The Nigeria Security Tracker (NST) has long indicated that the Abuja security agencies may be involved in nearly as many deaths in Nigeria as Boko Haram or sectarian violence. Even so, the NST almost certainly under-reports security service extra-judicial killings or deaths caused by thirst, starvation, and other abuses in government prisons and detention centers. The NST data comes from open sources, usually the press; those sources have little first-hand knowledge as to what goes on in detention centers and usually reports only official statistics. International human rights organizations with ears close to the ground say publicly and privately that any official death toll should be multiplied by a factor of four or five to approach a realistic number.
The week of October 14 provides further indication of the magnitude of official abuse. Amnesty International released on October 15 a report based on its own investigations that over 950 people died in military custody in just the first six months of 2013. Drew Hinshaw, in a powerful October 15 article in the Wall Street Journal, reports a Journal survey of the morgue records at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital. The survey revealed that soldiers routinely brought in large numbers of corpses from the Giwa Barracks, a major detention center: On June 3, 350 bodies; on June 24, 115 bodies; on June 29, 263. Hinshaw reports that most days, the military delivered at least thirty bodies to the morgue. Such figures from a single hospital in one northern city make the Amnesty charges credible, if not also understated.
I earlier blogged on Adam Nossiter’s front page article in the New York Times on May 8 on the same subject. Nossiter reported that bodies were pouring into Northern Nigerian morgues. He also cited Giwa barracks. Nossiter quotes a health worker saying “almost all [the bodies] are emaciated. Some they bring in with their handcuffs still on.”
There are many anecdotes about the military rounding up young men in the aftermath of a Boko Haram attack who are never seen again. There are also anecdotes about the appalling conditions inside the detention centers. Human Rights Watch covered both extra-legal detentions and prison conditions in its in-depth report on Boko Haram and security forces abuses in October 2012. Now, a year later, Hinshaw is reporting that the Nigerian authorities have refused Red Cross access to the prison population at Giwa Barracks. An army spokesman said that the Red Cross had failed to send its request through “the right channels.” According to Hinshaw, many former prisoners say the only way out alive is for their family to bribe the security forces.
The security forces in the North, called the Joint Task Force (JTF), are made up of units from the army and the police (both national institutions). Policy is to avoid assigning personnel to a region from which they come. Hence, many of the personnel in these units likely are unfamiliar with the North. However, the JTF has recently been augmented by a “civilian JTF,” local and unarmed vigilantes who assist the JTF by identifying likely Boko Haram suspects. At least some of the student victims of Boko Haram attacks in the past few months are likely civilian JTF, and jihadists continue routinely to kill military and police whenever they can.
The JTF consistently asserts that human rights organization allegations are untrue, and denies that hundreds of prisoners are dying in detention centers. However, Nossiter quoted Borno state governor, Kashim Shettima, as saying in May that “a lot of lives are lost on a daily basis due to the inhumane conditions.” He also specifically mentioned Giwa barracks.
The White House says that President Obama raised the protection of human rights with President Goodluck Jonathan when the two met in September. The State Department says that Secretary Kerry made the same points in May to President Jonathan when the state of emergency was declared in three Northern Nigerian states.
Extra-judicial killings, especially by the police, are a long-standing phenomenon in Nigeria. The current Boko Haram insurgency was precipitated by, among other causes, the police murder of its then-leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2009, an event that went viral in Nigerian social media. Conditions in Nigerian prisons have long been very bad. For years, prisoners have survived only on food, water and medicine provided by their families. The horrific reports now coming out of the North seem to indicate that long-standing abuses have assumed a new magnitude in the face of an insurrection that the government is unable to control. Evidence may also be building a case that the Nigerian security forces are killing more Nigerians than the jihadists.