For many, Boko Haram is the epitome of evil. The terror group has shot to worldwide fame with the highly publicized kidnapping of 300 Nigerian schoolgirls in the summer of 2014, justified by the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau as a divine imperative. “God instructed me to sell them, they are his properties and I will carry out his instructions,” said Shekau at the time. The group didn’t stop there, and mounted a deadly campaign that left tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands injured and millions displaced. At its height, Boko Haram controlled a territory the size of Belgium. But Boko Haram is not the only entity causing mass suffering in Nigeria. For many Nigerians, it is their own government that poses an even larger threat. From mass killings of demonstrators, to the continued horrific conditions and rise in deaths at the Giwa detention facility, to the widespread use torture, Nigeria’s security forces have committed a litany of human rights abuses.
In the name of hunting down Boko Haram terrorists, the Nigerian military has itself become a vector of terror for ordinary Nigerians, combining torture tactics with the legitimacy of acting on behalf of the Nigerian state. The military police routinely tortures detainees in ways that are “shocking to even the most hardened human rights observer,” according to Amnesty International. The non-profit says such techniques include “ripping out fingernails or teeth with pliers, shooting victims in the hand or foot, choking detainees with a rope pulled by two police officers, pouring hot water onto open wounds, making prisoners sit on a board covered with protruding nails or spikes, and widespread use of electric shocks and sexual violence.”
The victims of these cruel methods include women and children. The use of torture is so common in Nigeria that many police stations have an informal “Officer in Charge of Torture.” Torture is not even a criminal offence in the country. Incidents of torture are rarely investigated and there is little accountability for the perpetrators. Well aware of the problem, the Nigerian government has established multiple presidential committees and working groups to combat torture, but little progress has been made despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s lip service to rooting out corruption.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Nigeria’s shameful human rights record is illustrated by the recent deaths of civilians at events organized by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group to commemorate the Biafran war. Contrary to the Nigerian army’s assertions that five people were killed including two soldiers after they came under attack by armed IPOB members, an Amnesty International report found no evidence to support this and put the number killed at anywhere between 17 and 40.
An even deadlier mass attack on civilians occurred in December of 2015, when the Nigerian army killed hundreds of Shia Muslims from the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. At least 300 people died and hundreds more were injured. The demonstrators had erected a makeshift roadblock, and soldiers began firing into the crow, which included women and children. The army alleges the roadblock was an attempt to assassinate its chief of staff and that several of its soldiers were killed, but Human Rights Watch disputes these claims. While some people threw stones and wielded sticks, there is little evidence that any soldiers were injured or killed or that protesters tried to attack the army chief of staff. Afterwards, sect members gathered at the house of Sheik Zakzaky to protect him from being arrested or killed, and again soldiers fired into the crowd. Many were detained with serious injurious but were denied adequate medical treatment.
Nigeria’s inhuman treatment of its people is also evident in the horrendous conditions of the Giwa detention facility. 149 people have died there so far this year, including four babies and seven other children under the age of six. The main causes of death appear to be disease, starvation, dehydration and gun shot wounds. Inmates, including children, are held incommunicado with no family visits, and are rarely allowed out of their cells. Conditions are unsanitary and disease is rife. The cells are rarely cleaned and contain no washing facilities, and diarrhea is common among the inmates. When detainees become ill, soldiers refuse to give them medical attention. They receive very little food and water, despite the immense heat. One inmate told Amnesty International that they were allowed only around half a liter of water per day. The cells are highly overcrowded, with inmates forced to sleep on the floor with no mats. One man told Amnesty International the cells are so congested that detainees can only lie on their side, as there isn’t enough room to turn from one side to the other. Overcrowding at the detention center is the result of mass arbitrary arrests based on profiling, as part of the military’s efforts to fight Boko Haram.
For some, these events are a direct result of Buhari’s divisive agenda. In a statement issued by IPOB, the spokespersons noted that the President “has significantly catalyzed and fast-forwarded the restoration of the nation of Biafra” by his actions by introducing “divisive and sectional government policies” targeting Biafrans and Shias. Buhari, a Fulani Muslim from the north, is seen as favoring his own kinsmen by playing the sectarian card. His anti-corruption efforts have predominantly targeted opposition figures or individuals from the Christian south, while a recent shake up of the army saw the purge of 38 southern senior officials.
It’s inexcusable that the media chooses to brush over the terrible abuses the Nigerian military is inflicting on the Nigerian people. Since the government has so far only proven its incapacity to reform the country, only through outside pressures will the “change” that presidential hopeful Buhari was selling to the electorate a year ago happen. External partners should insist that the Nigerian government allow independent investigations of torture and killings of civilians and that the perpetrators be held accountable. The infamous Giwa detention facility should be closed and torture should be criminalized. The threat of religious extremism can’t be used as an excuse to ignore or facilitate governments’ efforts to terrorize their people.
About the author:
*Originally from London, James Lessons recently graduated from the University of Exeter with a degree in politics and international relations with a particular focus on the African region. He is currently working as a freelance research assistant and writer for a small economic risk consultancy.