Lejla Hodzic examines the December 2015 events in Zaria, Nigeria, and considers their implications for the issue of missing persons in Nigeria and beyond
Since 1992, Nigeria has experienced a cycle of inter-communal violence that the authorities have been unable to break. Kaduna State in central Nigeria has been one of the worst affected by targeted killings and human rights abuses based on religious and ethnic discrimination. Endemic bribery and corruption have undermined the capacity of the judicial system to prevent this violence, and divisive local politics have compounded this situation, creating a pervasive culture of impunity.
The military campaign against Boko Haram has led to an increase in violent episodes in Kaduna State, including widespread and serious human rights violations. The killing of more than 300 supporters of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), a Shi’ite Muslim minority group, in December 2015, attracted global attention to the issue of human rights violations and sectarian violence in the country. The “Zaria massacre” appeared to have turned a spotlight on practices and shortcomings of the Nigerian military.
The IMN, which has had uneasy relations with the authorities for decades, is a Shi’ite religious and political organization. Many of the activities organized by IMN members have resulted in confrontation with the Nigerian authorities and strained relations with other communities.  On the night of 12 December 2015, confrontation erupted between IMN supporters and government troops, when some IMN supporters blocked a section of a road in Zaria and refused to allow the Chief of Army Staff to pass. After failed attempts to persuade the protesters to clear the road, soldiers opened fire with live ammunition, killing at least seven protesters and injuring several others. Hours later, soldiers were deployed to other locations in the city where IMN protesters were gathered and allegedly killed hundreds of protesters. 
Information about the incident emerged slowly, which allowed both sides to develop different accounts of the violence. The actual death toll remains unclear. Human Rights Watch has reported that the military hurriedly buried bodies in mass graves without family members’ permission.
The incident sparked anger among the Shi’ite Muslim community and there has been a widespread lack of confidence in the official investigation into the massacre. After four months during which the military denied the mass killing and mass burial, Kaduna state officials acknowledged that 347 members of the IMN had been killed in the massacre. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have indicated that the number of killed is likely to have been higher, due to the large number of persons who are still missing. According to families and IMN members, 600 people were missing after the massacre. No information has been forthcoming about the military’s activities in the 36 hours that followed the event.
Based on the accounts of surviving witnesses, Amnesty reconstructed what happened in Zaria. Witnesses said they had seen piles of bodies outside the morgue of the ABU Teaching Hospital. Others said they had seen trucks and military personnel digging a large pit at the location of a suspected mass grave. With the help of satellite imagery and witness testimony, Amnesty located a possible mass grave in the Mando area, near the city of Kaduna. Satellite images reveal that approximately 1000m2 of land was disturbed between 2 November and 24 December 2015.
Months after the event, during which, in addition to those who were killed, hundreds were detained, families are still waiting for news of their loved ones. After the release of information and evidence about the potential location of a mass grave, human rights defenders urged Nigerian authorities to conduct an independent investigation, prioritizing a full forensic investigation of the buried bodies.
The massacre has raised questions about the legality of the Nigerian Army’s actions. Witnesses say the military used excessive and unlawful force against members of the Shi’ite community, even though they posed no threat to life or security. In addition, the military is accused of attempting to destroy evidence of the crime.
Nigeria has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention against Torture, and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED). While these conventions prohibit arbitrary and extrajudicial killings, they also require the authorities to prevent and investigate such incidents. The Nigerian authorities are, therefore, legally obliged to conduct a full and credible inquiry into the events at Zaria and to help families of the missing access their right to the truth and their right to compensation.