(New York, April 19, 2002) - President Olusegun Obasanjo is still failing to acknowledge the gravity of a massacre in which more than 200 civilians were killed by the military in Benue in October 2001, Human Rights Watch said today. The organization has written to President Obasanjo in response to recent statements he made to the media, in which he dismissed Human Rights Watch’s report on the killings in Benue.
“By dismissing our report in this way, President Obasanjo is effectively dismissing the gravity of the military killings in Benue,” said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
On April 1, 2002, Human Rights Watch published a detailed report on its investigation in several towns and villages in Benue State, in which the army killed more than 200 unarmed civilians and carried out widespread destruction on October 22 to 24, 2001. The military operation was launched following the murder of nineteen soldiers, which was attributed to armed men of the Tiv ethnic group. These events took place against the backdrop of a longstanding armed conflict between the Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups.
In a report by the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) on April 17, based on information from the Panafrican News Agency PANA, President Obasanjo was 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?”
Yet the Human Rights Watch report states clearly: “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.”
“We deeply regret that in addition to misrepresenting the contents of our report, President Obasanjo is still refusing to condemn the massacre by the Nigerian military,” said Takirambudde. “The reprisal killings carried out by the army constitute grave human rights violations for which President Obasanjo should not allow the perpetrators to escape with impunity.”
In an interview with the Financial Times, on 9 April, President Obasanjo also failed to condemn the military massacre and spoke about “cause and effect.” Referring to the murder of the nineteen soldiers, he said: “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.” He told the journalist who asked 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.”
“President Obasanjo’s comments do not inspire confidence that those responsible will be brought to justice,” said Peter Takirambudde. A commission of inquiry has been set up to investigate events in Benue, but its remit is vague and does not include any specific reference to the actions of the military.
“We are appealing to President Obasanjo to acknowledge that serious violations were committed by the military in Benue and ensure that those responsible for ordering and carrying out the killings are brought to justice without delay,” Takirambudde said. “By seeming to excuse one of the most serious human rights violations by the army since this government came to power, President Obasanjo is undermining any attempts to restore respect for human rights in Nigeria.”