8,000 boys and men killed, starved and suffocated in Nigerian military detention

Nigerian soldiers ride on an armored personnel carrier. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File)

Dealing with the Boko Haram militants sits near the top of the priority list of the new Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. And only a few days into his presidency, he can add cleaning up the military who are fighting Boko Haram to that list.

Rights group Amnesty International called for the investigation of the military for its human rights abuses carried out during the fight against Boko Haram. Its investigation uncovered more than 7,000 deaths of young men and boys in military detention since March 2011 and 1,200 unlawful killings by the military since February 2012. The new president is aware of the report and its findings.

“I assure you that your report will be looked into,” said Buhari. “Respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law are the life and soul of the democratic system. We will not tolerate or condone impunity and reckless disregard for human rights,”

Though Buhari must deal with a military that is dismissive of Amnesty’s findings. A statement from army spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade accused the human rights organization of attempting to undermine the campaign to defeat Boko Haram. He cited previous reports from the group that were, according to him, also false as evidence that Amnesty is targeting the Nigerian military.

“We find it very curious that a body that [has]never been able to seriously condemn terror in Nigeria now claims to have done extensive research with the aim of discrediting the nation’s effort at defeating terror,” said Olukolade. “The officers mentioned in that report have no reason whatsoever to indulge in allegations that have been made against them.”

The Amnesty report, Stars on their Shoulders. Blood on their Hands: War Crimes Committed by the Nigerian Military, details the terrible conditions experienced by young men and boys held by the Nigerian military. The detention facilities harbor disease and the captive men are denied food and water.

One former detainee told Amnesty that a soldier said, “Welcome to your die house. Welcome to your place of death,” when he arrived at the detention center. Out of the 122 men arrested with the man, only 11 survived, he said.

“This sickening evidence exposes how thousands of young men and boys have been arbitrarily arrested and deliberately killed or left to die in detention in the most horrific conditions. It provides strong grounds for investigations into the possible criminal responsibility of members of the military, including those at the highest levels,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, in a news release.

The abuses happened during a major military push to combat the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. A small insurgency in Northern Nigeria escalated in the past few years, with brazen attacks and mass kidnappings. Then-President Goodluck Jonathan was pushed to improve security in the north and launched a military campaign with the assistance of neighboring countries.

Accusations of human rights abuses were leveled against Boko Haram and the Nigerian military soon after the military campaign started. Witnesses and evidence showed the military conducted regular extra-judicial killings. Yesterday’s report brought forward more evidence that such killings continued.

Amnesty named five military officers and four commanders who watched over or did nothing stop the crimes. It says evidence shows commanders either knew or should have known about the crimes perpetrated by military members. For example, internal military documents detailed the number of deaths during detention. The deadly practice of fumigation, spraying chemicals to eliminate disease and odor, was noted in the internal reports.

“We call on newly-elected President Buhari to end the culture of impunity that has blighted Nigeria and for the African Union and international community to encourage and support these efforts,” said Shetty.

Buhari says he is listening. Will he act?

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.