In a world dominated by questions surrounding the Israeli—Palestinian conflict, Al Qaeda’s re-emergence in the Middle East, and devastating economic crisis’ looming in countries like Greece and Spain, a number of world observers and media agencies have almost entirely ignored Human Rights violations, which places Nigerian residents in a state of horrific terror for the last three years. The primary culprit responsible for most of crimes against the Nigerian people are the violent jihadist militant organization Boko Haram, whose name translates into the phrase, “Western education is sinful.”
Human Rights Watch has released a 98 page report entitled “Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria,” cataloguing atrocities for which Boko Haram has claimed responsibility. It also explores the role of Nigeria’s security forces, whose own alleged abuses contravene international human rights law and might also constitute crimes against humanity. The violence, which first erupted in 2009, has claimed more than 2,800 lives.
From the outside looking in, it’s hard to find a gloomier place in Nigeria than those that have suffered attacks by Boko Haram, the underground fundamentalist Islamic organization. Christians are fearful of attending church. Muslims, who also face attacks by Boko Haram, express concern that government security forces indiscriminately hunting down the group’s members consider their entire community to be the enemy. As one Muslim civic activist in this northeastern Ni¬ger¬ian city put it: “People don’t know who to be more afraid of — Boko Haram or the police.”
“The unlawful killing by both Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces only grows worse; both sides need to halt this downward spiral,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“Nigeria’s government should swiftly bring to justice the Boko Haram members and security agents who have committed these serious crimes,” he added.
Rona Peligal, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, Africa Division said compiling evidence was difficult and dangerous. “For one thing, the security conditions on the ground were menacing, and we had to be very careful about how we did the research in Northern Nigeria. In addition, we were monitoring attacks by Boko Haram and security forces over a three-year period. Finally, these are really difficult, nettlesome and polarizing issues, which made the report more complicated to write, but I think the report is balanced and fair and comprehensive,” she said.
Far from international headlines, and beyond the blustery charges and countercharges of who is really to blame for the violence, Nigerians are under assault by both Boko Haram and the country’s heavy-handed security forces.
Boko Haram attacks, which began in 2009, are concentrated in northern Nigeria and have targeted police, government forces, Christians and Muslims.
From its base here in northern Nigeria to as far south as the capital, Abuja, Boko Haram (whose name roughly translates as “Western education is sinful”) terrorizes Nigerians with rifle attacks and suicide car bombs. The group has shown a particularly relentless focus on blowing up police stations and hitting both secular targets (such as pubs and markets) and religious targets (such as churches full of worshipers). Since 2009, more than 1,500 Nigerians have died at the hands of Boko Haram, according to media reports monitored by Human Rights Watch.
After a recent research mission to Nigeria, Human Rights Watch concluded from the severity and extent of the abuses that Boko Haram’s violations probably constitute crimes against humanity and should be investigated and prosecuted immediately.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian army and police have responded to Boko Haram both cruelly and clumsily. The latest atrocity: On Monday, soldiers allegedly went on a rampage in Maiduguri after a roadside bomb, suspected to have been planted by Boko Haram, killed three soldiers near the University of Maiduguri, a military spokesman here told reporters on Wednesday. In retaliation, news reports say, the soldiers randomly gunned down residents near the attack. The military spokesman said only one civilian died, but reporters on the scene counted 30 bodies of unarmed people in the area.
“What we did was we looked very closely at the kinds of attacks that we were seeing by Boko Haram. The fact that the attacks were widespread – that they were systematic – that they were targeted – that they were focused on particular groups of people, who had nothing to do with any kind of abuse or bad behaviour. And we decided that both the intensity of the abuses, the extent of the abuses rose to the level of crimes against humanity,” said Peligal.
Peligal also points out the International Criminal Court is monitoring the situation, including the attacks on innocent civilians.
“People who were killed in churches while they were praying. The report has a photo essay with pictures of people who died while they were in church. And it’s absolutely heart-breaking to see wedding pictures, graduation pictures of young and promising people, whose lives were taken as a result of this callous violence,” she said.
The report also criticizes Nigeria’s Joint Task Force, or JTF, which is trying to track down Boko Haram members and end the attacks.
“They have begun to crack down on Boko Haram, but in a way that’s quite violent. And that in itself has contributed to its own abuses. The government itself has engaged in extrajudicial killings – has engaged in excessive use of force in communities where Boko Haram members might be located. And sometimes these have an impact on the neighboring communities,” she said.
The Joint Task Force issued a statement Wednesday denying reports soldiers killed more than 30 people and burned shops and houses in Maiduguri. Residents in the northeastern city say soldiers became violent following a bomb attack that killed at least one soldier. The JTF statement read, in part, that there is “no recorded case of extra-judicial killings, torture, arson and arbitrary arrests by the JTF in Borno State.” Peligal said, however, the deaths continue to mount.
Human Rights Watch calls on Boko Haram to “immediately cease all attacks and threats of attacks that cause loss of life, injury and destruction of property.”
To win its battle against Boko Haram, the government must make ending security-force lawlessness a primary objective. Officials should also hear and act on the concerns of the beleaguered residents of places such as Maiduguri, who are caught in the crossfire between an Islamist group bent on destruction and security forces whose indiscriminate attacks also fuel the spiral of violence in Nigeria.