By Samuel Malik
In spite of government’s efforts to ensure that security agents respect human rights, scores of youths are being detained by the military without explanation in Maiduguri, Borno State.
When 63 year old Ijai Ijarafu and his 50 year old wife, Hauwa, fled their village, Mildu, in Madagali local government area of Adamawa State as a result of Boko Haram invasion in 2014, they gave up on their very sick 30 years old son, Ayuba, making it out alive.
“He was so sick that he could not walk,” Hauwa, the young man’s mother said. “We had no money to take him to a hospital, so we relied on herbs, which were not as effective as we had hoped,” she added. So, they concluded that he would be killed by the insurgents.
“One of the ways Boko Haram operated was that when they invaded a place, they killed the people they felt were useless to them and took the able-bodied and any other person they felt the need to take like young girls, who they gave as wives to their members. We never thought they would spare Ayuba as he was sick,” she further explained.
When the insurgents came, they gave all the people they met in the village two choices – convert to Islam or be killed. Those who refused to convert were immediately slaughtered, with their heads severed and put on their chests.
In order to stay alive, Ayuba agreed to convert to Islam and was locked in a room with others for about three months between December 2014 and March 2015, until government forces liberated the village, paving the way for the hostages to escape.
“Mama, I escaped and I am alive,” he told his mother on phone after trekking for six days to Damaturu, Yobe State. The mother could not contain her joy. She broke down in tears and the entire neighbourhood was in a joyful mood that Ayuba was alive. He is immensely popular in the community largely because of his selflessness and hard work. He was never too busy to help with house chores or anything required of him.
Ayuba was a labourer and this easily made him a major contributor to the family’s livelihood, as the father’s meat business could barely feed the family. The young man would go from site to site looking for anything to do for a token, even outside the state.
“Despite all these, he would follow us to the village to farm and when it is time for harvest he would also be there,” Hauwa remembered, tears strolling down her cheeks and head rested on a wall.
Less than three hours after arriving Maiduguri, soldiers stormed the neighbourhood and whisked him away to Giwa detention facility where he has been detained since March on suspicion of being a Boko Haram member along with many other people.
The road to abduction and detention
The Ijais are natives of Mildu, a village in Madagali local government area of Adamawa state, but reside in Maiduguri, Borno State, and only go to the village to farm during raining seasons.
In August 2014, when farming was at its peak, rumours began filtering in that there might be Boko Haram attacks, especially with the insurgents’ activities in Gwoza, with which Madagali shares boundary.
When Boko Haram first entered the village, initially disguised as preachers, they did not immediately take over the village. They would come in the evening and leave by 6:00 am. The villagers knew it was only a matter of time before they went berserk. As a result, for three months, they did not sleep in their houses. The men climbed onto a mountain, which separates Adamawa State from neighbouring Cameroon, while the women, most of who could not climb the mountain, ran into the bush. They slept in the open, whether it rained or not, and it usually rains heavily in August in that part of the country.
The women only came out of the bush when they were sure the insurgents had left. “We would sleep in the bush and return in the morning,” Hauwa said. “Everybody was in a hurry to finish their work and leave the village before they (Boko Haram insurgents) returned later in the day,” she recalled.
People knew when they were coming because of the sound of their motorcycles and gunshots, she said, adding that the insurgents did not bother to go after those who had run away.
The men remained on the mountain because of the difficulty in going up and down. Thus, it was mostly the women who were in the village. They would cook and take it to the base of the mountain and shout out the names of their husbands or just leave the food there, hoping that they would find a way to come for it.
One day in October, Hauwa and nine other women went to a nearby village to grind grains when they were rounded up by Boko Haram members and warned about dire consequences if any of them failed to attend an Islamic sermon the following day.
“They told us they were coming the next day to preach and whoever did not attend or refused to convert to Islam would be taken to Gwoza or Sambisa,” she explained.
At that point, many families made up their minds to leave the village for good.
With the father and other men on the mountain, Hauwa could not leave her son, who had fallen critically ill. She told him what happened at the grinding store and the decision of the people to leave the village. She was stunned when he told her to go without him.
“How could I leave without him, even though I knew I could not carry him?” she queried.
“I said we would stay together and face whatever came but he refused, saying he would be glad knowing I was safe and alive. I noticed there were tears in his eyes as he pleaded with me to go with the others. I reluctantly agreed and he asked me to get him drinking water in a jerry can nearby.”
Ayuba was left with his uncle, a blind man who said they would stay together and hope for the best.
Not everybody agreed to leave, though. Some villagers said they would stay either because they did not want to leave their farms or they were more scared of stepping out into the unknown. They said they would accept Islam if the need arose.
