Fear and loathing in Northern Nigeria: Boko Haram and the government’s counterinsurgency problems

2 October 2014

Since its birth in 2009, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (translated from Arabic as ‘People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad’), the terror organisation commonly known as Boko Haram, has waged a violent campaign against the Nigerian government and its citizens to impose its own interpretation of Sharia law. Since Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency on January 1st 2012, the situation has only deteriorated. Boko Haram has become more powerful and security forces increasingly commit hideous human rights violations in an attempt to stop the insurgency. The conflict, according to a new bulletin by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has displaced an estimated 1.5 million people in the six north-eastern states of Nigeria affected by the conflict, and has caused over 75,000 people to seek refuge in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Despite increased media coverage of the conflict due to the kidnapping of Chibok schoolgirls in April and the government’s subsequent commitment to a ‘total war’ against the militant group, there is no end in the near future.

Given the increasing number of civilian casualties and internally displaced peoples, this ‘total war’ declared by the Nigerian government has arguably brought more strife than peace amongst the Nigerian population. Indeed on-the-field reports by different organisations, including HART, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, reveal that both sides in the conflict have committed gross human rights violations. Some of these violations, by both Boko Haram and the Nigerian security forces, such as deliberate targeting of civilians and extrajudicial killings, amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, of which Nigeria is a signatory state as of the 27th of September 2001, and are prosecutable under international humanitarian law.

Boko Haram raids villages by attacking homes, churches and schools on a daily basis, thus terrorizing the population of the north-eastern states and creating a situation of constant fear. In their most recent attack, on September 29th, Boko Haram raided two villages in the eastern state of Adamawa and burnt down more than 500 homes, in a gruesome show of direct targeting of the civilian population. Their justification of barbaric acts based on an inaccurate and unrighteous interpretation of Islam has created great divisions on religious lines that would have otherwise not existed within communities. Video footage allegedly showing the beheading of a Nigerian Airforce officer by Boko Haram (WARNING: contains graphic images of violence and death), as well as other, similar videos (which are hard to verify), done in the name of Islam, is not only a testimony to their brutality but also an insult for the approximately 1.5 billion Muslims in the world.

On the other hand, the government is also having trouble in their counter-insurgency operations due to the involvement of high ranked military officials with Boko Haram, as well as the latter’s military strength. Fear within the armed forces have led to an ever increasing number of detainees who are suspected of being members of Boko Haram, estimated between 5,000 and 10,000 since the government’s military operation against the group. In a country where 70% of prisoners have not been convicted and the average waiting time for a trial is three years, detainees are frequently victims of human rights violations. In a recent report, Amnesty International found that “torture and other ill-treatment in the north of Nigeria have increased over the last few years as the conflict in the north-east of Nigeria has escalated.” Forms of tortures used to bring suspected perpetrators to justice include choking, electric shock, tooth or nail extractions, rape and shooting. Other than being prohibited by the country’s constitution, torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Nigeria is illegal under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture (CAT), of which Nigeria is a signatory state.

The increase in number of detainees is also a consequence of the increasing powers of Civilian Joint Task Forces (CJTF), that are accountable to no-one and are reported to act brutally when given the slightest indication of there being a Boko Haram member amongst their community. The CJTF relies on civilian informants and this has led to power abuses, creating widespread fear amongst civilians. “And of course,” as a civilian told HART in its recent visit in June, “it means if you don’t like somebody, you just say they are Boko Haram, and they get killed.” A recent event was brought to the attention of Amnesty International, implicating the military and CJTF in rounding up, beating and subsequently murdering ‘suspected’ Boko Haram members in Bama, Borno State, without a fair investigation and trial. The brutality on both sides has therefore created a situation of fear amongst civilians who are left to trust no one; not even the very security forces that are supposed to protect them.

Poverty, corruption and brutality among security forces, and the central government’s weak hold on the northern states of Nigeria, have laid the necessary conditions for Boko Haram’s uprising. The group has particularly flourished in the poorest north-eastern states of Nigeria, the group’s birthplace, where 70% of the population lives in absolute poverty, and more than half are malnourished. A look at the map of its attacks since 2009, reveals that Boko Haram has attacked predominantly in the Borno, Kano and Yobe states, three of the poorest ones and with lowest female literacy rates in the country. The reasons for Boko Haram’s success are thus quite self-evident. Boko Haram allegedly offers, according to reports HART heard on a recent visit, 200,000 Naira to training camp attendees, 500,000 Naira to bomb deliverers, and up to 5 million Naira to suicide bombers, as well as other benefits such as support to the families of militants (a necessity in times of great fear and insecurity). In a country where the national minimum wage is 18,000 Naira, 1 in every 4 is unemployed, and with little prospects of a better future in certain regions, it is understandable that youngsters especially join an organization that offers more than what a state can. However, by continuously attacking schools and disrupting the Nigerian economy, Boko Haram is creating a playing field on which they can exert a great deal of influence and power. If the Nigerian government does not address the problems at the root of this insurgency and the gross violations committed by its security forces, the situation, together with its dire consequences on the civilian population, is unlikely to get better anytime soon.


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