BACKGROUND:The extremist group Boko Haram, which has been perpetrating attacks against civilians since 2009, 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 and their constitution."
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 during the first half of 2014. According to Human Rights Watch more than 2,050 civilians have been killed by Boko Haram since January. On 23 June the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that there are currently nearly 650,000 internally displaced persons in northeast Nigeria.
Boko Haram considers secular education "un-Islamic" and often attacks schools, killing students and staff. According to the Nigerian National Union of Teachers, 173 teachers have been killed by Boko Haram in the past five years. On 14 April Boko Haram abducted more than 230 girls from a boarding school in Chibok, Borno state. More than 200 are still being held captive. An additional 118 people, mostly women and children, were abducted following attacks during May and June.
Nigerian security forces have been consistently accused of failing to provide protection to civilians from Boko Haram. Recurring abductions and attacks often take place without adequate response by the security forces. The security forces have also been accused of committing grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, when they do confront Boko Haram.
Boko Haram continues to expand its activity outside the area under the state of emergency. An explosion on 25 June at a shopping plaza in Abuja killed at least 24 people, the third major bomb attack on the capital in three months. Another explosion on 28 June killed 11 people when a brothel was attacked in the capital of Bauchi state.
ANALYSIS: Civilians in Nigeria are at a high risk of mass atrocity crimes as the frequency and geographical spread of attacks have increased during 2014. As Boko Haram continues to target Christians, moderate Muslims, government officials, pro-government vigilantes, students and teachers, there has also been a growing pattern of indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
Boko Haram attacks also exacerbate existing local tensions, heightening the possibility of inter-communal violence, particularly in the volatile "Middle Belt" region.
The government has so far been unable to adequately protect populations from the threat posed by Boko Haram or to prevent recurring inter-communal violence in central Nigeria. The security forces' alleged acts of arbitrary detention and extra-judicial killing of suspected Boko Haram members may violate international human rights law.
While the lack of adequate military protection for vulnerable populations needs to be urgently addressed, social initiatives and political reforms remain crucial to confronting the root causes of conflict in northern and central Nigeria. Conflict in Nigeria stems from a number of sources, including poor governance, widespread corruption, disputes over land and water rights and unemployment. Without seriously addressing these issues, the chances of ending Boko Haram's insurgency and preventing future conflict are slim.
General elections scheduled for 2015 may further exacerbate tensions if politicians manipulate ongoing instability as well as religious and ethnic identities to serve political interests.
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 has drawn unprecedented international attention to the threat posed by Boko Haram. The abduction was strongly condemned by numerous governments as well as the UN Secretary-General and the UN Children's Fund. On 6 May the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warned perpetrators that acts related to sexual slavery can constitute crimes against humanity. President Jonathan accepted offers from the United States, United Kingdom, France and China to provide assistance in finding and freeing the Chibok schoolgirls.
On 17 May President François Hollande of France hosted a summit on Boko Haram, bringing together President Jonathan, his regional counterparts from Benin, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, as well as representatives from the United Kingdom, United States and European Union Participants agreed to coordinate action against Boko Haram. During June these governments established an External Intelligence Response Unit to share security information on terrorist threats in West Africa.
On 12 June the United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, hosted a meeting aimed at further improving international and regional efforts to defeat Boko Haram. The United Kingdom announced increased military and educational aid.
On 30 June the UN Secretary-General strongly condemned attacks on civilians and "reiterate[d] the readiness of the United Nations to support Nigeria as it responds to this challenge in a manner consistent with its international human rights obligations."
NECESSARY ACTION: Nigerian security forces must enhance protection of vulnerable communities, especially in the northeast of the country. With international assistance, the government should advance security sector reform to ensure that the army and police are trained to prevent mass atrocities while respecting human rights.
Authorities should complement their security response by also implementing the government's declared "soft approach," aimed at addressing underlying causes of conflict and undermining the Boko Haram insurgency. Reforms undertaken as part of the "soft approach" should be expanded to central and northwestern states where recurring inter-communal conflict also threatens safety and security.
The UN, African Union 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.
Last Updated: 15 July 2014