Global human rights group Amnesty International (AI) is calling for the investigation and trial of top retired and serving military chiefs for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In its latest report released yesterday and titled: “Stars on their shoulders. Blood on their hands: War crimes committed by the Nigerian military”, the organisation accuses some military commanders of extra-judicial killings, torture, high-handedness and sundry crimes in the prosecution of the battle against Boko Haram insurgents. But the military rejected the report as “blackmail”, saying its facts were produced by “disgruntled elements”. The report:
Based on years of research and analysis of evidence – including leaked military reports and correspondence, as well as interviews with more than 400 victims, eyewitnesses and senior members of the Nigerian security forces – the organisation outlines a range of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity committed by the military in the course of the fight against Boko Haram in the Northeast.
The report, “Stars on their shoulders. Blood on their hands: War crimes committed by the Nigerian military”, reveals that since March 2011, more than 7,000 young men and boys died in military detention and more than 1,200 people were unlawfully killed since February 2012.
Amnesty International provides compelling evidence of the need for an investigation into the individual and command responsibilities of soldiers, and mid-level and senior-level military commanders.
The report outlines the roles and possible criminal responsibilities of those along the chain of command – up to the Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of Army Staff – and names nine senior Nigerian military figures who should be investigated for command and individual responsibility for the crimes committed.
“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.
“Whilst an urgent and impartial investigation of these war crimes is vital, this report is not just about the criminal responsibility of individuals. It is also about the responsibility of Nigeria’s leadership to act decisively to end the pervasive culture of impunity within the armed forces.”
Amnesty International is urging the President Muhammadu Buhari to ensure prompt, independent and effective investigations of the following military officers for potential individual or command responsibility for the war crimes of murder, torture and enforced disappearance detailed in this report: Maj-Gen. John A.H. Ewansiha, Maj-Gen. Obida T Ethnan, Maj-Gen. Ahmadu Mohammed, Brig-Gen. Austin O. Edokpayi and Brig-Gen. Austin O. Edokpayi Rufus O. Bamigboye.
Amnesty International is further calling on the government to ensure prompt, independent and effective investigations of the following high-level military commanders for their potential command responsibility for crimes committed by their subordinates.
They would be responsible if they knew or if they should have known about the commission of the war crimes and failed to take adequate action to prevent them or to ensure the alleged perpetrators are brought to justice.
Mass deaths in custody
In their response to Boko Haram’s attacks in the Northeast, the military have arrested at least 20,000 young men and boys since 2009, some as young as nine years old. In most cases they were arbitrarily arrested, often based solely on the word of a single unidentified secret informant. Most were arrested in mass “screening” operations or “cordon-and-search” raids where security forces round up hundreds of men. Almost none of those detained have been brought to court and all have been held without the necessary safeguards against murder, torture and ill-treatment.
Detainees are held incommunicado in extremely overcrowded, unventilated cells without sanitary facilities and with little food or water. Many are subjected to torture and thousands have died from ill-treatment and as a result of dire detention conditions. One former detainee told Amnesty International: “All I know was that once you get detained by the soldiers and taken to Giwa (military barracks), your life is finished.”
A high-ranking military officer gave Amnesty International a list of 683 detainees who died in custody between October 2012 and February 2013. The organisation also obtained evidence that in 2013, more than 4,700 bodies were brought to a mortuary from a detention facility in Giwa Barracks. In June 2013 alone, more than 1,400 corpses were delivered to the mortuary from this facility.
A former detainee who spent four months in detention described how on arrival “the soldiers said: “Welcome to your die house. Welcome to your place of death.” Only 11 of the 122 men he was arrested with survived.
Amnesty International researchers witnessed emaciated corpses in mortuaries, and one former Giwa detainee told the organisation that around 300 people in his cell died after being denied water for two days. “Sometimes, we drank people’s urine, but even the urine you, at times, could not get.”
The evidence gathered from former detainees and eyewitnesses is also corroborated by senior military sources. One senior military officer told Amnesty International that detention centres are not given sufficient money for food and that detainees in Giwa Barracks are “deliberately starved.”
