John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Media Reports on Security Service Violence in Northern Nigeria

by John Campbell
June 10, 2013

Soldiers stand during a parade in Baga village on the outskirts of Maiduguri, in the north-eastern state of Borno May 13, 2013. (Tim Cocks/Courtesy Reuters)


Outside observers have largely been dependent on Nigerian military statements for news about the operation of the state of emergency and Abuja’s struggle with the Islamist insurgencies lumped under the moniker of “Boko Haram.” There is little media presence in Borno, Yobe, or Adamawa, and cell phone service was largely suspended. Predictably the military is saying that its campaign is successful and that civilian casualties are few or non-existent.

However, with respect to security service abuses, a different story is starting to leak out. On June 1, al-Jazeera posted a video of an interview with a Nigerian soldier who said he had seen 3,000 corpses, many of whom were women and children. Adam Nossiter published on June 6, a follow-up to his earlier New York Times piece on civilian casualties. On June 1, the Washington Post ran a long article under the headline “At frontline of Nigeria’s extremist fight, foes disappear while region’s challenges remain,” on the struggle in northern Nigeria that made reference to civilian casualties. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement denouncing Boko Haram but calling on the security forces to show restraint and avoid civilian casualties. Up to now, military spokesmen have strenuously denied all reports that they have inflicted extensive civilian casualties.

The Islamist fighters and the general population in northern Nigeria appear to be thoroughly co-mingled. “Boko Haram” operatives kill soldiers and police whenever they have the opportunity, which is hardly conducive to security service restraint. So, the struggle poses difficult challenges for the Abuja government.

There is nothing new about security service brutality in Nigeria. Soldiers and police are poorly paid, under-trained, and under-equipped. In addition, official policy has always been to station military and police away from areas dominated by their particular ethnic group, region, and often, religion. In practice this means there is often little or no bond between those in the security services and those they are supposed to protect. As ethnic and religious differences harden and violence increases, security service personnel may show contempt for populations whom they do not know or understand.

Nigeria’s security services clearly need reform, more easily said than done during a major insurrection. Further, for most of Nigeria’s post-independence history the central government has been a military one. Though there has been significant progress, a “culture” of security service subordination to civilian political leaders is still establishing itself. Security service abuses are almost certainly fueling popular support in the North for the Islamists. The dilemma is that security service reform takes time; and time seems to be running out.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Chike

    Foreign journalists are right to point out abuses by security services, but we need to consider the following:

    1. We should not forget that Boko Haram is an evil, criminal organisation directly responsible for the deaths of thousands. In addition, foreign journalists might unwittingly be creating propaganda victories for Boko Haram & making it difficult for the Nigerian security services to deal with this problem.

    2. Foreign journalists and analysts focus almost exclusively on the plight of Muslim victims of Boko Haram & only interpret Boko Haram from the viewpoint of its Muslim victims or Muslim populations that are sympathetic to it.

    There is still a significant Christian population in Northern Nigeria, who have also suffered from Boko Haram. They fear they don’t get a fair hearing in foreign media/foreign analyst’s reports, so they tend to lean towards publications like “Voice of Matyrs” & organisations like the Christian Association of Nigeria to make their voices heard.

    Of course this leads to even more polarisation in an already polarised region.

    3. That Al Jazeera “expose” should be taken with a massive dollop of salt. An organisation as blatantly partisan as it is on Syria may not always pass the “smell test”.

    Therefore, it is important to view the Al Jazeera video in conjunction with an official rejoinder from State House, Abuja:

    4. On the official policy of “stationing military and police away from areas dominated by their particular ethnic group, region, and often, religion” – please remember that during the first republic, politicians could barely campaign outside their regions because the opposition controlled the police.

    It is extremely easy to criticize, but difficult to suggest workable solutions.

  • Posted by licia

    The reason why readers have not responded to your report is because the report is half truth. Or better still, not objective. It’s unbelievable that this report is relying on Al-Jazeera’s report!

  • Posted by Ken Uwotu


    There is undoubtedly human collateral damage as a result of Nigeria’s military offensive against Boko Haram in the North Eastern of Nigeria. The work Yvonne Ndege is doing on Nigeria is exemplary and very welcomed, let’s all be clear on this point ….but there is a missing piece.

    We would like ALL to click on the link below and see why we have requested reporting be based on “”verifiable evidence” to be taken seriously by ALL.-

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