Stars on Their Shoulders, Blood on Their Hands

An explosive new report by Amnesty International shows that Nigeria's military systematically committed war crimes — torturing and murdering thousands of young men.


In his inaugural address last Friday, Nigeria’s newly elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, promised to “overhaul the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations.” While this very public acknowledgement of a problem repeatedly downplayed by the previous administration is welcome, the seriousness of Nigeria’s human rights violations cannot be overstated. Indeed, even as the new president was making this commitment, he was watched from the audience by a number of high-ranking military officials who, along with others, Amnesty International is today calling to be investigated for their role in the mass deaths of more than 8,000 people — shot, starved, suffocated, and tortured to death.

It is no secret that as the bloody insurgency waged by Boko Haram since 2009 intensified, so too did the brutality of the Nigerian military’s response. Since the start of the conflict, Amnesty International has been documenting and highlighting human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides. But the report released today, “Stars on their Shoulders, Blood on their Hands,” goes further than ever before. Not only does it reveal incontrovertible evidence of the horrifying scale and depravity of war crimes committed by the military, it also shows that military commanders either sanctioned the abuses or ignored the fact that they were taking place.

This report is based on years of research and analysis — including hundreds of leaked military reports and correspondence and interviews with more than 400 victims, eyewitnesses, and senior members of the Nigerian security forces. We have found that more than 7,000 young men and boys died in military detention since March 2011. In addition, more than 1,200 people were rounded up and unlawfully killed by the military since February 2012. And Amnesty International’s evidence suggests that the vast majority of those arrested, detained, or killed were not members of Boko Haram.

Often based on the word of unidentified informants, and with no other evidence against them, more than 20,000 young men and boys — some as young as nine — have since 2009 been arrested and incarcerated without investigation or trial in the most degrading, brutal, and inhuman conditions. On arrival at a detention center, one detainee described how he was greeted by a solider with the words: “Welcome to your die house. Welcome to your place of death.” Thousands never emerged alive.

Some died of starvation, dehydration, or preventable disease. Others suffocated in poorly ventilated cells or were tortured to death, hung on poles over fires, tossed into deep pits, shot, or electrocuted. To try to combat the spread of disease and stifle the stench, some cells were regularly fumigated with powerful chemicals. This is likely to have been the cause of many deaths.

One former detainee was arrested on May 2, 2013, in Gwange, a suburb of Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno, along with 121 other men. They were taken to the now-infamous Giwa barracks where he was held, chained to another man, in a cell approximately 25 feet by 25 feet — with around 400 others. “They started to die after three days,” he recalled. “There is no washing, no showers. No sleep.” Only 11 of the men he was arrested with survived.

Another former detainee was also arrested in Gwange and spent 15 months in Giwa barracks. “Any time we were denied water for two days, 300 people died,” he said. “Sometimes we drink people’s urine, but even the urine you at times could not get. Every day they died, and whenever someone died, we were happy because of the extra space.”

In 2013, more than 4,700 bodies were brought from Giwa barracks to a mortuary in Maiduguri. Amnesty International researchers witnessed emaciated corpses in mortuaries. One senior military officer told Amnesty International that detention centers are not given sufficient money for food and that detainees in Giwa barracks were “deliberately starved.”

Leaked internal military documents show categorically that senior military officials were regularly updated on the high rates of deaths among detainees through daily field reports, letters, and assessment reports sent by field commanders to the defense and army headquarters. Nigeria’s military leadership therefore knew, or should have known, about the nature and scale of the crimes being committed.

For years, the Nigerian authorities have downplayed accusations of human rights abuses by the military. In October 2014, at a workshop on civil-military cooperation, then-President Goodluck Jonathan said that the government takes reports about human rights violations by security forces very seriously, but “Findings have generally shown that these reports are, in the main, exaggerated.”

But the Nigerian government cannot dismiss its own internal military documents. It cannot ignore testimonies from witnesses and high-ranking military whistleblowers. And it cannot deny the existence of emaciated and mutilated bodies piled on mortuary slabs and dumped in mass graves.

Based on the evidence we have collected, Amnesty International is taking the unusual step of naming nine senior Nigerian military figures who we believe should be investigated for individual or command responsibility for these crimes. Nigeria’s new government now must immediately set up independent and impartial investigations, not just of those named in this report, but of all those responsible for the war crimes detailed, no matter their rank or position.

Faced with the lawless brutality and violence of Boko Haram, the need for a government that respects human rights and the rule of law for all is more vital than ever. The commitments made by President Buhari at his inauguration will give hope to those fighting to end impunity in Nigeria and those desperate to find out what has happened to their loved ones. But man is not judged on his words. He is judged on his actions. Nigeria has the ability to properly investigate these crimes and President Buhari’s statements indicate he has the will to make it happen. There is no time to waste.

Photo credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

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