The Nigerian security forces, led by the military, embarked on a chilling campaign of extrajudicial executions and violence resulting in the deaths of at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra protesters in the south east of the country, according to an investigation by Amnesty International published today.
Analysis of 87 videos, 122 photographs and 146 eye witness testimonies relating to demonstrations and other gatherings between August 2015 and August 2016 consistently shows that the military fired live ammunition with little or no warning to disperse crowds. It also finds evidence of mass extrajudicial executions by security forces, including at least 60 people shot dead in the space of two days in connection with events to mark Biafra Remembrance Day.
“This deadly repression of pro-Biafra activists is further stoking tensions in the south east of Nigeria. This reckless and trigger-happy approach to crowd control has caused at least 150 deaths and we fear the actual total might be far higher. The Nigerian government’s decision to send in the military to respond to pro-Biafra events seems to be in large part to blame for this excessive bloodshed. The authorities must immediately launch an impartial investigation and bring the perpetrators to book,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.
Since August 2015, there has been a series of protests, marches and gatherings by members and supporters of IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) who have been seeking the creation of a Biafran state. Tensions increased further following the arrest of IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu on 14 October 2015. He remains in detention.
By far the largest number of pro-Biafra activists were killed on Biafra Remembrance Day on 30 May 2016 when an estimated 1,000 IPOB members and supporters gathered for a rally in Onitsha, Anambra State. The night before the rally, the security forces raided homes and a church where IPOB members were sleeping. On Remembrance Day itself, the security forces shot people in several locations. Amnesty International has not been able to verify the exact number of extrajudicial executions, but estimates that at least 60 people were killed and 70 injured in these two days. The real number is likely to be higher.
Amnesty International has also reviewed videos of a peaceful gathering of IPOB members and supporters at Aba National High School on 9 February 2016. The Nigerian military surrounded the group and then fired live ammunition at them without any prior warning. According to eyewitnesses and local human rights activists, many of the protesters at Aba were rounded up and taken away by the military. On 13 February 13 corpses, including those of men known to have been taken by the military, were discovered in a pit near the Aba highway.
“It is chilling to see how these soldiers gunned down peaceful IPOB members. The video evidence shows that this was a military operation with intent to kill and injure,” said Colm O’Gorman.
Eyewitness testimony and video footage of the rallies, marches and meetings demonstrate that the Nigerian military deliberately used deadly force.
In many of the incidents detailed in the report, the military applied tactics designed to kill and neutralise an enemy, rather than to ensure public order at a peaceful event. All IPOB gatherings documented by Amnesty International were largely peaceful. In those cases where there were pockets of violence, it was mostly in reaction to shooting by the security forces. Eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that some protesters threw stones, burned tyres and in one incident shot at the police. Regardless, these acts of violence and disorder did not justify the level of force used against the whole assembly.
Amnesty International’s research also shows a disturbing pattern of hundreds of arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment by soldiers during and after IPOB events, including arrests of wounded victims in hospital, and torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.
Vincent Ogbodo (not his real name), a 26-year-old trader, said he was shot on Remembrance Day in Nkpor and hid in a gutter. When soldiers found him they poured acid on him. He told Amnesty International:
“I covered my face. I would have been blind by now. He poured acid on my hands. My hands and body started burning. The flesh was burning… They dragged me out of the gutter. They said I’ll die slowly.”
A man who was detained in Onitsha Barracks after the Remembrance Day shooting on 30 May 2016 told Amnesty International: “Those in the guard room [detention] were flogged every morning. The soldiers tagged it ‘Morning Tea’.”
No action by authorities to ensure accountability
Despite this overwhelming evidence that the Nigerian security forces committed gross human rights violations including extrajudicial executions and torture, no investigations have been carried out by the authorities. A similar pattern of lack of accountability for gross violations by the military has been documented in other parts of Nigeria including the north east in the context of operations against Boko Haram.
“Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the government of Nigeria to initiate independent investigations into evidence of crimes under international law, and President Buhari has repeatedly promised that Amnesty International’s reports would be looked into. However, no concrete steps have been taken,” said Colm O’Gorman.
In the very rare cases where an investigation is carried out, there is no follow up. As a result of the apparent lack of political will to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of such crimes, the military continues to commit human rights violations and grave crimes with impunity.
In addition to investigations, the Nigerian government must ensure adequate reparations for the victims, including the families. They should end all use of military in policing demonstrations and ensure the police are adequately instructed, trained and equipped to deal with crowd-control situations in line with international law and standards. In particular, firearms must never be used as a tool for crowd control.