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 mass atrocity crimes.
Since 2011 recurrent violence between herding and farming communities, rooted in competition over scarce resources, has escalated in central and north-west Nigeria with armed groups and gangs engaging in organized cattle-rustling, kidnapping, plunder, murder and rape. Largely in response to growing inter-communal conflict, armed bandit groups have formed and perpetrated widespread abuses, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Many bandit groups are comprised of ethnic Fulani and prey on settled farming communities. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), armed bandit groups killed more than 2,600 civilians in 2021, an increase of over 250 percent compared with 2020. In January 2022, under the Terrorism Prevention Act, the Nigerian government designated these groups as “terrorists.” In an attempt to curb the activities of armed bandits, the government has intensified its military operations in affected areas, including through airstrikes where such groups operate.
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. 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. Their tactics include killings, 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 the civilian population. There are at least 1.8 million internally displaced persons in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe 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. In 2015 the African Union authorized the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to combat armed extremism.
During counterterrorism operations, Nigerian security forces have reportedly committed human rights violations and used excessive force, including extrajudicial killings, rape and 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.
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 both committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
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. 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.
The actions of armed bandits pose an enormous risk to populations in north-west and north-central Nigeria. During the first week of February 2023 at least 100 people were killed in armed clashes between bandits and local vigilantes in Kankara local government area, Katsina State.
Increased military operations against extremist hideouts and in areas where armed bandits operate have resulted in civilian casualties in recent months. On 24 January at least 40 civilians, predominantly from the ethnic Fulani community, were killed by a military airstrike in Rukubi village, at the border of Nasawara and Benue states. In December 2022 a similar airstrike targeting bandits in Zamfara State reportedly killed at least 64 civilians. On 2 February the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide issued a statement urging the Nigerian authorities to ensure that counterterrorism operations are conducted in full respect of International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and called upon the authorities to investigate the airstrikes and hold perpetrators accountable.
Nigeria’s general elections, held on 25 February, were accompanied by an increase of violence, political infighting and a growing number of protests. In the 12 months preceding the elections, ACLED recorded more than 200 violent incidents involving party members and supporters, resulting in nearly 100 people reportedly killed. Unarmed civilians were the target in 80 percent of these incidents. ACLED also recorded 23 violent incidents targeting the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) offices and staff during that time.
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 MNJTF against Boko Haram, civilians remain at risk of terrorist attacks and identity-based violence.
While armed bandit groups are driven largely by criminal motives, many bandits are ethnic Fulani and prey on settled farming communities, increasing and exacerbating ethnic tensions. Since late 2020, armed bandits have shifted their tactics and also carry out mass abductions for ransom, as well as looting and extorting villages.
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. Historic flooding during the second half of 2022, which displaced 1.4 million people and killed at least 600, heightens the risk of food scarcity and resource-based conflict.
The attacks against INEC offices and election infrastructure aimed to undermine the electoral process. The weapons used in attacks on INEC offices ahead of the general elections, including explosives, show a significant increase in the capacity and strength of armed actors.
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 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.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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