Disease – including possible outbreaks of cholera – was rife. A police officer at a detention facility known as the “Rest House” in Potiskum, Yobe State, told Amnesty International how more than 500 corpses were buried in and around the camp. “They don’t take them to the hospital if they are sick or to the mortuary if they die,” he said.
Conditions of detention in Giwa Barracks and detention centres in Damaturu, the Yobe State capital, were so overcrowded that hundreds of detainees were packed into small cells where they had to take turns sleeping, or even sitting on the floor. At its peak, Giwa Barracks — which was not built as a detention facility — was accommodating more than 2,000 detainees at one time.
“Hundreds have been killed in detention either (by soldiers) shooting them or by suffocation,” a military officer told Amnesty International, describing the situation in Sector Alpha detention center (known as ‘Guantanamo’). Amnesty International has confirmed that on a single day – June 19, 2013 — 47 detainees died there as a result of suffocation.
In order to combat the spread of disease and stifle the stench, cells were regularly fumigated with chemicals. Fumigation may have led to the deaths of many detainees in their poorly ventilated cells. One military official based at Giwa Barracks told Amnesty International: “Many Boko Haram suspects died as a result of fumigation. They were fumigated with the chemicals you use for killing mosquitoes. It is something very powerful. It is very dangerous.”
Amnesty International has received consistent reports as well as video evidence of torture by the military during and after arrest. Former detainees and senior military sources described how detainees were regularly tortured to death, hung on poles over fires, tossed into deep pits or interrogated using electric batons.
These findings are consistent with widespread patterns of torture and ill-treatment documented by Amnesty International over a number of years, most recently in the 2014 report, entitled: “Welcome to hell fire: Torture in Nigeria.”
More than 1,200 people have been extrajudicially executed by the military and associated militias in the Northeast. The worst case documented by Amnesty International took place on March 14, 2014 when the military killed more than 640 detainees, who had fled Giwa Barracks after Boko Haram attacked.
Many of these killings appear to be reprisals following attacks by Boko Haram. A senior military official told Amnesty International that such killings were common. Soldiers “go to the nearest place and kill all the youths… People killed may be innocent and not armed,” he said.
In a so-called “mop up” operation following a Boko Haram attack in Baga on April 16, 2013, a senior military official told Amnesty International how the military “transferred their aggression on the community.” At least 185 people were killed.
Detainees were also routinely killed. One military officer based in Giwa Barracks told Amnesty International that since 2014, very few suspects were even taken into custody but were immediately killed instead. This was confirmed by several human rights defenders and witnesses.
High level military commanders knew of the crimes
The highest levels of the military command, including the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), were regularly informed of operations conducted in the Northeast.
Evidence shows that senior military leaders knew, or should have known, about the nature and scale of the crimes being committed. Internal military documents show that they were updated on the high rates of deaths among detainees through daily field reports, letters and assessment reports sent by field commanders to Defence Headquarters (DHQ) and Army Headquarters.
Amnesty International has seen numerous requests and reminders sent from commanders in the field to DHQ, warning of the rise in the number of deaths in custody, the dangers of fumigation and requesting a transfer of detainees.
In addition, reports by teams sent to DHQ to assess military facilities and “authenticate data”, highlight death rates and warn that overcrowding was causing serious health problems and could lead to “an epidemic.”
Amnesty International has verified this knowledge and failure to act from a number of sources, including interviews with senior military officers. One military source told Amnesty International: “People at the top saw it but refused to do anything about it.”
Need for action
“Despite being informed of the death rates and conditions of detention, military officials consistently failed to take meaningful action. Those in charge of detention facilities, as well as their commanders at army and defense headquarters, must be investigated,” said Shetty.
“For years, the authorities have downplayed accusations of human rights abuses by the military. But they cannot dismiss their own internal military documents. They cannot ignore testimonies from witnesses and high-ranking military whistle blowers. And they cannot deny the existence of emaciated and mutilated bodies piled on mortuary slabs and dumped in mass graves.”
“We call on newly-elected President Buhari to end the culture of impunity that has blighted Nigeria and for the African Union (AU) and international community to encourage and support these efforts.
As a matter of urgency, the President must launch an immediate and impartial investigation into the crimes detailed in Amnesty International’s report and hold all those responsible to account, no matter their rank or position. Only then can there be justice for the dead and their relatives.”