Nigeria: War crimes and crimes against humanity as violence escalates in north-east

An increase in attacks by Boko Haram and uncontrolled reprisals by Nigeria’s security forces has seen the death toll in North East Nigeria rise to at least 1,500 people, more than half of whom are civilians, in the first three months of 2014, Amnesty International said in a briefing published today

“The escalation of violence in north-eastern Nigeria in 2014 has developed into a situation of non-international armed conflict in which all parties are violating international humanitarian law.  We urge the international community to ensure prompt, independent investigations into acts that may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Netsanet Belay, Research and Advocacy Director for Africa at Amnesty International. 

“More than 1,500 deaths in three months indicate an alarming deterioration in the situation. The international community cannot continue to look the other way in the face of extrajudicial executions, attacks on civilians and other crimes under international law being committed on a mass scale. Civilians are paying a heavy price as the cycle of violations and reprisals gather momentum.” 

More than half of the killings have been carried out by members of the Islamist armed group Boko Haram, including scores of schoolchildren who have been the victims of deliberate attacks. 

Amnesty International has documented the killings carried out in January, February and March 2014 by both Boko Haram and the Nigerian Security Forces. It highlights 14 March as a tipping point when the security forces unleashed a brutal crackdown on former detainees. 

On 14 March Boko Haram gunmen attacked the Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, Borno state. They reportedly fought their way into the detention facilities and freed several hundred detainees. Amnesty International has received credible evidence that as the military regained control, more than 600 people, mostly unarmed recaptured detainees, were extra-judicially executed in various locations across Maiduguri. 

Amnesty International has pieced together a partial timeline of events following the 14 March attack in Maiduguri. The evidence is based on interviews with residents, lawyers, human rights campaigners, and hospital staff across the city as well as satellite imagery showing three possible mass graves in one area of Maiduguri. 

“The scale of atrocities carried out by Boko Haram is truly shocking creating a climate of fear and insecurity. But this cannot be used to justify the brutality of the response that is clearly being meted out by the Nigerian security forces,” said Netsanet Belay. 

Amongst the testimony gathered by Amnesty International were the voices of witnesses who described what happened when the military found 56 of those who had escaped from the Giwa barracks. 

“The former detainees were in a classroom. They started screaming ‘we are not Boko Haram. We are detainees!’ My neighbours and I saw the soldiers take the men to a place called ‘no man’s land,’ behind the University of Maiduguri. We watched as the soldiers opened fire killing all 56. They were killed in front of us. All of them.” 

Other eyewitnesses in Jiddari Polo, also in Maiduguri, described how members of the “Civilian Joint Task Force”  rounded up freed prisoners and handed them to soldiers. More than 190 people were executed, many of whom were too frail to run. 

“I saw the soldiers asking the people to lie on the ground. There was a small argument between the soldiers and the civilian JTF. The soldiers made some calls and a few minutes later they started shooting the people on the ground. I counted 198 people killed at that checkpoint.” 

Given Nigeria’s apparent unwillingness and inability to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of these crimes, Amnesty International is calling on the African Commission and the United Nations to assist Nigeria in investigating acts that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both Boko Haram and the Nigerian security forces in north-eastern Nigeria. 

“The summary killing of these detainees amount to extrajudicial executions and are crimes under international law. These killings follow an entrenched pattern of deaths in custody of detainees held in relation to the situation in the northeast,” said Netsanet Belay. 

“The international community, and in particular the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the UN Human Rights Council, must, as a matter of urgency, ensure that a thorough, impartial and transparent investigation is conducted into these allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Nigeria.” 

Amnesty International is also calling on the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union’s Peace and Security Council to assess immediately the conflict situation in north-eastern Nigeria and provide full and effective support to end these acts of violence against civilians. It must also strongly condemn the on-going war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all parties to the conflict. 

“As Nigeria assumes the chairmanship of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council next month, the AU needs to critically ask itself how far its member States are living up to their commitment to uphold the principles of the African Union and respect for rule of law and human rights,” said Netsanet Belay.