Bloodletting: Civilians in the shadow of death

Since the start of the insurgency, followed by other armed conflicts in different parts of the country, civilians, especially women and children, have been raped, maimed, killed and thousands displaced from their homes. In this report, JULIANA FRANCIS looks at the need for protection of civilians through birthing a legal framework

On April 25, 2021, Hauwa Datti- Garba took to Twitter to rant about the escalating insecurity crisis in Nigeria, with emphasis on Niger State. The state, like many others in Nigeria, has become one of the statistics in the mushrooming insecurity in the country. Datti-Garba tweeted: “I absolutely hate talking about this country. Hate! The news coming out of Minna is disheartening. Entire villages have been ransacked and are ghost towns.

Buses of refugees are in front of the Emir’s palace. No shelter, no food. People in town are looking for rooms to keep entire villagers. And I’m not talking about small villages; Guni. Kuchi. Fuka. Erena. Many, many more. Gwada is overrun with people from neighbouring villages. Minna itself is turning into a refugee camp.

My Grandma has more people than she can handle. Everyone is confused. Tears. What a country.” Datti-Garba’s heartfelt cry came on the heels of attacks on some villages in Niger State by gunmen. The latest attack occurred on April 21, 2021, leading to villagers being displaced. Another indigene of Niger State, Mohammed, who pleaded that his surname shouldn’t be mentioned, explained that since the insurgents began storming the state, they had fixated on collecting cows, women, girls, power bikes and recharge cards from petrified villagers.

He said that women were often raped in front of their husbands and if ransoms were not paid on time, the victims could be killed. Mohammed recalled that insurgents had been coming for cattle, as many as 1,000, which they seized from farmers. When they noticed that the number of the cows had become depleted, they turned their attention to women, abductions, ransom, power bikes and recharge cards. He said: “The villages Boko Haram insurgents invaded are not far from where we’re living.

These insurgents move freely in our communities and nobody had ever stopped them. Our villages are monitored by soldiers, but these insurgents continue to threaten every one of us. The soldiers are not impediments. In fact, anytime the insurgents want to operate, they come out and do so. We see them every day.

They are usually armed and they go to markets to buy foodstuffs and anytime they don’t have money to pay, they’ll just shoot into the air to scare traders, go into shops and take everything inside.” The insurgents were said to have in-vaded the villages on that fateful April 21, 2021, at sundown, shooting sporadically and causing frightened villagers to scamper for safety.

This, however, was not their first coming. The insurgents turned on the villagers after attacking a military base at the Zazzaga community in Munya Local Government Area of Niger State. Mohammed said displaced villagers have been urged to return to their deserted homes. He said that the instruction came three days ago, after soldiers were deployed. According to him, deploying soldiers to villages taken over by the insurgents is not new.

The insurgents always return to unleash more horrendous harm on civilians. Speaking in a resigned voice, Mohammed said: “A month ago, displaced villagers ran to secondary schools to stay. But now, soldiers have been deployed to villages. Each village has between five and 10 soldiers, depending on the size of the village. However, soldiers being deployed should have been good news, but it is not to us! This is because after a while, the insurgents will come back. They’ll come back in full force and usually outnumber the soldiers.

They know the number of the soldiers in each village because they have informants.” Mohammed remembered that the insurgency started in Suleja and has been spreading to other parts of the state. He added: “These killers target cattle as many as 1,000, we used to wonder what they did with them.

They kidnap females and if a woman is beautiful, she would be raped right there in the presence of people. Sometimes, if they kidnap a lady and ransom comes late or is not complete, they would kill the victim. They’ll still collect the money and then tell you to go and pick your dead.” Reacting to the latest attack on Niger State, Governor Abubakar Sani Bello said there were Boko Haram members in his state.

He said: “I’m confirming that they have hoisted their flags here. The villagers’ wives have been seized from them and forcibly attached to Boko Haram members. This is what I have been engaging the Federal Government on; unfortunately it has now got to this level.

If care is not taken, even Abuja is not safe. The insurgency in Nigeria started in Borno State and has since caused its tongue of flames to spread to other states, consuming civilians. According to Global Conflict Tracker; after a peak in Boko Haram related violence in 2014 and 2015, the number of casualties attributed to the group fell dramatically.

“In June 2018, the Nigerian Army announced that 2,000 internally displaced people were to return home. Security forces combating the militants have also been accused of severe human rights abuses,” it added. In most attacks carried out by insurgents in different parts of the country, people are usually displaced.

The most affected in these continuous attacks are women and children. Tragically, even in their displaced camps, many continued to be attacked by the insurgents and airstrikes from Nigerian troops, often under the excuse that it was “a mistake.”

