Impunity and the Nigerian Security Forces: It is time for Accountability

By Juliet Kwamboka, 2018 Almami Cyllah Fellow, Amnesty International USA

In October 2018, the Nigerian security forces shot and killed dozens of unarmed protestors. The security forces claimed that they acted in self-defense as rocks were being thrown at them. Subsequent analysis by the New York Times showed that the soldiers were not provoked and had attacked people who were running away from them.

In recent years, Nigeria has been rocked by significant human rights crises leading to untold human suffering. The Boko Haram insurgency and the government’s response has caused a massive number of deaths and a grave humanitarian crisis northern parts of the country. The communal violence in the Middle Belt region has been also destructive and deadly. In both cases, the performance of the Nigerian security forces has come under question and criticism even as the security forces is aggressively trying to silence civil society organizations and journalists from asking tough questions and calling for accountability.

The United States, considers Nigeria and its security forces key allies in the fight against armed extremist groups like Boko Haram and provides security support to the Nigerian security forces directly and through regional security initiatives. It is time for Washington to demand reforms and an end to impunity within the security forces.

A 2018 Amnesty International report, on the clashes between farmer and herder communities documented 312 incidents of attacks and reprisal attacks in 22 states and Federal Capital Territory-Abuja between January 2016 and October 2018. As a result of these attacks, AI estimated that at least 3,641 people may have been killed, 406 injured, 5,000 houses burnt down, and 182,530 people displaced. In some cases the Nigerian security forces received information about impending attacks but did nothing to prevent them.

The Nigerian security forces have also been accused of attacking unarmed civilians in connection with the violence in the Middle Belt region. Some residents interviewed by AI confirmed that property was destroyed and houses burnt during clashes with the security forces forces. Reports indicate that civilians have been subjected to torture, cruelty and inhumane treatment by the security forces during and after incidents of violence. The patterns of abuse are similar to those documented in the security forces ’s counter insurgency against Boko Haram. In 2015, AI revealed that during security operations against Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria, the security forces extra-judicially executed more than 1,200 people. They also arbitrarily arrested at least 20,000 people, mostly young men and boys, and committed countless acts of torture.

While the struggle with Boko Haram attracted most of the media attention the conflict in the Middle Belt region has been spiraling out of control and the security forces ’s response is also being questioned. Recent reports indicate that clashes between farmer and herder communities in Nigeria’s Middle Belt killed more people in 2018 than the Boko Haram uprising. At the same time, for several years now, the security forces have been accused of committing atrocities, with impunity . This is despite the enactment of the Anti-Torture Act, which penalizes acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and Nigeria having ratified the Convention against Torture (CAT) in 2001 and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) in 2009.

Brigadier General Sani Usman, the spokesperson for the Nigerian Army, flatly denied any allegations of human rights abuses and even threatened to ban Amnesty International’s Nigeria offices. The Brigadier alleges that AI Nigeria is determined to destabilize and dismember the country, through false allegations of alleged human rights abuses against the Nigerian security forces.

The concerns with the Nigerian security forces ’s human rights abuses are not just coming from Amnesty International however. In her Annual Report On Preliminary Examination Activities (2018), Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, found reasonable basis to believe that Nigerian security forces (NSF) have committed war crimes . The ICC confirmed it has received a total of 169 communications from Nigeria and its assessment has shown that security forces in Nigeria have committed war crimes varying from murder, torture, and intentionally attacking the civilian population. The ICC further disclosed it has received communications on attacks purportedly effected by herders and Christian farmers in Nigeria’s North Central and North East geographical zones. Ms. Bensouda, confirmed it is examining the alleged attacks by farmers-herders to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crimes allegedly committed fall under its jurisdiction. The government’s inaction is fueling impunity, resulting in attacks and reprisal attacks: at least 3,641 people killed between January 2016 and October 2018, 57 percent of them in 2018 alone.

It is clear that the Nigerian government is failing to uphold its constitutional mandate of protection of human rights in the country. The right to life of Nigerian citizens has been violated with alarming frequency and without any justification or accountability. State parties are also obligated to act and prevent loss of life, investigate and punish wrongful actions resulting in deaths under The African Charter, and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both which have been ratified by Nigeria. On top of this, over the years the government has established numerous commissions of inquiry to look into specific incidents that it could not ignore or dismiss as fake news. None of these has resulted in any prosecutions and many of the final reports from these investigations were never published. The latest government investigation, The Panel to Review Compliance of the Armed Forces with Human Rights Obligations and Rules of Engagement, was submitted it report to the Buhari administration in February 2018. The report has still not been made public.

Given these facts and the growing likelihood that US security assistance to Nigeria could be linked to serious human rights violations, Amnesty International USA is calling on the United States to raise the intensity of its call for reform and accountability. Congress should start by pressing the Department of State to implement the Leahy Law on the Nigerian security forces unit responsible for the November shooting. These efforts could help force the Nigerian Government to improve its accountability efforts by tackling violations committed by the security forces as well as extremist groups or the security forces on Nigerian citizens.