Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Innocents of Nigeria

A little over a year since Boko Haram kidnapped over 200 school girls from Chibok in North West Nigeria, news of a success story against the Islamic extremist group has once again catapulted the nation into the international limelight. The Nigerian military’s rescue of 200 girls and 93 women from four Boko Haram-controlled camps in the Sambisa Forest seems, for some, to have abated the storm of international criticism the Nigerian government has faced with regard to its reaction to Boko Haram.

Image courtesy of Michael Fleshman, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Michael Fleshman, © 2014, some rights reserved.

For others however, this success story is too little, too late. Despite the obvious achievement of the Nigerian military in this recent rescue, it has been reported that none of those recovered were victims of the original attack at Chibok, fuelling the fires of continued international condemnation of the apparent weakness of the Nigerian government in the face of Boko Haram. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign, a fundamental example of the recent explosion of ‘hashtag activism’ witnessed internationally, has been so successful in raising awareness to the girls plight, that UNICEF has launched an almost identical initiative for the 800,000 displaced children in Nigeria: #BringBackOurChildhood. These forums, though predominantly employed to raise awareness (and not aimed towards financial gain) have also served as an opportunity to criticise both the Nigerian government and the international community for perceived inaction against the extremist group. Just weeks before the rescue, Malala Yousafzai, in her open letter to the kidnapped girls, criticised Nigerian leaders and the international community iterating that ‘[they] have not done enough to help you.’

This criticism, warranted though it may seem given the length of time taken to achieve a successful mission, could not be further from the truth. If anything, the Nigerian military and local militia in the three northeastern states have done too much to combat the perceived influence of Boko Haram. This claim may sound absurd, and quite rightly so, for this action should not be viewed in a positive light.

It was the declaration of a state of emergency in 2013 that gave rise to the creation of local, state-funded militia, tasked with the identification and detainment of members of the Islamist extremist group. These local militia, whose knowledge of the local area and people was viewed as paramount, formed a joint task force (JTF) with the regular Nigerian military, and were instructed by President Goodluck Jonathan to ‘carry out all necessary actions […] to put an end to the impunity of insurgents and terrorists,’ under the premise of Operation Flush. This task force, reportedly ill-equipped, overstretched and predominantly untrained has been the focus of international aid since its conception; a decision which may have hindered rather than helped efforts to combat Boko Haram.

Over the course of the last two years, figures of the militia’s crackdowns estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 Nigerian civilians have been unlawfully detained by authorities in the search for the elusive Boko Haram members and that more than 4,000 have been killed in military captivity. The most poignant example of this indiscriminate violence towards civilians is highlighted by the extrajudicial execution of over 600 prisoners following their escape from the Giwa Barracks, Maiduguri in March of last year.

The worryingly extensive report published by Amnesty into the Nigerian military’s crackdown on suspected Boko Haram members reveals the true extent to which the indiscriminate reprisals continue to be carried out. The heavy reliance on ‘screenings’ i.e. the mass detention without prosecution or trial of hundreds of suspects at a time, is just the tip of the tactical iceberg. Individual stories of torture performed on boys as young as 13 include horrifying accounts of beatings using gun butts, batons and machetes, pouring melted plastic on detainees’ backs and forcing them to watch other detainees being extra-judicially executed in order to extract a confession of Boko Haram terrorism. Amnesty also reports of police sections, including the Special Anti-Robbery Squad and Criminal Investigation Division, of possessing ‘torture chambers’ specifically designed for the forcible extraction of information as to Boko Haram’s activities and location, demonstrating the extent to which human rights abuses are being systematically carried out on an administrative level. Forensically examined and verified video evidence of Nigerian militia carrying out beatings and summary executions of suspects has placed more weight behind Amnesty’s campaign, with evidence of throat slitting and beating to death of suspects as young as 13 shocking the international community.

It would be jumping to conclusions to state that the entirety of Operation Flush employs these kinds of tactics, but it would not be an underestimation to realise the effect that this small but lethal task force is having on the northwestern communities. The psychological impact of local militia’s actions cannot be underestimated. An inquest by dispatches into the allegations of rape, torture and abuse suffered by members of the population found evidence that in order to flee governmental reprisals; levels of Boko Haram recruitment have increased three fold amongst villagers from the state of Adamadwa.

Is it any wonder, with the employment of these outrageous tactics, that success stories against Boko Haram are so few and far between? Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association and world renowned International Human Rights lawyer, confirmed that on a psychological level, information obtained from this form of extreme torture is completely null and void. Apart from the obvious illegality of the methods used, he highlighted that the propensity for subjects to yield disinformation as a means of halting the abuse was extremely high.The Nigerian justice system, although constitutionally prohibiting the use of torture in extracting information, has yet to criminalise the practice despite the fact that two bills to do so have been pending in the National Assembly for over two years.

Amnesty International has condemned these acts of unlawful detainment, torture and ill-treatment as ‘serious violations of International Humanitarian Law and human rights abuses amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.’ Naturally, this was refuted by the Nigerian High commissioner in London as, in his words, ‘there has to be a war before you talk about war crimes.’ An interesting opinion when one considers that just months earlier, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared ‘total war’ against Boko Haram an accusation which, although not internationally legally binding, secured $1 billion in international aid.

Despite the questionable efforts of Nigerian militia, Boko Haram remain at large in the north west of the country with most recent figures reporting over 1,700 attributable deaths since the state of emergency was declared two years ago. The international community thus has now, more than ever, an obligation to address the atrocities carried out by both sides of this so called ‘non-international armed conflict.’ Although Amnesty have presented their findings of severe human rights abuses to the Nigerian government along with recommendations to end these atrocities, little has been done by either the National Assembly or the military to combat them. And as western powers including the United Kingdom continue to pledge support to the Nigerian state to combat the Islamic extremist group, it should be argued that in this instance, as in many before it, the state should not be the default recipient for international financial aid. Indirectly this really is forcing the citizens of North-western Nigeria between a rock and a hard place.