Murder by the numbers: Assessing the credibility of the Baga death toll

On 8 January, reports emanating from Nigeria’s north eastern Borno state indicated that militants of the suspected Boko Haram Islamist sect had launched an attacked Baga, a small fishing village located in the Kukawa Local Government Area. The 7 January attack was the second of its kind to occur in Baga, coming less than four days after insurgents overran a Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) base situated on the outskirts of the town.

Speaking to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), local government officials claimed that as many as 2,000 people had been killed in the most recent raid. Local estimates of the Baga death toll was provided further substance on 9 January when Amnesty International’s Nigeria Analyst, Daniel Ayre suggested that hundreds, if not thousands, had been killed in Boko Haram attack on Baga. In a press statement issued by international human rights watch dog, Eyre noted “The attack on Baga and surrounding towns, looks as if it could be Boko Haram’s deadliest act in a catalogue of increasingly heinous attacks carried out by the group.”

If confirmed as being definitive, Eyre’s assertion that the Baga attack Boko Haram’s deadliest act of mass violence would be subject to little contestation. Highlighting this point, data provided by the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), suggests that in excess of 10,000 people have been killed as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency and concomitant counterinsurgency operations conducted by the Nigerian military since 2003. If the casualty numbers of the Baga offensive is to be believed, Boko Haram would in a single attack have accounted for as much as 20 percent of the total number of casualties it has amassed over the extent of its decade-long insurgency.

But is it credible to believe that Boko Haram had indeed killed as many as 2,000 people in a single act of mass violence?

The first reports of the Baga massacre was published by the BBC on 8 January when the British media service claimed that the Islamist extremist sect had launched a renewed offensive on the village less than 24 hours earlier. Suggestions that as many as 2,000 people were killed in the Baga raid appeared to be ostensibly based on claims made by Kukawa government official, Musa Buka. The official, who was not present in the town at the time of insurgent raid, based his estimates on eyewitness accounts of residents who had fled Baga at the time that it was razed. Those providing testimony had further asserted that they could not return to bury the dead due a pronounced militant presence in the region.  It thus became apparent that the casualty figures had not been subject to any independent or empirical verification. Instead, the death count was seemingly based on the accounts of emotionally and physically distressed civilians who had escaped the carnage.

The chronology of the recent armed raids in Baga may also undermine the credence of the delineated casualty figures. By all accounts, the initial Boko Haram raid on Baga occurred on the morning of 3 January and was seemingly centered on the MNJTF base located on the outskirts of the settlement. It stands to reason that the offensive on military installation, which included the use of semi-automatic rifles and various explosive ordnances, could have provided forewarning to the Baga community of an impending Boko Haram attack. This may have provided a window of opportunity for many of the town’s residents to flee the immediate area.

The hypothesis that Baga residents may have been privy to an impending incursion is ostensibly supported by reports released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The humanitarian organization confirmed on 9 January that it had received an estimated 7,300 Nigerian refugees in western Chad who had fled Baga and its immediate surrounds since 31 December 2014. The information provided by the UNHRC is elucidating in the sense that it noted large population movements from Baga and the wider Kukawa Local Government Area both prior and during the insurgent incursion in the region. This somewhat undermines implicit assumptions that a large proportion of Baga residents were not aware, and subsequently were unable to evade, the terrorist attack.

The relative population density of Baga town is another factor which raises concerns regarding the credibility of the death toll. According to local officials, it is suggested that the settlement had a population of around 10,000 residents; however, it remains unclear as to whether this number was representative of the town’s population at the time it was attacked. This information is intrinsic in determining the credence of the 2,000 fatality death toll.

It is important to note that the recent Boko Haram offensive was not the first of its kind to target Baga. In April 2013, as many as 200 people were killed in the town following a Boko Haram attack and reciprocal counteroffensive launched by the Nigerian army. It is alleged that the Nigerian military had employed a scorched-earth policy approach in their attempts to retake the Baga, consequently  displacing thousands of residents who had fled to neighbouring Chad.  Further Boko Haram attacks were also reported in Baga on 15 August 2014 when suspected Boko Haram members abducted as many as 100 adolescent males from the town.   In a more recent attack, Boko Haram was suspected to have killed as many as 48 people during an overnight attack on Baga on the evening of 22/23 November 2014.

The April 2013 massacre, in addition to the intermittent Boko Haram attacks in the region, would undoubtedly have led to a significant population displacement in Baga and its immediate surrounds. Thus, if the town’s population of 10,000 was based on figures garnered during Nigeria’s last census in 2006, it would stand to reason that this number would have been considerably lower at the time the settlement was attacked in January 2015 — thus nullifying suggestions that the high death toll in the town was reflective of its relative population density. Nevertheless, even if the population of Baga was 10,000 at the time that it was attacked, Boko Haram would have had to employ significant resources in terms of both manpower and equipment to be able to systematically execute as much as a fifth of the town’s total population.

There have also been suggestions that the quoted death toll of 2,000 may not be specific to Baga alone but rather a cumulative figure derived from a spate of Boko Haram attacks which occurred between 3 and 7 January. According to local reports, as many as 16 villages in the Kukawa local government area came under attack by the Islamist extremist sect over this period. Among those targeted included the settlements of Doron-Baga, Mile 4, Mile 3, Kauyen Kuros and Bunduram. But while a cumulative casualty count does provide greater credence to the demarcated death toll of 2,000, this proposition is also open to contention. Most notably, casualty reporting in multiple locales would be subject to same aforementioned quantification constraints and would similarly be leveraged off unverifiable eyewitness accounts.

It is without doubt that a significant number of people had been slain by Boko Haram in Baga and surrounding areas between 3 and 7 January. Whether this figure had indeed amounted to 2,000 will be difficult, if not impossible, to independently verify. As with the majority of Boko Haram attacks in north eastern Nigeria, a dearth of independent reporting and oversight has rendered the progression of the insurgency as murky and shadowy as the very group perpetrating the violence. It is due to this very information blackout that we should be considered when accepting reportage which appears to be more rooted in sensationalism than fact.

By punting uncorroborated and likely inflated casualty figures, we run the credible risk of quantifying human suffering in a manner which could discourage much-needed international awareness of the Boko Haram conflict. Death tolls which do not tally into the thousands may no longer draw headlines.  Nor will such reports likely evoke the condemnation which accompanied initial reports of Baga and its dead. Instead, Nigerians will continue to die by the scores awaiting help from a world which will only care when they are dying by the thousands.

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