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: Despite recent military defeats, sporadic attacks by Boko Haram against civilians in Nigeria and neighboring countries continue. Many areas previously held by the group across northeast Nigeria are still not sufficiently protected and remain unsafe for the return of refugees and IDPs. For example, Boko Haram reportedly kidnapped more than 400 women and children from Damasak, Borno state, after the town was recaptured by troops from Chad and Niger during March.

Amnesty International has reported that at least 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped by Boko Haram since the beginning of 2014. The Nigerian military claims it has over 700 women and girls during April and May. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein said on 1 April that his office received reports that Boko Haram militants had killed many women and girls they previously held as "wives" while retreating from the military. According to the High Commissioner, these acts may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The recent military offensive against Boko Haram, including the authorization of the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and combined military operations conducted by 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 attacks.

Over 10,000 people were reportedly killed in Boko Haram-related violence during 2014, while more than 3,000 have been killed so far during 2015. According to UNHCR, as of March 2015 there were more than 1.2 million IDPs in Nigeria, with the majority in the northeast. Niger, Cameroon and Chad host more than 192,000 refugees and thousands of people in their own countries have also been displaced by Boko Haram attacks. UNICEF reported on 13 April that among the IDPs and refugees are 800,000 children.

Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has vowed to kill all Muslims who "follow democracy" and said that the group is at war "against Christians and democracy." Despite threatening widespread attacks and killing more than a dozen voters on 28 March, Boko Haram was not able to seriously disrupt the elections. Muhammadu Buhari defeated President Goodluck Jonathan and will take office on 29 May.

Nigerian security forces have often failed to provide sufficient protection from Boko Haram and there have been extensive reports of soldiers deserting their posts during prior 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.

ANALYSIS: Although the group has been significantly weakened by recent combined military operations, Boko Haram's insurgency remains a regional security threat, imperiling the lives of civilians in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. While the recent offensives have driven Boko Haram out of previously occupied towns and villages, the group still has major bases in the Sambisa Forest.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram attacks continue to 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 also makes it difficult for the return of refugees and IDPs, aggravating the humanitarian crisis.

The government's Soft Approach to Countering Violent Extremism program and reforms addressing poor governance and corruption are crucial to confronting the root causes of conflict. President-elect Buhari has promised to defeat Boko Haram, but his government's determination and capacity to engage in structural reform of the security forces and government institutions remains unclear.

Nigerian authorities have previously failed to adequately investigate allegations of the security forces' arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killing of suspected Boko Haram members.

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 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 29 January the AU PSC authorized the MNJTF's deployment 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. From 5 to 7 February a high-level meeting convened in Cameroon produced a draft Concept of Operations (CONOPs) for the MNJTF and announced contributions of 8,700 military, police and civilian personnel. Despite these measures, the MNJTF is not yet operational.

On 16 February members of the 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."

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 during anti-Boko Haram operations and strictly adhere to IHL and international 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 reintegrated into Nigerian society.

The UNSC should actively support regional efforts to defeat Boko Haram. The AU, Economic Community for 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. Captured Boko Haram leaders should be held accountable for crimes against humanity committed in areas under the group's command and control.

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 May 2015