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 continue to leave civilians in Nigeria at 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 against peaceful protesters.
Over the past year Boko Haram, and the so-called Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), have intensified their attacks on civilian and military targets in the north-east of Nigeria, killing hundreds of people. Although the government claims to have made progress against these groups, reportedly killing hundreds of fighters, the military has also allegedly forcibly displaced entire villages in the north-east and arbitrarily detained individuals suspected of supporting extremist groups.
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. The International Committee of the Red Cross also reported that at least 23,000 people remain missing. In recent years Boko Haram’s attacks have expanded into neighboring countries, killing and displacing civilians in Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
On 11 December armed men attacked a secondary school in Katsina State, kidnapping more than 300 schoolboys who were freed several days later. While Boko Haram claimed responsibility, the attack was reportedly perpetrated by local bandits. Since early 2019 armed banditry in Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto and Niger states has displaced more than 160,000 people. Some attacks were reportedly carried out by suspected Fulani armed men against farmers from other ethnic and religious groups. Despite efforts by the security forces, bandits killed more than 1,100 people in rural areas during 2020.
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.
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 helped make these conflicts more deadly.
Nigerian security forces have a history of using excessive and deadly force against civilians, including during counterterrorism operations against Boko Haram and while suppressing peaceful demonstrations. Protests against police brutality, poor governance and corruption resulted in at least 12 people killed by security forces in Lekki district, Lagos, last October.
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 requested authorization from the Pre-Trial Chamber to open investigations into the situation in Nigeria. Following a Preliminary Examination, the Prosecutor reported that there is reason to believe that Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces have committed acts constituting crimes against humanity and war crimes.
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. The government should also implement its “National Policy on Climate Change and Response Strategy” and accelerate initiatives in regions affected by drought and desertification.
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.