Populations at Risk Imminent Risk


The extremist Islamist group Boko Haram continues to pose an imminent threat to populations in northeast Nigeria. Excessive use of force by the security forces also contributes to the threat of further atrocities.
BACKGROUND: Attacks by Boko Haram against civilians have intensified in Nigeria since President Muhammadu Buhari's inauguration on 29 May, resulting in the death of over 800 people. Boko Haram has also increased its attacks in neighboring countries, killing civilians in Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

The recent military offensive against Boko Haram by a coalition of troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger followed significant territorial seizures by Boko Haram beginning in July 2014. By January 2015 Boko Haram had expanded its control to include most of Borno state, as well as significant territories in Adamawa and Yobe states, and had begun perpetrating cross-border raids. According to the Nigerian military, most of this territory has now been recaptured. Many areas previously held by the group across northeast Nigeria remain unsafe for the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

President Buhari pledged to eradicate Boko Haram and traveled to Niger and Chad on 3 and 4 June and to Cameroon and Benin on 29 July and 1 August to discuss a regional strategy to defeat the group. Boko Haram killed at least 42 people in attacks on N'Djamena, Chad on 15 June and 11 July. During June and July the group was suspected of killing an estimated 45 people in Niger. More than 50 people were killed in suicide bombings in Cameroon during July and on 4 August suspected Boko Haram militants killed 8 and kidnapped more than 100 people from the villages of Tchakarmari and Kangaleri in northern Cameroon.

Over 10,000 people were reportedly killed in Boko Haram-related violence during 2014. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are now 1.4 million IDPs in Nigeria, with the majority in the northeast. Niger, Cameroon and Chad host over 150,000 Nigerian refugees and thousands of people in their own countries have also been displaced by Boko Haram. OCHA has also reported an estimated 775,000 children have been displaced by the conflict. According to Action Against Hunger, over 3.5 million people are "at risk of facing acute levels of food insecurity" in Nigeria's northeast.

It has been reported that at least 2,000 women and girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram between 2014 and early 2015. According to the Nigerian military, it rescued hundreds of women and girls during April and May, many of whom had been raped while in captivity. The UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura, called upon the Nigerian government, as well as civil society organizations, to provide necessary support to those rescued from what she called a "war on women's physical, sexual and reproductive autonomy and rights."

Nigerian security forces have previously failed to provide sufficient protection from Boko Haram and there have been extensive reports of soldiers deserting during attacks. Security forces have also been accused of committing extrajudicial killings of suspected Boko Haram members. Civilian vigilante groups formed in response to Boko Haram have also been implicated in human rights abuses. On 3 June Amnesty International reported that more than 7,000 men and boys died in military detention and 1,200 had been extrajudicially executed by the Nigerian military since 2011. On 19 June the Nigerian military announced that it will investigate these allegations.

ANALYSIS: Although Boko Haram has been significantly weakened by joint military operations, it remains a regional security threat, imperiling the lives of civilians in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. While regional offensives earlier this year have reportedly driven Boko Haram out of previously occupied territories, ongoing attacks demonstrate the group's resilience and enduring threat.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram attacks exacerbate pre-existing social, ethnic and religious tensions. Displacement and insecurity have increased unemployment and poverty within Africa's largest economy. Destroyed civilian infrastructure across the northeast and the threat of continued Boko Haram attacks makes the return of refugees and IDPs difficult and dangerous and severely limits humanitarian organizations' access to populations in need. The Nigerian Soft Approach to Countering Violent Extremism program and reforms addressing poor governance and corruption are crucial to confronting the root causes of conflict.

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

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:Nigeria is currently an elected member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). On 19 January the UNSC issued a Presidential Statement condemning the escalation in Boko Haram attacks, expressing concern over the humanitarian crisis and reiterating "the primary responsibility of Member States to protect civilian populations on their territories." The UNSC has also issued four Press Statements since February regarding Boko Haram atrocities. On 28 July the UNSC issued a Presidential Statement, commending efforts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin to operationalize the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), calling on member states to comply with international law as they combat Boko Haram and to "contribute generously to the AU Trust Fund."

On 29 January the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council authorized deployment of the MNJTF, comprised of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, for an initial period of 12 months. The mandate of the force includes "the protection of civilians under immediate threat" of attack from Boko Haram. The MNJTF headquarters in N'Djamena were inaugurated on 25 May. In late July President Buhari's spokesman announced that multinational troops were now able to pursue Boko Haram fighters across borders.

On 16 February members of Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) pledged to create an $87 million emergency fund to fight Boko Haram.

On 1 April the Human Rights Council adopted a consensus resolution requesting OHCHR "document human rights violations and atrocities committed by Boko Haram, with a view towards accountability." On 1 July the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Nigeria to ease abortion restrictions for women and girls sexually abused by Boko Haram.

On 20-22 July President Buhari visited the United States, where he met with President Barack Obama and discussed ways to defeat Boko Haram. President Obama pledged monetary, training and intelligence assistance to the fight against the group. Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace on 22 July, President Buhari stated that the United States government had "aided and abetted" Boko Haram by not providing military equipment to Nigeria.

NECESSARY ACTION: Regional and international cooperation is crucial to defeating Boko Haram and holding perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable. Governments involved in military operations against Boko Haram need to ensure they mitigate the risk to civilians and strictly adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law. Families of Boko Haram members, as well as captives living in Boko Haram camps and child soldiers, need to be adequately protected and carefully reintegrated into Nigerian society. The return of refugees and IDPs should be conducted strictly on a voluntary basis. Captured Boko Haram leaders should be held accountable for crimes against humanity committed in areas under the group's command and control.

The UN, AU, Economic Community of West African States, ECCAS and states with significant bilateral ties to Nigeria, should assist the government in meeting humanitarian needs of affected communities and provide technical and military expertise. The UN Humanitarian Air Service needs to urgently open an air corridor between Abuja and Maiduguri to facilitate an improved humanitarian presence in the northeast of the country.

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 conduct thorough investigations into all abuses, including alleged extrajudicial killings committed by the military.

Last Updated: 15 August 2015