This week’s mass sacking of the Nigerian top brass offers the country renewed hope for a rights-respecting military.

The announcement on Monday that President Muhammadu Buhari had fired the national security advisor, the chief of defense staff, and the service chiefs give Buhari an opportunity to show he is serious about promises he made about addressing rights abuses and to press forward with much needed security reforms.

President Muhammadu Buhari in Daura, March 28, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

“We shall overhaul the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations in operations,” he said in his inauguration speech on May 29. “We shall improve operational and legal mechanisms so that disciplinary steps are taken against proven human rights violations by the Armed Forces.”

The change in military leadership comes at a time of intense violence by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the northeast of Nigeria. According to media reports monitored by Human Rights Watch, the group has killed an estimated 400 people since the inauguration of the new administration in May, adding to the 7,000 killed since 2010. The failure of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s government to stem the violence was a major criticism Buhari levelled at him during the election campaign. Buhari pledged to end the Boko Haram violence if elected.

The abuses by Nigerian security forces in military operations in the northeast and in other parts of the country, and the failure to hold those responsible to account, has become a major grievance of local populations and civil society. Security forces have been implicated in disproportional use of force against civilians, detention without trial, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Soldiers have only been prosecuted and punished for military offences such as indiscipline and mutiny, but not for human rights abuses.

The new military chiefs should immediately and publicly signal strong support for Buhari’s commitment to upholding human rights in military operations. They should act to overhaul the rules of engagement to conform to Nigeria’s obligations under international humanitarian law, give clear instructions to military personnel to ensure their conduct is in compliance with the rules, and, most importantly, immediately suspend any member of the security forces where there is credible evidence of involvement in serious human rights abuses, followed up by investigations and prosecutions in fair trials.

Nothing short of that will do.