Thousands of residents of Baga in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, remain displaced for fear of further clashes breaking out between radical Islamist group Boko Haram and troops from the Nigeria-Niger-Chad Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF). A reported 187 people died in the clashes on 16 and 17 April.
An estimated 2,275 homes were destroyed in fires, and a further 125 severely damaged, according to satellite images released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a 1 May statement.
“Our major worry now is finding where to stay and rebuild our homes before rain sets in. Many of us are now squatting with relations and friends here in Baga and in neighbouring towns and villages,” Ibrahim Buba told IRIN in the courtyard of his gutted four-bedroom mud house in the Pampon Gaja-Gaja neigbourhood.
Heavy fighting broke out in Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad, between MNJTF and Boko Haram (BH) on 16 April, causing fire to break out and sweep through the neighbourhoods of Pampon Gaja-Gaja, Fulatari and Budumari. The Nigerian Red Cross estimated 187 people died in the fire and fighting, but the military dispute these figures, insisting only 37 people, including 30 Islamists, six civilians and a soldier, were killed.
Many residents accused soldiers of burning their homes, while military forces disputed the accusations, blaming BH.
The area is a BH stronghold and military officials have accused Borno State residents of harbouring BH members. According to HRW, BH has killed numerous Borno State residents, creating a climate of fear in the area.
“I lost my all that I worked for in life including my house, two cars, two motorcycles, and a grinding machine which is my major source of income,” said 62-year-old Adamu Ciroma. “What preoccupies me is how to rebuild my house to shelter my family of 18.”
Maina Maaji Lawan, a Borno State senator, told IRIN there is not enough emergency shelter to house all the displaced. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has set up temporary shelter for just over 600 of the displaced, according to a recent statement.
Borno State governor Kashim Shettima has ordered that the destroyed houses be rebuilt, according to spokesperson Isa Umar Gusau.
Many still in hiding
Most Baga residents rely on fishing and farming for their income. “We don’t even have seeds to plant because the seeds we saved have been gobbled by fire,” local smallholder Ba’ana Sharif told IRIN, as he stood in the midst of his burnt granary. The rainy season begins in May and extends into September in Nigeria’s semi-arid northeastern region.
NEMA and the Red Cross arrived in Baga eight days after the fire because they had to wait for security clearance from the military which claimed the area was too dangerous for aid workers to enter, according to Nigerian Red Cross national coordinator Umar Mairiga.
Many residents are still in the bush having fled their burning homes: They fear a resumption of violence between BH and the military, residents and aid officials said.
"Many people are still in hiding. Part of our work there is to build confidence. We need to show people that what we have now in Baga is assistance, not any more attacks," said NEMA spokesman Manzo Ezekiel.
Resident Abdullahi Gumel told IRIN on 30 April that he found two residents in the bush suffering from burns and thirst. They both died within 24 hours.
Brig-Gen Austin Edokpayi, head of MNJTF, blamed the mass exodus of residents on “warnings from BH Islamists to leave the town, as the terrorists were planning reprisals against the military for the casualties they suffered at the hands of the multi-national troops.”
HRW called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to probe the events in Baga as part of a preliminary investigation the court launched in 2010 on the situation in Nigeria. The ICC has indicated that crimes committed by BH may constitute crimes against humanity.
On 23 April, President Goodluck Jonathan ordered a full-scale investigation into the events in Baga.