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(Abuja) – Nigeria’s government has largely ignored years of mass murder in Plateau and Kaduna states in central Nigeria, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The new report catalogues horrific sectarian violence in these two states, which has left more than 3,000 people dead since 2010.

Many victims of the communal violence – including women and children – were hacked to death, burned alive, or shot simply based on their ethnic or religious identity. The report examines the government’s failure, with rare exception, to hold perpetrators accountable, even though many of their identities are well-known in the affected communities.

“Witnesses came forward to tell their stories, compiled lists of the dead, and identified the attackers, but in most cases nothing was done,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities may have forgotten these killings, but communities haven’t. In the absence of justice, residents have resorted to violence to avenge their losses.”

The 146-page report, “‘Leave Everything to God’: Accountability for Inter-Communal Violence in Plateau and Kaduna States, Nigeria,” which includes a photo essay, is based on interviews with more than 180 witnesses and victims of violence in Plateau and Kaduna states, as well as police investigators, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and community leaders. A Human Rights Watch researcher conducted site visits to scenes of major violence, sometimes just days after a massacre, collected and analyzed court documents, and attended some of the court proceedings in Jos, the capital of Plateau State.

Plateau State has suffered more than a decade of recurring bloody episodes of communal violence, which have left thousands of Christians and Muslims dead. However, the Nigerian authorities have taken no meaningful steps to address underlying grievances or, until recently, bring to justice those responsible for the bloodshed.

Sectarian clashes in Jos in 2010, for example, sparked the massacre of Muslims, including rural Fulani, and counter massacres of Christians, mostly from the Berom ethnic group. The violence that year left more than 1,000 people dead, Human Rights Watch said.

In a rural community in Plateau State, a man who witnessed the murder of his father in January 2010 told Human Rights Watch he went to the police and reported the crime, but he still sees the people who killed his father moving freely about the community. “If this happens again, I wouldn’t go to the police – it is a waste of time,” he said. “They will take no action.”

The federal attorney general did step in for the first time later that year and prosecute some of the suspects from the 2010 Plateau State violence in federal court. Since then state prosecutors have also secured several convictions in Plateau State. These prosecutions represent an important first step toward accountability and breaking the cycle of violence. But in many of the largest massacres of 2010, no one has been arrested or prosecuted, even though people witnessed these crimes and reported them to the police.

In neighboring Kaduna State, deadly episodes of communal violence over the past two decades have similarly left thousands dead. With the exception of some prosecutions while Nigeria was under military rule, no one has been prosecuted for these killings, Human Rights Watch found.

In April 2011, post-presidential-election violence in northern Nigeria swiftly degenerated into sectarian violence. In northern Kaduna State rioters attacked Christians and their properties. The violence then spread to the southern part of Kaduna State, where Christians killed hundreds of Muslims, including rural Fulani.

Many witnesses filed complaints with the police. A man in a rural community in Kaduna State told Human Rights Watch that he provided police with the identities of the people he saw murder two of his neighbors in April 2011, but the police have taken no action against them. “I see them almost daily going about their normal business,” he said. “There have been no arrests.”

This man is not alone. According to federal and state prosecutors, not a single person has been prosecuted for the April 2011 killings in Kaduna State.

The response of the Nigerian authorities to communal violence has been surprisingly similar throughout the years, Human Rights Watch found. Police or soldiers often round up hundreds of people found at the scenes of the crimes and then dump them together at the police station, without any statement from the arresting officer, making it nearly impossible for prosecutors to link the suspects to any specific crimes. In the vast majority of cases, the authorities will quietly drop the charges, Human Rights Watch said. 

In many cases, including some of the largest massacres, people witnessed the crimes and knew the perpetrators, Human Rights Watch found. Witnesses often said they had not gone to the police. The most common reason cited for not reporting the crimes was summarized by a resident in rural Kaduna State: “The police won’t do anything.”

Numerous other witnesses did go to the police but said the police took no action. The failure to conduct, or follow through with, investigations reflects systemic problems in the police force. Police investigators rarely investigate crimes unless the complainants pay for the investigation. Victims of communal violence who have frequently lost everything they own, not to mention their loved ones, are particularly vulnerable to the often unresponsive and ineffective police force, Human Rights Watch found.

Systemic problems in the police are further exacerbated in cases of violence that are communal or sectarian in nature. Community and religious leaders often rally behind members of their own groups suspected or implicated in crimes and put pressure on the authorities to drop the cases, Human Rights Watch said. Police and government officials have also expressed fear that arresting suspects could spark renewed violence.

Instead, Nigerian authorities have often treated mass killings as a political problem rather than address them as a criminal matter. They have set up commissions of inquiry, which are good in theory, but in practice have become a way to reinforce impunity, as authorities then abdicate their responsibility for investigating and prosecuting the crimes. Once the commissions have completed their work, their reports are shelved, the recommendations are rarely implemented, and the perpetrators are not brought to book.

Members of aggrieved communities, with no access to formal justice mechanisms, do not forget these crimes and have frequently taken the law into their own hands and carried out brutal revenge killings against members of the other community. These cycles of deadly violence have continued in both Plateau and Kaduna states. Hundreds of people, mostly in rural areas affected by the 2010 and 2011 violence, have been killed this year, Human Rights Watch said.

Alarmingly, Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group in northern Nigeria, has also invoked the lack of justice for attacks on Muslims in these communities as one of its justifications for targeting and killing Christians, including suicide bomb attacks on church services in Plateau and Kaduna that left dozens dead and sparked renewed sectarian clashes.

These cycles of violence are not inevitable. Nigerian authorities can and should take urgent steps to ensure that the perpetrators of communal violence, including mass murder, are investigated and prosecuted, and that victims are provided restitution or compensation for their enormous losses, Human Rights Watch said.

As a Christian leader in Kaduna put it, “Until we muster both the political and judicial will to prosecute those who are involved in these things, from whatever religious divide they come from, we probably won’t see an end to this.”

Nigeria map - Plateau and Kaduna States
Information is based on Human Rights Watch interviews in communities affected by the violence, monitoring of Nigerian and foreign media reports of violence, lists of victims compiled by community leaders, and the report of the judicial commission of Kaduna State inquiry into the April 2011 violence.
© 2013 Giulio Frigieri/Human Rights Watch

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