Residents of villages and towns ravaged by Boko Haram attacks told Human Rights Watch that the government failed both to prevent attacks where women and girls were abducted, and to protect the victims in imminent danger. In addition, they reported that adequate medical and psychological support for injured and traumatized women and girls has been gravely lacking for the victims and their families.
Failure to Prevent or Respond to Attacks
Numerous victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the lack of security force presence in areas particularly vulnerable to attack, notably in towns and villages in Borno State. All 46 victims and witnesses, as well as 6 community leaders, and analysts interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that government security services could have done more to prevent attacks by ensuring the adequate presence and arming of military personnel, and to respond more quickly and effectively to reports of attacks once in progress. As the pace of attacks in 2014 intensified, many victims, according to credible media reports, said that Boko Haram faced little government resistance in taking over territory, particularly in Borno State.
Several victims and witnesses recounted instances when they or members of their community had informed authorities about impending attacks, but encountered slow or belated response by the security forces. The victims and witnesses said that soldiers appeared to have been overwhelmed either because an inadequate number of troops had been deployed to a given town or because they seemed to have run out of ammunition during the course of an attack. Several of those interviewed described seeing soldiers abandoning their posts either just prior to an attack or while the attack was in progress, a trend Human Rights Watch described in its 2012 report.
Local and international journalists similarly reported the security forces’ failure to adequately protect the civilian population. During a May 2014 attack lasting over 12 hours on the town of Gamboru Ngala, Borno State, which resulted in the deaths of some 300 people, local officials reportedly claimed that soldiers deployed to the town left one hour before the attack and did not return until it was over. The same week, less than one month after the abduction of 276 girls in Chibok, 11 teenage girls were abducted during attacks on several villages near Gwoza, and driven away through several villages to the Sambisa forest without running into security forces.
Two Chibok residents, including a parent whose two daughters remained in captivity at time of writing, told Human Rights Watch that as they tried to escape the town, they saw government soldiers also fleeing. One resident told Human Rights Watch that the insurgents were well-armed, and arrived with more than 40 motorcycles and small vehicles to facilitate large-scale and rapid transport. He described the attack in Chibok going on for hours; he and his neighbors watched from their hiding place as Boko Haram set their homes and shops on fire. For fear of repeated attack by Boko Haram, this witness said he continues to spend nights in the surrounding rural areas. A 62-year-old resident of Chibok described what he saw during the same attack:
Chibok’s population had swelled because people from surrounding villages were running from Boko Haram violence to the town for refuge. At about 11 p.m. we started hearing gun shots and the movement of many motorcycles and cars. I was surprised that as I ran with others into the woods, security men were running with us while still wearing their uniforms. We stayed in hiding together until about 4 a.m. when the insurgents left. There was no attempt to resist the attack or protect anyone. Soldiers also ran for their lives.
Residents of Buni Yadi, Yobe State, told journalists that security forces guarding a nearby checkpoint withdrew just before the February 2014 attack on the federal government college in the town. The Nigerian military denied that there was ever a checkpoint close to the school. A displaced resident of Buni Yadi told Human Rights Watch how armed men shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ burst into her Buni Yadi home in the early hours of the attack, yelling for students to come out. She hid herself, relieved that her 15-year-old brother was in the boarding school. But the next day, her joy turned to grief with news of the school attack. “We found nothing to bury. He had been burnt along with fellow students as they slept. The charred remains were unrecognizable.”
When on June 1, 2014, insurgents attacked a church in Attagara, near Gwoza, killing more than a dozen worshippers, local residents reportedly fought back because the military failed to respond to reports of the ongoing violence. A local activist was quoted as saying that security forces ignored their pleas to come to their aid, with a claim that: “they had not been given a command (to deploy troops).”
In the case of the Chibok school abductions, President Goodluck Jonathan appeared to blame the school for failing to provide security which, he suggested, had led to the girls’ abduction. “If we had just five security personnel in the compound that night, although they couldn’t have stood the firepower of the invaders, they could have alerted the girls,” Jonathan said on June 20 while receiving the report of the Presidential Fact Finding Committee on Abducted Female Students in Chibok, Borno State.
On May 7, in response to the Chibok abductions, the Nigerian Government, with the support of the United Nations, Nigerian business leaders, the African Development Bank, and foreign countries, launched a Safe Schools Initiative, which aims to make schools more secure for Nigerian children. The US$100 million program aims to pilot 500 safe schools in northern Nigeria with a focus on school and community-level interventions. The program intends to organize community security groups consisting of teachers, parents, police, community leaders and more robust physical security in schools, including armed guards and a rapid response system, as well as counselors to work with students who are at risk of attack. The program is projected to help some of the 10.5 million children who are out of school in Nigeria feel safe enough to return to their education.
Human Rights Watch sent letters on September 15, 2014 to the military authorities and the National Human Rights Commission with a summary of the findings, and requests for their comments on these allegations. No response has been received from the two institutions at time of writing.
Lack of Health Care and Related Services
Many of the victims and their family members interviewed by Human Rights Watch showed signs of stress and anguish, sometimes stopping mid-sentence to stare in the distance, weeping, and rocking in agitation as they spoke. A 17-year-old girl repeatedly scrubbed her legs with open palms while narrating her long trek through the night with her abductors to their camp. A 15-year-old girl said:
I could not stop crying even when the insurgents threatened to kill me if I didn’t keep quiet. I kept on thinking, is it not better to die now than to face whatever terrible things they could do to me when we get to their camp? Even after I escaped from them and live far away from my village, I am still afraid. I think of death many times. My father tries. He encourages me to forget everything, but it is not easy for me. I have terrible dreams at night.
