On Monday 18th August 2014, the Channel 4 aired a documentary alleging a pattern of serious abuse against Nigerian citizens allegedly by or with the collusion of the Nigerian security forces based on several videos and alleged eye witness accounts of terrible crimes perpetrated. Whilst this observer wholeheartedly condemns the heinous and shameful acts highlighted, it would appear that no right of reply was given to the Nigerian Security Forces on the ground in the documentary and the context of the conflict whilst mentioned was generally glossed over. It is thus important to respond.
The conflict in North Eastern Nigeria is not a popular uprising against the state neither is it a deliberate campaign by the Nigerian Government or security forces against a particular section of the population, it is a deliberate and targeted war against the Nigerian people by a group of such barbarity that they regularly murder school children in their dormitories, detonate bombs in crowded markets, bus stations and schools, abduct young girls as sex slaves and camp followers and young men as forced conscripts. They burn villages, decapitate and shoot civilians and burn their farms and starve them by stealing their foodstuffs.
They have no clear objectives beyond demanding an imposition of their version of Sharia Law on Northern Nigeria and the rest of the country. As neither Northern Nigeria, Nigerian Islam nor Nigeria as a whole is monolithic or monotheistic and Boko Harams individual brand of Yusufiyya Islam considers Shia, Izala, Sunni Orthodox, Tijaniyya and just about any Islamic teaching that is not exclusively theirs to be heresy and apostasy, it is unclear what exactly they would do with Nigeria or Northern Nigeria much less Christians or their fellow Muslims if they ever achieved these aims.
Thus Nigeria is facing a group that uses extreme violence indiscriminately against civilians both at home and abroad (Cameroun, Chad, Niger) for no achievable end and the only thing that stands in their way are the Nigerian security forces and civilian volunteers.
This is not an apologia for the terrible crimes shown; Nigerians deserve and should get better. It is however important to understand the context of the conflict and address several questionable allegations in the documentary.
The vigilantes shown and interviewed in the documentary were neither recruited nor initially organised by the State or Federal Governments. They were a spontaneous reaction to the attacks and depredations of Boko Haram. Neither are they a tribal or sectarian group set up to dominate another group. Just like the inhabitants of the North East and the core members of Boko Haram they are almost all Muslims, Hausas, Fulanis or Kanuris. It is instructive that rather than finding common cause with their tribesmen and coreligionists these youth threw in their lot with the secular democratic government.
These untrained youths banded together to defend their communities against the murderous attacks of Boko Haram. And without pay or training and armed only with sticks and machetes are willingly facing a brutal enemy armed with assault rifles, machine guns and RPGs.
Unfortunately courage and conviction are not body armour and the vigilantes have taken significant casualties in their efforts. The trauma of their experiences and lack of training and discipline is demonstrated in their unsophisticated interrogation and investigation practices, however as the documentary shows the Nigerian Army has clearly tried to rein them in with codes of conduct and the Borno State Government has tried to regularise them with the Borno State Youth Empowerment Scheme (BOYES) by paying them (roughly £60.00 a month), giving them uniforms and training (with an emphasis on civics and the law). There have been several intakes totalling about 1,700 people but obviously it is a slow process to train so many people especially in conflict conditions.
It can also be seen in the clip of the pregnant woman captured with AK47 ammunition that whilst there was mistreatment there were also strong dissenting voices heard trying to prevent her from being beaten. Contrast this with Boko Haram who had no compunction about giving a pregnant woman with an infant child live ammunition to transport across a conflict zone or using 10 year old girls as suicide bombers.
Extra judicial killings:
There were several videos of extra judicial killings in the documentary. It is the opinion of this observer that there is no excuse under any circumstance to murder a prisoner be they civilian or insurgent.
However it is important to weigh up the balance of evidence.
Boko Haram is well documented in their use of military uniforms and captured weapons and equipment in their attacks. The GSS Chibok escapees all stated that their attackers were dressed in uniform and rode in military style vehicles and the ruse was only discovered when they began burning the school and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.
There is countless evidence from Bama, Marte, Gwoza, Gamboru Ngala, Damaturu and more that Boko Haram routinely masquerade as soldiers and utilise captured equipment and weapons, in many cases deceiving villagers who lowered their defences only to be massacred and even in some cases deceiving military personnel as the attack on Buni Yadi in May 2014 shows.
Boko Haram is also adept at filming these crimes to either make propaganda videos or disseminate virally in order to terrify the populace into submission.
