Nigerian military: Stars on their shoulders, blood on their hands

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. At least 1 200 people unlawfully executed by the Nigerian military since February 2012.

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 lives. 

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 told them.

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 grossly backfiring.

Civilians are still in danger from both sides.

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 past.

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.

  • Netsanet Belay is the Africa director, research and advocacy, for Amnesty International. @NetsanetDBelay

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Netsanet Belay
Netsanet Belay is the Africa Director for Research and Advocacy at Amnesty International

Related stories

The Portfolio: Antony Kaminju

Antony Kaminju shares his experience of making a photo of the Roving Bantu Kitchen’s Sifiso Ntuli

African science fiction: rereading the The Palm-Wine Drinkard

Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola wields language as the ultimate form of technology

Extract from ‘The Journey’: Responses to the archive

This sequence of texts was written in response to various photographs of Nigeria made between 1920 and 1929 that form part of the Colonial Office photographic collection

The world’s warriors are under attack, but we must keep on fighting

The murder of Fikile Ntshangase in KwaZulu-Natal was not an isolated incident. Around the globe, from Nigeria to Brazil, environmental activists are similarly being silenced, and it is our duty to continue this struggle

Nigeria’s queers say ‘enough’

Notorious police unit that harassed LGBTQ+ community disbanded after widespread protests.

Meet Donald Trump’s Nigerian cheerleaders

If Nigerians got to choose the next US president, Donald Trump would be the clear favourite

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

DRC: Tshisekedi and Kabila fall out

The country’s governing coalition is under strain, which could lead to even more acrimony ahead

Editorial: Crocodile tears from the coalface

Pumping limited resources into a project that is predominantly meant to extend dirty coal energy in South Africa is not what local communities and the climate needs.

Klipgat residents left high and dry

Flushing toilets were installed in backyards in the North West, but they can’t be used because the sewage has nowhere to go

Nehawu leaders are ‘betraying us’

The accusation by a branch of the union comes after it withdrew from a parliamentary process

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…