ABUJA, NIGERIA— After pitched fighting between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces left many people dead last weekend, there are new questions about who was responsible - and the possibility of quieting the militant group with diplomacy.
At first people thought it was a Boko Haram attack that killed nearly 200 people in the northern fishing town of Baga. As details emerge, however, analysts say the carnage could be part of a different pattern - one that is equally or possibly even more destructive than the Boko Haram insurgency.
University of Abuja Institute for Anti-Corruption Studies Director Kabir Mato said Boko Haram insurgents may have attacked the security forces, and indeed one soldier was reported killed. In retaliation, he said, the security forces likely burned down homes and killed civilians. He said this chain of events has become so common in Nigeria; it is almost “normal.”
“The militants that are responsible for this lawlessness of killing soldiers will disappear into thin air. The victims of the military carnage are usually the innocent, unarmed, law-abiding civilians,” said Mato.
After the fight, security forces said dozens were killed and Boko Haram, a militant group that advocates for a Taliban-like version of Islamic law was hiding out in the town, using civilians as human shields.
In a report this week that echoes reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, though, the United States government said indiscriminate killings and detentions by security forces are a “serious human-rights problem” in Nigeria.
U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, Terence P. McCulley spoke by phone. "Security forces, in attempting to contain this deadly insurgency, are going beyond and committing acts of violence against innocent civilians and damaging property. We have reports of extra-judicial killings. We have reports of deaths and detentions,” he said.
McCulley said the Nigerian military is in a tight spot fighting Boko Haram, a shadowy group that, without uniforms, cannot be readily be distinguished from the general population and appears to be growing stronger.
“Certainly we are seeing an escalation and increasing sophistication. Increasingly as well in the last few months, the targeting of Westerners,” he said.
Mounting death toll
Human Rights Watch says 3,000 people have been killed in Boko Haram related violence, including killings by security forces.
This week, President Goodluck Jonathan introduced a committee to investigate diplomatic ways of ending the insurgency, such as peace talks or offering amnesty to militants in exchange for turning in their weapons.
McCulley said when the government offered amnesty - meaning small salaries and job training in exchange for weapons - in the Niger Delta in 2009, it did make the region more peaceful. But he cautioned that the two conflicts are very different.
A political science lecturer at the University of Abuja, Abubakar Umar Kari, said amnesty or peace talks may not be successful because Boko Haram is not one entity.
“My worry is that the Boko Haram thing has become a franchise, a franchise for all sorts of groups now. It is possible to have an understanding, an agreement with the mainstream of Boko Haram. But there are several criminal elements that are hiding behind this Boko Haram phenomenon to do all sorts of criminalities,” said Kari.
Kari said amnesty is “a long shot” and that part of the reason Boko Haram violence is escalating is because security forces are alienating local populations.
Nigerian security forces repeatedly have denied accusations of human rights abuses, and Jonathan said the accusations are politically motivated and incorrect.