The blood dried, the rains came, but justice remains elusive for the Nigerian Giwa 640

A Nigerian soldier covers his face while taking a picture of a mass grave in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun

A Nigerian soldier covers his face while taking a picture of a mass grave in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun

“The soldiers asked the people to lie on the ground…a few minutes later they started shooting [them]. I counted 198 people killed at that checkpoint,” a man told Amnesty International, recalling the round-up of detainees who had escaped from Giwa barracks exactly two years ago.

The people killed there are just some of the more than 640 men and boys slaughtered by the Nigerian army on March 14, 2014. Most of them were shot, but some had their throats cut before they were tossed into open mass graves. 

Two years on, not a single person has been held to account for this atrocity. 

The jailbreak that preceded this carnage in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri occurred when the armed group Boko Haram hit Giwa barracks in the early hours of the morning. Hundreds of detainees were released. Boko Haram fled with any detainees who wanted to join them. 

The military responded with murder. 

Of the 1 600 detainees held at Giwa before the jailbreak, many were arrested in so-called “screening” operations wherein young men were picked out of communities without any evidence they had committed a crime. They were held for months, even years, without charge or trial.  

Around the city, residents tried to help the hungry, thirsty and weak boys and men who had escaped but not left with Boko Haram. Yet the militia known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) and the military arrived and rearrested them. Once in custody, soldiers shot the prisoners in cold blood in the street, or took them out of town and killed them. They were buried in mass graves. 

Despite video and photo evidence, dozens of witness accounts collected by Amnesty International, and satellite images of possible mass graves, these killings have never been independently investigated. Relatives of the dead have never been officially informed of their fate. A Giwa resident told Amnesty International recently: “No one came to clean the place. The blood dried. The rains came. Children played with the bullet casings. Even now if you dig you will find some bullet casings.”

The failure to hold anyone to account for the Giwa massacre is a stark reminder of the culture of impunity that exists for human rights violations in Nigeria. The horrific acts of Boko Haram should not be used to justify the Nigerian military’s unlawful conduct and human rights violations. ??

A report released by Amnesty International last year documented war crimes by the Nigerian military. Between 2012 and 2014, the military extrajudicially executed at least 1 200 men and boys, and more than 7 000 people have died in custody since March 2011.  

After these shocking findings were made public, President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to investigate, but two years have passed without answers.  

The International Criminal Court announced in November last year that there is sufficient evidence of crimes within its jurisdiction to warrant investigations. If Nigeria’s government is unwilling or unable to investigate, the ICC must step in.

Nigeria’s international partners also need to consider the consequences of their military support. Many nations, including the UK and the US, provide arms, training and advice to the Nigerian military. States providing such assistance must carry out due diligence to ensure they are not facilitating violations of human rights and/or humanitarian law.  

Amnesty has repeatedly called on the Nigerian government to investigate war crimes, but after nine months in office President Muhammadu Buhari has given only lip service. The perpetrators of massacres – not just at Giwa but at Bama, Damataru, Baga, Potiskum, and other places – are still at large.  

Meanwhile a lack of urgently needed reform means the Nigerian Army continues to use unjustified lethal force against innocent civilians. From Giwa to Zaria, from the north-east to the south-east, the time has come to break the cycle of impunity that has gripped Nigeria. 

To mark the anniversary of this Giwa barracks massacre, Amnesty International campaigners will be gathering outside Nigerian embassies around the world to call for independent investigations and prosecutions.  

This call is echoed by the families and relatives of the Giwa 640. Many of them have now come to terms with the fact that their loved ones are dead. What they find harder to accept is not knowing where the bodies of their sons, husbands or fathers are buried and who is responsible for their deaths.   

Netsanet Belay is Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for Africa.

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