While military operations by the Nigerian army and 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 Islamist armed group continue in Nigeria as well as neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Many areas previously held by Boko Haram remain unsafe for returnees. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are currently 2.4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria and more than 187,000 Nigerian refugees in neighboring countries.
The Nigerian government's seven-year conflict with Boko Haram has claimed more than 20,000 lives and sparked an acute humanitarian crisis that now threatens famine in northeast Nigeria. During July Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that half a million people in Borno state live in "catastrophic conditions," with no access to humanitarian aid. On 22 August the World Health Organization announced that its preliminary assessment of territories previously held by Boko Haram revealed mortality rates in some areas four times higher than emergency thresholds.
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 released a video showing some of the kidnapped Chibok girls, demanding that the government release imprisoned fighters in return for them. The video emerged during a leadership struggle within Boko Haram 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. On 21 August the Niger Delta Avengers announced a ceasefire to enable talks with the government.
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 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 civilians resulted from the army using excessive force and called for those involved in the massacre to be prosecuted.
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 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. 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 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 Boko Haram.
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 confirms 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.
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.
On 16 July the EU, UN, and United States issued a joint press release calling upon international donors 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, while the EU allocated over 70 million Euros 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 contribution of 50 million Euros to support MNJTF operations.
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. 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-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: 15 September 2016