Increased attacks by Boko Haram and inter-communal violence in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” region leave civilians at risk of mass atrocity crimes.
Multiple security threats continue to leave civilians in Nigeria at risk of mass atrocity crimes, including increased attacks by the armed extremist group Boko Haram and recurring inter-communal violence in the “Middle Belt” region.
Despite claims by the government that it had defeated Boko Haram, over the past year the armed extremist group and the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) have intensified their attacks in the north-east of Nigeria. On 6 January at least 30 people were killed when an Improvised Explosive Device detonated in Gamboru, Borno State. Two days later, an attack by ISWA on the village of Monguno, Borno State, resulted in at least 20 soldiers being killed, 750 houses destroyed and 1,000 civilians displaced. In response to an increase in attacks since December 2019, the Nigerian military has forcibly displaced entire villages in the north-east and has reportedly arbitrarily detained individuals suspected of supporting armed extremist groups.
Since 2009 Boko Haram has pursued a violent campaign aimed at overthrowing Nigeria’s secular government. According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 35,000 people have been killed since 2009 and 1.8 million remain internally displaced in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states as a result of insecurity caused by Boko Haram. The International Committee of the Red Cross also reported that at least 22,000 people are still missing due to the decades-long conflict. In recent years Boko Haram’s attacks have expanded into neighboring states in the Lake Chad Basin, killing and displacing civilians in Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Conflict in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt,” rooted in historical grievances between herders and farming communities, has also escalated in recent years. According to Amnesty International, 3,641 people were killed in clashes between herders and farming communities between January 2016 and October 2018. Hundreds of people were also killed in clashes in Kaduna, Nassarawa and Adamawa states between February and April 2019. In an attempt to reduce violence, during June the government proposed a new program of so-called “rural grazing areas” to accommodate pastoralist groups and their livestock. Due to strong criticism, the project was indefinitely postponed.
Since 2019 Nigeria has also experienced an increase in armed banditry in Zamfara, Kaduna and Katsina states despite efforts by the security forces to neutralize such groups. On 1 March at least 50 people were killed when armed men stormed into the villages of Kerawa, Zareyawa and Minda in Kaduna State in retaliation for villagers allegedly assisting the army in operations. More than 60,000 people remain displaced as a result of banditry in Zamfara State.
Although the “Middle Belt” region has experienced recurring inter-communal violence, growing desertification has increased competition for resources. 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 predominately Christian. Arms proliferation has helped make these conflicts more deadly.
Since 2018 Boko Haram and ISWA have grown in power and influence. Although the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has made significant progress in confronting these groups, civilians remain at risk of terrorist attacks and identity-based violence. Civilians also face the threat of human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian security forces during counter-terrorism operations.
The government of Nigeria is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect and needs ongoing support from the international community.
The regional MNJTF has led efforts to combat Boko Haram since 2015. On 19 August 2018 the UN Secretary-General called for “the international community to increase support to regional efforts in the fight against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin.”
In September 2019, during her visit to Nigeria, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions condemned rising violence across Nigeria and a “lack of accountability” for perpetrators.
It is essential that the government of Nigeria addresses the root causes of inter-communal violence in the “Middle Belt” through socio-economic initiatives and political reforms that tackle land rights and poor governance. The government should work with local civil society to ameliorate long-standing grievances between herding and settled communities. Utilizing the Early Warning System of the Economic Community of West African States, the government should increase police and military deployments to vulnerable areas. The government should also implement its “National Policy on Climate Change and Response Strategy” and accelerate initiatives in regions affected by drought and desertification.
The Nigerian government should continue to support programs that strengthen local security and bolster the rule of law in areas where ISWA and Boko Haram attacks continue. Such efforts should address comprehensive security sector reform, including by incorporating international humanitarian and human rights law into all military and police training. The government and international community should increase efforts to prevent illicit arms being trafficked into Nigeria.
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