Increased attacks by Boko Haram and inter-communal violence in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” region leave civilians at risk of mass atrocity crimes.
Since 2009 the armed extremist group, Boko Haram, has pursued a violent campaign aimed at overthrowing Nigeria’s secular government. Over the past year Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) have intensified their attacks in the north-east of Nigeria, killing hundreds of people. On 9 June at least 81 people were killed in an attack by suspected Boko Haram fighters in Borno State. On 18 August ISWA took hundreds of residents in Kukawa town in Borno State hostage, following a battle with the Nigerian military.
In an attempt to neutralize Boko Haram, the Nigerian government has increased its military operations since the start of 2020, reportedly killing hundreds of fighters. However, the military has also reportedly forcibly displaced entire villages in the north-east and arbitrarily detained individuals suspected of supporting armed extremist groups.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 35,000 people have been killed since 2009 and 2.4 million remain internally displaced in north-eastern Nigeria as a result of insecurity caused by Boko Haram. The International Committee of the Red Cross also reported that at least 23,000 people remain missing due to the decade-long conflict. In recent years Boko Haram’s attacks have expanded into neighboring states, killing and displacing civilians in Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
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 left more than 1,300 people dead and displaced 300,000 across the country between January and June 2018. Hundreds of people were also killed in clashes in Kaduna, Nasarawa and Adamawa states between February and April 2019. On 13-14 April 2020 at least 25 people were killed in violence between the Shomo and Jole communities in Taraba State.
Since early 2019 increased armed banditry in Zamfara, Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto and Niger states has displaced more than 160,000 people. Recent attacks have reportedly been carried out by suspected Fulani armed men against farmers from other ethnic and religious groups. Despite efforts by the security forces, “bandits” killed at least 70 people on 27 May in Sokoto State and 57 people on 9 June in Katsina State.
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. Civilians also face the threat of human rights abuses during counter-terrorism operations by the security forces.
While the “Middle Belt” region has experienced recurring inter-communal violence for many years, 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.
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.
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 Africa’s Early Warning System, the government should increase police and military deployments to vulnerable areas. The government should continue to support programs that strengthen local security and bolster the rule of law in areas where ISWA and Boko Haram operate. Such efforts should address security sector reform, including by incorporating international humanitarian and human rights law into all military and police training.
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