Hauwa and the others headed for Cameroon on foot for three days. They made the tortuous journey mostly without food. When they arrived in Cameroon, the Cameroonians put them in vehicles to take them to Mubi from where they found their way to Yola, the Adamawa State capital. Exhaustion and hunger had taken a toll on her and she almost lost her mind.
“I would scream and mumble incoherently and had to be taken to the hospital in Yola by my daughter who lives there,” she said. In Yola, she was reunited with her husband, who with other men also walked to Cameroon from the mountain.
Some weeks later, Hauwa said she met some of the women who had stayed back at Mildu who gave her information about her son. They decided to leave the village because they felt unsafe with almost all villagers gone. They told her that before the insurgents came, the man with whom Ayuba was left was transported to the mountain on a motorcycle arranged by his children.
According to her, there was a path that a motorcycle could take to the mountain but it was very tough and cost N3, 000. Aside the rider, a motorcycle could not carry more than one person at a time and Ayuba was in no condition to sit unassisted.
“They tried but it was not possible to transport him to the mountain,” Hauwa quoted one of the women. “They had to leave him at the foot of the mountain with no food and that was where they believe he was captured.”
Thus, she was relieved when he called her in March that he was alive.
After calling his mother, Ayuba called his elder brother, Amos, and said he was on his way home.
“When he came, we spoke and I asked him what happened and he explained to me how he was held hostage and only escaped when the military fought and drove out Boko Haram from the village,” Amos said.
“We were shocked when soldiers came about two hours after he arrived and arrested him like a criminal,” he added.
Ayuba’s parents did not even have the opportunity to see him because they were not home when he arrived.
Innocent people held for years in Giwa military detention facility
In the course of the war against insurgency, so many people, mostly young men, have been arrested, some allegedly killed, by security agents for being part of the insurgency. These include several innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This has led several respected nongovernmental and human rights organisations to release reports over the years of human rights abuses by government forces. The government most often than not dismissed such reports and tagged the organisations enemies of the war against terrorism.
The United States in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013 and 2014 accused the Nigerian military of committing abuses in its prosecution of the war on insurgency.
“Security services perpetrated extrajudicial killings and engaged in torture, rape, arbitrary detention, mistreatment of detainees, and destruction of property,” the 2014 report said.
Amnesty International, the global watchdog, in 2014 accused the Nigerian military and other security agencies of grave abuses, including extrajudicial killings carried out against suspects and innocent persons.
In its September 2014 report, Welcome to Hellfire, Amnesty said: “Torture and other ill treatment by Nigeria’s military is pervasive: routine and common throughout the country, in particular in the north. Hundreds of women, men and children in police and military custody across the country are being subjected to a range of physical and psychological torture or other ill treatment… a large number have already died in detention.”
But the most recent and shocking revelations came in June 2015, when the human rights watchdog caused unease in the military with its 2015 report, “Stars on their shoulders. Blood on their hands: War crimes committed by the Nigerian military”, where witnesses and victims narrated gory tales of ill treatment, deprivation and deliberate torture by the military.
The report went ahead to indict and call for the investigation of very top ranking military officers, including defence chief, Alex Bade, an Air Chief Marshal, and his predecessor, Ola Sa’ad Ibrahim, an Admiral; former army chief, Kenneth Minimah, a General, and his predecessor, Azubuike Ihejirika, also a General; John A.H. Ewansiha, Obida T Ethnan and Ahmadu Mohammed, all Major Generals, and Austin O. Edokpayi and Rufus O. Bamigboye, Brigadier Generals.
“Whilst an urgent and impartial investigation of these war crimes is vital, this report is not just about the criminal responsibility of individuals. It is also about the responsibility of Nigeria’s leadership to act decisively to end the pervasive culture of impunity within the armed forces,” the report said.
Unsurprisingly, the Nigerian military vehemently refuted Amnesty International’s report, calling it blackmail and an attempt to rubbish the integrity of senior military officers.
“It is unfortunate that all effort made in the allegation was geared towards continuation of blackmail against the military hierarchy in which the organisation had embarked upon as far back as the inception of military’s action against terrorists in the North East. The officers mentioned in the report have no reason, whatsoever, to indulge in the allegation made against them,” Chris Olukolade, a retired Major General and former Defence spokesperson, said.
“It is unfortunate that the organisation just went out to gather names of specified senior officers, in a calculated attempt to rubbish their reputation as well as the image of the military. The action, no doubt, depicts more of a premeditated indictment aimed at discrediting the country for whatever purpose,” he further stated.
