The grim picture painted by Amnesty International (AI) of what happens in the internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps in the North East, especially in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states, is that Nigerian soldiers and civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) members often rape women in the camps in exchange for food. Millions of Nigerians fleeing the Boko Haram insurgency end up in IDP camps where the struggle for survival is intense and food is often so scarce.
The Amnesty International report says the displaced women and girls have been turned into sex slaves having been forced to become “girlfriends” to military men in exchange for humanitarian assistance. AI thinks that thousands have died of starvation since 2015 due to lack of food in the camps. The process of sexual exploitation begins by the military and the JTF members separating women from their husbands and confining them in remote areas where they are sometimes raped in exchange for food.
Instead of receiving protection, the women and girls are threatened, beaten and called ‘Boko Haram wives,’ especially those who are perceived to have any connection with Boko Haram. Amnesty claims to have interviewed dozens of women who have described their ugly experiences in the hands of the soldiers, how they were coerced into becoming ‘girlfriends’ to save themselves from starvation. Most of those women had already lost children or other relatives due to lack of food or healthcare in the camps and were in too vulnerable condition to object to unwelcome advances.
The Federal Government has dismissed the report as a tissue of lies and a regurgitation of its previous ‘false’ reports. The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, excoriated the report: “In some breath, the report seemed like the one in 2015, and the one in 2016, and the one after that year, the same things being recycled again and again.” He quoted President Buhari’s promise made at his joint press conference with President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington where Buhari pledged his commitment to ensure that documented cases of human rights abuses are investigated and those responsible for violation held responsible.
From the Defence Headquarters came a statement by the Director of Defence Information, Brig-Gen. John Agim, which described the report as “falsehood, maligning the military and painting her in bad light.” The Nigerian military, Brigadier Agim stated, “will abide by all human rights regulations as entered into by Nigeria and also go the extra mile in ensuring that the territorial integrity of our nation is well protected.”
Nigeria’s civic organisations, however, seem to disagree with both the government and the military. Comrade Ayodele Akele of the Campaign for Human Rights called “the report authentic. Amnesty International has a long, credible record…” The Executive Director of CISLAC, Awwal Ibrahim-Rafsanjani stated that “This report coming from Amnesty International confirms the reports from various civil society organisations and the National Human Rights Commission in Nigeria which expressed concern over human rights abuses and denial of rights in the IDPs.”
The regularity of Amnesty International reports and the denials of the Nigerian military would have been considered comical were the issues not so grave. We are discussing the situation of extremely vulnerable women to whom basic feeding has become a matter of life and death. Even more distressing is the response of the Federal Government which by trying to tarnish Amnesty International admitted its own failings. Amnesty, as an organization, has been around quite a bit. When it was founded in 1961, it laid down as its aims and objectives “to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end abuses of human rights.” Human rights abusers have never had nice things to say about Amnesty International. But Amnesty has never been cowed by the bullying tactics of human rights abusers, not even the United States, as the Abu Ghraib Prison abuse scandal in Iraq demonstrated. What does Amnesty want? It is merely asking Nigerian authorities, the Nigerian military and the JTF members, to respect the human rights of fellow Nigerians. When it produces reports from its investigations, wise governments tend to look inwards, to do their own reality check. The US set up its own probe headed by a general, then prosecuted and convicted eleven of its military personnel following Amnesty’s report. Let the Nigerian authorities investigate the matter.