Turning a Blind Eye on Impunity in Nigeria

March 2, 2016

A student stands in a burnt classroom burnt by the Islamist group Boko Haram to keep children away from school in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, May 12, 2012. (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/GettyImages)
A student stands in a burnt classroom burnt by the Islamist group Boko Haram to keep children away from school in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, May 12, 2012. (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/GettyImages)

Last week’s announcement that the US plans to deploy military advisors to assist the Nigerian government fight Boko Haram and is considering restarting the training of an infantry battalion, despite the lack of investigation by Nigerian authorities in to possible war crimes and possible crimes against humanity by the Nigerian military should raise alarm bells. In the absence of concrete action to investigate possible atrocities the Obama administration risks giving its seal of approval to impunity.

While the armed group Boko Haram still poses a deadly threat to civilians in north-east Nigeria and the region, Amnesty International’s research clearly shows that the Nigerian military has committed mass violations, including crimes under international law. The United States must insist on a clear commitment to accountability and to safeguards against future violations before considering this sort of military assistance.

In a report released last year entitled Stars on their Shoulders, Blood on their Hands, Amnesty International documented the deaths of over 7,000 people in the custody of the Nigerian military as a result of starvation, dehydration, disease, overcrowding and suffocation since 2011, some as young as nine years old. The Nigerian military also extra-judicially executed at least 1,200 men and boys between 2012 and 2014. These people were killed after they had been captured and when they presented no danger, in violation of international humanitarian law (IHL). One of the most horrific mass extrajudicial executions by the military happened on 14 March 2014 in Maiduguri, Borno state. In the aftermath of a Boko Haram attack on the military detention facility at Giwa barracks during which detainees were released, the military killed at least 640 men and boys, most of them recaptured detainees. No-one has been held accountable for these killings.

Following the launch of Amnesty International’s report, Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, pledged to investigate these crimes. President Buhari also stated that the first task of the Attorney General would be to advise him on investigations.

Nine months later, no action has been taken to begin these investigations.

The failure to investigate or establish accountability is reinforcing a culture of impunity and contributing to ongoing human rights violations by the military. On 12-13 December 2015, the military reportedly killed hundreds of members of the Shi’a Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Zaria, Kaduna state. The group’s leader, Ibraheem Zakzaky, was arrested at his residence and remained in incommunicado detention at the end of the year. Hundreds of others were also arrested. The Kaduna State Government and the Nigerian Human Rights Commission have both begun investigations into this incident.

All states providing military equipment or training must ensure that all prospective units are stringently vetted to demonstrate that they can act consistently with full respect for international human rights and humanitarian law before assistance is agreed. This same principle is also part of US law.

Increasing military assistance to Nigeria in the absence of clear steps towards investigations or implementation of critical human rights safeguards could run the risk of facilitating human rights violations.

Before committing to this path, US policy makers must carefully examine the Nigerian military’s human rights record. Nigeria must protect its people from armed groups like Boko Haram, but it cannot do so by letting its military commit mass atrocities with impunity.