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In November 2002, protests relating to the Miss World beauty contest due to be held in Nigeria spiraled out of control and around 250 people were killed as Muslim and Christian groups fought each other for three days in the northern city of Kaduna. The security forces not only failed to prevent the killings—despite the presence of special military units stationed in Kaduna since 2000 with the specific aim of averting such clashes—but contributed significantly to the violence by killing and injuring dozens of people themselves during the days of rioting. A number of people were arrested and detained in connection with the violence; most have since been released. Meanwhile, the individuals responsible for organizing or inciting the violence have still not been prosecuted. The government has failed to ensure that those responsible for the killings, including its own security forces, are brought to justice; nor has it taken any effective action to prevent a likely recurrence of such violence.

The apparent trigger for the violence in Kaduna—which became known as the “Miss World riots”—was an article published in the Lagos-based newspaper ThisDay, which was perceived as blasphemous by some Muslims. Within days, expressions of displeasure or offence at the article were seized upon by more militant groups, and the protests turned into violence. Muslims attacked Christians and Christians retaliated against Muslims. Both groups went on the rampage, killing, burning and looting. Many of those killed were civilians who were not participating in the violence and were targeted purely on the basis of their religious or ethnic affiliation.

In much of the media, the events in Kaduna were portrayed purely as religious riots. This was especially the case in the media in western countries, where the Kaduna riots received a high level of coverage, in large part because of attention surrounding the disrupted Miss World contest. Many foreign news reports presented the riots as directly linked to the Miss World contest, arguing that the negative consequences of holding such an event in Nigeria—a country with a large Muslim population and a known history of religious tension—could have been predicted.1

In reality, the latest outbreak of violence in Kaduna, like earlier ones, appears to have been motivated less by irreconcilable religious beliefs than by political disputes and rivalries between different ethnic and political groups. As explained in this report, this was not the first time that Christians and Muslims had clashed in Kaduna; thousands of lives had been lost in similar conflicts in previous years, particularly following discussions around the proposed extension of Sharia (Islamic law) in 2000. Typically in such conflicts in Nigeria, the political and ethnic divides tend to coincide with the religious divide. Although the question of religious identity is one of the factors underlying the tension in Kaduna, it is not the only one. However, it was seized upon by leaders who exploited religious sentiment to inflame the situation and to spur on their supporters against their opponents. Encouraged by the impunity which has protected those responsible for similar outbreaks of violence in the recent past, the individuals who carried out the killings as well as those who organized them acted in the knowledge that they were unlikely to be held accountable for their actions.

The findings in this report are based in most part on research carried out by Human Rights Watch in Kaduna in December 2002. Human Rights Watch researchers spoke to residents of many areas of Kaduna town, including those in some of the areas worst affected by the violence. We gathered testimonies from Muslims and Christians, including community leaders, and from men and women from different ethnic groups who had witnessed or directly experienced the violence. One of the most disturbing findings was a pattern of extrajudicial killings by the security forces (both the police and the military). Despite strong evidence, these killings did not attract much media attention in Nigeria at the time and were overshadowed by the intense fighting between Christian and Muslim groups. A large part of this report focuses on human rights violations by the security forces and describes several cases of extrajudicial killings. None of the members of the security forces responsible for these killings are known to have been prosecuted. Human Rights Watch strongly condemns these killings by the police and the military in Kaduna and urges the government to put an end to the impunity which is protecting the police and the military. The authorities should take immediate measures to bring to justice the individual members of the security forces responsible for killing or injuring civilians during the violence in Kaduna. They should also issue clear instructions to the security forces that operations to restore law and order are never a justification for extrajudicial killings, and that every effort should be made to arrest criminal suspects without resorting to lethal force.

More broadly, Human Rights Watch is urging the Nigerian government to take effective measures to defuse and prevent further inter-communal violence, in Kaduna and elsewhere. In the weeks and months leading up to elections in Nigeria in April 2003, cases of politically motivated killings and other forms of political violence increased across the country.2 While most of this violence was carried out by supporters of rival political parties or political candidates, in some cases, it took place against the backdrop of existing inter-communal tensions, and competition for political positions provided a new excuse for violence between different ethnic groups.3 The November 2002 events in Kaduna clearly show how longstanding inter-communal tensions can easily be manipulated with fatal consequences by politicians. Continuous efforts need to be made by political, religious and community leaders at all levels to prevent situations where seemingly minor incidents or disagreements can escalate so rapidly and lead to massive loss of life. Ending impunity for such violence will be the key to ensuring that communities can once more co-exist peacefully and resolve any differences which arise without automatically resorting to violence.

1 Eventually, the Miss World contest was moved from Nigeria to the United Kingdom, because of the violence in Kaduna.

2 See Human Rights Watch report “Testing democracy: political violence in Nigeria,” April 2003.

3 Ibid. This was the case for example in Jos, Plateau State, and in Warri, Delta State.

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July 2003