Nigeria: military torches villages as Boko Haram attacks escalate

© © 2020 CNES/Airbus

Nigerian military’s brutal tactics should be investigated as possible war crimes

Analysis of satellite images and fire data reveals whole villages burned down

‘We saw our houses go into flames’ – 70-year-old woman from Bukarti

The Nigerian military must be investigated for its brutal tactics against the country’s civilian population, Amnesty International said today, as it released new information and satellite images showing the response to increased Boko Haram attacks.

Amnesty has found that the Nigerian military has burned and forcibly displaced entire villages in response to an escalation in attacks by Boko Haram since December last year. The conclusions are based on a series of interviews with affected villagers in Borno State and analysis of satellite data.

The military also arbitrarily detained six men from the displaced villages, continuing a pattern of violations Amnesty has documented throughout the country’s decade-long armed conflict in the northeast. The men were held incommunicado for almost a month and subjected to ill-treatment, before their release two weeks ago on 30 January.

Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, said:

“These brazen acts of razing entire villages, deliberately destroying civilian homes and forcibly displacing their inhabitants with no imperative military grounds, should be investigated as possible war crimes.

“They repeat a longstanding pattern of the Nigerian military’s brutal tactics against the civilian population. Forces allegedly responsible for such violations must be suspended immediately and brought to justice.

“The Nigerian government must not brush these violations under the carpet. They must be investigated, and alleged perpetrators must be prosecuted. Necessary steps must also be taken to ensure that military operations do not further forcibly displace civilian populations.”  

Unlawful tactics
Since December last year, Boko Haram has carried out increased attacks in northeastern Nigeria, particularly along the important road between Maiduguri and Damaturu, the capitals of Borno and Yobe States. A recent Amnesty research mission to Borno State shows that, in response to the attacks, the Nigerian military has resorted to unlawful tactics that have had a devastating effect on civilians and may amount to war crimes.

Amnesty interviewed 12 people forced to flee their homes on 3 and 4 January from three villages near the Maiduguri-Damaturu road, between Jakana and Mainok in Borno State. A review of fire data from remote satellite sensing also indicates several large fires burning on and around 3 January in that area. Satellite imagery of Bukarti, Ngariri, and Matiri shows almost every structure was razed, and signs of burning in neighbouring villages.

Residents from Bukarti consistently described scores of Nigerian soldiers arriving during the late morning of Friday 3 January. They said soldiers went house-to-house and to surrounding farmland, forcing everyone to gather under a tree and by a graveyard between Bukarti and the main road. Soldiers also rounded up people from neighbouring Matiri and brought them to the same area.

Villages torched
Around 3pm on 3 January, soldiers forced the villagers to board large trucks. The witnesses then saw their village burning.

One 70-year-old woman from Bukarti said: “We saw our houses go into flames. We all started crying.”

The trucks then took more than 400 women, men, and children from Bukarti and Matiri to an internally displaced persons camp near Maiduguri.

The next day, on 4 January, soldiers went to Ngariri, a village across the main road from Bukarti, according to three residents of Ngariri. Soldiers assembled primarily older women and men, as younger adults had already fled to surrounding farmland, and forced them aboard a truck that took them to Maiduguri.

People who returned to check on Bukarti and Ngariri told Amnesty that everything was torched. Satellite imagery corroborates both villages were burned in early January.

Witnesses interviewed by Amnesty said they could not bring belongings with them, so lost everything – their homes, jewellery, clothes, and, most devastatingly, the crops they stored after the harvest.

A farmer in his 60s said: “Everything we harvested was destroyed, and some of our animals died. I had a year [of harvest] stored – it’s what I would’ve sold to buy clothes and other things for my family.”

Another man, aged around 30, added: “Everything was burned, even our food – it could feed [my family] for two years. Our clothes, our food, our crops, our kettles. Even the trolley we used for getting water. Only the metal dishes are there, but everything else is burned.”

Ordering the displacement of the inhabitants of these villages, where their security or imperative military reasons did not demand so, constitutes a war crime. The subsequent burning of their homes may amount to a war crime as well.

Arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment
As the military targeted Bukarti and Matiri and brought people to the trucks on 3 January, they separated six younger men and blindfolded them, according to accounts by relatives of two of the men and other witnesses. They said the soldiers did not seek the men out by name, or otherwise appear to come looking for specific people. Four witnesses said they thought it was because those younger men had mobile phones.

The soldiers beat at least some of the men with large sticks and put them in military vehicles. The military held the men incommunicado for almost a month; relatives and village leaders were unable to determine where the men were held. All six men were released on 30 January. They have not been charged with any crime.

Two of the detained men told Amnesty that because they were blindfolded until reaching their cell, they did not know where they were being held until their release – when they saw it was Maimalari military barracks in Maiduguri. They said they were chained in pairs and, other than being questioned one day, were never let out of the cell. They only received food once a day.

Throughout the conflict between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram, Amnesty has documented prolonged arbitrary detention by the military. Soldiers have also subjected detained men, women, and children to torture and other ill-treatment, in violation of both international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

‘They say they saved us from Boko Haram, but it’s a lie’
Nigerian Army statements, reported by the media, indicate soldiers from Brigades 5 and 29, along with Special Intervention Battalion 2, carried out the operations between Jakana and Mainok on 3 January. The army said it arrested six “suspects” and “rescued… 461 Boko Haram captives” from several villages, including Bukarti and Matiri.

Witnesses interviewed by Amnesty said Boko Haram had not been in their village, and that they felt significantly safer in their village than in the IDP camp where the military took them.

One man, aged around 65, said: “They say they saved us from Boko Haram, but it’s a lie. Boko Haram isn’t coming to our village.”

Several Bukarti and Ngariri residents said their village was so close to the main road that it wasn’t credible to think Boko Haram could base itself there. They said Nigerian soldiers came through the area regularly and spoke frequently with village leaders.

Four witnesses told Amnesty that Nigerian soldiers staged photographs of the villagers walking to the trucks, to make it appear as if the military had ‘saved’ them.

Surge in Boko Haram attacks
The military’s operations come amid a surge in Boko Haram activity in areas along the Maiduguri-Damaturu road. In its deadliest attack since the start of year, on 10 February Boko Haram allegedly killed 30 motorists near Auno village. It was the armed group’s sixth assault on Auno in 10 months, demonstrating the increasing danger for civilians living along this vital route connecting Borno state to the rest of Nigeria. 

View latest press releases