In fight against insurgents, Nigerian Army cracks down on civilians

Observers say that Nigeria's security forces are rounding up large numbers of young men under dubious claims they are insurgents. Many are never seen again.

A security man walks pass the charred remains of buses after explosions at a bus park in the northern Nigerian city of Kano March 19, 2013. Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram was suspected of planting the bombs.

•A version of this post ran on the blog Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own.

The May 8 New York Times carried above the fold an Adam Nossiter story, “Bodies Pour in as Nigeria Rounds Up Islamists.” The story mostly consists of horrific reports of Nigerian security service – Army and police – abuses of northern Nigerian citizens who are alleged members of or connected to Boko Haram, a radical Islamic insurgency.

Mr. Nossiter notes that Boko Haram is “thoroughly enmeshed” in the local population, making it difficult to root out the insurgents. He observes that security service brutality “has turned many residents against the military, driving some toward the insurgency.” The security services and the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja continue to flatly deny that any abuses are happening, much less that they are being systematically carried out – this despite the testimony of a wide range of credible northern observers. 

Many of us have heard reports similar to Nossiter’s from Nigerian contacts for some time. Human Rights Watch also issued a report late last year that, in effect, argued that the International Criminal Court should investigate both Boko Haram and the security services for crimes against humanity. 

For a long time I have heard that the security services round up large numbers of young men who simply disappear. They are never formally arrested, prosecuted, tried or, if convicted, punished. They simply disappear, outside the justice system altogether. I had assumed that most so detained were quietly released after a time, in part because there were few reports of mass graves. To some extent, that may be true. But Nossiter’s grim report confirms what many local people say – that in fact, many are murdered. 

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker (NST) has long followed security service abuses in northern Nigeria. NST data – current through April 30 – confirms that violence involving Boko Haram and the security services continues to escalate in northern Nigeria. April 2013 had the highest death toll since the NST started, in May 2011. The numbers of dead that Nossiter saw are a reflection of the escalating carnage.

Among the security services, training is often poor or non-existent and pay is also poor. As a matter of policy, soldiers and police are deployed outside their region of origin. Hence, security service personnel often have little understanding or sympathy for the populations they are supposed to protect.

Literally, many don’t even speak the same language. But such factors are no excuse: the security services, an arm of a state with democratic aspirations, must be held to a higher standard than vicious insurgents. Boko Haram terror is no justification for what Nossiter and others report the security services are doing. And the government’s stonewalling is counterproductive.

Times coverage will raise the profile of Nigeria’s dirty war in the United States. Hopefully there will be more American political pressure on the Jonathan administration to take concrete steps to control its security services.

John Campbell served as the US ambassador to Nigeria between 2004 and 2007.

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