Nigeria committing ‘war crimes’ to defeat Boko Haram

Human rights investigators believe 4,000 people have died in military custody

The Nigerian government is terrorising part of its population and committing possible war crimes in its battle against Boko Haram, according to a documentary to be broadcast on Monday night.

Human rights investigators believe 4,000 people have died in military custody since Boko Haram began its attacks in Nigeria two years ago. The group kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls earlier this year and it has continued its campaign of kidnapping and bombing.

Nigeria is now Africa’s biggest economy. But in the north, home to most of the nation’s 80 million Muslims, people are among the poorest in the country.

The north is the heartland of the Islamist group, Boko Haram. This  year alone, Boko Haram have killed more than 2,000 people, most of them civilians.

They portray themselves as warriors of the jihad against the West. Their name means “Western influence is a sin” and the group was originally formed to fight what they said was endemic corruption brought to Nigeria by the West.

In response to Boko Haram’s campaign,  the Nigerian armed forces have launched a counter-terrorism offensive to try to stem the violence.

Two years ago a state of emergency was declared in the three northern states, a joint military taskforce created, thousands of troops sent to the area and, in August, a new division created to destroy Boko Haram.

The army took control of local militias, young Muslim men who had gathered together to help identify Boko Haram members living in their communities. Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan hailed this militia as “new national heroes”.

Soldiers and a man pictured allegedly during a massacre of suspected Boko Haram members in Nigeria Soldiers and a man pictured allegedly during a massacre of suspected Boko Haram members in Nigeria Shehu Sani,  president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, said the militia was a key element in the fight against Boko Haram.  “These are young men that have the knowledge of the north-eastern part of Nigeria, so now the military can have someone by proxy carrying out their activities without them being held responsible,” he said.

The militias armed themselves with machetes, cutlasses and even bows and arrows. They adopted the official title “Civilian Joint Taskforce”, the state government paid them salaries and some of them received basic training from the army.

Two militia members told  Channel 4 about their activities, including the use of torture, to force confessions from individuals. The militia started by setting up checkpoints in towns across the north trying to stop Boko Haram agents and infiltrators. They were given powers to detain anyone they wanted – and they started interrogating people as they saw fit.

In their hunt for the insurgents the militia swept through remote towns and villages, even in communities where they had little local knowledge.

The militia used these tactics in a town called Dikwa, around the start of Ramadan 2013 and filmed some of their operations. The videos show the militia acting as if everyone was a potential terrorist. Other videos suggest little hard evidence was used to identify Boko Haram suspects. Instead they denounced individuals on the basis of bizarre clues: thorns in the sandals from being in the bush; bruises supposedly caused by carrying guns or even a suspicious expression.

First, the suspects are bound. Many suspects plead their innocence but are still threatened with a beating.

Abdul, a militia member  showed a video he said he filmed during a joint military and militia operation hunting for Boko Haram in June 2013.

The video shows the Nigerian army directly involved in the abuse of detainees. Abdul said severe beatings coerced many to agree they were Boko Haram.

The video footage shows a boy beaten unconscious by Nigeria soldiers for refusing to admit he was a member of Boko Haram. Abdul claims the boy died two days later,

The Nigerian High Commissioner in London  dismissed  “the purported cases of human rights abuses and war crimes”.

“Nothing of the sort is being perpetrated in Nigeria,” a spokesman said.

* ‘Dispatches: Nigeria’s Hidden War’: Channel 4 at 11.05 pm

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