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Nigeria: Government Must Disband Vigilante Groups

(Lagos, May 20, 2002) - The Nigerian government should disband government-backed vigilante groups without delay, Human Rights Watch and the Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN) said in issuing a joint report on vigilantism today.

The report by Human Rights Watch, based in New York, and CLEEN, based in Lagos, documents serious human rights abuses by the "Bakassi Boys," a vigilante group set up in 1998 to combat armed robbery.

The 45-page report, "Nigeria: The Bakassi Boys: The Legitimization of Murder and Torture," describes how the Bakassi Boys, active in the south-eastern Nigerian states of Anambra, Abia, and Imo, have been responsible for scores of extrajudicial executions and hundreds of cases of torture and arbitrary detentions. These abuses have been tolerated, and sometimes actively supported and encouraged, by state government authorities. State governments have provided the Bakassi Boys with offices, uniforms and vehicles, as well as paying their salaries. In Anambra State, a law was passed in August 2000 to recognize the group officially as the Anambra State Vigilante Services. In the few cases where members of the Bakassi Boys implicated in crimes have been arrested by the police, they have almost always been released soon afterwards following the intervention of state government officials.

"Effectively, the Bakassi Boys have taken over the functions of law enforcement agencies in these states, yet they are completely unaccountable," said Carina Tertsakian, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"By supporting the Bakassi Boys, government authorities are effectively telling the population that it is acceptable to use extreme violence to achieve any ends," said Innocent Chukwuma, executive director of CLEEN.

Initially set up by market traders to fight armed robbery in the large towns of Aba, in Abia State, then in Onitsha, in Anambra State, the Bakassi Boys have used brutal and arbitrary methods, completely bypassing the police and judicial authorities. Openly armed with guns and machetes, they have executed and mutilated their victims in public, and detained and tortured them in illegal detention cells, often with a view to extracting confessions.

In addition to targeting real or suspected criminals, the Bakassi Boys have been deployed to intimidate and sometimes eliminate perceived political opponents of state governments, as well as critics of vigilante violence, and have been called in to settle personal scores.

In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch and CLEEN, there was evidence that the Bakassi Boys took their instructions directly from the state government. In one case, in Anambra State, the Bakassi Boys forced their way into the house of a man they abducted and later killed, announcing "We are Bakassi Boys. It's a government order." In another case, also in Anambra State, a man abducted by the Bakassi Boys was told by one of them: "The government wants you to die." In another case, in Umuahia, Abia State, in July 1999, the Bakassi Boys arrived in a restaurant, claiming they had been sent by the state government to stop criminals; they then proceeded to kill and mutilate two young men who happened to be in the restaurant, attacking them with machetes and guns, then setting them on fire.

"There was no evidence that these or many other of their victims had been involved in any criminal activity," said Tertsakian. "But even those who are guilty have a basic right to due process. Such rights are systematically disregarded whenever the Bakassi Boys are involved."

Human Rights Watch and CLEEN spoke to many victims and relatives of victims of vigilante violence in southeastern Nigeria. The report documents several cases in detail, including the killing of Prophet Eddie Okeke, who was abducted from his home in Nawgu and tortured and killed by the Bakassi Boys in Onitsha, Anambra State, in November 2000; the killing of Chief Ezeodumegwu G.Okonkwo, abducted from his home in Nnewi and killed in Onitsha in February 2001; the abduction and torture of Ifeanyi Ibegbu, minority leader in the Anambra State house of assembly, in Onitsha in August 2001; and the abduction and torture of Bishop Alex Ezeugo Ekewuba, founder of the Overcomers Church in Owerri, Imo State, in June 2001.

"In addition to these prominent figures, we are deeply concerned about the fate of lesser-known victims of the Bakassi Boys," said Chukwuma. "The majority of those killed are young men and boys, from poor backgrounds. Their deaths have gone almost unreported."

Human Rights Watch and CLEEN make a number of recommendations to the Nigerian Government, including:

  • Repeal laws which endorse the activities of the Bakassi Boys or similar vigilante groups;
  • Disarm and disband the Bakassi Boys and close down all their detention centers;
  • Investigate all cases of unlawful detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings by the Bakassi Boys or other vigilante groups and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice, including those who carried out the abuses and those who ordered them; and
  • Devote urgent attention to reforming and improving the national police force and enabling it to carry out its duties effectively

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