By Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General
On Friday night, Nigerian information minister Labaran Maku went on the radio to denounce evidence obtained by Amnesty International which, we had said, showed the Nigerian security forces received advance warning of the impending Boko Haram attack on Chibok but failed to act on it. Other officials said they doubted “the veracity” of the revelations. The defence ministry described them as “unfortunate and untrue”.
Later, though, the government softened its position. Musiliu Olatunde Obanikoro, the country’s minister of state for defence, told CNN that “we must investigate and ensure we get to the root of it”.
As well he might, because we stand by our evidence. Testimonies gathered by Amnesty International, and confirmed and corroborated through multiple credible sources, indicate that several military officers had more than four hours advance warning of the armed raid on Chibok and the subsequent abduction of girls from the Government Girls Secondary School on 14 April. Amnesty International has learned that Nigeria’s military headquarters in Maiduguri was alerted to the impending attack soon after 7pm that day. Between 7 pm and 2 am, the military commands in Damboa and Maiduguri, 36km and 130km away from Chibok respectively, were repeatedly contacted with warnings by both security and local officials.
As the convoy of armed Boko Haram fighters on motorbikes and trucks made their way towards Chibok they were seen by locals, some of whom also raised the alarm. In the village of Gagilam, local civilian patrols alerted officials, including the Borno State Governor and senior military commanders based in Maiduguri. One local told Amnesty International that he called security officers to warn them. “I made several other calls, including to Maiduguri. I was promised by the security people that reinforcement was on its way,” he said.
Two senior officers in Nigeria’s military confirmed to Amnesty International that the military was aware of the planned attack even before the calls received from local officials.
An urgent, independent and transparent investigation is clearly essential. But the first priority for Nigeria’s security forces is to achieve the rescue of the schoolgirls.
More than three weeks after the incident, the whereabouts of the girls is still unknown. Their ordeal and the strain on their families defies imagination. Frustration and anger at the failure of the government to find them is mounting and these latest revelations will further erode Nigerians’ trust in the ability of its state forces to protect them and uphold the rule of law.
The Chibok abductions are shocking not just because of the brutality involved, but also because they were preventable. That these young girls were snatched from their school and are still deprived of their liberty is a heinous crime. That the Nigerian authorities had advance warning of the attack and failed to protect the people of Chibok is an inexcusable dereliction of duty. The primary responsibility of any government is to protect its population and the welfare and safety of a nation’s children is paramount.
The challenge will be to respond in a way that upholds human rights and begins to restore Nigerians’ confidence that the state can protect its people. Since the declaration of a state of emergency in three states more than a year ago, Amnesty International has repeatedly expressed grave concern, not just at the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Boko Haram insurgents but also at the commission of gross violations, including extra-judicial executions, by government security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations.
Yesterday, Michelle Obama took the unusual step of delivering her husband’s weekly video address to draw attention to the plight of the kidnapped schoolgirls. “In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters,” she told a national audience on the eve of the US Mother’s Day, adding that she and her husband were “outraged and heartbroken” at the abduction. Some years earlier, speaking in Kenya, President Obama had summed up what many in Nigeria must currently be feeling: “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”
The wellbeing and security of the schoolgirls of Chibok is crucial. President Goodluck Jonathan must now do all in within his power to ensure their safe return. But that is only the start. What Nigeria needs, even when faced with lawless brutality and violence, is a government that respects human rights and the rule of law for all.
Note: This op-ed originally appeared in The Independent on 11 May 2014.