Increased attacks by armed bandit groups, as well as continued attacks by Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, leave civilians at risk of mass atrocity crimes.
Since 2011 violence between herding and farming communities, rooted in competition over scarce resources, has escalated in central and north-west Nigeria. Alongside this persistent violence, armed banditry has expanded in north-west Nigeria, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, armed bandit groups killed more than 2,600 civilians in 2021, an increase of over 250 percent compared with 2020. Between January and March 2022 at least 360 people were killed by bandits in Kaduna State alone, while on 10 April more than 100 people were killed in attacks on several communities in the Kanam Local Government Area of Plateau State.
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. Between 24 May and 7 June 2022 at least 60 civilians were killed by Boko Haram in Dikwa local government area, Borno State. According to Nigerian authorities, ISWA killed at least 40 people, including children, during an attack on a church on 5 June in Owo, Ondo State. More than 35,000 people have been killed in northern Nigeria since 2009 when Boko Haram launched its insurgency aimed at overthrowing Nigeria’s secular government and establishing an Islamic state. There are at least 1.8 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.
Responding to the multiple security crises, in September 2021 the Nigerian government launched renewed campaigns in the north-west, including deploying large numbers of troops, cutting off communication networks and imposing restrictions on movement. Increased military operations against extremist hideouts have reportedly killed hundreds of fighters. In January 2022, under the Terrorism Prevention Act, the government designated bandit groups as “terrorists.”
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the security situation has resulted in a humanitarian emergency, with more than 8.4 million people – approximately 80 percent of whom are women and children – requiring urgent assistance.
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 expand their areas of operation. 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. During counterterrorism operations security forces have reportedly committed human rights violations and used excessive force, including extrajudicial killings, against suspected Boko Haram and ISWA members.
Recurring violence between herding and farming communities has become increasingly deadly as a result of the proliferation of armed groups, bandits and gangs who engage in organized cattle-rustling, kidnapping, plunder, murder and rape. 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.
Growing desertification has exacerbated tensions between communities as 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. Recent historic flooding, which displaced 1.4 million people and killed at least 600, heightens the risk of food scarcity and resource-based conflict.
The government of Nigeria is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect and needs ongoing support from the international community.
In 2015 the African Union authorized the MNJTF 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 security forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. During a visit to Nigeria in April 2022 the Chief Prosecutor reminded the Nigerian authorities of their legal obligations under the Rome Statute to conduct effective, genuine and meaningful national investigations and prosecutions for atrocity crimes.
On 10 January 2022 UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement condemning bandit attacks in Zamfara State and urged the Nigerian authorities to bring those responsible to justice.
In July 2022 the UN Children’s Fund and the World Food Programme launched the Resilience and Social Cohesion Project, aimed at enhancing peace, increasing livelihood opportunities and providing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations in Borno and Yobe states.
During late October the embassies of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia issued warnings for an elevated risk of terror attacks in Nigeria, specifically in Abuja.
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.
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 Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (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.