BACKGROUND: The seven-year Boko Haram conflict, which has claimed more than 20,000 lives, has sparked an acute humanitarian crisis and the risk of famine in northeast Nigeria. On 22 June Médecins Sans Frontières reported that a "catastrophic humanitarian emergency" was unfolding at an IDP camp in Bama, Borno state, where at least 1,233 people have died in the past year, many from starvation or illness. According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), an estimated quarter of a million children in Borno state are severely malnourished and will start dying from acute malnutrition if appropriate measures are not urgently taken.
While military operations by the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) have recovered an estimated 80 percent of the territory once held by Boko Haram, sporadic attacks by the extremist group continue in Nigeria as well as neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Many areas remain unsafe for returnees. According to OCHA, there are currently 2.4 million IDPs in Nigeria and 155,000 Nigerian refugees in neighboring countries.
According to the UN Children's Fund, 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. The group has also 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. On 14 August Boko Haram published a video showing some of the girls kidnapped in Chibok, demanding that the government release imprisoned fighters in return for the girls.
On 3 August the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) appointed Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of Boko Haram. Al-Barnawi criticized the group's killings of Muslims – the majority of Boko Haram victims – and vowed to target Christians. In signs of a growing split, al-Barnawi's leadership was rejected in a statement by the current Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, who declared allegiance to ISIL in March 2015.
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. On 1 August the government resumed payment of stipends to ex-militants as per the amnesty deal negotiated in 2009, in a reported attempt to curb new attacks.
Nigerian security forces have been consistently accused of failing to protect populations and committing human rights abuses against civilians, including arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings, as well as of concealing evidence of such crimes. At least 347 civilians were killed during clashes between security forces and a Shia group, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, in Zaria, Kaduna state during December 2015. The final report of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry, released by the Kaduna state government on 31 July, confirmed that the deaths of 347 Shia Muslims in Zaria resulted from the army using excessive force and called for those involved in the massacre to be prosecuted.
ANALYSIS: 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 largest economy, which is already experiencing a severe decrease in government revenue due to depressed oil prices. Destroyed civilian infrastructure across the northeast and 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 have resulted in an acute food crisis, making basic commodities unaffordable and inaccessible to most people in the northeast.
Potential infighting for leadership over Boko Haram could result in dire consequences for populations as the rival leaders attempt to assert their control over the group. Al-Barnawi's declared intention to target Christians could further exacerbate religious tensions across the country.
The reemergence 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 the Boko Haram insurgency. Although much of the government's attention has been directed towards defeating Boko Haram, other conflicts also threaten the stability of the state and have the potential to fracture Nigerian society.
While the recently-established Human Rights Desk within the Nigerian army is a welcome development, the scale and frequency of human rights abuses committed by the security forces confirm the necessity of comprehensive security sector reform.
The government of Nigeria currently lacks the capacity to adequately uphold its Responsibility to Protect and needs ongoing support from the international community.
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: On 14 May representatives from the four Lake Chad Basin states, together with international partners, including the 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 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.
On 16 July the EU, UN, and the United States issued a joint press release calling on the international donor community to increase support for the emergency humanitarian response in the Lake Chad Basin. The United States announced an increase in its support to a total of $112 million this fiscal year, while the EU allocated over €70 million in 2016 to support humanitarian efforts in the Lake Chad Basin. On 1 August the EU Commission signed an agreement with the AU Commission announcing a €50 million contribution to support MNJTF operations.
UNICEF temporarily suspended humanitarian assistance missions in high risk areas after a convoy was attacked on 28 July as it returned to Maiduguri after delivering aid in Bama. Despite the suspension, the agency announced plans to scale-up its response in Borno state to address the humanitarian crisis.
NECESSARY ACTION: Humanitarian relief efforts remain significantly underfunded, preventing delivery of life-saving assistance. The international donor community must increase financial support for emergency response in Nigeria. Pledged funds must be released as soon as possible.
As Nigeria faces multiple security crises it is essential for the government to prioritize the protection of vulnerable civilians. However, 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 IHL and IHRL. Captured Boko Haram leaders should be held accountable for crimes against humanity committed in areas under the group's command and control.
Greater steps must be taken to rescue and reintegrate civilians abducted by Boko Haram. The return of refugees and IDPs should be conducted on a strictly voluntary basis.
The Human Rights Desk within the Nigerian army must conduct thorough investigations into alleged abuses by the security forces, including for crimes committed during counter-insurgency 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: 15 August 2016