However, what seemed surprising was the government’s response. While admitting that troops might have committed human rights infractions, former President Goodluck Jonathan said such abuses were exaggerated.
“Findings have generally shown that these reports are in the need exaggerated, we know that there are issues but the reports sometimes exaggerate the issues,” Jonathan said while speaking at a three-day international workshop on civil-military cooperation at the National Defence College on October 23, 2014.
But with the coming of the Muhammadu Buhari – led administration, things began to change with respect to government’s response to issues of human rights abuses by the security forces.
Unlike in the past, this government said it would not tolerate any abuse of human rights by security forces.
Reacting to AI’s latest report, President Buhari ordered the military to carry out an in-house investigation to verify the allegations, assuring that anyone found culpable would be prosecuted.
“Respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law are the life and soul of the democratic system. We will not tolerate or condone impunity and reckless disregard for human rights,” President Buhari said, adding that one of the first duties of the incoming minister of justice would be to look into the report and advise government on the best course of action.
“The president is quite disturbed by the allegations contained in the report. Any allegation of human rights abuse that takes place during the tenure of President Buhari’s government will be swiftly investigated and dealt with,” Garba Shehu, presidential assistant on media and publicity, said.
In July, about a month after the Amnesty report and the President’s response, Minimah released 182 people wrongly arrested and detained for being members of Boko Haram.
Two months later, new army chief, Tukur Buratai, a Lieutenant General, released a further 128 innocent detainees and reaffirmed government’s resolve to respect and protect human rights.
Among the first set of released detainees, 40 were said to be under aged boys, 18 were children and 24 were women.
The icirnigeria.org located some of these ex-detainees to get them to speak about their experience in prison and some said they were detained for more than two years without reason or explanation.
Surprisingly, however, all claimed that they were sternly warned and threatened with re-arrest if they spoke to journalists. Immediately our reporter introduced himself as a reporter, most became visibly uncomfortable, some openly turned hostile.
When the reporter assured them that he would not reveal their identities, they were not convinced and it took the intervention of the reporter’s fixer, whom they were familiar with, to get few of them to open up. Still, they said they would only answer few questions.
Those who did speak frequently looked over their shoulders and would pause at the sound of footsteps, and when one of them appeared to say too much, somebody would remind him of the soldiers’ warning and it worked because they would immediately switch topic. The reporter had to bring them back to the topic of discussion repeatedly.
Explaining how some of them were arrested, one boy said troops would go into a neighbourhood after a bomb explosion or Boko Haram attack, especially ones targeted at the military, and surround the area.
“Everybody was just packed into their vehicles and taken to the barracks. When they came, we could not run for fear of being shot,” the boy said.
In detention, the treatment was harsh at first but with time, they eased up. “There were two regimes, one was very wicked and terrifying but the other one later reduced the punishment,” another one said. They were not willing to say what sort of punishment they were subjected to.
When the reporter asked more about their treatment while in detention, they simultaneously looked at each other and, almost as if they had been trained on what to say, said they were not maltreated.
“The soldiers tried their best” was all they were willing to say, even though one could see on their faces that they wished to say more.
One of them, however, told the reporter plainly that he could not guarantee their safety if security agents decided to re-arrest them, adding that being free was enough for their peace of mind.
“What can you do if we tell you things and they come and arrest us again?” he asked, adding that while in detention they knew that some civil society organisations and human rights activists were turned back at the gate.
“Sometimes the soldiers would tell us no one could save us. They would even say they sent people away from seeing us.”
Some of the victims spoke good English while some said they had jobs before they were arrested.
It was clear that they were bitter with their arrests and detention for so long. One said he was arrested in 2012 but in 2014 when Boko Haram attacked the facility and freed inmates, some of them voluntarily went back and handed themselves to the military with the hope that they would be officially freed.
“I had to go back for a number of reasons,” he explained. “I knew I was innocent and had nothing to do with what they accused me of. I decided to go back so that they would know I was not a Boko Haram member. Also, I thought if I did not go back, they would either go after my family or shoot me whenever they saw me.”
Another one explained that he was arrested at his place of work much to the shock of his colleagues and said he was bitter to have been locked up for that long.
“Can you imagine the embarrassment? I was locked up since 2011 for what I did not do,” he said, adding that his wife left him while he was in detention.
The military’s incessant arrests led to many youths leaving Maiduguri, a district head told the icirnigeria.orgon condition of anonymity. According to him, those who refused to be part of the Civilian JTF, a youth vigilante group assisting the military in the counter insurgency campaign, were also accused of being members of Boko Haram and arrested.
The victims also said they saw Ayuba and that he was supposed to have been released earlier than many who are now free because the soldiers realised that he was not a member of Boko Haram but had to convert to Islam to stay alive.
