While there has been international outrage following Boko Haram’s abduction of women and girls in north-east Nigeria, there has been little awareness or condemnation of the abusive behaviour of the Nigerian armed forces – despite the fact that they have been committing war crimes and potential crimes against humanity against Boko Haram survivors.
This blog highlights some of our findings in a recently released Amnesty International report, “They betrayed us”, as well as related developments since. The report documents how thousands of women and girls in north-east Nigeria who lived under Boko Haram’s brutal rule have since been subjected to gendered forms of violence and abuse by those responsible for protecting them.
Attacked instead of protected
In 2014, Boko Haram took control of large swathes of north-east Nigeria. From early 2015, the Nigerian military intensified its operations against the armed group, and has since recaptured much of this area. The military then established so-called “satellite camps” for internally displaced people from areas that had been under Boko Haram control in the key towns they recaptured.
By mid-2016, over 200,000 people were living in these camps; many thousands more have arrived since. However, many of the IDPs had not chosen to come to the satellite camps at all. While some were fleeing Boko Haram, others had fled after the military indiscriminately attacked their rural communities, opening fire, burning down homes, and ordering everyone to leave. Some told us they were hoping to be rescued from Boko Haram when they were attacked by the military. Others told us that they had been taken to the camps by the security forces against their will.
The forced displacement across scores of villages do not appear to have been sufficiently targeted to be in line with any imperative military reasons and the violent nature in which they were conducted suggest they did not appear to be designed to ensure civilians’ security. Instead, these acts appear to constitute a war crime.
The military subjected everyone arriving in the satellite camps to a “security screening”. Many (in some locations, almost all) men and boys perceived to be of “fighting age” were arbitrarily detained and taken away to military detention facilities where thousands remain. One result was that the satellite camps have been made up of disproportionate numbers of women and their dependents, with few civilian men.
Confined and left to die
In the satellite camps, women and their dependents have been denied information on their loved ones in detention and subject to severe movement restrictions.
From late 2015 until mid/late 2016, when humanitarian aid finally scaled up, thousands of people – mostly women and their dependents – died from lack of food, water and healthcare while confined in the camps. By confining people to camps in such conditions, those responsible may have committed the war crime of murder.
While the food security situation has improved in most of the satellite camps since mid-2016, there are still massive gaps in assistance provided, and women face gender-based discrimination accessing assistance and livelihood opportunities.
Members of the military and the allied militia have subjected women and girls in the satellite camps to sexual violence. Women who were near-starving were often forced to be the ‘girlfriends’ of the soldiers or militia members in order to access food. Even now, sexual exploitation continues to thrive in a context of impunity, near-confinement and deprivation.
The coercive circumstances that soldiers and militia members created and took advantage of negates any consent that may have apparently been given by women succumbing to be their ‘girlfriends’. Those responsible thus committed the war crime of rape even where physical force was not used or threatened. In some cases, women who refused sex were also raped by security forces using physical force or threats.
Detention of ‘Boko Haram wives’
Hundreds of women and girls have also been detained in military detention facilities since 2015; an unknown number still remain in military detention. None of the released women and girls that we interviewed had been charged with a criminal offence or knew others who had, though almost all had been detained for over six months (and some for up to two years).
Many of the women and girls were detained purely on suspicion of being “Boko Haram wives”. These detentions were not only arbitrary, but also discriminatory under international human rights law.
In some cases, women and girls told us they were detained on suspicion of being “Boko Haram wives” even though they had been abducted and forcibly married to Boko Haram members. In other cases, women who claimed no affiliation to Boko Haram told us the military specifically targeted them for detention simply because they arrived in displacement without their husband; soldiers accused them of having Boko Haram husbands “back in the bush”.
War crimes and possible crimes against humanity targeting or disproportionately affecting women
The research illustrates how women have been specifically targeted and disproportionately affected by violence and abuse by the security forces, including war crimes. It also highlights how these acts were committed as part of what appears to have been an attack on the civilian population of north-east Nigeria by the security forces. Those responsible should also be investigated for the potential crimes against humanity of ill-treatment, rape, imprisonment and gender-based persecution.
Moreover, urgent interventions, especially the provision of additional humanitarian assistance, and the release of relatives still arbitrarily detained, are also still needed to protect women who remain at risk.
In recent weeks, the Nigerian Senate adopted a motion which set-up an ad hoc committee to investigate the concerns raised in the report, and the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission has just constituted a Special Investigation Panel to conduct a public hearing on allegations of abuse of IDPs in the north-east of the country. While the situation remains bleak, these two steps provide some tentative hope for accountability and change.