480, mostly Christians, killed in Nigerian 'military massacres' from 2015-2017: NGO report

((PHOTO: INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR CIVIL LIBERTIES & RULE OF LAW))Pallbearers carry the body of Ogochukwu Joseph Ogbah, who was shot and killed by Nigerian soldiers in September 2017 in Afara-Ukwu during Operation Python Dance 2 in Abia State, Nigeria

Nigerian military and security forces killed hundreds of mostly Christian ethnic Igbo civilians advocating for self-determination, in massacres that took place from 2015 to 2017, according to the most comprehensive report to date, which took three years to make.

The NGO International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety) released a new 85-page report this week that purports to highlight how Nigerian military and security forces are responsible for the deaths of 480 and the injuring of over 500 other "unarmed and defenseless" civilians in crackdowns targeting Igbo self-determination activists and members of the Igbo population.

The crackdowns were carried out through various internal security operations in Southeast and other southern regions of Nigeria that have drawn criticism from those warning that the Nigerian military is being "deployed against unarmed civilians."

The new Intersociety report, titled "Under Buhari & Osinbajo: Many Have Gone & Crippled For Life In Eastern Nigeria," is based on three years of research that includes interviews with survivors, relatives and victims.

"Most, if not all the slain, wounded or abducted victims are members of the Nigerian Christian Faith and other non-Muslim religions," the report reads. "Hospitals, where the wounded were taken to for treatment, were also invaded by soldiers at night or late evening during which some of them were abducted to unknown locations where they must have been shot dead and remained untraced."

The report lists 10 locations identified during the course of Intersociety's investigations where the killings and massacres occurred.

The report also lists seven significant "graveyards or dumping sites" where "the slain were shallowly buried, or burnt to ashes, or lacerated with suspected raw acid substances." Other dead bodies were reportedly either dumped in the open, thrown off a bridge or left in secret or isolated places to decompose."

The alleged killings highlighted in the report occurred as there has been a revival in the call for Biafra independence in the Igbo population in Southeast Nigeria, most of which are Christian in faith.

The secession of Biafra in 1967, which represented the aspirations of the Igbo people concerned about ethnic, economic and religious tensions, is what led to the Nigerian Civil War and deaths of over 2 million people from 1967 to 1970.

According to the report, the segment of the general Igbo and other non-Igbo Christian population affected by the massacres and killings were "exercising their rights to self-determination using nonviolence" through democratic assemblies such as street protests, picketing, prayers and worship, and religious processions.

The massacres in question were said to be part of the Nigerian Army's "Operation Python Dance" and other internal security operations designed to stamp out "terrorist" activity, according to Intersociety.

However, the report refutes the government's "terror" claim.

"This is the first time in the world an unarmed and defenseless self-determination group is dubbed 'terror group,'" the report explains. "The intents and purposes for same were for intensification of the Government's racial profiling and attempts to cover the massacre and escape from being held to account."

Intersociety Board Chairman Emeka Umeagbalasi told CP that the organization decided to launch an investigation into the killings because "it is our region and we are professed Christians."

"[This is so we are] able to put this in a database and in a document because the law says when a crime is committed and there is no documentation, then no crime has been committed," Umeagbalasi, an Igbo criminologist, continued. "If a crime is committed by a perpetrator and they do not put it in writing or in black and white, then we [have no case] against the perpetrator. But when you put it in a database, the perpetrator can be tracked anytime or any day."

Intersociety claims that some Igbo citizens were killed, wounded or abducted at their places of work, on their way home or while they slept "in the dead of the night."

The report asserts that the massacre operations were the "crude and deadly" response of the federal government led by President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo "to renewed nonviolent campaigns by disenchanted people of the old Eastern Nigeria calling or agitating for the restructuring of Nigeria and end to their age-long political exclusion and persecution or total independent statehood for the 'Biafra People.'"

However, John Campbell, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria during the George W. Bush, administration and a current senior fellow of Africa Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CP that he is skeptical of the claim that the president and vice president are complicit in the crimes.

Campbell also contended that the fact many of those killed in the report are Christian is "irrelevant" because the crimes were committed more so in the context of stamping out a separatist movement.

