(New York) – The Nigerian government could and should have prevented mass killings in Jos in September, Human Rights Watch said in a detailed report released today. As many as one thousand people are believed to have been killed in just six days as Jos, capital of Plateau State, was rocked by unprecedented violence between Christians and Muslims.

The government should ensure investigations into the September massacres are thorough and impartial, and bring those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said.

The 25-page report, entitled “Jos: City Torn Apart,” is based on eyewitness testimonies gathered during a visit to Jos in October 2001. Human Rights Watch describes how between September 7 and 13, 2001, the city of Jos became the scene of mass killing and destruction for the first time in its history. Christians and Muslims were both perpetrators and victims. In addition to the killings, thousands of houses and buildings were smashed or burnt; homes and businesses were looted; and some villages, such as Dilimi on the outskirts of Jos, were virtually razed to the ground.

Government authorities and security forces failed to take action that could have saved hundreds of lives, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Nigerian government can’t just sit back and watch this happen,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “It has a responsibility to maintain peace. There were clear signals that trouble was brewing in Jos but these signals were ignored.”

Takirambudde warned that effective government action is urgently needed if the violence in Jos, and in hot spots across the country, is not to flare up again and cause thousands of more deaths.

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed Muslim and Christian survivors of the violence, as well as other individuals and organizations, including human rights activists, religious leaders, students and academics. The university was one of the fiercest battlegrounds during the crisis.

The report also describes the background to these events, highlighting clear warning signs of growing tension in the weeks before the violence. Several nongovernmental organizations directly approached state government, police and military authorities to warn them of the impending dangers.

“Explicit threats by both Muslim and Christian groups were not taken seriously by the government,” said Takirambudde. “Their warnings were effectively ignored.”

Opinions about who was primarily to blame for the outbreak of violence varied and were sometimes very polarized. However, all those interviewed by Human Rights Watch agreed on one conclusion: that the violence could have been foreseen but that government authorities failed to prevent it. They also deplored the absence of the police during the crisis and their failure to ensure protection and security for the population.

Most of the violence was carried out by civilians, armed with a variety of weapons ranging from knives and machetes to guns. However, there were also reports of members of the security forces carrying out human rights violations during the crisis. In particular, twenty-two detainees who attempted to escape from Jos Prison in the night of September 9-10 were shot dead by the police.

The Human Rights Watch report urges the Nigerian government to:

  • Ensure that the two commissions of inquiry which have been set up to investigate the crisis–one at federal level, one at state level–carry out full and independent investigations and make their findings public.
  • Identify and prosecute those found responsible for organizing and carrying out the violence, as well as members of the security forces responsible for human rights violations.
  • Ensure that the police are adequately trained, prepared and equipped to prevent any further outbreak of violence in the future.