Since 2009, Nigeria’s homegrown Islamist insurgent movement, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, popularly known as Boko Haram, which means “Western Education is Forbidden,” has waged a violent campaign against the Nigerian government in its bid to impose Islamic law.[1] The attacks have increasingly targeted civilians, mainly in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa.[2] Borno State, the birthplace of Boko Haram, has suffered the highest number of attacks. A range of issues, including widespread poverty, corruption, security force abuse, and longstanding impunity for a range of crimes have created fertile ground in Nigeria for militant armed groups like Boko Haram.

In an October 2012 report, Human Rights Watch estimated that some 1,500 civilians had died as a result of the violence; by November 2013, estimates showed that this figure had risen to 5,000 deaths.[3] In the first half of 2014, Human Rights Watch documented the death of at least 2,053 civilians from Boko Haram attacks. The total estimates from 2009 through July 2014, revealed that more than 7,000 civilians have died during the Boko Haram related unrest and violence in northeast Nigeria. These figures are derived from analyzing credible local and international media reports, the findings of human rights groups, and interviewing witnesses and victims of numerous attacks.[4]

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the widespread abuses carried out by Boko Haram as well as by the Nigerian security forces in response to the insurgency. A 2012 report, “Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria,”[5] explored the roots of the insurgency and implicated both sides in serious abuses. These include excessive use of force, burning homes, physical abuse, and extrajudicial killings of those suspected of supporting Boko Haram.[6] Nigerian Security Forces have responded to Boko Haram attacks with a heavy hand.

In July 2009, the police and soldiers in Maiduguri carried out scores of extrajudicial killings of detainees—many of them committed execution-style—according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2010 and 2012. One of those executed was Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf at the police headquarters in Maiduguri.[7]

In April 2013, security forces carried out a raid leading to massive destruction of property and civilian death in Baga, Borno State, following a Boko Haram attack on a military patrol in the town on April 16.[8] Security forces have also rounded up hundreds of men and boys suspected of supporting Boko Haram, detained them in inhuman conditions where dehydration, hunger, illness and diseases were rampant, and physically abused or killed them. Many others have been forcibly disappeared.[9] Amnesty International found that following a March 14, 2014 Boko Haram attack on Maiduguri’s Giwa Barracks, which led to the escape of hundreds of detainees, the security forces executed hundreds of the unarmed detainees the soldiers had recaptured.[10] Giwa Barracks is the largest military facility in Maiduguri.

The United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reported in a July 2014 Borno State humanitarian needs assessment survey carried out in May 2014 that residents of Bulabulin Ngarannam and Alajiri communities were expelled from their homes by the security forces. Soldiers also took over the local primary school, ejecting the internally displaced persons (IDP) who had taken refuge there. Members of the two communities have been unable to return to their homes since the military moved in early in 2013.[11] The Draft Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict (Lucens Guidelines) recognizes that military presence in schools can contribute to “students dropping out, reduced enrollment, lower rates of transition to higher levels of education, and overall poorer educational attainment.”[12]

The pace and intensity of Boko Haram’s attacks, especially against civilian targets, dramatically increased after the federal government imposed a state of emergency in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe states in mid-2013. Since then, and even more intensely since January 2014, the group has perpetrated almost-daily attacks on villages and towns, and laid siege to highways. In the attacks, Boko Haram has killed civilians, pillaged property, and destroyed schools, homes, and businesses, which were often razed to the ground.[13] The creation in Maiduguri, around July 2013, of a civilian vigilante group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF), or Yan Gora, also appeared to contribute to the increase in attacks against civilians, mainly for their perceived support of the vigilante group.[14] The activities of the Civilian JTF, which was designed to assist national security forces, largely pushed the insurgents out of Maiduguri and other towns and into the Sambisa Forest Reserve and the Mandara mountain range, which runs from Gwoza in southern Borno State into Cameroon. From this location, Boko Haram began to launch frequent attacks against remote villages in Borno and northern parts of Adamawa.[15]

Scores of villages in rural Borno State, the hardest hit area, have been practically overrun.[16] Between July and early September 2014, Boko Haram seized and took control of more than 10 major towns in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states.[17]

The fear of abduction has forced some civilians out of their homes. Such was the case of a 50-year-old Christian woman, now living in Abuja, who, despite intensifying attacks near her home in Gwoza, only fled after witnessing abductions of women and children in May 2014.[18] An 18-year-old woman explained her motivation for fleeing her village near Izghe. The area has been repeatedly attacked by insurgents since February 2014, precipitating a mass displacement of residents:

My mother told me to run from our village to another town though we know no one here, because of the scary rate of abductions of young women, including married ones. In February my brother’s 16-year-old wife was abducted with their two children and they have not been found ‘til date. The insurgents returned a month later to kill my other brother and took away his teenage wife but left her young baby behind. She managed to escape from the insurgents’ camp, and is back home now mourning her murdered husband. My mother became afraid that I would be the next target so she sent me away. I have been sleeping in a church since I arrived in this town a few days ago.[19]

Groups Targeted by Boko Haram

Human Rights Watch research suggests that Boko Haram has targeted Christians, students, traditional leaders, Moslems who oppose its activities, and civil servants and their family members. Boko Haram has burned numerous churches, some with worshippers trapped inside; killed men who refused to convert to Islam; and abducted Christian women.[20]

