Widespread unlawful detention and torture by Nigerian security forces has aggravated the suffering of a generation of children and tens of thousands of people in north-east Nigeria, according to a new report.
At least 10,000 victims – many of them children – have died in military detention, among the many thousands more arrested during a decade-long conflict with jihadist groups, according to Amnesty International.
Many left their homes to flee violence from Boko Haram, whose deadly jihadist insurgency began in 2009. Yet displaced people were wrongly arrested by civilian militia forces and soldiers on suspicion of being connected to or supporting the insurgency, the report said.
In allegations strongly denied by the Nigerian army, victims suffered torture and years of detention without charge, trial or medical treatment, in “inhumane” conditions at three centres. One is the Giwa barracks detention centre where rights groups have for years reported endemic human rights abuses.
Another of the centres hosts a reintegration programme for alleged jihadists and their supporters, funded by the UK government and international donors, where conditions were not as severe but abuses were widespread, the report said.
Joanne Mariner, the acting director of crisis response at Amnesty International, called for authorities to investigate the “appalling” treatment of victims.
“From mass, unlawful detention in inhumane conditions, to meting out beatings and torture and allowing sexual abuse by adult inmates – it defies belief that children anywhere would be so grievously harmed by the very authorities charged with their protection,” she said.
“The past decade of bitter conflict between Nigeria’s military and Boko Haram has been an assault on childhood itself in north-east Nigeria,” Mariner added. “Boko Haram has repeatedly attacked schools and abducted large numbers of children as soldiers or ‘wives’, among other atrocities.”
Among the 230 people Amnesty interviewed was 10-year-old Ibrahim, who said his family had fled their village after an attack by Boko Haram when he was five and were arrested several days later by the military.
“We said we escaped from Boko Haram, but the military did not believe us,” he said. “They said that we were part of Boko Haram. They hit us children with a rope of animal skin and slapped our parents with the flat end of a long knife. They beat us every day.”
Another 14-year-old boy was also arrested after fleeing abduction by Boko Haram, and then detained at Giwa barracks: “The conditions in Giwa are horrible. They could make you die. There’s no place to lie down,” he said. “Up to now, nobody has told me why I was taken there, what I did, why I was in detention.”
Col Sagir Musa, the director of public relations for the Nigerian army, dismissed Amnesty’s report as “mere claims”.
“There is no basis for the accusation. The Nigerian army has strongly debunked such malicious claims and no group has convincingly refuted our position,” he said.
The findings add to a litany of abuse allegations that have dogged Nigerian security forces, intensifying during its war with Boko Haram and a jihadist offshoot, the Islamic State West African Province.
More than 36,000 people have died and almost two million are displaced within north-east Nigeria, in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Operation Safe Corridor, an army-run deradicalisation programme of mostly men and boys, which receives funding from the UK, has released thousands of jihadi suspects. Fourteen hundred Boko Haram suspects were released earlier this year.
Former detainees were positive about conditions at the Safe Corridor site yet said a number of human rights violations frequently occurred there.
Detainees were made to produce items such as shoes and soaps in training programmes which amounted to forced labour, Amnesty said. Some detainees suffered serious injuries working with caustic soda without protective equipment. At least seven detainees at the site died.
Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International, said: “The UK’s support of a military-run detention centre that is unlawfully imprisoning people, including children, and subjecting them to unsafe conditions is particularly worrying.
“The UK government must work with the Nigerian authorities to ensure that the military is protecting the population, and that absolutely no UK support is contributing to the vile abuses taking place in the context of the conflict.”