I begin with paying tributes to those who lost their lives in the conflict in Baga, Borno State recently. We pray for the survivors, the injured and the traumatized among the residents and among our security forces; we hope that Borno State and Nigeria in general will become a better place for us all to live and to die of old age. Nigeria will be better – that’s an idea to die for.

Recently news broke that an international force drawn from Nigeria, Niger Republic and Chad and led by the Nigerian Army was engaged in a fierce battle with armed persons suspected to be members of the Boko Haram in Baga, a town in the troubled Borno State in North-Eastern Nigeria. The pictures coming online showed nothing but devastation: bodies being loaded into trucks, more bloodied bodies on the streets, houses and cars burnt and destroyed; 1 report even claimed that 40% of Baga town had been burnt down. It will take much time and many words to accurately describe what happened in Baga – but we already know that it was a ‘totally unacceptable’ “massacre” according to the Senate. In addition, the Senate is of the view that we cannot “have this large number of death at anytime”. But how much really is “this large number”?

After following the news for days, one thing is very clear – at least to me: we still don’t know how many Nigerians died in Baga. This is disturbing – I mean our inability as a nation to know how many had perished and exactly which ones among us – this is the problem I call The Mathematics of Death. I should clarify that this is not the first time this acute counting disorder is coming up to haunt us. Back in March 2010 there was what has been called the ‘Dogo Nahawa Massacre’ – unknown persons attacked the villages of Dogo Nahawa, Zot, and Ratsat in Jos South Local Government Area of Plateau State. When Nigeria woke up to the reports of that carnage; there was also a huge disagreement between Governor Jonah Jang and the STF commanded by the army in Plateau State. The fulcrum of the debate then was actually “how many people died” in the ‘massacre’ – 3 years on, I still don’t know, do you? There were many reports saying 500 people were killed – but 67 people are known to have been buried in the mass grave (let the reader be confused).

From Baga, reports credited to the Secretary of the State Government (SSG) of Borno State claim that as many as 200 people died in the carnage. Following a visit to the affected area, Senator Maina Lawal who represents the area revealed that “the actual death toll in the clash between soldiers and Boko Haram is 228, while over 4000 houses were also burnt down”. Red Cross had received reports that 187 persons were killed; according to the BBC, Lawan Kole, a local official reports that “185 people – including civilians, members of the security forces and attackers – had been buried”. There is no agreement among these figures, but they agree that over 100 people had been killed. On the other hand, Doyin Okupe, the presidential spokesman gave a figure of 31 – “25 insurgents and 6 civilians” killed. The Nigerian Army reports a casualty figure of 37; “30 members of the Boko Haram Islamist group, one soldier and six civilians” – whose report shall we believe? Question: how could members of Boko Haram be identified when they are dead and thus distinguished from civilians?

Amidst these data war, we are told that “the Secretary to Borno State Government, Ambassador Baba Ahmed Jidda, must be held responsible for the high figure being carried by the media on the incident”. Jidda was “apparently saddened by the development which occurred in his hometown, dished out an outrageous figure without due consultations with security agencies”.

But, really, what is it that is needed to accurately count the dead?  One would think that this is a lot easier than counting the living – which is a very difficult thing to do in Nigeria. Also, it is amazing that there is so little known about the injured survivors from the Baga conflict: are local hospitals coping? Do they have enough doctors and medication? Is there a risk of public health emergencies? Where are the displaced people? I think it is important in this preoccupation with the dead that we do not lose sight of the living.

In counting and reporting deaths especially from a conflict, we must not make light of the circumstance under which our neighbours died. It must be with all sense of responsibility that bodies or graves are counted and reports issued. According to Okupe, the Borno State SSG should be held accountable for “the high figure being carried by the media on the incident”. I agree; no one should name a figure that has not been verified to the point where one feels safe to cite them and is able to prove them. In a conflict situation as in Baga, there is need to sift through the rubble and retrieve bodies and survivors into a safe environment where accurate records would be made and correct reports issued. If it is true that 40% of the city had been burned; then figures of casualties coming only hours after the battle would definitely fail in the credibility test.

On the other hand; is it safer to take a smaller figure like Okupe’s report of only 31 deaths? That depends. If the security forces completed a search of the affected areas and only verified the existence of 31 bodies then by all means they will report nothing other than 31. But allowance must be made for bodies that might have already been buried; it will not do to record 31 casualties if in fact the figure was higher. Now that the Senate has set up an investigation into the incidence, I hope that the committee will have a chat with all those who were in position to name figures of casualties in order to come up with an accurate figure of how many citizens were lost in this conflict.

There is no way that both extremes of the casualty figures from Baga can be right; so is it 31 or 228 people who died? If anyone deliberately exaggerated casualty figures, then they seem to suggest that not enough persons had actually been killed. On the other hand, if anyone deliberately minimized casualty figures, then they do not only disregard the sad circumstances under which fellow citizens had died, but also deny their very existence – if you deny that I am alive then obviously you cannot acknowledge when I am gone. The least that could be done to help the bereaved in their sorrow is to acknowledge their loss – it is in this way that memorials are often erected with names of victims engraved. The citizenship rights of the dead still demands accountability and justice; think about this as you ask your neighbour “how many died in Baga?”

Mathematics is not a hobby for many Nigerians – we prefer reality shows on TV. Check examination results from JAMB, WAEC and NECO and you get a sense of what I mean. I know it is generally hard to come up with unchallenged figures in Nigeria; far too many have been hurt by statistics that they don’t want to learn to trust again. You could look into unemployment figures, population figures, voting numbers, volume of petroleum consumption, amount expended on “subsidy” and so on to get a sense of the data war going on in Nigeria. Clearly there is an acute counting-disorder (ACD) syndrome that must be dealt with fast. We must learn to count in transparent and verifiable ways such that no matter how many times a count is repeated; the same result is replicated. Yes we are many, but still we are finite and as citizens, all that we have got is each other. Citizens (living or dead) are far too important to be used as abacus for our mathematics lessons. So I ask again: how many and which Nigerians died in Baga?


Daniel Nengak

Daniel Nengak

Nengak Daniel Gondyi is presently a post-graduate student in International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmö Högskola in Sweden. He is also a Senior Programme Officer of the Abuja based Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD. He holds a Bachelors’ in International Studies from the Ahmadu Bello University. Read his full profile here.

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Rotimi Olawale, co-founder of is a youth development expert. For more than six years he has been involved in leading youth advocacy efforts mainly around the Millennium Development Goals. In 2006, he represented Nigeria as a youth ambassador at the United Nations Global Youth Leadership Summit held at the UN Headquarters in New York. Rotimi has held several global leadership positions including; member, UNFPA Global Youth Advisory Panel for 2 years; member, African Youth Panel. Rotimi is currently involved in shaping local, national and global policies to benefit youth and also leverage opportunities for young people. He was listed by the Nigerian government as one of 15 Nigerian youth on the world stage in 2008.