Populations at Risk Serious Concern


Mass atrocity crimes continue to be threatened by the extremist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Excessive use of force by security forces, recurring inter-communal violence and ongoing instability in several other regions also constitute a serious threat to civilians.
While military operations by the Nigerian army and the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) have recovered most of the territory once held by Boko Haram, sporadic attacks continue in the Lake Chad Basin region, with 21 million people living in the affected regions and many areas still unsafe for returnees. The Nigerian government's seven-year conflict with the armed extremist group Boko Haram has claimed more than 20,000 lives.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are currently 2.6 million people displaced in the Lake Chad region, with the majority in Nigeria. The Boko Haram conflict has resulted in a humanitarian crisis in parts of Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, resulting in extreme food shortages and famine-like conditions.

Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of civilians during its insurgency, often targeting schools for attack, including the 2014 abduction of 276 girls from Chibok and the 2015 abduction of 300 elementary students in Damasak. The vast majority of abducted children remain missing.

On 13 October Boko Haram freed 21 girls kidnapped from Chibok as a result of talks brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the government of Switzerland. The negotiations took place 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 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Soon after the release of the girls on 17 October, Boko Haram overran a military camp in Gashigar, on the border with Niger, killing 13 soldiers.

As the government continues to confront Boko Haram, several other localized conflicts, rooted in long-standing grievances over land and resource allocation, have reignited 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 during 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.

Nigerian security forces have been widely accused of failing to adequately protect populations and of committing human rights abuses against civilians, including raping women and girls displaced by Boko Haram. On 1 September Nigerian military authorities confirmed that some soldiers had been secretly selling arms and ammunition to Boko Haram.

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, 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 for 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 29 October the African Union (AU) announced it had provided the MNJTF with additional vehicles to improve its capacity to fight Boko Haram.

The international response to the situation in Nigeria is currently primarily focused on alleviating the humanitarian crisis in the northeast.

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 of Nigeria must 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 provide protection to all vulnerable communities and renew efforts to release people abducted by Boko Haram. The return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) should be conducted on a strictly voluntary basis.

Thorough investigations must be conducted 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 November 2016