Dakar — The deaths of more than 3,000 victims of sectarian violence in central Nigeria since 2010 have largely been ignored by the government, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on 12 December, Turning a Blind Eye to Mass Killings.
HRW documented "horrific" acts of inter-communal violence between Muslims and Christians in Plateau and Kaduna states - two of the worst-affected areas. More than 10,000 people have been killed in these states since 1992 in ongoing periods of violence, because of their ethnic or religious identity.
HRW's investigations into these crimes have concluded the Nigerian authorities have failed to break the cycle of violence and have rarely brought the perpetrators to justice.
The violence, which has continued for years, precedes the Boko Haram violence in northeastern Nigeria; though in some cases Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for inter-communal attacks in Plateau and Kaduna states. Ongoing attacks by Boko Haram also risk further inflaming inter-ethnic or sectarian violence in the north, say analysts.
Eric Guttschuss, a Nigeria researcher in HRW's Africa division and author of the report, said the government's failure to investigate the mass killings and ethnic violence and its inability to hold perpetrators to account have further fueled violence in the region.
"In the absence of effective remedies through the formal criminal justice system, members of the aggrieved communities have taken the law into their own hands and frequently taken out revenge killings in communities that have suffered violence in the past," he said.
Guttschuss said that following incidents of mass violence, the military will typically make hundreds of arrests. But only in rare cases have these arrests led to prosecution or conviction.
"One of the reasons is that the police or the military will randomly round up anyone they find at the scene of the crime and them lump them all together and charge them before a magistrate court," he said.
"The problem is, once these case files are handed over to the prosecutors, it's nearly impossible for prosecutes to link individuals with specific offenses because the arresting officer doesn't know where he arrested each individual; he cannot link each weapon [seized at the time of arrest] to an individual."
This means that, more often than not, the majority of these cases are dropped and no charges are made.
Despite more than two decades of sectarian violence and mass killings, it wasn't until 2010 that the federal attorney general finally attempted to prosecute suspects from religious clashes, which left more than 1,000 people dead earlier that year, according to HRW. State prosecutors have successfully secured a few convictions since then, but the majority of suspects are never prosecuted, or arrested.
Guttschuss said it has reached the point where many people no longer even report crimes.
"In some cases, the eyewitnesses to murder that we interviewed said they hadn't gone to the police, sometimes citing fear, but more often saying they didn't believe the police would do anything, even if they reported the case," he said.
Another problem is that cases rarely move forward unless the complainant funds the case. HRW says there have been repeated reports of police investigators demanding money to continue to move cases forward.
"In these cases, oftentimes the victims have lost everything they own," Guttschuss told IRIN. "Their houses have been burned, their family members have been killed, and so they are very vulnerable members of the community and unable to fund the case, which means these cases don't go forward."
When the police do take up a case, HRW says there have been documented reports of people rallying behind members of their community who are suspected of having carried out violence, putting pressure on the police to stop their investigation. HRW says that the police have stated at times that they are afraid to make arrests because it could spark new violence.
Looking to political solutions
To take the blame off police and other authorities who have failed to address ethnic and religious violence, Guttschuss said mass killings are now treated as a political problem, as opposed to a criminal matter. This means that commissions of inquiry or panels of investigation are established to look into the violence.
But HRW says the reports generated by these inquiries are often shelved, the recommendations are never implemented and the individuals who have been identified as having participated in violence are not prosecuted.
"While the commissions of inquiry are a good idea in theory, in practice they have become a way for the police to avoid their responsibility to investigate these crimes," Guttschuss said. "And so once the pressure has diminished to respond to this violence, they usually forget the case."
Members of the community have not forgotten the violence, however, and in the absence of justice reprisals are becoming more common in central Nigeria. Several hundred people have been killed this year alone in revenge attacks.
HRW is now calling on Nigerian authorities to ensure that those implicated in serious crimes, including the mass killings that have taken place in the Plateau and Kaduna states, be promptly investigated and prosecuted. They are also calling on the government to conduct a thorough review of police investigations to find out why cases did not go forward; they want the government to then order the police to complete those investigations.
In the longer term, HRW says Nigerian authorities need to set up a mass-crime unit to train police and military officers to investigate mass killings.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]