While military operations by the Nigerian army and the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) have recovered most of the territory once held by Boko Haram, sporadic attacks continue in the Lake Chad Basin region, with 21 million people living in the affected areas. Many areas previously held by Boko Haram remain unsafe for returnees. The Nigerian government's seven-year conflict with Boko Haram has claimed more than 20,000 lives and, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are currently 2.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria and over 2.6 million displaced in the Lake Chad region, including refugees, IDPs and returnees.
The Boko Haram conflict has resulted in a complex humanitarian crisis in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, resulting in extreme food shortages and famine-like conditions. According to OCHA 9.1 million people are food insecure in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, with 4.4 million people in urgent need of food assistance.
Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands during the seven-year insurgency, and on numerous occasions targeted schools for attack, including the 2014 abduction of 276 girls from Chibok and the 2015 abduction of 300 elementary students in Damasack. The vast majority of abducted children remain missing. According to UNICEF, since April 2014 at least 1.3 million children have been uprooted by Boko Haram violence in Nigeria and neighboring states, while one of every five suicide bombers used by Boko Haram in 2015 was a child.
On 14 August Boko Haram released a video showing some of the kidnapped Chibok girls, demanding that the government release imprisoned fighters in return for them. In September the Nigerian government revealed for the first time that negotiations with Boko Haram to release the Chibok girls had been underway since July 2015. On 13 October Boko Haram freed 21 girls kidnapped from Chibok as a result of talks brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the government of Switzerland. The negotiations are taking place during a leadership struggle within the extremist group between Abubakar Shekau, who has led the group since 2010, and Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who was recently appointed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
As the government addresses the Boko Haram insurgency, several other localized conflicts, rooted in long-standing grievances over land and resource allocation, have escalated in Nigeria's "middle belt" and Niger Delta regions. Inter-communal clashes between semi-nomadic herdsmen and settled farming communities have resulted in hundreds of deaths in 2016. Newly-formed militant groups in the Niger Delta, including the Niger Delta Avengers, have perpetrated attacks on oil and gas installations as well as security personnel.
Nine people were reportedly killed in Katsina state on 12 October, when security forces opened fire on a peaceful procession marking Ashura, a Shia observance day. Violence directed at Shia Muslims was also reported in Kaduna and Sokoto states on the same day.
Nigerian security forces have been consistently accused of failing to adequately protect populations and committing human rights abuses against civilians. At least 347 civilians were killed as a result of security forces using excessive force during clashes with the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shia group, in Zaria, Kaduna state during December 2015. On 7 October the Kaduna state government outlawed IMN, stating that those convicted of being a member could be fined or imprisoned for seven years. The IMN vowed to challenge the decision "through legal and peaceful means."
On 1 September Nigerian military authorities confirmed that some soldiers have been selling arms and ammunition to Boko Haram.
While large-scale attacks by Boko Haram have become less frequent, the group continues to target civilians as well as security and humanitarian personnel. Large-scale displacement and insecurity have increased unemployment and poverty within Nigeria, Africa's second largest economy, which is already experiencing a severe decrease in government revenue due to depressed oil prices. Destroyed civilian infrastructure across the northeast and the ongoing threat of Boko Haram attacks makes the return of displaced populations dangerous and continues to limit humanitarian operations. Years of disrupted farming and trading, as well as destroyed farmland and infrastructure, have resulted in an acute food crisis in the northeast.
Infighting within Boko Haram's leadership has resulted in rival leaders attempting to assert control over the group. As factions compete for recruits, widespread poverty, unemployment and insecurity could leave young people especially vulnerable to recruitment. Al-Barnawi has declared his intention to increase Boko Haram's targeting of Christians, putting these populations at greater risk of atrocities and potentially exacerbating religious tensions within Nigeria.
The existence of armed groups in the Niger Delta region and attacks on oil and gas installations puts increasing strain on a government that is already struggling to protect vulnerable civilians from Boko Haram.
While the recently-established Human Rights Desk for the Nigerian army, tasked with investigating allegation of human rights abuses committed by the military personnel, is a welcome development, the scale and frequency of human rights abuses committed by the security forces confirms the necessity of a comprehensive security sector reform.
The decision by the Kaduna government to outlaw IMN and persecute its members risk intensifying tensions between Shias and the military and, coupled with the lack of justice for the December 2015 killings of the IMN members, could trigger a backlash from the affected communities.
The government of Nigeria currently lacks the capacity to adequately uphold its Responsibility to Protect and needs ongoing support from the international community.
On 14 May representatives from the four Lake Chad Basin states, together with international partners, including the European Union (EU), France, United Kingdom and United States, met in Abuja for the second Regional Security Summit on efforts to defeat Boko Haram. Ahead of the Summit, the UN Security Council (UNSC) issued a Presidential Statement, recognizing that some acts perpetrated by Boko Haram "may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes" and stressing that those responsible must be held accountable.
Member states, including Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, pledged over $163 million in humanitarian support in the Lake Chad Basin during a high level side-event at the 71st UN General Assembly on the crisis in the region. According to OCHA, as of 6 October, of the $739 million required for the provision of the most urgent life-saving assistance in the Lake Chas Basin in 2016, only $217 million has been received.
As Nigeria faces multiple security crises it is essential for the government to prioritize the protection of vulnerable civilians. The government must also address the root causes of conflict through social initiatives and political reforms that tackle corruption, poor governance and land rights, as well as access to employment and educational opportunities. The government must urgently address long-standing grievances in the Niger Delta, including serious environmental degradation and disputes over resource allocation.
Governments involved in the MNJTF and ongoing military operations against Boko Haram need to mitigate the risk to civilians and strictly adhere to international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL). Captured Boko Haram leaders should be held accountable for crimes against humanity committed in areas under the group's command and control.
The government must provide protection to all vulnerable communities and renew efforts to release people abducted by Boko Haram, including with the help of international actors. The return of refugees and IDPs should be conducted on a strictly voluntary basis.
Thorough investigations must be conducted into alleged abuses by the security forces, including for crimes committed during counter-terrorism operations. The government needs to urgently undertake comprehensive security sector reform to ensure that the army and police are trained to protect civilians and prevent mass atrocities in a manner consistent with international law.
Last Updated: 14 October 2016