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03 Jun 2015 14:58
Nigeria Military. (AFP)
At least 20 000 people, mostly men and
boys, arrested by the Nigerian military since 2009. More than 7 000 starved,
suffocated or tortured to death in military detention since March 2011.
least 1 200 people unlawfully executed by the Nigerian military since February
That is the shocking reality of life in
north-east Nigeria, where a population terrorised by the brutal armed group
Boko Haram is also facing unspeakable violations at the hands of the very
military whose duty is to protect them. A place where human rights violations
are being committed in the name of “peace” and at the expense of thousands of
Having spent most of my life documenting
human rights abuses across Africa, and having been imprisoned for more than two
years in an Ethiopian jail because of my work, I’m not easily shaken. But the evidence
of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity committed by the Nigerian
military that we are revealing in a ground-breaking report today makes for shocking reading.
And evidence that military commanders either
ordered the abuses or ignored the overwhelming evidence that they were taking
place, just adds insult to injury.
The figures are terrifying enough by
themselves. But they tell only half of the story. The tales of those who
survived these horrors – and of the relatives of those who didn’t make it out
of the military detention centres alive – are nothing short of scandalous.
‘Welcome to your place of death’
Thousands of young men were rounded up
in towns across the north-east, often “outed” as Boko Haram members by the arbitrary
point of a finger. The military detention centres where they were taken to resembled
death houses where thousands perished of starvation, thirst, preventable
diseases or the spraying of dangerous chemicals in poorly ventilated cells. Hundreds
of desperate family members traipsed around detention centres, prisons and
mortuaries in the tragic hope of finding their relatives. Often not even
allowed to make inquiries and almost never receiving any official confirmation
of the fate of their loved ones.
One of the survivors is 26-year-old Ahmed
Maima (not his real name). He was arrested on May 2 2013 in Gwange, Maiduguri, Borno
state, along with another 121 local men.
“All of you are Boko Haram,” the soldiers
Ahmed and the others were taken to the
now infamous Giwa barracks in Maiduguri, where the conditions were so bad and torture
was so rampant that thousands never made it out alive.
Soldiers there would cruelly greet the
incoming inmates: “welcome to our die house, welcome to your place of death”.
The father of two spent four months in
detention, until his relatives managed to secure his release by paying a bribe.
Out of 122 men initially arrested alongside him, only 11 survived.
Ahmed was interrogated only once, when
he had to state the date and location of his arrest. He said that throughout
his detention he and others were held chained in pairs, with up to 400 people crammed
into a cell of approximately 8m by 8m.
“They started to die after three days [in
detention], more died after one week. In the morning you go and collect small
food, breakfast, they open the cell, have breakfast of rice, a small amount,
they put it in one hand. Later in the day they give you water once. It is in a
jug and you drink and pass it to another inside the cell. In the evening it is
rice and stew, small. There is no washing, no showers. No sleep. You just sit
down only, the place is very tight, just sit on your bottom.”
Conditions were so extreme, thousands didn’t
survive. When a prisoner died, the military would make their cellmates load
their bodies into sanitation trucks before they were taken out of the barracks.
Civilians caught in crossfire
It is undeniable that Nigeria’s armed
forces face a massive challenge in stopping Boko Haram– with thousands killed
and brutally abused by the armed group since 2009. However, arbitrarily
arresting, killing, starving, suffocating and torturing to death anyone they
think may be a member, sympathiser or alleged sponsor of the group will not
make anybody safe.
On the contrary, this twisted campaign is
Civilians are still in danger from both
So far, the official
stance on the abuses has been shameful. We have repeatedly brought our findings and concerns
to the attention of Nigerian military and civilian authorities – sometimes in
writing, sometimes in face-to-face meetings, calling for an independent and
impartial investigation. But hardly anything has been done. No one has been
held accountable for the thousands of civilians who have died or disappeared at
the hands of the military.
These commanders must
be investigated. War crimes and crimes against humanity are among the
most serious crimes in the world.
Newly inaugurated President Muhammadu Buhari
is seen as the man with a golden opportunity to lead actions to break with the
During his inaugural speech, he spoke of
the need to “overhaul the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations
in operations [against Boko Haram].”
The hopes for justice and accountability
of thousands will depend on whether his government keeps to these promises.
But this is not only Nigeria’s problem.
The horrors taking place across the north-east of the country are everybody’s
business. World leaders – particularly those in Africa – also have a duty to
use their influence on Nigeria to ensure justice for the thousands of victims
of human rights violations.
Those responsible for ordering or
ignoring reports of abuses must face justice.
The stakes are too high to ignore.
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