By Ese Awhotu
Attacks by the Islamist armed group Boko
Haram killed more than 1,000 civilians in 2015, based on witness
accounts and an analysis of media reports, Human Rights Watch said
today. Boko Haram fighters havedeliberately attacked villages and
committed mass killings and abductions as their attacks have spread
from northeast Nigeria into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger since February.
Human Rights Watch interviews in late January with people who fled
Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno states in northeastern Nigeria revealed
horrific levels of brutality. Since mid-2014, Boko Haram fighters have
seized control of scores of towns and villages covering 17 local
government areas in these northeastern states, some of which were
recaptured by Nigerian and Chadian forces in March 2015.
“Each week that passes we learn of more brutal Boko Haram abuses
against civilians,” said Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher at Human
Rights Watch. “The Nigerian government needs to make protecting
civilians a priority in military operations against Boko Haram.”
The findings underscore the human toll of the conflict between Boko
Haram and forces from from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency says that nearly one
million people have been forced to flee since the Islamist rebel group
began its violent uprising in July 2009. During 2014, Human Rights
Watch estimates that at least 3,750 civilians died during Boko Haram
attacks in these areas. Attacks in the first quarter of 2015 have
increased compared to the same period in 2014, including seven suicide
bombings allegedly using women and children.
The group also abducted hundreds of women and girls many of whom were
subjected to forced conversion, forced marriage, rape, and other
abuse. Scores of young men and boys were forced to join Boko Haram’s
ranks or face death, according to Human Rights Watch research.
Hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to flee the area,
either because Boko Haram fighters ordered them to leave or out of
fear for their lives.
Displaced people told Human Rights Watch they had fled with only the
clothes on their backs after witnessing killings and the burning of
their homes and communities by Boko Haram, and in one case by Nigerian
“As bombs thrown up by Boko Haram started exploding around us on the
hills, I saw body parts scatter in different directions,” one witness
of attacks in the Gwoza hills in Borno State told Human Rights Watch
in late January. “Those already weakened by starvation and thirst
coughed repeatedly from the smoke of the explosions until they passed
out… I escaped at night.”
Displaced people also described targeted burning of schools by Boko
Haram, and a few instances in which government forces took over
schools. Deliberate attacks on schools and other civilian structures
not being used for military purposes are war crimes. Attacks on
schools by Boko Haram, displacement as a result of attacks on
villages, and the use of schools by Nigerian army soldiers not only
damage schools but interfere with access to education for thousands of
children in the northeast.
According to Human Rights Watch research, Nigerian security forces
failed to take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian
population in their military operations against Boko Haram.
In December, Nigerian security forces attacked and burned down the
village of Mundu near a Boko Haram base in Bauchi State, witnesses
told Human Rights Watch, leaving 5 civilians dead and 70 families
homeless. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that Boko Haram was not
present in the village when it was attacked.
“The soldiers were shouting in what sounded like English, which most
of us did not understand,” the village leader told Human Rights Watch.
“We all began running when the soldiers started shooting and setting
fire to our homes and other buildings. We returned two days later to
find five bodies.” The dead included an 80-year-old blind man burned
in his home, a homeless woman with mental disabilities, two visitors
attending a wedding in the village, and a 20-year-old man, all of whom
Army authorities in Abuja said they were unaware of the incident when
presented with Human Rights Watch’s findings on March 11, but said
they had ordered military police to investigate the claims.
According to media reports, between September and March, Nigerian
military authorities charged and tried 307 soldiers who had been on
operations in the north for “cowardice,” mutiny, and other military
offenses, sentencing 70 of them to death. Human Rights Watch opposes
the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent
cruelty. No military personnel have faced prosecution for human rights
abuses against civilians in the northeast.
“Civilians in the northeast desperately need protection from Boko
Haram attacks and they should never be targeted by the very soldiers
who are supposed to be defending them,” Segun said. “The military’s
decision to investigate the alleged violations in Mundu is an
important first step toward ensuring accountability and compensation
for the victims.”
In January, the African Union (AU) endorsed a multinational task force
comprising of troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger to fight
Boko Haram after the insurgents increased cross border attacks into
Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. The action followed attacks on numerous
villages and towns in northeastern Nigeria.
The AU is seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution to
endorse the task force. Since early March, Nigerian security forces
aided by forces from Cameroon, Chad, and Niger have dislodged Boko
Haram from some areas of Nigeria’s northeast.
The situation in Nigeria is under preliminary examination by the
International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor. Preliminary examination
may or may not lead to the opening of an ICC investigation. The
Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on February 2, 2015,
warned that persons inciting or engaging in acts of violence in
Nigeria within the ICC’s jurisdiction are liable to prosecution by
Nigerian Courts or the ICC. The ICC is a court of last resort, which
intervenes only when national courts are unable or unwilling to
investigate and prosecute serious crimes violating international law.
Nigerian authorities should ensure that the December 6 attack on Mundu
is effectively investigated and that any military personnel, including
commanders, responsible for human rights abuses and war crimes are
held to account. War crimes by Boko Haram should be properly
investigated and the perpetrators held to account in fair trials,
Human Rights Watch said.
“The increased military effort has not made the situation for
civilians in northeastern Nigeria any less desperate,” Segun said.
“Without a stronger effort to protect civilians and accountability for
abuses, the situation can only get worse.”
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