In several video messages posted on YouTube and sent to the media, Boko Haram’s leadership made direct threats against Christians. These include a post in January 2012, in which the then-spokesperson issued an “ultimatum” of three days for Christians to leave the North.[21] In May 2014, Boko Haram’s leader stated in another video, “This is a war against Christians and democracy and their constitution, Allah says we should finish them when we get them.”[22] Former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, publicly expressed concern over Boko Haram’s targeting of Christians.[23]

The insurgent group has also targeted schools and, more recently, students. According to UNICEF, Boko Haram attacks in Borno destroyed 211 schools and in Yobe they destroyed 21.[24] Media reports and interviews by Human Rights Watch suggest that scores of students, almost all boys, have been killed during attacks on schools. In a particularly vicious attack in February 2014, Boko Haram killed up to 59 male students from the Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, in Yobe State, while female students were ordered to either attend Koranic schools or get married. In July 2013 a similar attack on a government-owned boarding school in Mamudo, Yobe State, left 43 students and teachers dead, and later that September, Boko Haram reportedly killed more than 50 students from an agricultural college in Gujba, Yobe State, while they slept in their dormitories.[25]

On June 16, 2014, UNICEF warned that attacks on schools and the abduction of schoolgirls could further undermine access to education in parts of Nigeria, especially in the North, which is home to nearly 6.3 million, or 60 percent, of the country’s 10.5 million out-of-school children.[26] The federal government claimed that the abduction of schoolgirls had hindered the country’s efforts to promote girls’ education and close the gender gap in education, which has a gross enrollment rate for boys at 35.4 percent higher than for girls.[27]

In March, federal government-run secondary schools in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states closed and their students were transferred to schools in other northern states, while all schools in Borno, the worst-hit of the states under emergency rule, have been closed since then.[28]

Responsibility for Abductions

Human Rights Watch has reported on abductions over the past several years, documenting the July 2009 abduction of a teenage girl found hiding in a Maiduguri church on the first night of the July 2009 Boko Haram uprising;[29] the abduction of a woman from her home in Maiduguri, on July 28, 2009, after her husband was killed for refusing to renounce his Christian faith;[30] the 2013 abduction of several teenage girls from their homes and while selling their goods;[31] and the September 2013 abduction of some 20 women and girls from a checkpoint set up on the Damaturu-Maiduguri highway.[32] Some of the girls who had been abducted in these attacks reportedly returned months later, a few pregnant or with infants born during captivity.[33]

On at least two occasions, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has taken responsibility for the group’s abduction of women and girls. The statements, made through video releases to the media in January 2012 and May 2013, suggested that the abductions were intended to retaliate against the government for its alleged arrest and detention in 2011 and early 2012 of family members of Boko Haram members, including the wives of Shekau and other prominent Boko Haram leaders.[34] In a January 2012 video, Shekau says, “Since you are now holding our women, (laughs) just wait and see what will happen to your own women ... to your own wives according to Sharia law.”[35]

The May 2013 abduction of 12 women from a police barracks in Bama was the first case of abduction of more than one woman in a single attack, and signaled the beginning of a campaign of violence against women and girls.[36] In a video released in May 2013, Shekau says, “We kidnapped some women and children, including teenage girls. In a single house in Damaturu, 8 of our women and 14 children were arrested.” He added that “no one in the country will enjoy his women and children” if the relatives of Boko Haram members were not released by the security officials.[37]

In May 2013 Nigerian military authorities released 23 women, some of whom were identified as wives of senior members of Boko Haram.[38] A close contact of the group interviewed by Human Rights Watch insists that up to 180 more female relatives of the group members remain in custody without charge.[39] A security analyst told Human Rights Watch that as of April 2014, at least 46 women associated with Boko Haram were detained in prisons in different parts of the country.[40] A man claiming to be a member of the group, calling in on a live radio program in July 2014, demanded that the government swap the captive Chibok schoolgirls for its members detained by the government.[41]

A video released by Boko Haram in May 2014 to the media suggests other motives for the abductions of women and girls: punishing schoolgirls for attending Western schools or forcefully converting Christian women and girls to Islam. A 19-year-old who was one of five secondary students in Konduga abducted while travelling home from school explained:

There were more than 40 insurgents at the road block. As each vehicle drove up they commanded everyone to come down and identify themselves. When my friends and I said we were students, one of the insurgents shouted ‘Aha! These are the people we are looking for. So you are the ones with strong-heads who insist on attending school when we have said ‘boko’ is ‘haram.’ We will kill you here today.’[42]

The students were released two days later after being made to renounce education and promise never to return to school.

In a May 5, 2014 video message in which Shekau takes responsibility for the abduction of students in Chibok, Borno State, he described the young women and girls as “slaves” who would be sold.[43] He added: “Western education is sin, it is forbidden, and women must go and marry.”[44] One of the schoolgirls from Chibok who managed to escape told Human Rights Watch that, as the girls were being driven out of the school, an insurgent asked the schoolgirls in Hausa, “What kind of knowledge are you looking for here? Since you are here to look for Western education, we are here to confront it and teach you the ways of Islam”[45]