Populations at Risk Current Crisis


Mass atrocity crimes perpetrated by the extremist group Boko Haram have intensified as Nigeria prepares for 14 February general elections. Excessive use of force by the security forces also contributes to the threat of further atrocities.
BACKGROUND: On 8 January reports emerged that Boko Haram had seized and burned down the major northern border town of Baga, Borno state, and as many as 16 surrounding villages, killing large numbers of civilians. Facing increased violence and destabilization caused by Boko Haram, including the capture of a multinational military base in Baga, governors from Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states requested President Goodluck Jonathan deploy extra troops to secure the northeastern states ahead of the 14 February elections.

Boko Haram began seizing and holding territory in July 2014, in addition to continuing its traditional "hit-and-run" attacks. The group has expanded its control to more than 20 towns in the northeast covering territory in excess of 20,000 square kilometers. While some previously captured towns have partially returned to government control, grave fears exist for civilians trapped in Boko Haram-run areas, most of whom are cut off from humanitarian access.

Boko Haram has been perpetrating attacks against civilians since 2009 and is committed to overthrowing Nigeria's secular government and establishing an Islamic state. Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has vowed to kill all Muslims who "follow democracy" and has said that Boko Haram is at war "against Christians and democracy."

While Boko Haram has primarily perpetrated attacks in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, since April 2014 the group has significantly widened the scope of its operations, carrying out attacks in Abuja as well as in Gombe, Jigawa, Kano, Kaduna, Niger and Plateau states. In addition, cross-border raids into Cameroon have intensified in recent months.

The state of emergency declared by President Jonathan for Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states in May 2013 ended on 20 November 2014 when the parliament rejected his request for an extension. Despite the state of emergency, Boko Haram attacks had escalated, with more than 10,000 people killed in Boko Haram-related violence during 2014. The National Emergency Management Agency reported that more than 1.5 million people were displaced during the state of emergency, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that 200,000 Nigerians have fled to neighboring countries.

Nigerian security forces have been consistently accused of failing to provide sufficient protection to civilians from Boko Haram. There have been numerous reports of soldiers deserting their posts during Boko Haram attacks, including during the seizure of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) base in Baga. Nigerian security forces have also been accused of committing grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, against suspected Boko Haram members. On 5 August Amnesty International reported evidence of "multiple war crimes" carried out by the Nigerian military. The "Civilian Joint Task Force," a collection of civilian vigilante groups formed in response to Boko Haram, has also been implicated in grave human rights abuses.

ANALYSIS: The Nigerian government has been unable to contain the Boko Haram insurgency within its borders. Northern Nigeria has been rendered ungovernable by the ongoing violence.

General elections scheduled for 14 February present numerous challenges, including concerns regarding the ability of the government to conduct voting in states affected by Boko Haram violence. The disenfranchisement of large portions of the population, including refugees and internally displaced persons, will endanger the legitimacy of the elections. Boko Haram's opposition to the democratic process and frequent attacks on public gatherings also significantly increases the threat to voters.

Boko Haram attacks exacerbate existing social, ethnic and religious tensions, heightening the possibility of renewed inter-communal violence. Civilian displacement and ongoing insecurity have increased unemployment and poverty within Africa's largest economy. In addition to military measures, the government's Soft Approach to Countering Violent Extremism Program and political reforms addressing poor governance and corruption are crucial to confronting the root causes of conflict.

The security forces have failed to investigate multiple allegations of arbitrary detention, torture and extra-judicial killing of suspected Boko Haram members, actions which violate international human rights law and may constitute crimes against humanity. The government is also unable to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of displaced and vulnerable communities in northeast Nigeria.

The government of Nigeria is struggling to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and needs the ongoing support of the international community.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:The April abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok drew unprecedented international attention to the threat posed by Boko Haram during 2014.

During the Paris Summit of 17 May and the London Ministerial meeting of 12 June on the security situation in Nigeria, regional and international partners committed to increase coordinated action against Boko Haram. On 23 July Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon pledged to mobilize the MNJTF, a regional initiative aimed at defeating Boko Haram, with each state contributing 700 troops. On 25 November the African Union Peace and Security Council expressed "full support" for the MNJTF. Following Boko Haram's seizure of the MNJTF base, the future of the force is unclear.

Nigeria is currently an elected member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). On 10 November the UNSC issued a Press Statement condemning a Boko Haram bomb attack on a school in Potiskum, Yobe state, which killed at least 48 people. The UNSC has not passed a resolution on the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Nigeria.

NECESSARY ACTION: Greater regional and international cooperation is necessary to defeat Boko Haram and hold perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable. The UNSC should assume a more active role in addressing the situation by supporting regional efforts to defeat the insurgency, including through the MNJTF. The African Union, Economic Community of West African States and states with significant bilateral ties to Nigeria, should assist the Nigerian government in meeting humanitarian needs of affected communities.

With international support, the government needs to urgently undertake security sector reform to ensure that the army and police are trained to protect civilians and prevent mass atrocities while respecting human rights. The government should also conduct investigations into alleged abuses committed by the military against civilians.

As Nigeria prepares for the 14 February general elections, politicians should refrain from inflammatory statements that could deepen religious, ethnic and inter-communal divisions. Nigerian authorities must ensure that security forces are able to adequately protect all Nigerians and enable them to participate in the democratic process.

Last Updated: 15 January 2015