"They [Nigerian security forces] asked the man to remove his clothes. They gave him a football shirt to wear and tied his hands behind his back with a belt. They asked him to walk [then] they fired from behind and killed him. They used an AK47. One soldier fired four bullets. It was very close range, [the gun was] touching his head."
This account, from a resident of the Nigerian town of Mai Sandari, is only one of many in a just published report from Amnesty International. It chillingly details the systematic use of summary executions, torture, disappearances and terror in the battle between Nigerian security forces and the Islamist militants known as Boko Haram. Amnesty documents how violence and intimidation by fanatic jihadists is being met with brutal and indiscriminate suppression by the government. The civilians caught in the middle are the hardest-hit victims.
Blood for blood
In Nigeria's impoverished, mostly Muslim north, legitimate resentment over corruption and neglect by the national government fed the growth of Boko Haram (which means "western education is forbidden"). When the group was met with fierce repression – including the death in police custody of the its founder, Imam Muhammad Yusuf – Boko Haram began attracting hard-core Muslim militants from Algeria, Niger and elsewhere in Africa. What began as a religious protest movement morphed into an armed jihadist insurgency.
Since 2009, Boko Haram has engaged in a campaign of assassination, suicide bombings and armed attacks against the government, as well as Christian churches and others it sees as opposing its drive to establish Sharia law in Nigeria. Now, according to Amnesty International, Boko Haram's violent fanaticism, coupled with the government's heavy-handed response, has created a human rights nightmare for the 90 million or so people living in the northern half of Africa's most populous nation.
Which way out?
Early signs are not encouraging. Nigerian officials responded to the Amnesty report by denying there was a problem. Nigerian army spokesman Col SK Usman told the BBC, "There is no Nigerian soldier that goes out on the streets to just kill innocent Nigerians."
The Nigerian government also seems to see Boko Haram strictly as a security issue, and believes the group can be defeated militarily. But an analysis by the Economist suggests it might be possible to negotiate with the parts of Boko Haram that are motivated mainly by grievances against the national government, splitting them off from the more hardline jihadist elements of the movement. Unconfirmed reports yesterday appeared to back this up.
If Nigeria's leaders are willing to address legitimate issues of governance and fairness in the north – and to pull back from the scorched-earth approach that's only making their people terrified and miserable – perhaps this brutal, tragic situation could begin to be brought to a just and peaceful resolution.
Learn more: Read the full report from Amnesty International.
Sources: CNN, BBC, Avaaz, Economist, Amnesty International