BACKGROUND: Unprecedented violence by the extremist group Boko Haram has resulted in mass atrocities perpetrated against populations in northern Nigeria. Recent Boko Haram attacks have included large-scale abductions of civilians and seizures of towns. While Boko Haram has primarily perpetrated attacks in three northern states – Adamawa, Borno and Yobe – since April the group has widened the scope of its operations, carrying out indiscriminate bombings in Abuja as well as in Jigawa, Kano and Kaduna states. It has also carried out cross-border raids into Cameroon.
Despite the ongoing military state of emergency, which was declared by President Goodluck Jonathan for Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states in May 2013, Boko Haram attacks have escalated significantly during 2014. According to the Nigeria Social Violence Project, more than 5,000 people have been killed in the first three quarters of the year, by comparison to 2,742 casualties in 2013. According to the National Emergency Management Agency of Nigeria, more than 1.5 million people have been displaced since the beginning of the state of emergency. On 23 September a spokesman for UNHCR announced that an estimated 100 Nigerian refugees cross into Cameroon every day.
During April 2014 Boko Haram abducted more than 270 girls from a boarding school in Chibok, Borno state. While some students escaped, more than 200 are still being held hostage and the group has since abducted more than 100 civilians, including children, from other towns in Borno.
Since July Boko Haram has seized several major towns, including Damboa on 20 July, Gwoza on 6 August, Bama on 1 September and Michika on 7 September. It is unclear how many towns and villages are currently under Boko Haram control, largely due to conflicting statements from the Nigerian government, which has repeatedly denied conceding territory to Boko Haram, while at the same time claiming to have recaptured some areas.
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." On 24 August Shekau declared that towns seized by Boko Haram are now "part of the Islamic state." Contradicting claims by Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities that Shekau had been killed, a video was released on 2 October featuring him and showing graphic scenes of the violent imposition of Sharia law in areas under Boko Haram control.
Nigerian security forces have been consistently accused of failing to provide sufficient protection to civilians from Boko Haram. Recurring abductions and attacks often take place without adequate response by the security forces. There have been numerous reports of soldiers deserting their posts before and during Boko Haram attacks, including in recently seized towns in Borno. The 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 released evidence of "multiple war crimes" carried out by the Nigerian military. The "Civilian Joint Task Force" (CJTF), a collection of civilian vigilante groups formed in response to Boko Haram, has also been implicated in grave human rights abuses.
On 13 October Nigerian government launched the Soft Approach to Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Program at the UN headquarters in New York. The Program aims to address the underlying causes of radicalization.
ANALYSIS: Seizure and control of towns by Boko Haram underline the growing capability of the group and demonstrates the inability of the military to improve the security situation in the northeast. The expansion of Boko Haram's attacks in Abuja and across the border in Cameroon creates a wider emergency that the government currently lacks the capacity to address.
While Boko Haram continues to target Christians, moderate Muslims, government officials and pro-government vigilantes, as well as students and teachers, indiscriminate attacks against all civilians have become frequent. Boko Haram also appears to have used young women and children as suicide bombers, drawing the most vulnerable populations further into the conflict.
The government has been unable to adequately protect populations from Boko Haram attacks, while the security forces' alleged acts of arbitrary detention, torture and extra-judicial killing of suspected Boko Haram members violate international human rights law and may constitute crimes against humanity. While the CJTF are believed to be filling some protection gaps, vigilantes have blurred the lines between civilians and the security forces and prompted reprisal attacks by Boko Haram.
Civilian displacement and ongoing insecurity has increased unemployment and poverty, leaving people without basic resources. Boko Haram attacks also exacerbate existing social, ethnic and religious tensions, heightening the possibility of renewed inter-communal violence, particularly in the volatile "Middle Belt" region. Social initiatives and political reforms, addressing poor governance, widespread corruption, as well as lack of employment and educational opportunities, are crucial to confronting the root causes of conflict in northern and central Nigeria. Without seriously addressing these issues, the possibility of ending Boko Haram's insurgency and preventing future conflict are low.
General elections scheduled for 14 February 2015 present a number of challenges, including the ability of the government to hold elections in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states.
The government of Nigeria is struggling to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and needs the ongoing support of the international community.
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:The abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in April drew unprecedented international attention to the threat posed by Boko Haram. The abduction was condemned by numerous governments as well as the UN Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN bodies. President Jonathan accepted offers from the United States, United Kingdom, France and China to provide assistance in finding and freeing the Chibok schoolgirls.
The Paris Summit of 17 May and the London Ministerial meeting of 12 June on the security situation in Nigeria affirmed commitments of regional and international partners to increase coordinated action against Boko Haram. On 23 July Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon pledged to mobilize a multinational force against Boko Haram, with each state contributing 700 troops. On 7 October the heads of state of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Benin and a representative of Cameroon's president agreed to finalize the deployment of troops within their borders by 1 November and to put in place a command center for the joint force by 20 November.
Nigeria is currently an elected member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC has not directly addressed the threat posed by Boko Haram since 9 May, but has expressed concern over cross-border attacks in statements regarding the West African region on 9 July and 17 August.
NECESSARY ACTION: Nigerian security forces must enhance protection of vulnerable communities, especially in the northeast of the country. With international assistance, the government urgently needs to undertake security sector reform to ensure that the army and police are trained to protect civilians and prevent mass atrocities while respecting human rights.
Authorities should immediately implement the Soft Approach/CVE Program. The government should also conduct investigations into alleged abuses committed by the military against civilians.
The UN, AU and Economic Community of West African States, along with states with significant bilateral ties to Nigeria, such as the United States and United Kingdom, should continue to assist the government in upholding its Responsibility to Protect its population. These actors should urge the authorities to strengthen the rule of law and ensure accountability for all grave human rights violations.
As Nigeria prepares for the 2015 general elections, politicians from all parties should refrain from inflammatory statements that could deepen religious, ethnic and inter-communal divisions. Nigerian authorities must ensure that citizens residing in the area under the state of emergency and IDPs are not disenfranchised.
Last Updated: 15 October 2014