By Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General
As Nigeria takes centre stage hosting the World Economic Forum on Africa, events in recent weeks have tarnished its image as a country that has come of age.
In April, as Africa’s most populous nation assumed the presidency of the United Nations Security Council and chairmanship of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, news came that Nigeria had also outstripped South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy.
Yet, while its role regionally and globally may never have been greater, recent events – most notably the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls by the Islamist armed group Boko Haram – show that Nigeria faces a serious domestic test of its stability which also threatens regional peace and security.
More than three weeks after the girls were taken from a secondary school in a village in north-eastern Nigeria, their whereabouts remain unknown and frustration is mounting at the failure of the government to find them. Indeed the only arrests so far made related to the kidnappings have been of two women protesting against the slowness of the government’s response.
The horrific abduction shows the serious nature of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law being committed by Boko Haram. It is imperative that Nigeria acts swiftly and firmly to secure their safe return – with international support if needed – but the process must also demonstrate a commitment to human dignity, human rights, transparency and accountability. To do this Nigeria needs the help of all its friends attending the Abuja World Economic Forum.
In May 2013, following a deepening campaign of violence by Boko Haram, in north-eastern Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, three states particularly affected by the insurgency.
But a year on, the violence has intensified in both scope and casualties and the population are becoming increasingly vulnerable not only to abuses by Boko Haram but also to violations by the state security forces who have regularly responded with heavy-handed and indiscriminate violence of their own.
In the first four months of 2014, more than 1,800 people have been killed in the conflict. In April, on the same day that the schoolgirls were abducted from Chibok, Borno state, a car bomb planted by Boko Haram in an Abuja bus station killed more than 70 people. Several institutions, including Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, recognise that the situation has deteriorated into a non-international armed conflict.
The ICC prosecutor is presently in the last stages of determining whether or not to open a formal investigation into the situation in Nigeria.
No responsible government can sit back and do nothing in the face of such unfolding horror. The challenge, however, is to respond in a way that enhances instead of diminishes the resilience of the country and its institutions, upholds the dignity of the affected communities and does not involve state actors in serious violations of International human rights and Humanitarian Law.
The wave of violence by Boko Haram cannot justify the mounting allegations of unlawful killings, extrajudicial executions and torture by state security forces which led Amnesty International to conclude in March 2014 that both Boko Haram and Nigeria’s security forces have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Ahead of Nigeria’s elections in February 2015, Nigeria’s government and its allies must forge new partnerships to make lawful headway against this insurgency. But it must not be done at the expense of human rights.
So what should happen? The country’s counter-insurgency strategy should be anchored on recognition of human rights and support for community resilience.
To achieve this the government in coordination with the National Human Rights Commission should carry out a transparent investigation into all allegations of abuses on both sides. National institutions for accountability must be supported – with international assistance if needed.
The atrocities being carried out by Boko Haram must be addressed. How can a country live in a state of fear where school children are vulnerable to kidnap and attack?
But a heavy-handed security response is not the answer. Nigeria must meet its obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law. The National Human Rights Commission has already called for the rules of engagement for security forces to be immediately reviewed and updated and there needs to be a commitment to re-training them accordingly.
The Commission – and other independent observers – should be given adequate and secure access to monitor all places of detention and all sides in the conflict must allow humanitarian access and protection of civilians and affected communities. Nigeria’s partners and allies can offer help to make this possible.
Speaking at the UN Security Council in April, Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations said that its month-long presidency would promote the cause of international peace and security and help the UN to address issues in Africa. A laudable goal, but one that can only be achieved if Nigeria shows true leadership and respect for human rights in its efforts to rout the insurgency.
As the world holds its breath for safe return of the abducted schoolgirls, we also must hope that the kidnappers will be brought to justice and that Nigeria can lead the way on human rights protection as well as economic development.
Note: This op-ed originally appeared on Al Jazeera
Nigeria, Bring Back Our Girls!
Nigeria: Campaign of violence and abductions against civilians must end (News story, 2 May 2014)
Nigeria: War crimes and crimes against humanity as violence escalates in north-east (News story/briefing, 31 March 2014)
Carnage in northern Nigeria amounts to crimes against humanity (17 February 2014)