(Port Harcourt, August 29, 2006) - The Nigerian government must immediately investigate and hold accountable army personnel involved in setting ablaze a slum community near Port Harcourt and compensate those whose homes and businesses were destroyed, Human Rights Watch said today.
The rampage by Nigerian soldiers on the night of August 24 – an apparent reprisal attack for the killing of an army sergeant during the kidnapping of a foreign oil worker by armed militants earlier that evening – left scores of buildings burned to the ground.
“The soldiers and their officers responsible for this outrageous attack must be held to account,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Nor can the Nigerian government be allowed to shirk its obligation to compensate the victims for their devastating losses.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than two dozen eyewitnesses to the razing of the community, including several who witnessed the kidnapping of the foreign oil worker. They said that about a dozen armed militants in military fatigues stormed a local bar in the Aker Base community outside of Port Harcourt early Thursday evening and abducted an Italian oil worker.
When an army sergeant outside of the bar attempted to intervene, one of the militants shot him dead at point-blank range. As many residents fled in panic, the militants retreated through the community to the nearby waterfront and escaped by boat with their hostage.
Local residents told Human Rights Watch that they immediately alerted soldiers posted to the compound of Italian oil contractor Saipem, which is located less than 100 meters from the edge of the community, that an army officer had been killed. After retrieving the sergeant’s body, a detachment of soldiers left the area and drove in the direction of Port Harcourt.
Between one and two hours later, at least two pickup trucks full of uniformed soldiers entered the Aker Base community carrying canisters of gasoline, residents told Human Rights Watch. They spread out inside of the settlement, moving from building to building, dousing homes and businesses with gasoline and setting them ablaze. It is not clear how many soldiers were involved in the attack, but the burned area covered an area roughly equivalent to four football fields.
Community members described to Human Rights Watch a scene of chaos as fire spread throughout the area. “Everyone was running away and we saw fire everywhere,” one man told Human Rights Watch. “We just ran without any of our property.”
Several residents who stayed behind to try and salvage some of their belongings said that they were driven off by some of the soldiers who had started the blaze. “I had just opened up my shop and set my chairs outside,” said one bar owner. “When they came to burn it they didn’t let me take any of my property, they just drove us away with guns.” Another man said that: “As the houses were burning they were monitoring to make sure that no one would take even a pin from their houses. If they saw you trying to take your property [from the fire], they just took it and threw it into the fire.” Other residents said that soldiers fired into the air to frighten people away from their burning homes.
One man who was still inside of his house when it caught fire suffered third-degree burns over much of his body. When Human Rights Watch interviewed him in a nearby clinic, he could barely move because of the severe burns that covered his right arm, parts of his torso and his entire back. He said that neighbors had broken down his door and saved him from being burned alive.
There were no other reports of serious injuries and no reported fatalities among the residents, as most had either fled as the militants fired their weapons into the air during the kidnapping, or ran away as the soldiers began setting buildings on fire.
The Nigerian military has denied that its personnel were responsible for setting the community ablaze. An army spokesman in Port Harcourt told Human Rights Watch that the area had been burned by the militants who had returned after the kidnapping disguised as soldiers, although he offered no evidence to support this assertion. He described the community’s destruction as “a clear attempt at creating negative propaganda” as part of a “smear campaign to damage the reputation of the Nigerian army.”
Residents, however, were unanimous in claiming that it was military personnel and not militants who set fire to their homes. Several eyewitnesses said that they recognized some of the soldiers involved in the attack. Others said that they saw the soldiers who attacked the community arrive in a convoy of military vehicles, some of which continued on to the adjacent Saipem compound. All of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that the attack began between 30 minutes and two hours after the militants’ raid, long after those militants had retreated by boat into the creeks. In addition, the entire episode occurred less than 300 meters from the army garrison stationed at the Saipem compound.
Recent weeks have seen a string of kidnappings targeting expatriate oil workers in and around Port Harcourt, the center of Nigeria’s oil industry. On August 15, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered the military to respond with “force for force” to militant activity in the Niger Delta, sparking fears of precisely the sort of reprisal represented by last week’s attack.
Armed militant groups, whose members claim to be fighting for more local self-determination and control of oil resources, have staged a series of bold attacks on oil industry interests in the Niger Delta in recent months. Kidnappings, which were at first at least partly political in motivation, have spun out of control in recent weeks partly because kidnappers have been able to extract lucrative ransom payments.
The Nigerian military has carried out similar reprisals against civilian populations on other occasions. In 1999, the Nigerian military completely destroyed the town of Odi in Bayelsa state, and in 2001 the military killed more than 200 unarmed civilians in Benue state. Both of those attacks were carried out in reprisal for the murder of military or police personnel, and no military personnel were ever brought to justice. The army spokesperson interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that he was not in a position to indicate whether either the military or the Nigerian government intended to carry out an investigation into the destruction of the Aker Base community.
“The Nigerian military’s claims of innocence in this attack ring hollow,” Takirambudde said. “What’s worse, if the government does not respond adequately to this incident it may encourage similar acts of brutality by the military as it moves to respond to militant activities throughout the Niger Delta.”
Residents of Aker Base described their community as having been a settlement where many people ran bars, shops or other businesses out of their modest homes. When Human Rights Watch visited the scene two days after the attack, there was not a single structure left standing, and tin roofing lay in twisted piles atop the charred ruins of what had been a crowded expanse of homes and businesses. Dozens of former residents were standing together in the rain amid the wreckage. “We came back here just to stand around,” one man explained. “We have no other place to go.”
Many lost everything they had along with their homes, and some did not even have the money left to buy a change of clothes. “I have only my clothes,” one woman told Human Rights Watch. “For the children there is nothing – we did not even bring one Naira out of the house.”
In addition to the loss of their homes and belongings, many residents of Aker Base said that in addition to destroying their homes, the attack seemed likely to destroy their livelihoods. One woman who owned a small bar that was reduced to ashes during the attack said: “All of the struggle of my life is for nothing – look at my property. I used up my whole life serving different men to build this place of my own and now it is all gone just like that, in one night, just because of nothing.”
“Many of the people whose houses were destroyed in this attack have suffered losses that they may never be able to recover from,” Takirambudde said. “Those responsible must be brought to book and the Nigerian government must fully compensate the victims for everything the military destroyed.”