Increased attacks by Boko Haram and inter-communal violence in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” region leave civilians at risk of mass atrocity crimes.
Multiple security threats leave civilians in Nigeria at ongoing risk of mass atrocity crimes, including increased attacks by the armed extremist group Boko Haram, recurring inter-communal violence in the “Middle Belt” region and disproportionate force utilized by security forces.
Over the past few years, Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) have intensified attacks on civilian and military targets in north-east Nigeria, killing at least 3,000 people since January 2018. On 1 March Boko Haram fighters attacked Dikwa, Borno State, abducting seven aid workers and reportedly setting several aid agencies and a hospital ablaze.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 35,000 people have been killed since 2009 when Boko Haram launched its violent campaign aimed at overthrowing Nigeria’s secular government. At least 2.4 million people remain internally displaced in north-eastern Nigeria as a result of insecurity caused by the group. In recent years Boko Haram’s attacks have expanded into neighboring countries, killing and displacing civilians in Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, there has been a surge of violence in north-west Nigeria as result of fighting between herders and farmers since the start of 2021. Those fleeing the violence have described murders, kidnapping and looting. Armed banditry in the north-west also resulted in more than 1,600 people being killed during the first half of 2020 and has displaced more than 300,000 civilians in Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Niger and Kebbi states since June 2020. Armed bandits have also perpetrated attacks on secondary schools in Zamfara, Katsina and Niger states, including kidnapping 333 boys on 11 December 2020 and 279 girls on 26 February. All children were released several days after the kidnappings.
Conflict in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt,” often rooted in historical grievances between herders and farming communities, has also escalated in recent years. Clashes between herders and farmers has left more than 8,000 people dead and displaced 300,000 across the country since 2011.
Although the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) has made significant progress in confronting Boko Haram and ISWA, civilians remain at risk of terrorist attacks and identity-based violence. During counterterrorism operations, the military has allegedly forcibly displaced entire villages in the north-east and arbitrarily detained individuals, including thousands of children, suspected of supporting extremist groups.
While Boko Haram has been responsible for mass kidnappings in the north-east, including more than 270 girls in the town of Chibok in 2014, the recent kidnappings in the central and north-western states are raising fears about the possible expansion of Boko Haram’s influence, or increased cooperation between the armed extremist group and local bandits.
While the “Middle Belt” region has experienced recurring inter-communal violence, growing desertification has exacerbated the situation. 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. Arms proliferation has also made these conflicts more deadly.
Nigerian security forces have a history of using excessive and deadly force against civilians, including during counterterrorism operations and while suppressing peaceful demonstrations.
The government of Nigeria is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect and needs ongoing support from the international community.
The MNJTF has led efforts to combat Boko Haram since 2015.
During a visit to Nigeria in September 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions condemned rising violence across Nigeria and a “lack of accountability” for perpetrators.
On 11 December the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced the completion of her preliminary examination into the situation in Nigeria, concluding that Boko Haram and Nigerian forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to the Chief Prosecutor, the Nigerian authorities failed to investigate and prosecute these crimes.
It is essential that the government of Nigeria addresses the root causes of inter-communal violence and armed extremism through socio-economic initiatives and political reforms that tackle poverty, corruption, youth unemployment and environmental degradation. The government should work with local civil society to ameliorate long-standing grievances between herding and settled communities.
Utilizing the Economic Community of West African States’ Early Warning System, the government should increase police and military deployments to vulnerable areas. The government should continue to support programs that strengthen security and the rule of law in areas where ISWA and Boko Haram operate. The government 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.