In recent months, the Nigerian military has made great headway in its war against Boko Haram, the radical Islamist militants terrorizing northeast Nigeria.
But the army’s aggressive sweeps to root out the remaining fighters have taken a toll on more than just Boko Haram. Witnesses are accusing Nigerian soldiers of killing unarmed civilians, as well.
Reports of civilian massacres have emerged in recent weeks as residents from areas previously sealed off by Boko Haram start to stream out.
“As more combatants from Boko Haram have been hiding within the civilian population, the line between who is civilian and who is not has been blurred,” said Agnes Bjorn, a manager for Plan International, an aid group. “It is, however, the responsibility of the Nigerian Army to protect civilians and clearly distinguish between civilians and combatants. Protecting civilians in war is part of international humanitarian law.”
The Nigerian Army has a long record of human rights abuses. In 2013, soldiers burned homes and opened fire in the village of Baga, killing as many as 200 people, survivors said. Civilians have complained for years of arbitrary detentions, torture and killing by soldiers. Worried about such abuses, the American government held up the sale of attack helicopters to the Nigerian military.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general elected on promises to defeat Boko Haram and stamp out corruption, pledged to clean up the abuses.
“We are guided by rules and guided by our transparency of operations,” said Brig. Gen. Rabe Abubakar, the director of defense information for the Nigerian military. He denied that the military was responsible for the massacres, contending that insurgents, “criminal elements” or cult members could be to blame.
Many observers give the president credit for pressing the campaign against Boko Haram and taking…