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Boston and Baga: A Telling Tale of Two Tragedies

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. In Boston, the capital city of the northeastern US state of Massachusetts, two terrorists murdered three inno...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In Boston, the capital city of the northeastern US state of Massachusetts, two terrorists murdered three innocent, unarmed marathoners and wounded several others. A few hours later, the FBI released surveillance pictures of the suspects and beseeched the American public to help identify them.

One of the terrorist suspects also shot a police officer dead. He was later killed in a gunfight with the police. 

Manhunt for the second suspect caused the entire city of Boston to be shut down. The state police tweeted that they “will be going door by door, street by street, in and around Watertown” (a suburb of Boston) until they found the at-large suspect. They told everyone to remain indoors and to never open their doors for anyone except uniformed police officers. A few hours after, the suspect was captured and the city cheered and roared back to life.

About the same time, in Baga, a small town in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, a Boko Haram terrorist allegedly killed a Nigerian military officer. Security officers demanded that residents of the town identify and turn in the terrorist. They couldn’t. In anger, the military cold-bloodedly butchered over 200 of them, severely injured hundreds more (most of whom were women and children), and burned down their homes and livestock.
Bodies of men massacred by JTF

Even with the wildest stretch of the imagination, it is difficult to imagine a contrast more strikingly telling than that between the clinical, sophisticated, and humane policing by American security forces in the face of a violent terrorist provocation and the unimaginably homicidal brutality by Nigerian security forces against innocent, helpless, and unarmed civilians in a similar circumstance.

When I saw the bloodcurdling pictures of the lifeless bodies of Baga residents murdered by Nigerian security forces, I shed tears of sorrow and rage. As someone who was born and raised in a small town, I related personally to the tragedy. Those dead bodies strewn on the streets of Baga could easily be my townsfolk—or, in fact, my family members. I can’t even begin to imagine the grief the survivors of this tragedy must be undergoing now. It’s harder still to fathom why people who swore to protect us have become merciless, unconscionable mass killers of innocents.

When one of the several responders to my last article, which opposed amnesty for Boko Haram, wrote that people “prefer to live with Boko Haram terrorism than JTF’s extra judicial killings,” I was a little mystified. It didn’t make much sense to me. Now it does. While Boko Haram is an unequivocally abominable terrorist group whose raison d'être is to inflict death and misery, the military and the police who constitute the Joint Task Force (JTF) are supposed to be the guardians of the weak, the shield against Boko Haram’s terror. But when the protector inflicts more hurt and harm than the marauder, it is easy to see why the marauder would be seen as the lesser of two evils.

When several national and international NGOs, including the US State Department, said the Joint Task Force has killed more people than Boko Haram has since 2009, government officials renounced them. But the truth of this grim fact stares us in the face daily, the Baga massacre being the latest example.

Nigerian security forces, especially the Nigerian military and police, appear to be nurtured on a steady diet of murderous contempt for the civilian population.  It’s as if they are preprogrammed to wipe out entire populations without the slenderest tinge of moral compunction whenever one of their members is killed. It happened in Odi, Zaki Biam, Nassarawa State University, and many other places. Their valor comes forth only in encounters with poor, defenseless civilians. In sane societies, security forces don’t visit the sins of one person on entire communities.

The difference between the nature of the response of American and Nigerian security forces to fairly the same set of circumstances partly explains why the police and the military are looked at differently in both countries. In America, police and military officers are revered; in Nigeria they are reviled. Americans feel safe when they see their police and military officers; Nigerians quake in their boots when they see theirs.

I recall an incident in 2005 that drives home this point. My American friend and I took a road trip to Florida from Louisiana. It was during Hurricane Katrina, which caused severe petrol shortages that led to long lines at filling stations. As we journeyed, we realized that our truck had almost completely run out of petrol. So we decided to fill our tank before proceeding. But every petrol station we went to had impossibly long lines. We were in danger of missing our appointment, and we were mightily frustrated.

Then my American friend turned to me and said, “Farooq, I think I’m going to have to use my military ID to get us gas.” I had no idea that he served in the US military. He was a graduate student like me. I told him he couldn’t pull it off. People were angry and frustrated because they had been waiting in line for hours on end (something Nigerians have become accustomed to), and I thought they would never allow anyone to get ahead of them unfairly. In fact, we had been told that someone’s head had been blown off a few hours earlier at a petrol station when he attempted to jump the queue.

But when my friend went to the petrol station manager’s office and presented his ID card, he was told to bring his car and fill it. And he had no military uniform and no gun. People in line were told that my friend was a military officer who needed to be somewhere urgently. I thought there would be a massive resistance. There wasn’t. Instead, there was a deafening chorus of “thank you for your service to our country.” I, too, vicariously bathed in the shower of praises for my friend.

That is earned respect. A Nigerian military officer in a similar situation in Nigeria would never be allowed to jump the queue without dire consequences—unless he wore his uniform and had guns.

The fight against terrorism in Nigeria will be ineffective if does not entail a radical overhaul of the attitude of security forces toward civilian populations. The Baga tragedy must not only be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice; it must never be allowed to occur again. No one deserves to live in dread of both terrorists and government security forces.

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