from Africa in Transition

Human Rights Watch and Northern Nigeria

October 15, 2012

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The distinguished human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch has issued an anticipated report on Boko Haram and security force abuses in northern Nigeria; Spiraling Violence.  It provides a close analysis of Boko Haram and the government’s disastrous response to date. Its analysis is supported by impressive research and on-the-ground interviews in a region currently inhospitable to outsiders. The report is an authoritative must-read.

Many Boko Haram atrocities have been described before, but not with the precision of Human Rights Watch. However, new to me were the instances of Boko Haram affiliates posing to individual Christian men the choice of conversion to Islam or death, usually by having their throats cut.  Such episodes are more “upfront and personal” than, say, church bombings, even if the casualties from the latter are greater.  In echoes of third century persecution of Christians in the arenas of Rome, Human Rights Watch documents instances in which Christians chose death rather than the forced embrace of Islam. Their narratives of martyrdom–probably better known inside northern Nigeria than outside–must fuel the anti-Islamic rhetoric to be found among many Nigerian Christian leaders.

The second half of the Human Rights Watch report deals with the reported abuses committed by the security services. It provides a greater degree of specificity than I have seen before, and demonstrates that the government’s heavy handed security approach to the political issues in the north is dysfunctional and counter-productive. In what is bound to be highly controversial, Human Rights Watch suggests that the International Criminal Court assess whether crimes committed in Nigeria both by Boko Haram and the security services fall under its jurisdiction as crimes against humanity.

At least some in Nigerian official circles are likely to be hostile to Human Rights Watch’s observations about the security forces, seeing them as, somehow, aiding Boko Haram. Such criticism is misplaced. Human Rights Watch’s goal is to find out the truth.  Only with the establishment of the truth can concrete steps be taken to address the “spiraling violence” that so disfigures the North.