Events in Nigeria in recent weeks have tarnished its image as a country that has come of age, even as the West African nation takes centre stage hosting the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa.
The continent’s most populous nation assumed the presidency of the United Nations Security Council and chair of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council last month, at the same time outstripping South Africa to become Africa’s largest economy.
Yet while its role regionally and globally may never have been greater, recent events – most notably Islamist armed group Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls – show that Nigeria faces a serious domestic test of its stability, which threatens regional peace and security.
More than three weeks after Boko Haram gunmen took the girls from a secondary school in a village in northeastern Nigeria, their whereabouts remain unknown and frustration is mounting at the failure of government to find them. The only arrests so far related to the kidnappings have been of two women protesting against the slowness of the government’s response.
The horrific abduction highlights the serious nature of the violation of international humanitarian and human rights law being committed by Boko Haram.
It is imperative that Nigeria acts swiftly and firmly to secure the safe return of the girls, with international support if needed, but the process must demonstrate a commitment to human dignity, human rights, transparency and accountability. To do this, Nigeria needs the help of all its friends attending the Abuja WEF Africa.
After a deepening campaign of violence by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan in May 2013 declared a state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, three states particularly affected by the insurgency. But a year on, the violence has intensified in scope and casualties, and the population is becoming increasingly vulnerable not only to abuses by Boko Haram, but also to violations by the state security forces, which have regularly responded with heavy-handed and indiscriminate violence of their own.
More than 1 800 people were killed in the conflict in the first four months of 2014. And last month, on the same day that Boko Haram abducted the schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno state, a car bomb planted by the insurgents in an Abuja bus station killed more than 71 people.
Several institutions – including Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission – recognise that the situation has deteriorated into a non-international armed conflict.
The ICC prosecutor is in the final stages of determining whether or not to open a formal investigation into the situation in Nigeria. No responsible government can sit back and do nothing in the face of such unfolding horror.
The challenge is to respond in a way that enhances instead of diminishes the resilience of the country and its institutions, upholds the dignity of the affected communities and does not involve state actors in serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
The wave of violence by Boko Haram cannot justify the mounting allegations of unlawful killings, extrajudicial executions and torture by state security forces that led Amnesty International to conclude in March that both Boko Haram and Nigeria’s security forces have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Nigeria’s government and its allies must forge new partnerships ahead of national elections in February 2015 to make lawful headway against this insurgency. But it must not be done at the expense of human rights.
So what should happen? The country’s counter-insurgency strategy should be anchored on recognition of human rights and support for community resilience. To achieve this, the government in co-ordination with the National Human Rights Commission should carry out a transparent investigation into all allegations of abuse on both sides. National institutions for accountability must be supported, with international assistance if needed.
The atrocities being carried out by Boko Haram must be addressed. How can a country live in a state of fear where schoolchildren are vulnerable to kidnap and attack? But a heavy-handed security response is not the answer. Nigeria must meet its obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.
The National Human Rights Commission has already called for the rules of engagement for security forces to be immediately reviewed and updated and there needs to be a commitment to retraining them accordingly. The commission and other independent observers should be given adequate and secure access to monitor all places of detention, and all sides in the conflict must allow humanitarian access and protection of civilians and affected communities.
Nigeria’s partners and allies can offer help to make this possible. Nigeria’s permanent representative to the United Nations said at the UN Security Council last month that its month-long presidency would promote the cause of international peace and security and help the UN address issues in Africa. It’s a laudable goal, but one that can only be achieved if Nigeria shows true leadership and respect for human rights in its efforts to rout the insurgency.
As the world holds its breath for the safe return of the abducted schoolgirls, we must hope that the kidnappers will be brought to justice and that Nigeria can lead the way on human rights protection as well as economic development.
Salil Shetty is the secretary general of Amnesty International. This article was first published by Al Jazeera.