Attacks by the Islamist armed group, Boko Haram, killed more than 1,000 civilians in 2015, based on witness accounts and an analysis of media reports, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
Boko Haram fighters have deliberately attacked villages and committed mass killings and abductions as their attacks have spread from northeast Nigeria into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger since February.
Human Rights Watch interviews in late January with people who fled Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno states in northeastern Nigeria revealed horrific levels of brutality. Since mid-2014, Boko Haram fighters have seized control of scores of towns and villages covering 17 local government areas in these northeastern states, some of which were recaptured by Nigerian and Chadian forces in March 2015.
Many of those towns have been reclaimed recently by the armies of Nigeria and neighbouring countries.
“Each week that passes we learn of more brutal Boko Haram abuses against civilians,” said Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Nigerian government needs to make protecting civilians a priority in military operations against Boko Haram.”
The findings underscore the human toll of the conflict between Boko Haram and forces from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency says that nearly one million people have been forced to flee since the Islamist rebel group began its violent uprising in July 2009.
During 2014, Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 3,750 civilians died during Boko Haram attacks in these areas. Attacks in the first quarter of 2015 have increased compared to the same period in 2014, including seven suicide bombings allegedly using women and children.
The group also abducted hundreds of women and girls many of whom were subjected to forced conversion, forced marriage, rape, and other abuse. Scores of young men and boys were forced to join Boko Haram’s ranks or face death, according to Human Rights Watch research. Hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to flee the area, either because Boko Haram fighters ordered them to leave or out of fear for their lives.
Displaced people told Human Rights Watch they had fled with only the clothes on their backs after witnessing killings and the burning of their homes and communities by Boko Haram, and in one case by Nigerian security forces.
“As bombs thrown up by Boko Haram started exploding around us on the hills, I saw body parts scatter in different directions,” one witness of attacks in the Gwoza hills in Borno State told Human Rights Watch in late January. “Those already weakened by starvation and thirst coughed repeatedly from the smoke of the explosions until they passed out… I escaped at night.”
Displaced people also described targeted burning of schools by Boko Haram, and a few instances in which government forces took over schools. Deliberate attacks on schools and other civilian structures not being used for military purposes are war crimes. Attacks on schools by Boko Haram, displacement as a result of attacks on villages, and the use of schools by Nigerian army soldiers not only damage schools but interfere with access to education for thousands of children in the northeast.
According to Human Rights Watch research, Nigerian security forces failed to take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population in their military operations against Boko Haram.
In December, Nigerian security forces attacked and burned down the village of Mundu near a Boko Haram base in Bauchi State, witnesses told Human Rights Watch, leaving 5 civilians dead and 70 families homeless. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that Boko Haram was not present in the village when it was attacked.
“The soldiers were shouting in what sounded like English, which most of us did not understand,” the village leader told Human Rights Watch. “We all began running when the soldiers started shooting and setting fire to our homes and other buildings. We returned two days later to find five bodies.” The dead included an 80-year-old blind man burned in his home, a homeless woman with mental disabilities, two visitors attending a wedding in the village, and a 20-year-old man, all of whom were shot.
Army authorities in Abuja said they were unaware of the incident when presented with Human Rights Watch’s findings on March 11, but said they had ordered military police to investigate the claims.
According to media reports, between September and March, Nigerian military authorities charged and tried 307 soldiers who had been on operations in the north for “cowardice,” mutiny, and other military offenses, sentencing 70 of them to death. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty. No military personnel have faced prosecution for human rights abuses against civilians in the northeast.
“Civilians in the northeast desperately need protection from Boko Haram attacks and they should never be targeted by the very soldiers who are supposed to be defending them,” Segun said. “The military’s decision to investigate the alleged violations in Mundu is an important first step toward ensuring accountability and compensation for the victims.”
In January, the African Union (AU) endorsed a multinational task force comprising of troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger to fight Boko Haram after the insurgents increased cross border attacks into Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. The action followed attacks on numerous villages and towns in northeastern Nigeria.
The AU is seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution to endorse the task force. Since early March, Nigerian security forces aided by forces from Cameroon, Chad, and Niger have dislodged Boko Haram from some areas of Nigeria’s northeast.
The situation in Nigeria is under preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor. Preliminary examination may or may not lead to the opening of an ICC investigation. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on February 2, 2015, warned that persons inciting or engaging in acts of violence in Nigeria within the ICC’s jurisdiction are liable to prosecution by Nigerian Courts or the ICC. The ICC is a court of last resort, which intervenes only when national courts are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute serious crimes violating international law.
Nigerian authorities should ensure that the December 6 attack on Mundu is effectively investigated and that any military personnel, including commanders, responsible for human rights abuses and war crimes are held to account. War crimes by Boko Haram should be properly investigated and the perpetrators held to account in fair trials, Human Rights Watch said.
“The increased military effort has not made the situation for civilians in northeastern Nigeria any less desperate,” Segun said. “Without a stronger effort to protect civilians and accountability for abuses, the situation can only get worse.”