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram attacked the northern town of Baga and surrounding areas. Over the next several days, hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians were killed. Fleeing residents were chased into the bush and shot dead, others reportedly drowning in Lake Chad as they tried to swim away. Scores of homes were burned to the ground, and bodies were strewn in the streets. Estimates of the dead range from around 500 to up to 2,000. Some 30,000 people were also displaced.
AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International says the assault on Baga could be the deadliest of the Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency.
For more, we’re joined by Adotei Akwei, managing director of government relations for Amnesty International USA, joining us from Washington.
Adotei, thank you for joining us. Talk about what you understand at this point has taken place in Nigeria.
ADOTEI AKWEI: Thank you for having me. As Aaron said, there was a major offensive by Boko Haram about two weekends ago. They overran the Nigerian forces, who ran out of supplies and basically started to flee. And Boko Haram, after consolidating control over the town, the village of Baga, began to systematically execute people, first executing all potential male fighters that could oppose them, but then beginning a rather indiscriminate slaughter of the elderly and of people who could not flee. And to this day, we do not have access to Baga, because it’s too dangerous. The Nigerian forces have not tried to retake the town. And all we’re—we’re just trying to piece together information about how bad the killings were.
AMY GOODMAN: The Nigerian military responded to the Baga massacre by appealing for international support. In a statement, a government spokesperson suggested the attack should end critics of the army’s own alleged abuses, saying, quote, “The attack … should convince well-meaning people all over the world that Boko Haram is the evil all must collaborate to end, rather than vilifying those working to check them.” Adotei Akwei, this appears to be a message to groups like Amnesty International who have accused the military of war crimes during its fight against Boko Haram and other armed groups.
ADOTEI AKWEI: That’s absolutely correct. The Nigerian armed forces, as well as the administration, have had a very consistent line of demanding or requesting assistance on their terms. Amnesty International has documented at least 5,000 people who have been killed by the Nigerian security forces. We’ve also had reports last—we issued a report last fall about detention where torture was basically the modus operandi, and there have been no investigations and certainly no accountability. This has been the major impediment for assistance from the United States to the Nigerian military. And so, it is rather stunning, or rather disappointing, but still stunning, that the Nigerian military is basically making the argument that the slaughter by Boko Haram is bad enough that it doesn’t matter what methods they use, which of course leaves the Nigerian civilian population at increased risk.
AMY GOODMAN: Why the disparity in the number of people that are believed dead? The Nigerian government itself is saying like 150, 160 people. You’re saying you believe 2,000 people were killed last week.
ADOTEI AKWEI: That is correct. And again, we’re working with people who are providing information, you know, and, of course, accurate, precise numbers will take some time to get to. But the Nigerian government has, first, initially downplayed the Boko Haram threat by underreporting numbers. Then they have almost—they’ve also denied actual events have taken place, and they’ve also claimed certain counteroffensives that have never been proven to have actually occurred. So, I think we’re dealing with an administration and with security forces that are determined to control the narrative and the information, and I think that that’s a disservice to the Nigerian people.
AARON MATÉ: Adotei, what accounts for the Nigerian military’s inability to stop these attacks? The Council on Foreign Relations says over 10,000 killed by the Boko Haram last year. It’s been almost a year since over 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped, spawning the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign. Most of them have not been found. Why have they been so incapable to do anything in the north?
ADOTEI AKWEI: There are a number of reasons. The first that almost everyone agrees on is that corruption has basically weakened the capacity of the military to operate. When Boko Haram seized Baga two weekends ago, the military ran out of ammunition, and then they had to flee. And that was a similar situation in other attacks on villages. So, there’s a capacity issue, which the Nigerian military acknowledges, but does not actually reveal the extent of which. The second, I think, is the morale issue.
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
ADOTEI AKWEI: Sure. The morale issue, I think, is reflective of some disquiet with the hard-line response that targets males in the region as if they were Boko Haram supporters until they prove themselves innocent. And I think the third is just a question of the actual tactics.
AMY GOODMAN: Adotei, we have to leave it there, Adotei Akwei with Amnesty International. Of course, we’ll continue to cover this issue.