Tragedies befallen civilians in armed conflicts in Nigeria are fiercest in the North-East and North Central and now Kaduna and Niger states have become part of the dirge. Global Rights Organisation in its article, ‘Mass Atrocities 2020 Tracking,’ stated that 4,556 people were killed in 2020 between January and December. Of that number, 3,188 were civilians, and 698 were state security agents. Global Rights further noted that Kaduna State recorded the highest casualties in 2020 in the North- West, largely due to attacks on communities in Southern Kaduna, which resulted in the deaths of at least 628 people.

Due to the fact that innocent Nigerians, especially women and children are often caught in the cross fire during armed conflicts, many security experts and stakeholders have argued that there should be a deliberate legal framework created to protect civilians, and cause civilians’ harm mitigation in armed conflict. Part of the argument is that there should be creation of a ‘safe space’ for civilians.

“A safe area can be defined as a confined geographical space within a conflict zone in which at least one external actor or all belligerent parties effectively guarantee protection for civilians from a threat of conflict-related physical violence,” Robin Hering said in his article ‘Safe areas for the protection of civilians: An overview of existing research and scholarship.’

Our reporter tried to find out the number of displaced camps in different parts of Nigeria caused by insurgency and the approximate number of the inhabitants in each from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), but its Director-General (DG), Dr. Yemi Kale, said: “Unfortunately, we don’t keep that kind of data for now.” Also for three weeks, our reporter visited the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development (FMHDSD) for the same information and data, but came up zilch.

Amnesty International (AI) said that on February 25, 2014, suspected Boko Haram members attacked a college in Yobe State, killing between 43 and 59 students and teachers. AI added that on February 11, 2014, suspected Boko Haram members killed more than 50 people and burnt several homes in the village of Konduga, also in Borno State.

The Programme Manager, Defence and Security Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Mr. Salaudeen Hashim, said the situation in Nigeria presently meant one couldn’t travel less than 60 kilometres without coming into harm. He added: “People, who are supposed to protect civilians, have run out of ideas. In the South-East, military and police have become targets; that was how it started in the North-East. What can we do to handle and arrest this situation? There’s a nexus between peace and development.

Before any violence happens in any community, there are usually signs or indicators, which can help security forces to be proactive.” Hashim explained that it was important to have a special framework of intelligence gathering because such people wouldn’t want the violence to end. He said: “Our aim is to have a legal framework on civilian protection, especially since commercial interest will not allow the madness to stop. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are bombed and security forces keep saying it was a mistake. People die and yet no investigation is being carried out. Something is wrong with our legislators and policy makers.

This is 10 years since insurgency started in Nigeria and yet no policy to protect IDPs and civilians. The truth is that the military has rules of engagement, but it’s doubtful if they are briefed that civilians are the greatest assets to protect.” Hashim explained that the actions of security personnel mattered if they truly needed civilians’ assistance with information. Rather, security personnel, according to him, have become ruthless in dealing with civilians during armed conflicts. He added: “It’s bad that we do not have a mechanism of protection.

Threat doesn’t recognise ethnicity and religion, however, protection is universal. “Nigerians are now in a state of dilemma. Sexual violence is the greatest tool in IDP camps. Sex for food is another tool in IDP camps. In fact, those, who are supposed to protect the civilians, have become the rapists. The vulnerable submits to sex for food. Presence of the military has fanned and fuelled a community crisis.

There are a lot of issues going on in most of these communities. “We don’t have safe spaces in armed conflict situations. There should be safe space where security forces have agreed that if civilians run to that place, they’ll be safe. There’s a need to build capacity on causal analysis of civilian harms.

Protection should be seen as a right based issue. Although food is important in armed conflict for civilians, the most vital is safety. The armed conflict situation is seeing 13.5 million out of schoolchildren. Also, the prevention mechanism of armed conflict is very important.” According to him, the inability of soldiers to differentiate between civilians and combatants continues to contribute to the growing death toll.

He further argued that since guns have failed to yield a solution, the government should embrace the non-kinetic approach. Non-kinetic operations are those actions that do not require security forces to conduct combat missions, explains. It further clarifies: “Non-kinetic operations can be defined as the employment of non-lethal strategies and tactics with weapons that are “sub-lethal” or “weapons not intended to be lethal”.

Emphasising the importance of coming up with such a legal framework, Hashim said: “It will provide direct physical protection to populations and individuals experiencing threats of violence, strengthens local infrastructure for violence, cause prevention, self-protection conflict management and peace building, increasing and improving responsiveness of duty bearers, state and non-state actors to protect civilians.”

The Centre for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), which works to improve protection for civilians caught in conflicts around the world, said: “Civilians have been deeply affected by Boko Haram’s sustained campaign of suicide attacks, abductions, and massive displacement. However, they expect the group’s tactics to change very little.

