Increased attacks by Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, as well as armed bandit groups, leave civilians at risk of mass atrocity crimes.
Multiple security threats leave civilians in Nigeria at ongoing risk of atrocity crimes, including increased attacks by the armed extremist groups Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), as well as by armed groups commonly referred to as “bandits.” The deteriorating security situation in Nigeria has resulted in a humanitarian emergency, further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 8.7 million people require urgent assistance.
Violence perpetrated by Boko Haram and ISWA against civilian and military targets has resulted in mass atrocities in northern Nigeria. At least 35,000 people have been killed since 2009 when Boko Haram launched its insurgency aimed at overthrowing Nigeria’s secular government and establish an Islamic state. At least 2.2 million people are currently internally displaced 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. Although Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, reportedly died on 19 May 2021, the group remains a threat to populations.
Since 2011 inter-communal violence, rooted in competition over scarce resources, has escalated in central and north-west Nigeria. Violence between herding and farming communities have become increasingly deadly as result of the proliferation of armed groups and gangs who engage in organized cattle-rustling, kidnapping, plunder, murder and rape. The emergence and expansion of armed banditry in the north-west resulted in more than 1,600 people killed during the first half of 2020 and has displaced more than 300,000 civilians in Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Niger and Kebbi states over the past year.
Kidnappings by armed extremist groups and bandits have become endemic in northern Nigeria, with more than 950 children kidnapped since December 2020. Between 20-21 August armed men also kidnapped at least 75 people, mainly children and the elderly, from Rini, Zamfara State.
Responding to the multiple security crises, on 27 April Nigeria’s House of Representatives called upon President Muhammadu Buhari to immediately declare a state of emergency and impose measures to restore peace in the country.
Facing the combined threat of large-scale banditry and ongoing attacks by armed extremists, Nigeria’s armed forces have been deployed in two-thirds of the states in the country and are overstretched. President Buhari is facing increased criticism for the government’s inability to protect civilians. Despite significant progress by the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram, civilians remain at risk of terrorist attacks and identity-based violence.
Security forces have also reportedly violated human rights during counterterrorism operations, including extrajudicial killings of suspected Boko Haram and ISWA members.
While parts of Nigeria have experienced recurring inter-communal violence, growing desertification has exacerbated the situation and arms proliferation has made these conflicts deadlier. 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.
Many of Nigeria’s bandit groups have been formed over the past decade 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.
The government of Nigeria is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect populations and needs ongoing support from the international community.
The MNJTF was established in 2015 to combat armed extremist groups.
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 forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
While the lack of adequate military protection for vulnerable populations needs to be urgently addressed, social initiatives and political reforms remain crucial in order to confront the root causes of conflict, including poor governance, corruption, poverty, youth unemployment and environmental degradation.
Local peace commissions, such as those established in Adamawa, Kaduna and Plateau states to mediate inter-communal tensions and build early warning systems, need to be duplicated in other high-risk regions. In keeping with its commitment to the Safe Schools Initiative, Nigeria’s federal government should also work with local communities to enhance security and bring an end to mass kidnappings of children.
Utilizing the Economic Community of West African States’ Early Warning System, the government should increase police and military deployments to vulnerable areas. The government also needs to urgently reform the security sector, including by incorporating international humanitarian and human rights law into all military and police training, and ensure accountability for human rights violations.