From all indications, detainees who are being prepared for release are first separated and taken to another room, away from the detention. By all account, Ayuba was taken to this pre-release room before July, long before many of those that later were released, but he still remains in military custody for inexplicable reasons.
“He was supposed to be released earlier than us,” one of Ayuba’s former fellows in detention said, adding that they met Ayuba in that pre-release room.
“We do not know why they are still keeping him. His offense was converting to Islam, even though some of the soldiers believe that he only did it to stay alive. Some of them said they would do the same to survive,” he stated.
Following their release, no apology or compensation was offered to the victims though they felt they deserved better for what they were forced to go though.
Also, the Borno State government’s promise to help them get back to normal life did not amount to much. No form of psychological treatment was given to them, even though it was easy to see that they had been traumatised.
“We were given 10 yards of fabric and N10, 000,” one of them said. “That is for all the humiliation and suffering we went through. What did they expect us to do with these after we were denied our freedom for so long?”
Our reporter was at the Giwa detention facility to see if he could have access to Ayuba and other detainees but he was denied entry by a team of uniformed soldiers and plain clothed intelligence officers, who referred the reporter to the Headquarters 7 Division Nigerian Army at the Maimalari Cantonment in Maiduguri, the coordinating military formation in charge of the war against Boko Haram insurgency.
“The soldiers who were supposed to be here have been moved to Bama, so the place is now under the command of 7 Division in Maimalari Cantonment and any enquiries are made there,” one of the plain clothed men politely told our reporter.
“The fact that you are a journalist does not even help matters, and even if you get to the gate, no one will even allow you access without authorisation from 7 Division because it is a very restricted facility,” he added.
At the 7 Division, the spokesperson, Tukur Gusau, a Colonel, declined answering questions about the detention of so many young men. He was specifically asked about Ayuba and other detainees but said he could not remember any particular case because “there are many detainees” at the facility.
Gusau asked the reporter to send him Ayuba’s details for verification. About an hour later, the reporter sent him a text message with the detainee’s details. However for over two months now, Gusau has not responded to the text or answered the reporter’s phone calls.
The reporter called the army spokesperson, Sani Usman, on phone and requested for the army’s response to our findings, suggesting a face-to-face meeting. Usman asked why a face-to-face was necessary and the reporter summarised his findings, including queries relating to troops’ welfare, for an on-going investigation.
The army spokesman said he was not convinced about the identity of our reporter and asked the reporter to call him later. When the reporter called back, someone answered and said he was in a meeting and that the reporter should call back in 30 minutes. Thirty minutes later when the reporter called more than once, the phone was not answered. A text message sent more than a month ago has also not been replied.
However, a week after the text message was sent to the army spokesperson, he issued a statement on behalf of the military appearing to pre-empt this report.
“It has come to our knowledge that some foreign media, Nongovernmental and Civil Society Organizations in collaboration with some of their Nigerian affiliates and Civil Society Organizations for reasons best known to them are about to start making false claims of alleged human rights violations by the Nigerian Army,” the statement read.
A defence ministry source confided in the icirnigeria.org that troops are not comfortable with the presence of too many detainees at the facility, as their continued presence could pose a security threat to them.
Referring to the 2014 attack by Boko Haram on the Giwa facility, the source said, it was inevitable that the attack would happen, as the sect had notoriously demonstrated in other detention facilities and police stations where suspects were kept
“The boys (Boko Haram members) are not scared to storm any place they believe their members are kept. That is why we are against the detaining of so many people in a place like that,” the source said.
Reacting to the icirnigeria.org’s findings, Amnesty International said they confirm what it has documented in the past, adding that senior military officers were aware of these abuses but have always turned a blind eye.
“These cases fit the pattern of human rights violations documented by Amnesty International. The military have routinely arbitrarily arrested people, detained them without access to their families and lawyers or without ever being brought before a court,” Netsanet Belay, Africa Director for Research and Advocacy, Amnesty International, told this website.
“The conditions of detention were appalling. Data collected by Amnesty International suggests that since March 2011, more than 7,000 men and boys have died in detention, their deaths often unrecorded and almost never investigated,” Belay alleged.
“Amnesty believes that the main causes of deaths in detention were starvation, thirst, severe overcrowding that led to spread of diseases, torture and lack of medical attention and the use of fumigation chemicals in unventilated cells, he stated.
“We also found that senior officials of the Nigerian military had full knowledge of the arbitrary detentions and high rates of deaths and failed to take action to stop these human rights violations,” Belay added while calling on the government to introduce measures to checkmate these infractions and bring perpetrators to justice.