Nigeria’s Countless Casualties

The Politics of Counting Boko Haram’s Victims

A sign marking an unidentified grave in Freetown, Sierra Leone, December 17, 2014.

On January 8, reports began filtering out of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria that the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram had attacked the fishing village of Baga, torching buildings and massacring somewhere between 150 and around 2,000 people. Although the discrepancy between a couple hundred and a couple thousand dead in Baga is significant, it is anything but unusual. A lack of agreement on measuring the human costs of conflict is an endemic feature of modern warfare. Conflicting incentives to either minimize or maximize the perception of a rising threat are particularly acute in the lead-up to the country’s nationwide elections. The vote, which was originally scheduled for February 14, has now been postponed to March 28, by which time the Nigerian government ambitiously claims it will have crushed the insurgency and destroyed all of Boko Haram’s training camps, an assertion that the opposition has dismissed as fanciful.

Counting the dead during ongoing violence is, as a rule, a difficult and often risky endeavor. Fatalities frequently occur in dangerous and inaccessible terrain, among hostile parties, and under chaotic conditions; Borno state is no exception. The attacks took place in an area of the country under the control of Boko Haram, which has prevented the media and other organizations from investigating the number of deaths. In many areas controlled by the insurgents, there is currently limited to no mobile phone and Internet connectivity, making satellite pictures the only source of visual information. Although such images are useful for confirming the scale and scope of destruction, they are much less effective with respect to verifying or repudiating claims about death tolls, since the absence of people in any given image can mean that they are either dead or have fled.

Institutional limitations also add to the difficulty in getting accurate data. For example, in many parts of the world, especially in weak and fragile states, death toll data gathering apparatuses, such as morgues, hospitals, and law-enforcement entities, may be internally inept, externally obstructed, structurally inadequate, or

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