Attacks by armed bandit groups, as well as continued violence by Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, leave civilians in Nigeria at risk of atrocity crimes.
For more than a decade, civilians in Nigeria have faced multiple security threats and risk of atrocities as result of attacks, kidnappings and extortion by various non-state armed groups. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the security situation has resulted in a humanitarian emergency, with more than 8.3 million people – approximately 80 percent of whom are women and children – requiring urgent assistance.
Since 2011 recurrent violence between herding and farming communities, rooted in competition over scarce resources, has escalated in central and north-west Nigeria. Largely in response to these growing tensions, armed groups and gangs, including so-called “bandits,” have formed. For years such groups have perpetrated widespread atrocities, including murder, rape, kidnapping, organized cattle-rustling and plunder. Armed bandits are also occupying vast swaths of farmland, prompting many farmers to abandon their land out of fear of attack.
Violence perpetrated by armed extremist groups, namely Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), against civilian and military targets has also resulted in mass atrocities in northern Nigeria. In 2009 Boko Haram launched an insurgency aimed at overthrowing Nigeria’s secular government and establishing an Islamic state. In 2015 the African Union authorized the regional Multinational Joint Task Force to combat armed extremism, but the threat posed by the groups persists. More than 35,000 people are estimated to have been killed as a result of Boko Haram attacks between 2009 and 2020. Their tactics include suicide bombings, abductions, torture, rape, forced marriages and the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as attacks that are directed against government infrastructure, traditional and religious leaders and civilians.
During counterterrorism operations, Nigerian security forces have reportedly committed human rights violations and used excessive force, including extrajudicial killings, rape, torture and arbitrary detentions against suspected Boko Haram and ISWA members, as well as civilians. The Nigerian military has allegedly run a secret, systematic and illegal abortion program in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states that has terminated at least 10,000 pregnancies since 2013, according to an investigation by Reuters. Many of the women and girls in the abortion program had been kidnapped, forcibly married, beaten and repeatedly raped by members of Boko Haram. In attempts to curb the activities of armed bandits, the government has intensified its military operations in affected areas since late 2021, including through indiscriminate airstrikes where such groups operate that have resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties.
On 11 December 2020 the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced the completion of a preliminary examination into the situation in Nigeria, concluding that there is reasonable basis to believe that Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
During late 2023 civilians faced intensified violence across Nigeria, and near-daily attacks by armed groups resulting in kidnappings and violence against civilians continued unabated. On 25 November at least 150 civilians, including women and children, were kidnapped in a coordinated attack by armed groups on four villages in Zamfara State. In a string of well-coordinated attacks by suspected nomadic herders, at least 20 communities were targeted in remote villages in north-central Plateau State between 23-25 December, killing at least 190 people and injuring 300 others. From 23-24 January at least 30 people were killed in clashes between herder and farmer communities in several villages between the Mangu and Barkin Ladi local government areas in Plateau State. On 3 January at least 17 people were killed and 42 kidnapped after bandits attacked Kajuru and Kauru local government areas in Kaduna State. During an attack on 13 February in Kaura Namoda, Zamfara State, armed men kidnapped at least 40 people, including women, children and elderly men.
On 5 December at least 85 civilians were killed and dozens severely injured when airstrikes by the Nigerian army struck a religious ceremony in Tudun Biri, Kaduna State. Victims who could not be identified were buried in mass graves. While the government initially claimed the airstrikes were an accident, the army later stated it had wrongly analyzed and misinterpreted the group’s pattern of activities and considered them similar to bandits. Following the attacks, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights reminded Nigeria of its legal obligation to observe the utmost precautions and care when undertaking military operations.
At least 40 people were killed in Gurokayeya village, Gaidam local government area in Yobe State on 1 November, when suspected Boko Haram fighters shot and killed civilians and set off a landmine. On 5 November Boko Haram attacked and killed at least 15 farmers and abducted an unspecified number of others in three villages in the Mafa local government area, Borno State. An aggressive attack on Kukarita village, Yobe State, resulted in an unconfirmed number of civilians burnt and shot dead on 4 February.
Nigeria’s armed forces have been deployed in two-thirds of the states in the country and are overstretched as Boko Haram, ISWA and bandit groups continue to expand their areas of operation. Over the past several years, Nigeria’s military has perpetrated deadly and erroneous airstrikes. Such indiscriminate airstrikes raise concerns about the military’s identification of legitimate targets and disregard for civilian casualties. While the authorities have issued apologies and acknowledged responsibility, minimal steps have been taken to seek justice or accountability or to ensure military operations minimize civilian harm.
Violence between herders and farmers has increased over the past decade as population growth has led to an expansion of the area dedicated to farming, leaving less land available for open grazing by cattle. Growing desertification has also exacerbated tensions between communities as the loss of grazing land in the north has driven many ethnic Fulani herdsmen southward into areas farmed by settled communities that are predominantly Christian. While armed bandit groups are driven largely by criminal motives, many bandits are ethnic Fulani and prey on settled farming communities, exacerbating existing ethnic tensions.
While the lack of adequate military protection for vulnerable populations needs to be urgently addressed, social initiatives and political reforms remain crucial for confronting 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. The federal government and state authorities must improve coordination to develop a common strategy that addresses the country’s protection issues.
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 IHL and IHRL 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.
The government of Nigeria needs to investigate all attacks against civilians and hold perpetrators of atrocity crimes accountable. The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC must immediately request authorization to open an investigation into alleged crimes committed by armed extremist groups and government security forces.