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OPINION / Nigeria

Nigerian government should address the problems

If "official lawlessness is denied and goes unpunished", Nigeria will not gain the stability it so badly needs.

by Salil Shetty

It has been another bloody Christmas and New Year period in Nigeria, with at least 43 people reported to have been killed by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. Twenty-seven of those were attending church services. Past attacks have included outside mosques and in markets. It is difficult to disagree with the Nigerian task force, which described Boko Haram's attacks as "incessant, callous, brutal, barbaric".  

But brutal callousness by an armed insurgent group should not be matched by government's brutal callousness. 

Nigeria's security forces have perpetrated serious human rights violations in their response - including enforced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, house burning and unlawful detention. 

A country with global aspirations should also be a country of the rule of law. On that count, Nigeria is failing dismally - particularly when it comes to Boko Haram.

The recent attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria add to the shadow of terror being cast by the Islamic group across northern and central Nigeria. 

The death of 43 adds to the toll of more than 1,000 people killed by Boko Haram over the last two years, including attacks on churches, outside mosques and in markets.

 Thousands killed in Nigeria since
Boko Haram launched campaign in 2009

Such an assault from within is a challenge to any country. But Nigeria has to find a more effective means of response than it has to-date. The country is positioning itself as a global player and is seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. 

The terrible crimes of Boko Haram can never be a justification for a country's security forces to kill or disappear people with impunity. 

The security forces' response is creating an atmosphere of lawlessness across vast swathes of the country. In the words of one Nigerian judge, the authorities' disregard for due process is "barbaric". 

In May, a 32-year-old trader was arrested by members of Nigeria's Joint Task Force as he was about to close his shop for the day in the north-eastern town of Maiduguri. The following day, the man's bullet-ridden naked body was found dumped by the roadside. His father did not dare complain. He told Amnesty International: "He has been killed for doing nothing." 

The government claims to have a three-pronged strategy for dealing with Boko Haram: addressing economic grievances, political dialogue and law enforcement. But if the "law enforcement" includes trampling the law, the strategy is worthless. 

Unlawful killings, detention without charge, and enforced disappearances are just some of the human rights violations being perpetrated by Nigeria's security forces in the name of national security which Amnesty International identified in a report launched in November. 

When we travelled to Abuja to launch the report, officials we met in the Nigerian capital praised the global work of Amnesty International. We welcome that praise. And yet, other officials sought to argue that the methodology of our carefully researched report was flawed, and insisted that Nigeria's security forces would never act outside the law. 

That is clearly untrue. The Nigerian government should address the problems, not blame the messenger or deny the undeniable. The Nigerian government owes its own people respect for the rule of law - including by the lawful prosecution of Boko Haram crimes, which we see too rarely. If official lawlessness is denied and goes unpunished, Nigeria will not gain the stability it so badly needs. 

Salil Shetty is the Secretary General of Amnesty International. A long-term activist on poverty and justice, he leads the movement's worldwide work to end the abuse of human rights. Prior to joining Amnesty International, he was the director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign. 



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