Displaced residents of Baga, a border community in Borno State recently taken over by the Boko Haram insurgents, said the Nigerian government is lying in the claims that the town has been reclaimed by government troops.
According to multiple civilian sources, all IDPs from Baga, the insurgent are not only flying their flags in the commercial border town but are also controlling the movement of civilians in an out of the town.
But the military has described the report as another propaganda of the Boko Haram. It insisted that its troops are currently in charge of Baga.
PREMIUM TIMES on January 11 published a statement by the Nigeria Army spokesperson, Sani Usman, that government troops had reclaimed Baga. He said the troops gave the terrorists "a bloody nose" during a fierce fight to liberate the town. Mr Usman, a brigadier general, said two soldiers died as soldiers killed several members of Boko Haram.
But weeks after celebrating the military's reported liberation of Baga, residents just returning from the community said the insurgents had not moved an inch since they took over the town.
Most of them said the insurgents were not only in control of the town but also allow civilians to return and pick up their belongings without harming them. The sources who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said the insurgents had deployed their men to various exits of the town where they were screening anyone coming in or going to be sure they are not spies or allies of government forces.
"Not quite long ago today, some of our people from Baga just returned after going to get some of their personal effects and they were all allowed entry after the Boko Haram had searched them", said Baba Inuwa, a displaced vegetable farmer.
"As far as Baga is concerned, it is still the Boko Haram that is in charge; and it is them that would grant us permission to enter the town and pick our luggage and then rerun to Monguno or Maiduguri."
Mr Inuwa said the soldiers who are based in their brigade camp at a place called Mile-4 have not gone into Baga town as claimed. He also said returnee IDPs used footpaths through the desert to get to Baga where they were screened by Boko Haram gunmen.
Another resident, Abba Mustapha, said it was not true that Baga was reclaimed by Nigerian soldiers.
"The place that was attacked in Baga on that fateful Wednesday was a place called Mile-4, that is where the military brigade is located. It was overrun by the insurgents and many soldiers fled. So when the soldiers mobilised for a counter-offensive days later, they were only able to reclaim the brigade, but Baga is still in the hands of Boko Haram as at today."
Modu Muhammed, a trader, recalled that the attack on Baga started at about 5 p.m on a Wednesday in January when they heard shooting. He said such shootings had become a common occurrence to them because the soldiers routinely fire heavy equipment in the evenings.
"So we didn't take it seriously when we heard the shootings until when, suddenly, we saw soldiers running. When we tried to find out what went wrong, some of them told us Boko Haram had taken over the brigade.
"That was how we closed our shops and houses and ran to the outskirts of the town to pass the night, thinking things would subside so that we could return home.
"At the outskirts of the town on Thursday morning, we saw more people, including the soldiers, running out that the Boko Haram gunmen had invaded the town. That was how the soldiers guarding the outskirts parapet too abandoned their posts and joined us in fleeing.
"We left Baga at about 11 a.m and spent the night on the way fleeing and arrived Monguno, which is 75km away, at about 12 p.m. It was from Monguno that we finally boarded a vehicle to Maiduguri. Some days later, we heard in the news that Baga has been recaptured from the Boko Haram.
"But even before we started fleeing, the Boko Haram gunmen kept telling us that they were not there to harm us but to fight the soldiers and anyone whom they suspect is an agent of the government or the soldiers. Hence they said anyone that is willing to stay can stay and if we don't want to stay, they said we can pick our things and leave the town.
"Most of us chose to leave because we have had unpleasant experiences with them about four years ago when they attacked Baga. Nobody will stay where there is no government representation in place.
"And since that day till now, Boko Haram is still in Baga. Some of us heard from those that fled the town late that the Boko Haram people are not attacking the civilians as they promised. That was why we too decided to go back to get our belongings. We were allowed to go in and get some of our belongings after they had thoroughly frisked and searched us. They were behaving as if they are the government, while the soldiers at the Mile4 are still out there."
He said once the insurgents were convinced that a person was not a threat, they directed one of them to escort them to the house and supervise whatever they do or pick from the house and then accompany them back to the outskirts of the town where commercial trucks from Monguno are waiting in turns to pick passengers.
Mr Muhammed said a young man who had gone to get some of his belongings was not so lucky with the Boko Haram because they found an ID card of the Civilian-JTF with him.
"When they searched him and found the ID card of Civilian-JTF on him, they said he was one of their enemies, so they dragged him away," said Mr Muhammed.
Asked if the military in Baga were aware of movement in and out of the town, the resident said they were using a different earth route that links the town from the Monguno-Cross-Kauwa highway.
"The soldiers are in their brigade base in Mile-4 along the way to Baga coming from Kauwa, and we use the northeastern route, a footpath by the right-hand side before Kauwa; it leads straight to Baga," said Mr Muhammed.
A young woman and mother of two told PREMIUM TIMES that she spent three days on the way to Monguno.
"It took us three days to get to Monguno as we fled Baga after the insurgents came in and began to burn some of the houses that belong to politicians," said the woman who gave her name as Yagana.
"The gunmen told us that they would not harm us, that we should stay and do our normal business. But no one can trust them especially when we saw soldiers fleeing alongside we civilians.
"One of my brothers who joined other people to return to Baga helped me to bring some of my personal effects. He said he was not touched by the Boko Haram; they only searched him. When they saw his voters card, they told him 'you can go out there and vote for your sinful politicians but not here in Baga'.
Responding to PREMIUM TIMES inquest on this matter, the deputy director, Army Public Relations, Onyema Nwachukwu, said the claims of the Baga IDPs were not only false but propaganda of the Boko Haram aimed at winning public sympathy.
Mr Nwachukwu, an army colonel, insisted that Baga is under the full control of the Nigerian troops.
"Baga is firmly under control of troops of Operation LAFIYA DOLE who overpowered the insurgents in a fierce battle when the insurgents contested control over the town," said Mr Nwachukwu, who is the spokesman of the Lafiya Dole Theatre Command.
"Currently, there are ongoing follow up clearance operations in villages around Baga where troops are conducting offensives against the insurgents. Civilians have been urged to vacate to forestall preventable collateral damage.
"Boko Haram is not holding any territory, but hibernating in the Tumbus. Therefore insinuations that Baga is under control of the insurgents is outright propaganda by BHT. The public should discountenance such misinformation."