(Abuja) – Attacks since the beginning of 2014 by Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group, in over 40 villages in northeastern Nigeria, have displaced thousands of people. People forced to flee their homes are dispersed throughout Nigeria and in neighboring countries, where they face serious problems in accessing food, water, shelter, and other basic rights.
Nigeria and its neighbors – particularly Cameroon, Chad, and Niger – should work together to assess the needs of the displaced and ensure the provision of adequate humanitarian assistance.
“The horrific attacks by Boko Haram are having a devastating impact on northern Nigerians,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Hundreds of thousands have fled to other parts of Nigeria and neighboring countries, and their rights should be protected.”
Nearly 300,000 people in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states – 70 percent of them women and children – have fled their homes since early 2013, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA). The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) puts the figure of internally displaced people in Nigeria at more than 470,000. Most are staying with families in other parts of Nigeria, and another 60,000 or so have sought refuge in neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger since May 2013, according to UNHCR.
Boko Haram attacks have increased during the first two months of 2014, with almost daily killings, bombings, thefts, and the destruction of schools, homes, and businesses in northeastern Nigerian villages. These assaults have led to the deaths of 700 people, the abduction of at least 25 women and girls, and the mass displacement of residents. The Nigerian government should immediately investigate the killings and step up efforts to rescue people who have been abducted, while ensuring civilian protection, and safeguard the rights of the displaced.
UNHCR, working with nongovernmental groups, has registered about 3,000 people in its Cameroon Minawao camp, and provided them with educational, sanitation, health, and nutrition services. Up to another 10,000 people, however, are staying in villages in Cameroon’s arid Far North Region. UNHCR also reports that most of the 40,000 Nigerian refugees in Niger’s Diffa region are residing with local families, while others live out in the open with limited food and water resources. The Niger authorities have granted them “temporary refugee status,” but have stopped short of setting up camps for fear that these will become targets of Boko Haram attacks.
Under the African Union’s Kampala Convention on the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons, which Nigeria has ratified, African countries are obligated by article 9(2) (b) to protect internally displaced people to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay. The countries are also obligated to provide adequate humanitarian assistance, including food, water, shelter, medical care and other health services, sanitation, education, and any other necessary social services, and where appropriate, to extend assistance to local and host communities. In keeping with this standard, the Nigerian government should immediately assess the needs of internally displaced people and host communities, and take steps to organize relief activities, in cooperation with nongovernmental organizations and international agencies.
The federal government should also, if it has not done so, designate an authority or body to coordinate activities to protect and assist internally displaced people. The federal government should assign responsibilities to appropriate agencies for protection and assistance, and for cooperating with relevant international organizations or agencies, and nongovernmental groups, in accordance with article 3(2) (b) of the convention.
Nigeria’s neighbors should leave their borders open for those fleeing the violence.The countries affected should also request assistance if their capacity to receive and support the increasing number of refugees and internally displaced persons is not sufficient.
Human Rights Watch has documented in several reports and news releases that Boko Haram attacks since 2009 have killed thousands of people and that the government in its response to the violence has carried out arbitrary mass arrests. The government has detained without trial scores of young men and boys, many of whom have forcibly disappeared.
In a 2012 report, “Spiraling Violence,” Human Rights Watch analyzed the pattern and scope of the violence that has engulfed communities in northeast and central Nigeria.
“Boko Haram attacks require an effective and coordinated humanitarian response,” Bekele said. “Even if the government cannot stop the attacks, at the very least, it can meaningfully assist the people who have been most devastated by them.”
Escalating Boko Haram Attacks on Unprotected Rural Targets
The attacks since early 2014 have been particularly vicious, targeting remote villages, markets, hospitals, and schools. In the early hours of February 24, for example, assailants killed approximately 43 male students at Federal Government College, in Buni Yadi village, Yobe State, and abducted an unknown number of female students. Earlier in February, in Konduga, a village 35 kilometers from Maiduguri, gunmen abducted 20 female students at Government Girls Science College and five female street traders in an attack that caused the death of more than 53 people. Following that attack, the federal government closed five federal colleges in the three states under a state of emergency.
Residents of the village of Mafa reported that they received letters, allegedly from Boko Haram, warning of impending attacks. In anticipation of the violence, many women and children fled their homes, leaving behind the aged, the infirm, and those unwilling to flee – some of whom died in the eventual attack.
In the Buni Yadi college attack, according to Nigerian media accounts, residents reported that soldiers deployed to provide security near the school seemed to withdraw before the assault.
When armed men attacked the town of Izghe, south of Maiduguri, on February 15 and 22, they killed more than 100 people and razed the entire town. Outside the town, a military roadblock was dismantled as Boko Haram fighters appeared in military uniform. They asked the local population to gather in an open space, and many complied, believing the men were members of the security forces there to protect residents. The fighters then shot those who had gathered and threw bombs into houses to harm those who had not shown up.
The Nigerian government should investigate the allegations that security forces withdrew before certain attacks, and investigate and bring to justice Boko Haram leaders for the group’s killings, kidnappings, pillaging, and abductions, which have characterized the violence in the northeast. In addition, the government should hold to account security forces complicit in abuses, Human Rights Watch said.