Amnesty International says Nigerian security forces have committed a catalogue of human rights violations and crimes under international law in the southeastern part of the country, killing no fewer than 115 people from March to June 2021.
The human rights group says the crimes by the security operatives were in response to spiralling violence in the region, carrying out a repressive campaign since January which has included sweeping mass arrests, excessive and unlawful force, torture and other ill-treatmen.
“The evidence gathered by Amnesty International paints a damning picture of ruthless excessive force by Nigerian security forces in Imo, Anambra and Abia states,” said Osai Ojigho, Country Director at Amnesty International.
Since the beginning of the year, gunmen launched a series of attacks on government infrastructure, including prisons and public buildings, killing several police officers. Amnesty International condemned these attacks and called on authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.
According to the group, Nigeria’s government responded with a heavy hand to killings and violence widely attributed to the armed group calling itself Eastern Security Network (ESN), the armed wing of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a pro-Biafra movement.
According to government officials, the ESN killed dozens of security operatives and attacked at least ten public buildings, including prisons and police stations, from January to June. In response, security forces comprising military, police, and Department of State Services (DSS) have killed dozens of gunmen, as well as civilians, where attacks have been committed.
Eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that the security forces have engaged in excessive use of force, physical abuse, secret detentions, extortion, burning of houses, theft, and extrajudicial executions of suspects. Human rights groups estimated that the death toll of violence between January and June 2021 in Anambra, Imo, Abia, and Ebonyi states might run into the hundreds. The police said ESN fighters killed 21 of its personnel in Imo State alone.
Amnesty International carried out an extensive investigation to document the human rights violations and crimes under international law in Anambra, Imo, Ebonyi and Abia states from January 2021. The organization documented 52 incidents of unlawful killings and 62 cases of arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and torture. Media reports, video and audio recordings reviewed show that the Nigerian security forces also employed excessive force and other unlawful means to address the rising violence.
“Nigerian security forces launched security operations in June, primarily targeting ESN militants or those perceived as such to decimate the group,” the group said.
“Amnesty International documented at least 115 persons killed by security forces between March and June 2021. Many relatives of the victims told Amnesty International that they were not part of the militants that were attacking security agents. Many of the victims were deposited at government hospitals in Imo and Abia state. According to several hospital sources, all the victims deposited by the police had bullet injuries.”
The human rights group narrated the ordeal of a 45-year-old businessman, Mathew Opara, who was shot by soldiers on May 25, 2021, in Orji, near Owerri, the Imo state capital.
Witnesses told Amnesty International that he was returning from work when he ran into a team of soldiers in an armoured vehicle and Hilux vans shooting at residents. He was shot in the chest and could not receive immediate medical help because of the violence. His family said the military acknowledged the killing but did not launch an investigation or offer any apology.
Uguchi Unachukwu, a Germany-based businessman was killed by soldiers on May 31, at a checkpoint near Owerri airport on his way out of the country. The police are yet to investigate the crime.
In May 2021, the Imo State Government announced the arrest of at least 400 people allegedly linked to the violence. Amnesty International’s investigation indicates that most of them were randomly picked up in their homes and off the street and had nothing to do with ESN. Some victims told Amnesty International that they were arrested while walking in the street, at a public bar or simply for having birthmarks or tattoos on their bodies.
“What is needed is an impartial and open inquiry to determine what happened and bring to justice all those suspected of criminal responsibility in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts and without recourse to death penalty,” said Osai Ojigho.