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Nigeria's victims of war crimes and other atrocities deserve justice

Nigeria's victims of war crimes and other atrocities deserve justice
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The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, recently called for a formal inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Nigeria. This followed the conclusion of a decade-long investigation, and it is a welcome development for many Nigerian victims and survivors of these crimes.  

For many decades, Nigeria — through policies, programs, political institutions, elite cleavages and security networks — created the state architecture of violence that has led to many atrocities in the country. As a Nigerian, I’m saddened to be associated with a country where such crimes occur.

Many of us have called on the ICC to initiate a formal investigation against the Nigerian state and murderous non-state actors in the country. We are convinced that horrible crimes are being committed in our country that qualify as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC must be allowed into Nigeria to collect the evidence needed to formally indict, and then try, the perpetrators of these crimes.

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Many non-state actors such as Boko Haram, the Islamic State of West Africa, Fulani herdsmen, and local militia have spread mayhem and terror in Nigeria. These labyrinthine terror networks have poisonous capillaries across the country. These groups are committing gruesome murders — decapitation, mutilation and burning of victims’ bodies. They are committing tortures, rapes, sexual slavery, religious persecution, kidnappings and hostage-taking of citizens and foreigners. They have forced children under age 15 to fight in their asymmetrical warfare and recruited them as suicide bombers.

These actors have attacked businesses, farms and schools. The most egregious examples were the attack on a girls’ school in Chibok in 2014, from where more than 100 of the kidnapped girls are still missing, and last week’s kidnapping of more than 300 boys from a government school in Katsina. 

Over the past 10 years, more than 30,000 Nigerians have been killed by terror groups, as have 37 foreign aid workers. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians in the Northeast are displaced and cannot be reached by aid workers because of the activities of these groups.

The ICC also is investigating Nigerian security forces for murders, rapes, torture and other atrocities. According to Amnesty International, “Despite repeated government pledges to address the problems in the Nigerian criminal justice system, little progress has been made.” 

I know the pain of many Nigerians who have lost family members and friends to police brutality.  I bear my own pain over the disappearance of two of my friends, in 1994 and 2000, when I still lived in Nigeria. They were picked up by security operatives and have not been seen since.

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The anti-SARS protests, which attracted international attention in October, were an expression of the anger and frustration of many young Nigerians over the overflowing cup of horror served by the Nigerian armed forces, such as the recent shooting of unarmed protesters in Lekki, Lagos. Amnesty International has documented many cases of enforced disappearances, unlawful killings before or during arrests, or at road blocks or during detention by the Nigerian police. Many unlawful killings and extrajudicial executions, and other abuses of human rights by security forces, are everyday occurrences in Nigeria.

Some of the most harrowing crimes against humanity in Africa today are occurring in Nigeria, where small massacres are being normalized. Everyday Nigerians appear powerless against the structures of violence and intimidation by the state, and the system of oppression in the country. 

The ICC must spread its net further to investigate two of the worst atrocities committed by the Nigerian state since Nigeria’s independence. The first are the Odi and Choba massacres of protesting Niger-Delta youth in November 1999. The young people rose up against the unethical exploitation of oil in this oil-rich region, and against the ecocide being committed by the Nigerian state and oil conglomerates. They were met with violence — more than 2,000 of them were massacred by police and military operatives.

Second, and perhaps more troubling, are the suspected crimes against humanity committed during the pogrom against easterners in northern Nigeria, and the suspected war crimes committed by the Nigerian government during the Nigerian-Biafran civil war between 1966-1970. This painful page in Nigeria’s history has never been objectively investigated. The investigation of the British Parliament in 1968-69 over suspicions of genocide was not independent and was concerned with whether arms supplied by the British government to the federal forces were being used in genocidal acts. 

Nigeria is convulsing today because Nigerians have not made peace with the nation’s past. The state is not accountable to its citizens, especially victims of these crimes and ethnic and religious minorities, and so victims are unable to find justice within the formal structures of the state. Cries for justice often are met with more violence and social ostracism for girls who escape from rapes, forced marriage and violence from Boko Haram. These victims need international solidarity in their fight for justice.

My hope is that the international community will put pressure on the Nigerian government to allow ICC investigators into Nigeria, so that victims can tell their stories and hopefully find justice and healing.

Stan Chu Ilo grew up in Nigeria and now is a research professor of African studies and world Christianity at DePaul University, Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @stanchuilo.