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, the armed extremist group and the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) have intensified their attacks in the north-east of Nigeria over the past year. On 14 December at least 19 ethnic Fulani herders were killed by Boko Haram fighters in Fuhe village, close to the Cameroonian border. On 6 January at least 30 people were killed when an improvised explosive device detonated on a bridge in Borno State.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 35,000 people have been killed since 2009 and 1.8 million are 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 with Boko Haram.
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,” including special villages with basic infrastructure, to accommodate pastoralist groups and their livestock. Due to strong criticism and increasing tensions, the launch of the project was indefinitely postponed.
During 2019 there was also an increase in armed banditry in Zamfara and Katsina states despite efforts by the security forces to neutralize such groups. As a result, an estimated 60,000 people are internally displaced in Zamfara, while more than 200 civilians were killed by bandits in attacks on villages over the year.
Although the “Middle Belt” region has experienced recurring inter-communal violence, growing desertification has exacerbated 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.
Since 2018 Boko Haram and ISWA have grown in power and influence. Although the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has made significant progress, the ongoing threat leaves civilians at risk of terrorist attacks and identity-based violence. Nigerian security forces have also been implicated in human rights abuses during operations against Boko Haram, ISWA and other armed groups.
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.”
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.
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