BACKGROUND: Unprecedented violence by the extremist group Boko Haram over the past six months has resulted in mass atrocities perpetrated against populations in northern Nigeria. Recent Boko Haram attacks have included large-scale abductions of civilians and seizures of towns. While Boko Haram has primarily perpetrated attacks in three northern states – Adamawa, Borno and Yobe – since April the group has widened the scope of its operations, indiscriminately bombing locations in Abuja as well as in Jigawa, Kano and Kaduna states. It has also carried out cross-border raids into Cameroon.
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 in the past year. Boko Haram has killed more than 3,300 civilians since the state of emergency began, by comparison to less than 2,500 casualties in the four years prior. According to UNHCR, more than 650,000 people have been displaced since May 2013.
During April 2014 Boko Haram abducted more than 270 girls from a boarding school in Chibok, Borno state. While some students escaped, more than 200 are still being held hostage and the group has since abducted more than 100 civilians from other towns in Borno.
Since July Boko Haram has seized major towns, resulting in widespread civilian displacement. The group has captured at least six major areas of Borno state, including Damboa on 20 July, Gwoza on 6 August and Bama on 1 September. At the time of publication civilians were fleeing Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, claiming it was encircled by Boko Haram and fearing it was the next target for a major assault.
Boko Haram has been perpetrating attacks against civilians since 2009 and 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." On 24 August Shekau declared that towns seized by Boko Haram are now "part of the Islamic state."
Nigerian security forces have been consistently accused of failing to provide sufficient protection to civilians from Boko Haram. Recurring abductions and attacks often take place without adequate response by the security forces. There have been numerous reports of soldiers deserting their posts before and during Boko Haram attacks, including in recently seized towns in Borno.
The security forces have also been accused of committing grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, against suspected Boko Haram members. On 5 August Amnesty International released evidence of "multiple war crimes" carried out by the Nigerian military. The "Civilian Joint Task Force" (CJTF), a collection of civilian vigilante groups formed in response to Boko Haram, has also been implicated in grave human rights abuses.
ANALYSIS: Seizure and control of towns by Boko Haram underlines the growing capability of the group and demonstrates the inability of the military to improve the security situation in the northeast. As Boko Haram's attacks intensify, Nigeria risks losing control of Borno state entirely. The expansion of Boko Haram's attacks in Abuja and across the border in Cameroon creates a wider emergency that the government currently lacks the capacity to address.
While Boko Haram continues to target Christians, moderate Muslims, government officials and pro-government vigilantes, as well as students and teachers, there has been a significant increase in indiscriminate attacks against all civilians. Boko Haram also appears to have started using young women and children as suicide bombers, drawing the most vulnerable populations further into the conflict. Civilian displacement and ongoing insecurity has increased unemployment and poverty, leaving people without basic resources. Boko Haram attacks also exacerbate existing social, ethnic and religious tensions, heightening the possibility of renewed inter-communal violence, particularly in the volatile "Middle Belt" region.
The government has been unable to adequately protect populations from Boko Haram attacks, while the security forces' alleged acts of arbitrary detention and extra-judicial killing of suspected Boko Haram members violate international human rights law and may constitute crimes against humanity. While the CJTF are believed to be filling some protection gaps, vigilantes have blurred the lines between civilians and the security forces and prompted reprisal attacks by Boko Haram.
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, as well as lack of employment opportunities. Without seriously addressing these issues, the possibility of ending Boko Haram's insurgency and preventing future conflict are minimal.
General elections scheduled for 2015 may further exacerbate growing political tensions.
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 in April drew unprecedented international attention to the threat posed by Boko Haram. The abduction was condemned by numerous governments as well as the UN Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN bodies. President Jonathan accepted offers from the United States, United Kingdom, France and China to provide assistance in finding and freeing the Chibok schoolgirls.
Nigeria is currently an elected member of the UNSC. The UNSC has not directly addressed the threat posed by Boko Haram since 9 May, but has expressed concern over cross-border attacks in statements regarding the West African region on 9 July and 17 August.
On 23 July Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon pledged to mobilize a joint force against Boko Haram, with each state contributing 700 troops. Cameroon has also increased border security in response to recent Boko Haram incursions.
The Paris Summit of 17 May and the London Ministerial meeting of 12 June on the security situation in Nigeria affirmed commitments of regional and international partners to increase coordinated action against Boko Haram. On 3 September, following the fall of Bama, foreign ministers from neighboring states and representatives from the UN and AU as well as the United States, United Kingdom, France and Canada met to review progress since the Paris and London meetings and offer further military support.
NECESSARY ACTION: Nigerian security forces must enhance protection of vulnerable communities, especially in the northeast of the country. With international assistance, the government urgently needs to undertake 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 implementing the government's declared "soft approach," aimed at addressing underlying causes of conflict and undermining Boko Haram. Reforms should be expanded to central and northwestern states where recurring inter-communal conflict also threatens safety and security. The government should also conduct investigations into alleged grave abuses committed by the military against civilians.
The UN, AU 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 September 2014