Nigeria prison deaths: what happens when the checks and balances fail

By Simon Allison 16 October 2013

According to a new Amnesty International report, nearly a thousand prisoners died this year in just two prisons administered by Nigeria’s notoriously brutal armed forces. Regardless of what these prisoners may or may not have done, this is a horrific violation of human rights. That it comes as no surprise is a damning indictment of Nigeria’s leadership. South Africa, take note: this is what happens when the police and the army are allowed to take justice into their own hands. By SIMON ALLISON.

The Nigerian military is in the middle of a major offensive against Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group that’s been causing havoc across northern Nigeria. Boko Haram’s extremely violent tactics, often targeting civilians, have claimed hundreds of lives of the past few years. The group, which demands the overthrow of the Nigerian government and the implementation of an Islamic state based on Sharia law, is an existential threat to Nigeria as we know it today.

To combat the violence, Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, has declared emergency law in the affected areas and sent in the troops. Curfews are in place, and at one point all mobile phones were banned and cellular towers disabled to cripple Boko Haram communications. The offensive involves thousands of soldiers, and has yielded – according to government spokesmen – some significant victories. Although not without severe cost to themselves, the military has killed a number of alleged Boko Haram militants and arrested hundreds more. The word ‘alleged’ here is necessary: there have been few if any judicial proceedings, and little independent verification of the army’s claims.

Nonetheless, two makeshift prisons in north-east Nigeria are overflowing with these alleged Boko Haram militants that have been caught up in the military dragnet: one at Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, nicknamed Guantanamo; and another at Presidential Lodge in Damaturu, nicknamed Guardroom. Also overflowing are the local mortuaries near each prison, struggling to cope with the parade of dead bodies dropped off nearly every day by prison authorities.

“The evidence we’ve gathered suggests that hundreds of people died in military custody in 2013 alone. This is a staggeringly high figure that requires urgent action by the Nigerian government,” said Lucy Freeman, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Africa program. She was speaking on the launch on Tuesday of a new Amnesty report looking into these suspiciously high mortality figures.

The report makes for grim reading. It relates how inmates of the two prisons are dying on a nearly daily basis, victims of suffocation, overcrowding or starvation. Other people died from injuries following severe beatings, or bled out after being shot in the leg during interrogation. According to one military official, 950 people died in these detention facilities in the first six months of 2013.

This is justice, as administered by the Nigerian military. And it’s not the first time either. Human rights groups including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have consistently accused the military of being complicit in a litany of abuses including: arbitrary, sometimes random detention; summary executions; torture and intimidation; rape; wanton destruction of civilian property; and callous disregard for civilian casualties (most notoriously, dozens of civilian deaths earlier this year in the village of Baga).

While deploring their tactics, it’s not hard to see why groups like Boko Haram might feel they have something to fight for.

Despite Amnesty International’s very public calls for an official investigation, there has been no response so far from the military or President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. Nor is one expected. “Amnesty has called for an urgent investigation, but those who follow events closely in Nigeria will know that such an investigation is highly unlikely to happen,” the BBC observed. Jonathan has, in effect, given his soldiers free reign – with devastating results, and seemingly no consequences.

South Africa is currently confronting its own example of what happens when the supposed guarantors of the rule of law abuse their power in this manner. In Marikana last year, 42 largely unarmed miners died in a hail of police bullets. The Daily Maverick’s subsequent investigations revealed inconsistencies in the police account of events, suggesting the likelihood that some of the miners had been executed in cold blood. A commission of inquiry, led by Judge Ian Farlam, is exposing evidence that the police had prepared for a violent response and lied to try and cover up the incident.

That there is a commission of inquiry at all is testament to the strength of South Africa’s democracy: although fragile, the system of checks and balances designed to keep the various branches of power in check is working, to an extent. The Nigerian example is a reminder, however, of why these are so important; and why it’s vital that the government follows through on the work of the commission by implementing its recommendations. DM

Read more:

  • Hundreds dead in Nigeria detention, Amnesty says on BBC

Photo: Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan arrives for the extraordinary session of the African Union’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government on the case of African Relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC), in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, this week. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri


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