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Letter to Nigerian President Obasanjo Regarding His Dismissal of Military Massacre in Benue

Dear President Obasanjo:

I am writing to you in response to comments attributed to you in recent media reports concerning events in Benue State in October 2001, and more specifically concerning the report published by Human Rights Watch in April 2002, a copy of which we are mailing to you under separate cover. The report, entitled "Military Revenge in Benue: A Population Under Attack," contains details of our investigations in several towns and villages in Benue State, in which Nigerian soldiers killed more than two hundred unarmed civilians and carried out widespread destruction on October 22 to 24, 2001, following the murder of nineteen soldiers attributed to a Tiv armed group. The report also clearly condemns the abduction and killing of the soldiers.

We are very concerned that in public statements and interviews granted to journalists, including in the last few days, you do not appear to have acknowledged the gravity of these killings by the military in Benue and have focused instead, and almost exclusively, on the killing of the nineteen soldiers. Yet the reprisal killings carried out by the army constitute grave human rights violations, which should receive an appropriate response from you and your government, in line with Nigeria's obligations under international human rights law.

Most recently, in a report by the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) on April 17, based on information from the Panafrican News Agency PANA, you are quoted as saying: "I have dismissed the [Human Rights Watch] report with the contempt it deserves because it failed to condemn the killing of soldiers who were sent to separate the feuding Jukuns and Tivs. [...] Is it only when soldiers kill civilians that you talk about human rights? Were the nineteen soldiers beheaded not human beings?"

This is a misrepresentation of our report, which states clearly, on page 3: "Human Rights Watch also strongly condemns the abduction, killing, and mutilation of the nineteen soldiers on October 10 and urges that those responsible for those acts be brought to justice. However, the brutality of that incident cannot justify the killings and destruction in the military reprisals that followed." The report also describes the background to the deployment of the soldiers in the area and includes a section on the conflict between Tivs and Jukuns (section V, pages 16 to 18).

We deeply regret that in addition to misrepresenting the contents of our report, you still appear to be refusing to condemn publicly the massacre and destruction by the Nigerian military or to give a firm, unambiguous commitment to bringing those responsible to justice.

In an interview with the Financial Times, on 9 April 2002, you similarly failed to condemn these actions, speaking instead about "cause and effect." Referring to the murder of the nineteen soldiers, you are quoted as saying: "You don't expect me to fold my hands and do nothing because tomorrow neither soldiers nor policemen will go anywhere I send them. I sent soldiers. When you send soldiers they do not go there on picnic. They went on operation." You are also quoted as saying to the journalist who asked you what had gone wrong in Benue: "This is the kind of thing one finds really irritating coming from people like you. Those soldiers, are they not human? Have they no rights, too? [...] Action and reaction are not equal and opposite [...] In human nature, reaction is always more than action."

Such comments do not inspire confidence that those responsible for the massacres will be brought to justice. We are aware that a commission of inquiry has been set up to investigate events in Benue, and we await its outcome; however, we are concerned about the vagueness of its remit and the absence of any specific reference to the need to investigate the actions of the military.

In the meantime, by seeming to excuse one of the most serious cases of human rights violations by the army since your government came to power, such public statements on the Benue massacres are likely to undermine any attempts to restore respect for human rights in Nigeria.

Human Rights Watch is appealing to you and to the Nigerian government to acknowledge that serious violations were committed by the military in Benue, to refrain from making public statements which could be interpreted as justifications for these violations, and to ensure that those responsible for ordering and carrying out the killings are brought to justice without delay. We also urge you to implement the other recommendations in the enclosed report and we would be grateful for information from your government on any progress made, particularly concerning investigation and prosecution.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director
Africa Division

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