Stars on Their Shoulders, Blood on Their Hands: War Crimes in Nigeria
June 4, 2015 Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty / Foreign Policy Op-ed & Netsanet Belay / Mail & Guardian
In his inaugural address, Nigeria's new president, Mohammadu Buhari, promised to "overhaul the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations" in his country's prosecution of its war against rebel armies. There is much work to do. According to a disturbing human rights report, civilians in northeast Nigeria are facing unspeakable violations at the hands of the very military whose duty is to protect them. In a nod to the US, Nigeria's soldiers have named one of their most hellish prisons, "Gitmo."
Stars on their Shoulders, Blood on their Hands . . . The Nigerian Military's War Crimes Amnesty International
(Warning: contains graphic and disturbing images.)
Stars on Their Shoulders, Blood on Their Hands Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty / Foreign Policy Op-ed
(June 3, 2015) -- In his inaugural address last Friday, Nigeria's newly elected president, Mohammadu Buhari, promised to "overhaul the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations."
While this very public acknowledgement of a problem repeatedly downplayed by the previous administration is welcome, the seriousness of Nigeria's human rights violations cannot be overstated. Indeed, even as the new president was making this commitment, he was watched from the audience by a number of high-ranking military officials who, along with others, Amnesty International is today calling to be investigated for their role in the mass deaths of more than 8,000 people -- shot, starved, suffocated, and tortured to death.
It is no secret that as the bloody insurgency waged by the Boko Haram since 2009 intensified, so too did the brutality of the Nigerian military's response. Since the start of the conflict, Amnesty International has been documenting and highlighting human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides.
But the report released today, "Stars on their Shoulders, Blood on their Hands," goes further than ever before. Not only does it reveal incontrovertible evidence of the horrifying scale and depravity of war crimes committed by the military, it also shows that military commanders either sanctioned the abuses or ignored the fact that they were taking place.
This report is based on years of research and analysis -- including hundreds of leaked military reports and correspondence and interviews with more than 400 victims, eyewitnesses, and senior members of the Nigerian security forces. We have found that more than 7,000 young men and boys died in military detention since March 2011.
In addition, more than 1,200 people were rounded-up and unlawfully killed by the military since February 2012. And Amnesty International's evidence suggests that the vast majority of those arrested, detained, or killed were not members of Boko Haram.
Often based on the word of unidentified informants, and with no other evidence against them, more than 20,000 young men and boys -- some as young as nine -- have since 2009 been arrested and incarcerated without investigation or trial in the most degrading, brutal, and inhuman conditions. On arrival at a detention center, one detainee described how he was greeted by a solider with the words: "Welcome to your die house. Welcome to your place of death."
Thousands never emerged alive.
Some died of starvation, dehydration, or preventable disease. Others suffocated in poorly ventilated cells or were tortured to death, hung on poles over fires, tossed into deep pits, shot, or electrocuted. To try to combat the spread of disease and stifle the stench, some cells were regularly fumigated with powerful chemicals. This is likely to have been the cause of many deaths.
One former detainee was arrested on May 2, 2013, in Gwange , a suburb of Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno, along with 121 other men.
They were taken to the now-infamous Giwa barracks where he was held, chained to another man, in a cell approximately 25 feet by 25 feet -- with around 400 others. "They started to die after three days," he recalled. "There is no washing, no showers. No sleep." Only 11 of the men he was arrested with survived.
Another former detainee was also arrested in Gwange and spent 15 months in Giwa barracks. "Any time we were denied water for two days, 300 people died," he said. "Sometimes we drink people's urine, but even the urine you at times could not get. Every day they died, and whenever someone died, we were happy because of the extra space."
In 2013, more than 4,700 bodies were brought from Giwa barracks to a mortuary in Maidugari. Amnesty International researchers witnessed emaciated corpses in mortuaries. One senior military officer told Amnesty International that detention centers are not given sufficient money for food and that detainees in Giwa barracks were "deliberately starved."
Leaked internal military documents show categorically that senior military officials were regularly updated on the high rates of deaths among detainees through daily field reports, letters, and assessment reports sent by field commanders to the defense and army headquarters. Nigeria's military leadership therefore knew, or should have known, about the nature and scale of the crimes being committed.
For years, the Nigerian authorities have downplayed accusations of human rights abuses by the military. In October 2014, at a workshop on civil-military cooperation, then-President Goodluck Jonathan said that the government takes reports about human rights violations by the security forces very seriously, but "Findings, have generally shown that these reports are, in the main, exaggerated."
But the Nigerian government cannot dismiss its own internal military documents. It cannot ignore testimonies from witnesses and high-ranking military whistle blowers. And it cannot deny the existence of emaciated and mutilated bodies piled on mortuary slabs and dumped in mass graves.
Based on the evidence we have collected, Amnesty International is taking the unusual step of naming nine senior Nigerian military figures who we believe should be investigated for individual or command responsibility for these crimes.
Nigeria's new government now must immediately set up independent and impartial investigations, not just of those named in this report, but of all those responsible for the war crimes detailed, no matter their rank or position.
Faced with the lawless brutality and violence of Boko Haram, the need for a government that respects human rights and the rule of law for all is more vital than ever. The commitments made by President Buhari at his inauguration will give hope those fighting to end impunity in Nigeria and those desperate to find out what has happened to their loved ones.
But a man is not judged on his words. He is judged on his actions. Nigeria has the ability to properly investigate these crimes and President Buhari's statements indicate he has the will to make it happen. There is no time to waste.
This opinion piece was originally published in Foreign Policy.
Conflict More than 1 million -- number of people forced to flee their homes due to Boko Haram attacks since 2009.
17,000 -- people killed across northeast Nigeria since the start of the conflict in 2009.
Nigerian Military At least 20,000 -- people, mostly men and boys, arrested by the Nigerian military since 2009.
More than 7,000 -- people who died of starvation, suffocation or torture while held in military detention since March 2011.
More than 1,400 -- corpses delivered from Giwa barracks to one mortuary in Maiduguri in June 2013.
At least 1,200 -- men and boys extrajudicially executed by the Nigerian military in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa since February 2012.
Up to 1,700 -- men and boys between 14 and 30 years old that are registered as members of the civilian militia, the Civilian Joint Task Force. Thousands more are believed to be unregistered members.
Boko Haram More than 5,500 -- people killed by Boko Haram between 2014 and March 2015.
At least 2,000 -- number of young women and girls abducted by Boko Haram since 2014.
Amnesty International Research More than 800 -- number of official documents reviewed by Amnesty International. More than 700 letters and memos between military headquarters and the field, daily reports from military units based in the north-east, and dozens of documents.
90 -- Number of videos viewed and verified by Amnesty International showing members of the security forces and their allied militia, the Civilian Join Task Force (civilian JTF) while committing human rights abuses violations.
412 -- number of people interviewed by Amnesty International for this report including survivors, victims, their relatives, eyewitnesses, human rights activists, doctors, journalists, lawyers and military sources.
57 -- letters Amnesty International sent to the Federal and State authorities since 2013, sharing research findings, raising concerns about ongoing violations and requesting information and specific action, such as investigations.
13 -- responses received from the Nigerian government
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (June 3, 2015) -- 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 northeast 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 northeast 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
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