Article written

  • on 28.09.2015
  • at 02:46 PM
  • by Naomi Cohen

Western partners can’t provide military assistance to fight Boko Haram, but here’s what they can do 0

The US and others may not be able to provide weapons to an army implicated in human rights abuses. But helping reform Nigeria’s prisons and police could have a real impact.

The Nigerian military has committed a shocking array of human rights abuses during the war against Boko Haram. These violations have strained relations with international partners and decreased the government’s effectiveness fighting the militants. This issue appears to have reached an impasse, with Nigerian officials accusing the US and other international organisations of deliberately harming the war effort by refusing to provide military assistance.

From the US’ perspective, military assistance to units implicated in extrajudicial killings and maltreatment of prisoners is out the question, but there is another option. The international community could go a long way to improving the human rights situation in Nigeria by offering substantial yet conditional assistance for the country to undertake widespread police and prison reform.

Abuses in the security sector

Much of the evidence against the Nigerian government’s misconduct in the war on Boko Haram comes from Giwa barracks in Maiduguri, Borno State. According to Amnesty International, the barracks was not built as a detention facility and had capacity for only 100 detainees. Yet as the counterinsurgency campaign against Boko Haram heated up in 2013, the government captured massive numbers of prisoners suspected to be terrorists – and had nowhere to put them.

By mid-2013, upwards of 2,000 detainees were jammed into the barracks under deplorable conditions. Space was reportedly so tight that most detainees did not have room to sit. Prisoners received a handful of rice and stew a day for sustenance, and were so desperate for water that they often resorted to drinking one another’s urine. Between 2013 and 2014, around 5,000 people died in Giwa barracks, mostly due to starvation, hunger and disease.

In March 2014, Boko Haram attacked Giwa barracks and set free hundreds of detainees. Boko Haram took video footage of the prison break, which it used as propaganda to highlight government mistreatment and portray itself as a liberator, a pattern it had followed while conducting similar attacks.

The response of the Nigerian security forces was brutal. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Nigerian military hunted down and extra-judicially executed at least 600 detainees.  Many of the detainees were likely innocent, rounded up in random sweeps of Maiduguri.

The problems at Giwa barracks are emblematic of those in the Nigerian security sector as a whole. On the one hand, the security sector suffers from a lack of capacity. Conditions in Nigeria’s prisons are abysmal, and only one third of Nigeria’s prison population of around 60,000 have ever been convicted. On the other hand, the Nigerian security sector suffers from deep-seated structural problems of corruption, arbitrary arrest and abuse. A 2010 report by the Open Society Institute finds that summary executions, torture and rape are commonplace in police forces across the country.

The present impasse

The actions of the Nigerian security forces have brought widespread condemnation from the international community. The Amnesty report calls for Nigerian officials to publicly acknowledge and allow for the independent investigation of human rights violations by security forces, which run afoul of both international law and Nigeria’s constitution.  Nigeria’s consistent record of human rights abuse has also strained relationships with the US, whose laws prohibit military assistance to foreign military units implicated in systematic human rights abuse.

In response to international demands, the Nigerian security forces have closed ranks. Nigerian military spokesman Major General Chris Olukolande accused Amnesty of “blackmail” and of having an agenda to undermine the army’s resolve to fight terrorism. A similar view goes all the way to the top. In a recent visit to the US, President Muhammadu Buhari shocked many US officials by claiming US human rights laws “aided and abetted” Boko Haram.

The issue thus appears to be at an impasse. So long as Nigerian military forces continually run afoul of human rights laws, there is little that international partners appear willing to do beyond provide token support to a multinational force being put together to combat Boko Haram. The US and others are caught in a Gordian knot, able to only provide limited support for the war effort in fear of contributing to the same patterns of crude government violence that helped start the conflict in the first place.

Continue reading on African Arguments

by Nathaniel Allen

Photo Credit: Stephen Martin

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