Failure to prosecute

A car that was burnt during the crackdown on Boko Haram in July 2011
(Aminu Abubakar/IRIN)

The major atrocities in northern Nigeria’s violent insurgency have been widely reported: church bombings, including an attack on Christmas Day; attacks on government buildings, newspaper offices, and the UN building in the capital, Abuja. But these reports hardly do justice to the relentless daily toll of violence over the past two years.

Since June 2010, people claiming to act for the Boko Haram movement have killed more than a 1,000 people, mostly in central and northeastern Nigeria. A large number have been policemen and other members of the security forces, but they have also killed Muslim clerics and scholars who oppose their actions, politicians, government workers and traditional leaders. They have forced religious conversions at gunpoint, destroyed government buildings and communication masts, and burned down schools.

Even less widely reported have been the reprisals carried out by the security forces after Boko Haram attacks - arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment in custody, communal punishments such as the burning of homes and businesses, and extrajudicial killings.

The abuses by both sides are exhaustively documented in recent reports by two major human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, whose researchers interviewed victims and eyewitnesses, as well as meeting police and army commanders and the civil authorities.

Both reports highlight how Nigeria’s criminal justice system has failed under the strain, with security force abuses not being investigated and those responsible for Boko Haram attacks not being prosecuted.

HRW quotes a report commissioned by Nigeria’s own national security adviser: “The number of arrests on suspicion of terrorism since 2004 to date would be approximately 350. Out of these, 53 have undergone prosecution in various courts. It is not very cheering that only one individual arrested on terror-related charges has been successfully convicted since the advent of terrorism in this country.”

Flawed criminal justice system

HRW’s Eric Guttschuss told a meeting at London’s Chatham House on 26 November: “We found - and this is in both Maiduguri and Kano [northern Nigerian cities where Boko Haram has been active] - that the government is no longer even bothering to bring people before a judge.”

Instead, the large number arrested in police and army raids are simply held, uncharged, sometimes in unauthorized and completely unsuitable facilities, like the cellars under the Giwa army barracks in Maiduguri. Some are released; some transferred away from the region; some are eventually found dead in hospital mortuaries or by the side of the road. They are routinely denied access to lawyers and their distraught families are not told where they are.

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The most notorious example of this failure to prosecute was in the case of Boko Haram’s leader Mohammed Yusuf, who was arrested at least five times, and charged twice, but the prosecutions never went forward. In the end police shot him dead, in the compound of the police headquarters in Maiduguri, in the presence of the state police commissioner and dozens of witnesses. HRW quotes a police officer as saying afterwards: “It’s good riddance, because our judiciary system has many loopholes and there is slim possibility of him being let off the hook.”

Mohammed Yusuf’s death was counterproductive in that it unleashed a great surge of violence, but these failures to prosecute also have other corrosive effects. Lucy Freeman of Amnesty International says: “People who are suspected of carrying out attacks need to be prosecuted in a trial so that we can all know what the evidence is against them. There needs to be these kinds of investigations so that their networks and their sponsors can be found out. And one of the biggest failings is the failing of state to investigate and prosecute and bring things out.”

It is one of the reasons that Boko Haram still has the reputation of being a mysterious movement. One criticism raised at the London meeting (by Portia Roelofs, a research student at London University) was that HRW and Amnesty International treat it as one coherent group, when there is actually little certainty about who its members are.

But Guttschuss says he does see it operating in a coherent way - an important point in the context of suggestions that the International Criminal Court (ICC), as a court of last resort, might get involved in prosecutions. “The ICC says it considers there is a reasonable basis to suspect that Boko Haram has committed crimes against humanity including murder and persecution, and they are now moving into, essentially, the second phase of looking at the capacity of the Nigerian government to prosecute individuals for these international crimes.”

Western nations criticized

Both organizations criticize Nigeria’s allies, such as the UK and the USA, for their reticence, and want them to press the Nigerian government to respect human rights and their own laws and to make the security forces accountable for their actions. But this is happening in the context of the wider so-called “war on terror”, and amid fears that Boko Haram has ties with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The USA has supported Nigeria’s proposals for new anti-terrorism legislation which would remove some existing constitutional safeguards.

One participant in the meeting at Chatham House, Kate Meagher, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, said Nigeria was only following the lead of developed countries in introducing practices like detention without trial. “I find it a bit problematic that Third World countries, Nigeria in this case, are being required to behave properly, but the connection with the international example and what First World countries are getting away with is not factored in.”

But this is no excuse, says Freeman. “What we would hope is that Nigeria - coming into it new, to be dealing with this kind of situation, these kinds of attacks - might be able not to repeat some of the terrible mistakes made in the war on terror in other places.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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