A leading human rights organisation has accused the Nigerian military of bulldozing villages and displacing thousands of civilians from their homes during its fight against Boko Haram.
After interviewing victims on the ground and analysing local satellite imagery, Amnesty International concluded that the Nigerian military had "forcibly displaced entire villages" in a bid to strike back against an increase in attacks by the violent Islamic terror group. The human rights watchdog also noted that the military had "arbitrarily detained six men from the displaced villages" over the course of their recent anti-terror operations, holding them for almost a month and subjecting them to ill-treatment.
"These brazen acts of razing entire villages, deliberately destroying civilian homes and forcibly displacing their inhabitants with no imperative military grounds, should be investigated as possible war crimes,” said Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria. "They repeat a longstanding pattern of the Nigerian military's brutal tactics against the civilian population. Forces allegedly responsible for such violations must be suspended immediately and brought to justice.”
Since the end of last year, Boko Haram has been ramping up attacks in the northeastern region of Nigeria, particularly across Borno and Yobe states. In response, Amnesty International argues the Nigerian military has "resorted to unlawful tactics" that have a "devastating effect on civilians" and "may amount to war crimes."
One woman from the town of Bukarti described how soldiers forced villagers out of their homes before burning them to the ground.
"We saw our houses go into flames,” she said. “We all started crying."
Some 400 civilians were then ordered onto trucks and driven to an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp near Maiduguri.
The next day, soldiers reportedly headed to the neighboring village of Ngariri and evacuated residents before razing the village to the ground. "Satellite imagery corroborates both villages were burned in early January," Amnesty noted. Witnesses explained how they were not granted time to gather up their goods before being forced from their homes.
"Everything we harvested was destroyed, and some of our animals died,” said one farmer in his 60s. “I had a year [of harvest] stored – it’s what I would’ve sold to buy clothes and other things for my family."
“Everything was burned, even our food – it could feed [my family] for two years,” added another man. “Our clothes, our food, our crops, our kettles. Even the trolley we used for getting water. Only the metal dishes are there, but everything else is burned.”
Amnesty noted that the army's burning of civilian homes "may amount to a war crime."
The military insists that it is winning the war against Boko Haram, even boasting that soldiers had "rescued 461 Boko Haram captives."
Many civilians, however, do not believe this to be the case, with some even suggesting that they feel more at risk in the IDP camp than they did in their villages.
"They say they saved us from Boko Haram, but it’s a lie,” said one man. “Boko Haram isn’t coming to our village.”
“If Boko Haram had been visiting our place, we have our own animals, our own harvest – do you think they wouldn’t have taken those?” another older woman added. “The [Boko Haram] boys aren’t close to us.”
Another piece of damning testimony from those close to the events suggested that the Nigerian military had actually staged a number of photographs showing villagers walking to the trucks. This was done in order to create the illusion that the soldiers had "saved" them.
“The Nigerian government must not brush these violations under the carpet," said Osai Ojigho. "They must be investigated, and alleged perpetrators must be prosecuted. Necessary steps must also be taken to ensure that military operations do not further forcibly displace civilian populations."
Last month, Boko Haram was once again thrust into the international media spotlight after executing a senior church leader. Rev Lawan Andimi, a state chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), was beheaded on 20th January after being kidnapped by the group at the start of the month.