Human Rights Watch describes the killings and widespread destruction carried out by soldiers in more than seven towns and villages in Benue State as a form of collective punishment: the soldiers were revenging the murder of nineteen soldiers attributed to armed men from the Tiv ethnic group.
"Western governments, especially the U.S. and the U.K, are muting their criticism of these abuses in order to preserve close ties with Nigeria in the struggle against terrorism and in their policy on Zimbabwe," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "They need to be more frank about the Obasanjo government's human rights record."
Human Rights Watch's report, "Military Revenge in Benue: A Population Under Attack," contains extensive testimonies of eye-witnesses and victims collected in December 2001 in the various towns and villages where soldiers engaged in killing and destruction.
Witnesses describe how, in several locations, soldiers assembled the population and pretended they were holding a peace meeting before opening fire on the crowd. In the village of Gbeji alone, more than 150 people were shot dead in cold blood or burned alive. In the market town of Zaki-Biam, between twenty and thirty people were killed, mostly in and around the market. Soldiers destroyed homes, shops, and public buildings in several other locations, including Vaase, Kyado, Tse-Adoor, Anyiin, and Sankera.
The testimonies demonstrate that the soldiers were not acting spontaneously or in self-defense, as some governments officials claimed, but rather as part of a planned and coordinated operation. They entered towns and villages with the clear intention of killing and destroying. In several instances, commanders gave the signal for soldiers to open fire. Soldiers made explicit statements indicating that the Tiv as a whole were being made to pay the price for the death of the nineteen soldiers. For example, in Zaki-Biam, soldiers made the passengers of a bus disembark, and asked whether there were any non-Tivs among them. When the passengers said no, they separated the men from the women, ordered the men to lie down, and starting shooting at them. Approximately ten people were killed.
The Human Rights Watch report also describes human rights abuses by the military in Benue since October 2001. Soldiers stationed around the town of Katsina-Ala, who were not withdrawn until March 2002, were responsible for several cases of rape and persistent ill-treatment of civilians, extortion, and looting. Soldiers regularly insulted Tiv as they passed through military roadblocks, saying, in one case: "You're Tiv, we will destroy you."
Human Rights Watch criticized the absence of any investigation or prosecution for the actions of the soldiers in Benue. After months of silence, the commission of inquiry announced by the government in November was only inaugurated in March. Its remit is vague; it extends well beyond events in Benue to cover the causes of conflicts in several other states, and contains no specific reference to the need to investigate these killings by the military.
"President Olusegun Obasanjo and other government and military authorities have failed to recognize the gravity of these atrocities perpetrated by the soldiers," said Takirambudde. "These are clear cases of extrajudicial executions which contravene Nigeria's national and international obligations."
Human Rights Watch also criticized the public silence of foreign governments in the aftermath of the Benue massacres, pointing to the influence that particularly the United States and the United Kingdom could have exerted on Nigeria, in the light of their close diplomatic links. The U.S. provided military training to the Nigerian armed forces in fiscal year 2001, and continues to provide forms of military assistance in 2002. Human Rights Watch is calling for all such assistance to be linked to measurable progress in investigating and prosecuting those responsible for the killings in Benue, as well as those responsible for a similar military reprisal operation in Odi, in the southern state of Bayelsa, in November 1999, which cost hundreds of lives.