Human Rights in Nigeria – Chibok Abductions and Disappearances

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Bojana Djokanovic examines the challenge to Nigerian society posed by mass abductions by insurgent groups and military counter-terrorism operations in the northeast of the country.

Nearly two years since the abduction of about 270 girls from Chibok, Borno State, northeast Nigeria, in April 2014 by Boko Haram, the whereabouts of more than 200 of these girls remains unknown. Boko Haram has waged a six-year insurgency to establish an Islamist state in the northeast of Africa’s biggest economy and pledged allegiance to Islamic State in 2015. [1] The Chibok kidnapping sparked an international social media campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, which has included participation by Nigerian citizens and activists and by international celebrities and politicians. The campaign has amplified awareness of Boko Haram kidnappings of young women and made this one of the most known enforced disappearance issues in Nigeria and beyond.

Atrocities committed by Boko Haram have had a significant gender impact: the Chibok girls were kidnapped while at school, which creates fear that the lives of girls are threatened in schools and may cause some parents to stop schooling and education of their female children; most Boko Haram victims are girls and women – including girls used as suicide bombers – and the group has explicitly threatened to sell abducted girls into sexual slavery; targeting mostly women and young girls sends a message to men in a patriarchal society that they have been unable to “protect” “their” women and girls, thereby emasculating them.

Nigeria has been affected by ethnic, regional and religious tensions since it gained independence from Britain in 1960. The North of the country is predominantly Muslim while the South is predominantly Christian. Endemic corruption, political in-fighting and fitful socio-economic development have combined with ethno-religious differences, giving rise to terrorist groups and militias such as Boko Haram. [2] Nigeria has also had to contend with long-running conflict over natural resources in the Niger Delta between international oil corporations and local communities.

In November last year, The Global Post[3] reported more abductions of teenage girls after Boko Haram militants stormed a village in Borno state. Killings and kidnappings continued in December, and the US Council on Foreign Relations [4] argued that – far from being close to defeat by government forces – a resurgent Boko Haram was expanding. In January, a ten-year-old girl detonated an explosive device hidden beneath her dress, killing 16 people and injuring dozens of others in a bustling market in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Witnesses said the Boko Haram bomber didn’t know she was carrying explosives. The next day, a similar attack was carried out in neighboring Yobe state by two young women, one of whom was reported to be a teenager, with explosives strapped to their bodies. These attacks came just days after reports started trickling in of a Boko Haram massacre in the town of Baga, also in Borno state.[5]

The Nigerian Government and military have insisted that counter-terrorism operations are steadily diminishing the effectiveness of Boko Haram and reducing the area under its control. Critics, however, argue that a heavy-handed response by the government has resulted in human rights abuses and has alienated communities in the northeast of the country whom the government is trying ostensibly to protect. This is consistent with a human rights environment that has historically been marred by egregious violations. A US State Department human rights report published in 2013 includes a dismal list of abuses during the presidencies of Goodluck Jonathan and his predecessor Umaru Musa Yar’Adua: “politically motivated and extrajudicial killings by security forces, including summary executions; torture, rape, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners, detainees, and criminal suspects; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; prolonged pretrial detention; denial of fair public trial; executive influence on the judiciary and judicial corruption; infringement on citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and movement; official corruption and impunity; violence and discrimination against women; the killing of children suspected of witchcraft; female genital mutilation (FGM); child abuse and child sexual exploitation; societal violence; ethnic, regional, and religious discrimination and violence; vigilante killings; trafficking in persons for the purpose of prostitution and forced labor; discrimination against persons with disabilities; discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; child labor; forced and bonded labor; and abductions by militant groups.” [6]

In January this year, responding to continuing pressure from civil society, including a march on his official residence by parents of the missing Chibok girls, Muhammadu Buhari, who was inaugurated as President in May 2015, ordered a new investigation into the abduction of the girls.[7]

Under international law, States are obliged to investigate cases of human rights violation, end impunity and bring perpetrators to justice. Nigeria faces multipe challenges in fulfilling its obligations to victims and their families. The effectiveness of state action is limited by corruption and by a generally limited understanding of the rights of citizens, and by a contrastingly focused and ruthless strategy being implemented by insurgent groups such as Boko Haram. However, the peaceful transfer of power in May 2015, the stated intention of the new administration to champion human rights while restoring the rule of law in the northeast of the country, and the persistent lobbying of civil society groups such as those asssociated with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign all raise the possibility that Nigeria has reached a turning point in the battle against enforced disappearance. At such a turning point, assistance from external partners may be exceptionally valuable.