Why Nigeria needs to address impunity
OBSERVING the public debate following the publication of Amnesty International’s recent report on war crimes committed by the military, I am reminded of the words of Wole Soyinka: “Power is transient, justice eternal”.
Since we came back from Abuja, I have noted the positive commitment from the President as well as the usual dismissive response from the military. I have heard from Nigerians from all walks of life. Time will tell whether truth and justice will prevail in Nigeria. But let me set the record straight to clarify some emerging misconceptions.
Amnesty has documented and condemned in the strongest terms the atrocities committed by Boko Haram and we will continue to do so.
As recently as 14 April 2015, the first anniversary of the abduction of the Chibok school girls, we published a comprehensive report, ‘Our job is to shoot, slaughter and kill’ documenting and condemning the horrific crimes of Boko Haram in the North-East of the country.
The April report showed that in addition to abducting at least 2,000 women and girls, Boko Haram had killed at least 5,500 civilians and brutalised tens of thousands between 2014 and March 2015. And this report was not the first. My team has been on the ground documenting and exposing multiple war crimes, crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses committed by Boko Haram since the start of the crisis. These findings were published in Amnesty International’s reports in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. And each time, we have called for justice for the victims of Boko Haram. But we have also documented serious human rights violations perpetrated by the military in the course of the fight against Boko Haram.
In our sister report to the report about Boko Haram atrocities, ‘Stars on their Shoulders. Blood on their Hands’ we documented war crimes and crime against humanity by the military. What Amnesty International uncovered in Nigeria was not a handful of civilian casualties caught in the cross-fire. It was evidence of a systematic process whereby more than 7,000 mainly young Nigerian men and boys died in military detention and more than 1,200 people were unlawfully killed. The vast majority of those unlawfully murdered were non-combatants, most killed following arbitrary arrests.
These are Nigerian fathers, sons and brothers. They are the missing husbands of the women interviewed by Amnesty International who cannot afford to feed their children or send them to school since their husbands disappeared. They are the sons of the parents who have spent the past year visiting every barracks, police station and jail they can reach to search for their missing children.
As an independent, impartial organisation, dedicated to documenting and exposing the most serious human rights violations wherever they are committed and whoever they are perpetrated by, Amnesty International is speaking out about these violations, and with a clear purpose. We are asking what happened to the thousands of young men arrested without any evidence against them and who have never been brought to court.
We are demanding justice for the people trapped by the cycle of violence and impunity, perpetrated by both Boko Haram and the very military that is supposed to protect them. The horrific acts committed by Boko Haram must end and perpetrators of crimes under international law in its ranks must be punished. But their horrific acts cannot and should not be used to justify the Nigerian military’s unlawful conduct and human rights violations. The military cannot tackle war crimes by committing war crimes. Safety and security cannot be delivered by executing, torturing and ill-treating thousands of people.
The findings of this recent report resulted from years of detailed research, including more than 400 interviews and the analyses of 90 videos and 800 official documents. We travelled repeatedly to the North-East, gathering information and interviewing witnesses, victims and the families. People told us how they had been rounded-up with hundreds of other young men and boys after cordon searches and held in overcrowded cells. Many were starved, suffocated, and tortured to death0.
We also spoke to other witnesses who are themselves senior members of the security forces, but who felt that these abhorrent practices within the military must be stamped out. We shared our findings with various sections of the Nigerian government. Since 2013, we sent 57 letters to the federal and state authorities: Sharing research findings, raising concerns about ongoing violations and requesting information and specific action, such as investigations. We only received 13 responses, none of which demonstrated the previous government’s commitment to launching an independent, impartial and effective investigation of these serious crimes. Where investigations were launched, they were conducted by the military and the conclusions have never been published. The Nigerian government has had repeated opportunities to confront and investigate these allegations but, despite mounting evidence, they have failed to do so.
President Buhari has stated that his government will leave no stone unturned to investigate and deal with all cases of human rights abuses. We join millions of Nigerians in welcoming this commitment. We hope that this will be the beginning of the end of impunity in Nigeria and that it will bring hope to those desperate to find out what has happened to their loved ones.
No military is beyond scrutiny. All we ask is that the government of Nigeria does what is right, and what it is bound to do under international law, and delivers justice to the thousands of victims of this conflict.
The time to act is now.
• Belay is Amnesty International’s Africa Director – Research and Advocacy
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