from Africa in Transition

Boko Haram and Nigerian Military Abuses in the North

January 22, 2013

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Mali and Algeria have largely driven Nigeria out of the headlines over the past several days, except with respect to Nigerian troop commitments to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervention force. Serious and informed speculation about the relationship between Boko Haram, militants in Mali, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has also been largely absent.

Yet Boko Haram activity continues in northern Nigeria. Last week, for example, the emir of Kano survived an assassination attempt that took the lives of his driver and two body guards and wounded two of his sons. The Nigeria Security Tracker, which seeks to chart instances of political violence, including Boko Haram, runs about a month behind. Next month, it should indicate whether there was a significant change in Boko Haram activity during the Algerian In Amenas crisis.

However, stories about human rights abuses perpetrated by the Nigerian security services in their struggle against Boko Haram are becoming both more common and more open. The chief complaints are of the military indiscriminately firing into crowds, rounding up young men from near the scene of a Boko Haram incident, and detaining them without charge and in inhumane conditions. There are also claims of the use of torture. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of even wealthy families sending their young men away from the northeast to avoid the security forces. I have heard credible reports of members of elite northern Nigerian families being killed by the security services. Reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch provide external validation of many of the charges.

Journalist Sani Tukur on January 13, published, “How Nigeria Military Arrest, Torture, Exploit Innocents at Giwa Barracks” in the online Nigerian journal The Premium Times. There is credible detail here describing arrest sweeps, shocking over-crowding of prisons, food shortages, and the use of torture. “Bail” amounts, normally given in the range of N200,000 to N300,000 (U.S. $1,300 to $1,900), may be a bribe rather than a security of the suspect’s return. Even in a country as poor as Nigeria, elites can raise such a sum, though many non-elite families cannot, condemning young men to the shadowy prison system, which rarely ends in trial.

Tukur and many others have observed that such human rights abuses are a potent recruiting tool for Boko Haram: “[Giwa Barracks] is a place one will become more radical and prefer to be a member of the Boko Haram even if you are not one.”

The security services staunchly deny accusations of human rights abuses. Others excuse security service rough methods as required to suppress Boko Haram. The debate in Nigeria between human rights and security necessity recalls that associated with Abu Ghraib in the United States during the second Iraq war, or between those who support the Algerian government’s methods at In Amenas and those who argue that a more sophisticated approach could have saved lives.

In the aftermath of In Amenas, I am not yet ready to comment on ostensible links between Mali, Algeria, AQIM, and Boko Haram. However, I continue to see Boko Haram as primarily a domestic response to the alienation and poor governance of northern Nigeria.