A parent whose two daughters, aged 17 and 19, are among the Chibok schoolgirls still held captive by Boko Haram told Human Rights Watch:
I find it difficult to eat or sleep. How can I when my daughters are probably sleeping out in the open exposed to all kinds of danger? My wife looks at me sorrowfully as if I should be able to do something. She is sick, but I know it is only worry and heartache. If even the soldiers are afraid of these militants, how can we civilians confront them? The worst part of it is that no one is telling us anything. We try to gather information from other towns but what we hear gives us no hope. Why can’t the government help us or tell us what they are doing to get our daughters back? I am tired of living like this.
Post-trauma and long-term counseling in the areas worst-affected by the Boko Haram assault are greatly needed. Maiduguri’s Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital said between 10 and 20 percent of people living in Borno need emergency mental-health services. Doctors interviewed by an international journalist described being overwhelmed. They noted that every day between 20 and 30 people show up requesting counseling, a marked increase over previous years.
A 19-year-old girl who was raped by one of her abductors told Human Rights Watch, “It is just the memories. I can’t shut them out. Even in sleep, it is like I’m back there and everything is still happening. My father has tried to talk to me but it doesn’t help.”
A 20-year-old girl, abducted on her way home from a college in Maiduguri, said she worries constantly of being abducted again: “I have not been able to go back to school. I am afraid of travelling. I could get abducted again on the way. It is too dangerous.” For the Chibok students who escaped, the continuing captivity of so many of their friends generates considerable anxiety. One girl said that she worries continually about her missing friends and whether the insurgents have slaughtered them. None of the victims who spoke to Human Rights Watch had returned to school at the time of the interviews. In September the Borno State government announced the award of scholarship to 36 of the 57 escaped Chibok students at various schools in north central Nigeria. The remaining 15 students had previously received scholarships for remedial courses at a private university in Yola.
Of the victims interviewed, only the Chibok students had received some type of state-supported counseling and medical care. Borno State government officials told Human Rights Watch that the escaped Chibok students had been provided with post-trauma psychological counseling and medical services. However, the young women and girls interviewed described the counseling received as religion-based; they said the Borno State government had arranged for pastors and Muslim clerics to speak with about 30 of them in a group at the Governor’s office. One girl described the counseling she received:
We were all in a big hall, with many people that we did not know. It was when one of the speakers quoted from the Bible that I knew he was a pastor but I cannot remember what he said. As he finished his talk, the microphone was handed to a man dressed like a Muslim preacher, who also recited some Islamic words. Some other people also spoke. No one asked us any questions. I don’t think any of my school mates realized either that we were being counseled.
Another girl who escaped from Boko Haram during the Chibok incident explained the type of help she needs: “I just want someone who will listen to me and help me to stop the fear that takes over my mind when I think of my sisters (school mates) who are still with Boko Haram. I am so afraid for them. Why can’t the government bring them back?”
None of the other victims of abduction or other violations interviewed by Human Rights Watch had received any government-supported mental health or medical care. Indeed they were unaware of any government services or programs set up to address their psychological or medical needs. Any medical care they received was paid for by their family or church community. The 19-year-old rape victim quoted above noted: “My church community paid for my physical checkup at the hospital. So at least I know I don’t have any physical damage. They also took my blood but I don’t know what they tested it for.”
None of the rape survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch had any information about how and where to access post-rape care, including treatment for any physical injuries, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent HIV transmission and for sexually transmitted diseases, and emergency contraception for those who escaped or were released by their captors within 72 hours of the rape.
A public health physician involved in the Borno State government-led initiative to provide psychosocial and medical services to the victims acknowledged that the program as presently designed is focused on the Chibok girls, noting that the government does not appear to have information about other abductees.
The former Borno State commissioner for health admitted a “dearth of mental health services” in her state even before the conflict, noting as additional challenges the growing number of internally displaced persons and the inadequate number of health-care workers, many of whom had fled their posts in the rural areas for fear of their lives. She said some 40 healthcare workers had recently been trained in counseling, but “because of the insurgency a lot of them were displaced and we are now left with only four counselors.” Other staff of the ministry told Human Rights Watch that other abductees may eventually benefit from the outpouring of support the state is receiving due to the publicity around the Chibok abductions.
On May 20, Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima announced that his administration had set aside 150 million Naira ($925,000) to fund a program of rehabilitation and support for the 53 girls who have escaped from Boko Haram captivity after being kidnapped from Chibok in April 2014, as well as for their families. He has said nothing publicly about any initiative designed to support other women and girls abducted before and after the Chibok incident.
In the wake of the Chibok abductions, the federal government established the Terror Victim’s Support Fund to provide assistance to Nigerian communities impacted by Boko Haram violence. The Victim’s Support Fund Committee is guided by Theophilus Danjuma, a retired army general. The Committee determines how to best use the Victim Support Fund’s endowment; as of August 1, 2014, the Committee had raised N58, 790 billion (US$362 million). The minister of finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said the fund is meant to complement the Safe Schools Initiative. However, at time of writing, it was not clear what practical steps have been taken to ensure that the victims, many of who are seeking refuge in other states and outside the country, are able to access this support.
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), with support from United Nations agencies, international humanitarian organizations, and nongovernmental organizations, is developing a Joint Humanitarian Action Plan (JHAP) to respond to disasters arising from disasters and conflicts, including those involving Boko Haram in north eastern Nigeria. Through JHAP, the government aims to “provide a common platform to the government and humanitarian community to address humanitarian challenges in a principled, timely and coordinated manner”. The JHAP established nine sector working groups, one of which is the Protection Sector Working Group (PSWG) co-chaired by Nigeria Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). UNICEF leads and coordinates water and sanitation, education, nutrition sectors as well as the child protection sub-sectors.