Increased attacks by armed bandit groups, and continued attacks by Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, leave civilians at risk of mass atrocity crimes.
Multiple security threats leave civilians in Nigeria at ongoing risk of atrocity crimes, including growing attacks by armed groups commonly referred to as “bandits,” as well as by the armed extremist groups Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the deteriorating security situation has resulted in a humanitarian emergency, with more than 8.7 million people requiring urgent assistance.
Since 2011 inter-communal violence, rooted in competition over scarce resources, has escalated in central and north-west Nigeria. Violence between herding and farming communities has become increasingly deadly as a result of the proliferation of armed groups and gangs who engage in organized cattle-rustling, kidnapping, plunder, murder and rape. The emergence and expansion of armed banditry in the north-west resulted in at least 4,900 people killed between 2018-2020 and has displaced hundreds of thousands.
Kidnappings by armed extremist groups and bandits have become endemic in northern Nigeria, with more than 950 children kidnapped since December 2020. More than 200 students remain missing.
Violence perpetrated by Boko Haram and ISWA against civilian and military targets has resulted in mass atrocities in northern Nigeria. At least 35,000 people have been killed since 2009 when Boko Haram launched its insurgency aimed at overthrowing Nigeria’s secular government and establishing an Islamic state. There are at least 2.2 million internally displaced persons in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states while health services and education have been severely disrupted. These groups have also perpetrated attacks in neighboring countries, killing and displacing civilians in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Despite the reported surrender of almost 6,000 Boko Haram fighters following the alleged death of the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, on 19 May, the armed extremist group has recently expanded into north-central Nigeria.
Responding to the multiple security crises, on 27 April Nigeria’s House of Representatives called upon President Muhammadu Buhari to immediately declare a state of emergency and impose measures to restore peace in the country.
Facing the combined threat of large-scale banditry and ongoing attacks by armed extremists, Nigeria’s armed forces have been deployed in two-thirds of the states in the country and are overstretched. Despite notable progress by the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram, civilians remain at risk of terrorist attacks and identity-based violence.
Security forces have also reportedly violated human rights during counterterrorism operations, including extrajudicial killings of suspected Boko Haram and ISWA members.
While parts of Nigeria have experienced recurring inter-communal violence, growing desertification has exacerbated the situation and arms proliferation has made these conflicts deadlier. The loss of grazing land in the north has driven many ethnic Fulani herdsmen, who are mainly Muslim, southward into areas farmed by settled communities that are predominantly Christian. Many of Nigeria’s bandit groups have formed in response to growing inter-communal conflict over land and resources. While these groups are driven largely by criminal motives, many bandits are ethnic Fulani and prey on settled farming communities, increasing ethnic tensions.
The government of Nigeria is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect populations and needs ongoing support from the international community.
The MNJTF was established in 2015 to combat armed extremism.
On 11 December 2020 the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced the completion of a preliminary examination into the situation in Nigeria, concluding that Boko Haram and Nigerian forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Court has yet to open a full investigation.
While the lack of adequate military protection for vulnerable populations needs to be urgently addressed, social initiatives and political reforms remain crucial in order to confront the root causes of conflict, including poor governance, corruption, poverty, youth unemployment and environmental degradation.
Local peace commissions established to mediate inter- communal tensions and build early warning systems, such as those in Adamawa, Kaduna and Plateau states, need to be duplicated in other high-risk regions. In keeping with its commitment to the Safe Schools Initiative, Nigeria’s federal government should also work with local communities to enhance security and bring an end to mass kidnappings of children.
Utilizing the Economic Community of West African States’ Early Warning System, the government should increase police and military deployments to vulnerable areas, while ensuring strict adherence to International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during operations. The government also needs to urgently reform the security sector, including by incorporating IHL and IHRL into all military and police training, and ensure accountability for human rights violations.