"There is a so-called Operation Python Dance that has been conducted by the security services, which seeks to root out those who are supporting a revival of the idea of Biafran independence," Campbell explained. "The government claims that the some of the secessionists advocate violence and even terrorism. The secessionists argue though that what they are arguing for is self-determination."

"The Nigerian security services, including the Army, are quite rough, not to say brutal in terms of their tactics," Campbell continued. "In fact, security service human rights abuses are often said to be a primary driver of Boko Haram recruitment in eastern Nigeria so that I would view as credible claims that the security service had killed civilians in Southeastern Nigeria."

Campbell also questions if the number of people killed highlighted by the report are completely accurate.

"Frankly, everybody lies on one side and down the other about casualties," Campbell said. "You have to put this in the context of government response to a secessionist movement of which the government, in my view, is frightened because of the experience of the civil war, meaning the 2 million [dead]."

Nina Shea, a prominent international human rights lawyer and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute, told CP that the scale and nature of the human rights violations alleged in the report are "shocking" considering they are alleged to have been carried out by security forces.

"The report's accounts of mass murder, torture, abuse and unlawful imprisonment by Nigerian security forces are extensively detailed and documented apparently by legal and investigative professionals," she stated. "This report needs to be taken with utmost seriousness."

Umeagbalasi defended his report stating that it was conducted by a team of researchers and also included contributions from a number of intellectuals, such as former U.S. Assistant Attorney Gen. Bruce Fine, and professors Adrienne LeBas at American University in Washington and Justin Akujieze at Chicago State University.

The Departments of Criminology & Security Studies (CSS) and Peace Studies & Conflict Resolution at the National Open University of Nigeria were also listed as contributors.

"The report is empirically and scientifically arranged. We have worked on the report for three years," he said. "It is a very comprehensive report and a lot of research. You will see the contributors. Some of them professors at the American University, Chicago State University, some of them are former assistant attorney generals of the United States. So you can imagine the caliber of the contributors."

Shea believes that the reported extrajudicial killings and the maiming of hundreds of individuals should be investigated by independent authorities.

"Those found culpable, both those who executed and those who gave orders must be held accountable," Shea wrote in an email. "That these allegations involve the targeting of victims of a particular ethnicity and religion — namely Igbo Christians and Jews — raises that possibility of hate crimes, or even an intent to commit genocide. The fact that the targeted victims included political dissidents and even separatists in no way justifies the violence that is alleged to have occurred, including the abduction and murder of persons while they were sleeping."

Shea called for the continued imprisonment of victims to be investigated for violations of due process.

"I call on the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to pursue this report in its bilateral relations with Nigeria and to undertake an independent review of its contents."

CP submitted requests for comment with the Nigerian Army and the federal government of Nigeria. A response was not received by press time.

Campbell said he is skeptical of claims of President Buhari's complicity in the reported killings, stating that the report was released just over a week before a presidential election.

The former ambassador added that part of the issue is that the Nigerian Army is responsible for what most developed countries would consider being a police function.

"[T]hey are not trained to do it, which means they tend to way overreact," Campbell stated.

Campbell is also not optimistic that the perpetrators who carried out these killings and abductions can be held accountable, suggesting that the government oversight is not in place to hold the direct perpetrators accountable.

"You are dealing with a state in which accountability, in general, is very limited," Campbell said. "All you have to do is look at what has been going on in the Northeast [Boko Haram] or the Middle Belt [farmer-herder conflict], both centers of violence. To say that the state should be holding perpetrators of massacres of any sort by anybody accountable is of course perfectly true. But in terms of reality, it is pretty naive."

Umeagbalasi said part of the problem is that victim family members are "too afraid" to say they are advocating on behalf of their slain loved ones. The criminologist added that security forces took the bodies of those slain and buried them in undisclosed locations.

"We have a kind of government and officials that appear to be incorrigible. They have this culture of impunity in place in their system and establishment," Umeagbalasi stressed. "They don't want to learn or have remorse. I think the most important task here is that we have the research fully concluded because tracking victims of this crime is not to easy to come by. It is the most difficult thing to track the victims and convince them to speak."

Intersociety also plans in the future to release a photo album showing the dead bodies of victims as well as a perpetrators list that will outline the crimes that government actors may have directly or vicariously committed.

Courtesy of The Christian Post