How Nigeria’s Stupidly Brutal Cops Botch the Hunt for Boko Haram

Nigeria’s security forces have such a horrific reputation for random torture and murder that many people do not dare to cooperate with them, even to save the kidnapped girls of Chibok.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Not doing enough to combat Boko Haram? If anything President Goodluck Jonathan and the Nigerian government have been asking their brutal security forces to do too much.

Allegations of indiscriminate mass arrests, bloody raids on northern villages and the systematic torture of incarcerated suspects mean communities that have most to fear from the rebel militia are more scared of the lawless government forces.

Justine Ijeomah, a human rights lawyer and himself a victim of Nigerian police brutality, told The Daily Beast that corruption, torture and extra-judicial killings had completely alienated great swathes of the population who may otherwise have assisted in the hunt for Boko Haram’s leaders and kidnap victims. The widespread hostility of local people makes it far more difficult for the authorities to track the militia.

A month after the mass kidnapping of more than 270 school girls, Boko Haram has offered to trade the children for members of its group who have been held, often without charge, for years in detention centers where conditions are horrific and torture is said to be rife.

And those arrested were the lucky ones: after an increasingly bloody decade of violence and reprisals, the Nigerian security forces were accused of summarily executing around 600 people earlier this year after a skirmish in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria. Amnesty International said they it has gathered credible eyewitness evidence of the mass killing of unarmed men by the military.

Ijeomah, who is known as “Mr. Human Rights” in Nigeria, said the security forces were terrorizing many enclaves in the country. “After a kidnapping or attack by Boko Haram there is no quick arrest by the military. They won’t appear when the matter is going on—afterwards they will come to the vicinity and raid many people living in the area, they will take them to secret detention centers and subject them to torture.”

The lawyer, who runs a human rights organization in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, has represented numerous victims of torture, which he described as a standard tool of police practice to extract confessions and encourage people to inform on their neighbors. In one recent case, he said a man accused of kidnapping was hung from an iron bar and flogged with a machete. “After hours of torture they removed the iron bar and he fell down into the pool of his blood. He was there from midnight until the next morning when they came back and saw he had survived—many of their victims die. By then the blood had caked and mixed with sand, and they ordered him to eat it.”

In another case, Ijeomah said a boy of 16, called Moses Akatugba, was shot in the hand by police officers who “used pliers to pull his finger nails out, serially: one… two… three.” They then “peeled his skin” with a blade before he agreed to confess to the theft of cell phones and telephone charge cards. He was later sentenced to death on the strength of his confession.

In this climate, it is hardly surprising that communities in the north are reluctant to put their faith in the security forces. “If people had confidence in them they would be able to come and give up a lot of information,” said Ijeomah. “This is why the masses are not really cooperating with the police. They see police as just their enemy. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t got a family relation who hasn’t been a victim of torture.”

The problem appears to be worsening. According to a report published by Amnesty this week: “Reports of torture are increasing as Nigerian security forces target people accused of having links to the armed Islamist group Boko Haram.”

The Nigerian government admitted in 2012 that of the 350 Boko Haram prisoners seized in the north of the country only one had been convicted.

Some were released but hundreds languish in captivity up to a decade after their arrest, and many are in unofficial incarceration where conditions are atrocious.

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Wives and children of Boko Haram leaders also have been seized by security forces and detained for extended periods of time, according to some human rights activists, although that is not accepted by government officials. It is difficult to confirm, but Abubakar Shekau, the militia leader, repeatedly claimed he would retaliate after his own wife was taken for up to ten months. “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women,” he warned two years ago.

After initially ruling out prisoner swaps, Taminu Turaki, Nigeria’s special duties minister, said on Tuesday that the government was open to "dialogue on any issue.”

Mausi Segun of Human Rights Watch, reached in Abuja, confirmed that the Nigerian security forces have had an appalling track record as they hunt Boko Haram. “Human Rights Watch has documented a lot of abuses by the Nigerian security forces,” she said. “People may not talk [about it], but there are some vigilance groups that work closely with the security forces.”

The HRW report includes allegations that the Joint Military Task Force (JTF), which has been entrusted with stopping Boko Haram, is guilty of the excessive use of force, physical abuse, secret detentions, extortion, burning of houses, stealing money during raids, and extrajudicial killings of suspects. “Ordinary citizens fear both Boko Haram and the JTF, whose abusive tactics at times strengthen the Islamist group’s narrative that it is battling government brutality,” concluded one Human Rights Watch report.

When local communities do decide to alert the authorities that Boko Haram fighters are active in their towns, the results have not always been conducive to further information sharing. Residents in Kayamla, 10 miles south of Maiduguri, said they tipped-off security officials that members of the group had camped in their village in March. “No one turned up until about five days later,” an anonymous resident told the Premium Times. “[Then] a fighter jet [came and shot] innocent villagers, long after the Boko Haram had left. We regretted giving such kind of intelligence or information to the military, because it has cost us the lives of our 10 innocent people.”