For that reason, civilians direct their concerns and hopes for change toward the Nigerian armed forces.” Explaining his perception of security forces and their behaviour, a businessman in Yobe State told CIVIC that the perception of the people changed from seeing the government’s role as security provider, to that of an aggressor.

‘This has drawn some sympathy to Boko Haram, at least before the group started attacking civilians. However, heavy-handed government actions paved the way for easy recruitment by Boko Haram,” the businessman said. “Although international law holds the Nigerian government and military primarily responsible for civilian protection, our research found that civilians and security forces often did not share this understanding. Instead, many believed that security forces were deployed only to defeat Boko Haram, not to protect civilians.

Without a stronger shared understanding of the role each actor plays in protecting civilians, vulnerable groups will be left to fend for themselves, while armed forces will too often define their role in terms of taking lives, instead of trying to save them,” CIVIC added. The former Director of the Department of State Services (DSS), Mr. Dennis Amachree, said women and children have always enjoyed some protection under international humanitarian law. He said: “However, in the unconventional situation we find ourselves in Nigeria, women and children have been killed or displaced. Insurgents and bandits don’t follow or respect any convention.

In fact, they go after children (students) and women to enhance their emotional demands in situations of kidnapping for ransom.” The Executive Director of the Rule of Law Accountability and Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), Mr. Okechukwu Nwanguma, said Nigeria is not in want of laws which address different problems and challenges.

“The problem lies with political commitment and willingness to implement and enforce laws. With regards to protecting civilians in conflict, Nigeria has a surfeit of domestic laws and is also party to international human rights legislation and standards. The Violence Against Persons Act, Child Rights Act, Administration of Criminal Justice Act, etc.

At the international level, Nigeria is a signatory to CEDAW- Convention On The Elimination of Acts of Violence Against Women, the Geneva Convention on the treatment of persons in conflict, etc. I don’t know any person tried, never mind convicted, on any of the laws mentioned above,” he said. Nwanguma argued that the tangible problem is a lack of commitment to enforce existing laws, including laws that protect women, children and indeed, all citizens.

He added: “With regards to creating spaces for victims of crime to run to and take refuge, how many IDP camps do we have in Nigeria and how has the government been able to provide protection for people in IDP camps? The issue is that the government has lost a substantial part of the Nigerian space to criminals of different moulds- from terrorists to bandits to kidnappers to armed robbers.

Politicisation of security under the Buhari government, corruption and management of security funds, lack of adequate funds and equipment, high level of casualties among security agencies and low morale among the personnel -these are the problems. There is politicisation and commercialisation of crime. People in government are working in cahoots with bandits and terrorists.

They tell them to pay ransom instead of arresting and prosecuting them.” The Executive Director, CISLAC, Auwal Ibrahim Musa, said his organisation, with support from Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), is at the forefront of this argument. According to Musa, this legal framework will not materialise if journalists are not intentional in their reporting and demand for safer spaces for civilians in armed conflict. He said: “The importance of a free, professional and plural media in contributing to protection of civilians and civilian harm mitigation in armed conflict has gained traction in our work.

A vibrant media gives people free flowing access to information, enables dialogue, encourages people to express their views, prompts greater political participation and encourages accountability. Conflicts today are, in many cases, more complex and multidimensional than ever before.

This has continued to threaten protection of civilians in various levels. Most conflict deaths occur during internal wars rather than between states and regular armies. Over the past decade, there has been an increase in conflict relapse rate. Conflicts are less likely to be resolved through traditional political settlements and this is due mainly to the emergence of organised crime that tends to exacerbate state fragility and undermine state legitimacy.” Musa also said that CISLAC remains deeply concerned by the high number of acts of violence against civilians in various theatres of operations across the country.

He added: “It is often said that the first casualty of war is truth. Accurate, impartial media reports conveyed from conflict zones serves as fundamental to public interest. In the information era, images and news can have a decisive impact on the outcome of armed conflicts.

As a consequence, the obstruction of journalistic tasks in times of armed conflict is alarmingly frequent. The range of interference is wide; it ranges from access denial, censorship and harassment to arbitrary detention and direct attacks against media professionals.

“Expressing observations and opinions in sound bites and tweets and avoiding rational discourse and analysis can put civilians in harm’s way. The speed of communications and competition for audience share makes the media less likely to play a gatekeeper role by withholding certain information that could derail potential risk to vulnerable civilians.

The accelerating speed of communications can have positive as well as negative consequences.” The ED said that the continual suffering of civilians, particularly the effects of sexual violence, loss of livelihood and constant attacks by non-state armed groups is a cause for deep concern, stressing that children and armed conflict and the psyche of the children in these environments are potential harm to the society. He said: “Sexual violence in conflict is a niche issue, protecting civilians from sexual violence and other conflict-related mayhem is a step in the right direction. The stories from various IDP camps and locals in operation theatres are indeed sore tales.


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