from Africa in Transition

Nigerian Security Services Out of Control

May 08, 2013

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism


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The May 8 New York Times carries above the fold an Adam Nossiter story, “Bodies Pour in as Nigeria Rounds Up Islamists.” The story mostly consists of horrific reports of Nigerian security services (army and police) abuses of Northern Nigerian citizens, alleged members of or connected to Boko Haram, a radical Islamic insurgency. Nossiter notes that Boko Haram is “thoroughly enmeshed” in the local population making it difficult to root out the insurgents. He observes that security service brutality “…has turned many residents against the military, driving some toward the insurgency…” The security services and the Jonathan administration in Abuja continue to flatly deny that any abuses are happening, much less systematically carried out; despite the testimony of a wide range of credible northern observers.

Many of us have heard reports similar to Nossiter’s from Nigerian contacts for some time. Human Rights Watch also issued a report that, in effect, argued that the International Criminal Court should investigate both Boko Haram and the security services for crimes against humanity. For a long time I have heard that the security services round up large numbers of young men who simply disappear. They are never formally arrested, prosecuted, tried or, if convicted, punished. They simply disappear, outside the justice system altogether. I had assumed that most so detained were quietly released after a time, in part because there were few reports of mass graves. To some extent, that may be true. But, Nossiter’s grim report confirms what many local people say; that in fact, many are murdered. The disposal of so many corpses is posing a problem.

The Council’s Nigeria Security Tracker (NST) has long followed security service abuses in northern Nigeria. NST data—current through April 30—confirms that violence involving Boko Haram and the security services continues to escalate in northern Nigeria. April 2013 had the highest death toll since the NST started, in May 2011. The numbers of dead that Nossiter saw are a reflection of the escalating carnage.

Among the security services, training is often poor or non-existent; pay is also poor. As a matter of policy, soldiers and police are deployed outside their region of origin. Hence, security service personnel often have little understanding or sympathy for the populations they are supposed to protect. Literally, many don’t even speak the same language. But, such factors are no excuse: the security services, an arm of a state with democratic aspirations, must be held to a higher standard than vicious insurgents. Boko Haram terror is no justification for what Nossiter and others report the security services are doing. And the government’s stonewalling is counterproductive.

New York Times coverage will raise the profile of Nigeria’s dirty war in the United States. Hopefully there will be more American political pressure on the Jonathan administration to take concrete steps to control its security services.