John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

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Nigerian Army Abuse of Civilians

by John Campbell
March 15, 2017

A Nigerian soldier practices marksmanship during Flintlock 2016, a U.S.-led international training exercise with African militaries in Thies, Senegal, February 11, 2016. (REUTERS/Sylvain Cherkaoui)


There have been a series of credible reports on the Nigerian army’s abuse of civilians in the struggle against the jihadist movement Boko Haram. A story on the front page of the February 28, New York Times cites a particular village where residents said that there were no Boko Haram present. Apparently, the soldiers did not believe the villagers and concluded that it was nest of Boko Haram. In response, the army proceeded to torch the village and slaughter the majority of its male population.

Civilian survivors of the attack maintain that there was no Boko Haram presence in their village, but their testimony is difficult to verify. Such absence of such verification is representative of the notoriously poor army intelligence on Boko Haram. Like most such reports, the New York Times story is anecdotal, but credible. Such stories contribute to the reluctance of some in the U.S. Congress to sell sophisticated military hardware to the Abuja government that might result in civilian casualties.

Driven out of territory it once occupied, Boko Haram appears to be embedding itself in the general population. This makes it all the more difficult to distinguish between innocent civilians and Boko Haram fighters. Dimensions of Boko Haram that fuel the army’s frustration include its religious overtones which supplement its populist revolt against the Nigerian political economy.

As part of his campaign against Boko Haram, President Muhammadu Buhari has re-equipped the army and advocated for an emphasis on training and discipline. However, it will take time before such measures effect army behavior. Meanwhile, such deficiencies in training and attitude leave Nigerian soldiers ill-prepared to confront a shadowy and murderous enemy, whose recruitment activities are emboldened by the army’s human rights abuses within civilian populations.

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