Rights groups in Nigeria are calling for an independent investigation into evidence of abuses as video footage obtained by human rights group Amnesty International appears to show members of the Nigerian military brutally beating and murdering suspected militants in the country's north.
Northern Nigerians are being squeezed on all sides: under attack by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has killed thousands of civilians and displaced 250,000, abducted children, and burnt down hundreds of villages, among other abuses; and also targeted by the soldiers ostensibly sent to protect them.
The Amnesty International (AI) footage elicited a promise of an investigation by military spokesman Maj-Gen Chris Olukolade, who said in a statement that Defence Headquarters was compiling a team of senior officers and legal experts to study the video. "Much as the scenes depicted in this video are alien to our operations and doctrines, it has to be investigated to ensure that such practices have not crept, surreptitiously, into the system," Olukolade said. "The Nigerian Armed Forces cannot condone any action or inaction that tramples on the right to life of any Nigerian."
Makmid Kamara, AI's Nigeria researcher, said Nigeria's attorney-general had also called for a military investigation. AI would prefer an independent probe. Rights groups have called for investigations into abuses before to little avail, but an independent investigation "is the best we can hope for," said Kamara.
"The criminal justice system is dysfunctional. It's in near-total collapse, especially in the north. People think they can do things and get away with it," he said. "The reason why we are calling for an independent one [investigation] is because the military cannot investigate itself."
The AI footage released on 5 August shows men in camouflage uniforms forcing young men to dig their own graves and then slitting their throats. It shows uniformed men beating others with canes and machetes as well as piles of twisted, bullet-pocked bodies. The footage also includes images of Boko Haram fighters chanting before an attack, and images of a building they attacked.
AI said the video was collected from both witnesses and perpetrators, and it corroborated and added context to the videos with testimony from other witnesses. AI said it spoke with military sources who confirmed that the perpetrators in the clips include military personnel; it also said they appear to include members of state-sponsored civilian militias.
Kamara said the military has known about the existence of the footage for some time and has not yet acted. AI has evidence that some of the soldiers in Maiduguri, are still deployed in the area.
"I've seen a lot of very serious human rights abuses and violations by both Boko Haram, as well as the Nigerian army, but the level of disregard for life. I don't think anyone who's seen the video will have the courage to continue watching it," said Kamara. "It's shocking and it's graphic and it's an indication of a society that is losing its touch with humanity."
Boko Haram has been waging a violent campaign for years to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. Amid a growing wave of bombings and shootings and a rising death toll, Nigeria declared a state emergency last year in three northern states. But the stepped-up military campaign to eradicate the group has led to accumulating reports of human rights abuses also being committed by the soldiers.
According to AI, more than 4,000 people have been killed by all sides just this year alone. At least 250,000 civilians from the northeast have abandoned their homes to flee to safer parts of the country or across the borders to Niger and Cameroon according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. While security in major towns and cities has improved in recent months, residents of villages are still under threat. Teachers and students have abandoned their schools. Small businesses have been left to languish.
Hundreds of people being held without charge have died in military detention already, according to AI. It said several of the clips released on 5 August appear to come from one day in March when Boko Haram raided a military detention centre in the Borno State capital of Maiduguri, releasing hundreds of detainees. In response, the military and members of state-sponsored militias tracked down many of them, witnesses told AI, and then killed them.
Footage that AI says is from that day shows twisted bodies, many with bullet holes or knife wounds, lying in piles on the streets in pools of blood. Another clip shows a man in camouflage instructing a young man to lie by a shallow grave, with a few dead bodies already in it. The man then uses a large knife to saw through the victim's throat while others, in civilian clothes, hold him down and shout encouragement. The scene is repeated several times, with different men stepping forward to perform the slaughter.
The report quotes the relative of a man whom he believes was killed by the military. The body was found lying by a bridge in Bama, a town southeast of Maiduguri. "There is no death certificate; Bama hospital is not functioning. There is no place to complain; the town has restricted movement. Everybody left. What happened to God?" He said.
Salil Shetty, AI's secretary-general, said the footage offered further proof that war crimes are being committed by both sides. "What does it say about a country when members of its military carry out such unspeakable acts and then deliberately capture the images on film?" he asked. "These are not the images we expect from a country which sees itself as having a leadership role in Africa."
Nigeria's military has been accused before of committing human rights abuses in its fight against Boko Haram. Kamara, the Nigeria researcher, said that while there is no justification for the atrocities, soldiers are frustrated, underpaid and do not have enough resources to carry on the fight; many have been fighting for months or even years without a break. They live under constant threat to their lives and those of their families.
Shehu Sani, the president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, said the footage exposes the tragic reality on the ground and would force a response from the government.
"With this report, there is no way out," he said. "It's not something you can simply brush aside. The facts are there and these reports are timeless."
He added that he thought the report would fuel calls for the involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The court did not immediately respond to a request for comment.