On October 22 to 24, 2001, several hundred soldiers of the Nigerian army killed more than two hundred unarmed civilians and destroyed homes, shops, public buildings and other property in more than seven towns and villages in Benue State, in central-eastern Nigeria. The small town of Gbeji was among the worst-hit locations: more than 150 people were killed there alone, while more than twenty were killed in the larger market town of Zaki-Biam, and others were killed in several other villages. It was a well-planned military operation, carried out in reprisal for the killing of nineteen soldiers in the area two weeks earlier, which was attributed to members of the Tiv ethnic group. Those who died at the hands of the military were victims of collective punishment, targeted simply because they belonged to the same ethnic group.
The killings in Benue State constitute clear cases of extrajudicial executions by the Nigerian military, contravening Nigeria's obligations under international human rights law. Yet the Nigerian government has so far failed to take action against the soldiers responsible or against those who ordered the operation, or even to issue a strong condemnation of these killings. On the contrary, in his initial statements to the Nigerian media, President Olusegun Obasanjo appeared to defend these actions and seek to legitimise them. After forcefully denouncing the killing of the nineteen soldiers and urging that no effort be spared to track down the perpetrators, his response to the news that the military had in turn killed unarmed civilians was surprisingly muted. He even indicated that this was the kind of response which could be expected from soldiers, and that they may have been acting in self-defense. Following criticism from human rights groups and others, the Nigerian government eventually set up a commission of inquiry. However, its remit is vague; it extends well beyond the specific events in Benue and does not include any specific reference to the massacres by the military. Four months after the events, the commission of inquiry has still not begun its work. The government's failure to condemn or investigate the killings in Benue amounts to an encouragement for the military to continue perpetrating human rights violations with impunity.
At the international level, foreign governments remained conspicuously silent. While some mentioned the Benue killings in private meetings with Nigerian officials, they refrained from doing so publicly. A week after the massacres, President Obasanjo visited the United States for talks with President Bush and other U.S. government officials-a unique opportunity for the U.S. government to raise the issue forcefully. However, U.S. officials did not express concern publicly about the killings in Benue, and their meetings with President Obasanjo were dominated by discussions about measures to fight terrorism.
In December 2001, Human Rights Watch visited the areas affected by these events in Benue and spoke to many eye-witnesses and survivors, including victims who had been seriously injured by the soldiers and were still in hospital two months later. The victims were from a cross section of society; the majority were men, but a number of women and children were also killed. Human Rights Watch was able to see the widespread destruction in several locations; many residents had been left homeless after soldiers had burnt their houses to ashes. Several towns and villages were still littered with burnt wreckage, and bullet holes and traces of blood were still visible in some sites.
The witnesses and survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch all confirmed, without exception, that the military had entered their towns or villages with the clear intention of killing and destroying, and that all those killed or injured had been unarmed and posing no threat to the soldiers. Their testimonies illustrate clear coordination and planning in the military operation. Survivors in several of the incidents described almost identical procedures: troops assembled villagers as if for a meeting, then separated the men from the women and children. Commanders then gave orders to fire on those assembled, by voice command or blasts on whistles. In one case, a whistle was used to call a halt to the firing.
Survivors also recounted explicit comments made by soldiers-some of which are reproduced in this report-which indicated that the soldiers targeted their victims specifically on an ethnic basis, and that the Tiv as a whole were being made to pay the price for the killing of the nineteen soldiers.
Despite the atrocities committed during these three days in October, soldiers were not withdrawn from the area. A heavy military presence was maintained in the town of Katsina-Ala and is still present in February 2002. In late October and November, soldiers carried out further human rights violations, including several cases of rape of young women and girls around Katsina-Ala. Local residents also complained of systematic harassment and humiliation, especially at military roadblocks, including extortion, beatings, and other forms of ill-treatment.
The information in this report is based on testimonies provided to Human Rights Watch during the visit to Benue in mid December 2001. Human Rights Watch carried out this research in conjunction with Human Rights Monitor, a Nigerian human rights organization based in Kaduna. In the course of their research, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Monitor also gathered information about the broader intercommunal conflict in the area, particularly in Taraba State, which borders Benue to the east: fighting between different ethnic groups, in particular the Tiv and the Jukun, has claimed many lives over the years and has displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes. The conflict, which escalated in the weeks preceding the killings by the military in October 2001, provides the context in which these latest abuses occurred. Human Rights Watch received consistent testimonies from people displaced from various locations in Taraba describing the participation of Nigerian police and military in that conflict in the second half of 2001.
Human Rights Watch urges the Nigerian government to take immediate measures to identify and bring to justice those members of the military responsible for the killings and destruction in Benue in October 2001, particularly those who ordered the operation. The government should issue clear instructions at all levels that extrajudicial executions-murders-of unarmed civilians and other human rights violations by the security forces will not be tolerated. Human Rights Watch is also appealing to the Nigerian government to take all appropriate measures to halt the intercommunal violence in Taraba State and to investigate reports that members of the security forces-both mobile police and military-have actively participated in attacks in the context of this conflict.
The events in Benue were strikingly reminiscent of a military reprisal operation which took place two years earlier, in Odi, in Bayelsa State in the south of Nigeria. In November 1999, following the murder of twelve policemen by an armed group, soldiers went on the rampage in Odi, razed the entire town and killed hundreds of civilians, perhaps as many as 2,000. It remains the single most serious incident in which extrajudicial executions were carried out by the Nigerian armed forces since the government of President Obasanjo came to power in May 1999.1 Despite the gravity of the actions of the military, and the major national and international outcry which followed, the government has still not prosecuted any member of the armed forces for the mass killings and destruction in Odi. When news broke of the killings of the nineteen soldiers in Benue in October 2001, many Nigerians feared, and warned, that "this could be another Odi." Tragically, their predictions came true.
1 For details of these events, see Human Rights Watch background report The Destruction of Odi and Rape in Choba, December 22, 1999.