Did Nigeria massacre innocents and call them 'Boko Haram'?

A killing of insurgents in northern Nigeria may have actually been a heinous attack on local young men merely rounded up and detained, according to a New York Times account. 

Local residents move around the streets as smoke rises from the nearby Giwa Military barracks following an alleged attack by suspected Islamist militants in Maiduguri, Nigeria, March, 14, 2014. Now, there is a report that the Nigerian military killed young men at the barracks and later announced it was an escape attempt by militants in custody.

A version of this post appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

On March 14, insurgents labeled “Boko Haram” attacked the Giwa Barracks, a major army facility in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri.

At the time, Nigerian military spokesmen said that a significant number of “Boko Haram” members were killed.

However, in a horrific article in the March 21 New York Times, Adam Nossiter reports that the victims of the killing spree outside the gates of the Giwa Barracks were young men who had previously been indiscriminately rounded up and detained in Giwa Barracks without charge. 

According to the Army story, “Boko Haram” allegedly managed to break into the heavily fortified military installation, release those imprisoned -- and then the attackers and the detained were killed as they fled. The military attacked with both aircraft and soldiers on the ground.

It should be noted that the military identifies the assailants as “Boko Haram,” but no spokesman for Boko Haram has claimed responsibility. It is also unclear how such a powerful facility could be breached so easily. 

Mr. Nossiter cites credible local non-governmental organizations who place the casualty numbers as high as one thousand. If that is correct, the March 14 death toll is the highest ever for a single day.

Nossiter also quotes the senator from Maiduguri, Ahmed Zanna: “When they [the detainees] went out of the barracks, that is when gunfire was opened on them. And that is how most of them died. Yes, they bombed the detainees.”

Nossiter also quotes the senator as saying “90 to 95 percent of the detainees were innocent people. They were just rounding up people. People were just rounded up and taken into custody.” He also said “they [the military] managed to eliminate those who were in detention. The whole episode is to kill the inmates. That’s all.”

In the past, Western media, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, has reported that the army detained large numbers of young men without charge at Giwa Barracks under horrific conditions. 

Because it is so difficult to tell who is “Boko Haram” and who is not, the military and security services appear to be highly indiscriminate in whom they arrest.

Such an atrocity as apparently took place at Giwa Barracks will undermine support for the Abuja government -- and perhaps for Nigeria’s so-called “democracy.” To me, it is noteworthy that Senator Zanna, likely an established member of the northern Nigerian establishment, has been so outspoken.

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