The different police, military and other paramilitary forces in Nigeria have different uniforms thus it is difficult for a seasoned observer much less a villager to categorically identify Nigerian Army uniforms and members. Except in the cases where unit flashes can be discerned there is no evidence that these were actually Nigerian security personnel.
Another allegation made was that the pattern of abuses indicated that they were part of a deliberate policy that were ordered by the chain of command. This is extremely unrealistic. Unlike Boko Haram which proudly boasts of its murders and murderous intentions, the documentary itself shows grainy mobile phone video of a Colonel telling the vigilantes not to commit excesses. In the majority the people perpetrating these actions are in mixed dress, for example wearing bathroom slippers and T shirts with camouflage trousers etc, indicating they could either be imposters using whatever bits of uniform they could scrounge or at worst off duty personnel. In the only clips where ranks are identifiable only the 2 stars of a Lieutenant are visible, indicating that these were more likely the isolated actions of a platoon, than an organised division or Army wide activity.
The death of escaped prisoners from Giwa Barracks is given as evidence of a concerted policy of summary executions, however except for one clip of an execution most of the video and still photos consisted of piles of bodies. When Boko Haram attacked Giwa Barracks they deliberately advanced through civilians areas, detonating an IED at the University of Maiduguri to draw Nigerian forces away from the barracks and fighting through Dolori Housing Estate as Boko Harams own videos show. When the counter attack began, Boko Haram withdrew from the barracks again through civilian areas like Fori, 202 Housing Estate and the University of Maiduguri, deliberately using the high walls of civilian compounds and narrow alleyways to mask their withdrawal from soldiers and aircraft. A large proportion of the fatalities that day were people caught in the cross fire due to Boko Harams deliberate tactic of advancing and withdrawing through heavily populated areas.
That there might have been summary executions as claimed cannot be completely discounted however, using the high casualty count or uncorroborated images and testimony to claim that these were deliberately ordered actions is unreasonable.
As can be seen from the most damning clip, (featuring the individual identified as Haruna/ Harrison), the voices in the background state ‘Na so them they do us (This is what they do to us)’. This would indicate that the perpetrators were not acting on orders but were motivated by revenge for the murder of own forces by Boko Haram.
One must remember that armies are made up of human beings, some of whom will do criminal things and as the trial and conviction of a Royal Marine Sergeant for the murder of an injured Talib and US Staff Sergeant Bales who murdered 16 Afghan civilians in Afghanistan demonstrate that even in highly trained, disciplined armies with strict Law of Armed Conflict training and procedures, atrocities are possible. Much the same as Abu Ghraib, Camp Breadbasket or other scandals should not be used to define the US or British Army, it would be incorrect to use this video to categorise the entire Security Force effort in North Eastern Nigeria.
The Boko Haram insurgency in North East Nigeria is a human tragedy of terrifying scale, with civilians subject to abduction, rape and murder by Boko Haram with no mercy, discrimination or proportionality shown by Boko Haram and no objective other than to cause mass casualties.
The Nigerian police and armed forces bear the brunt of the effort to counter them. A conventionally trained force has had to deploy and re organise to fight an extremely brutal insurgency in difficult terrain in which no quarter is given by Boko Haram, where defeat or surrender means not just death by decapitation but the murder of innocent civilians under their care.
The huge expanse of terrain that needs to be secured and isolated hamlets defended leaves many units isolated and left to their own devices. The stress on the junior leaders upon whom these responsibilities fall can scarcely be imagined.
It is unfortunately inevitable that there will be excesses and abuses in all conflicts and even more in wars amongst the people for the people and much the same way there will be perpetual allegations some true and others untrue, as the UKs recent Bloody Sunday, Danny Boy and Baha Moussa Enquiries show.
This does not in any way condone or excuse these crimes, no professional soldier or policeman should permit the maltreatment of civilians, suspects or prisoners
However the case that these crimes were perpetrated by or with the collusion of the Nigerian Security Forces is not definitively proven and for Channel 4, Amnesty International et al to jump hastily to such a conclusion, rather than give the Nigerian Government an opportunity to thoroughly investigate these allegations, establish the truth and ensure there is full accountability by the guilty whoever they are, not help the Nigerian citizens or security forces in the North East
As stated at the start of this piece, this is not a conflict of choice, it is not a conflict of one section of the population against another or the government. It is a brutal, merciless war against the people and the state by a group with no raison d’etre except to cause as many casualties as possible
To end the suffering of the people of the North East, Nigeria must defeat Boko Haram. This must be done legally and with humanity, but the solution to these problems is the defeat of Boko Haram.