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Opinion: Nigerian child killings need an independent investigation

Nigerian military officers have been killing children connected to the Boko Haram

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In this Wednesday April 8, 2015 file photo, a woman walks past Nigerian soldiers at a checkpoint in Gwoza, Nigeria, a town newly liberated from Boko Haram.

In this Wednesday April 8, 2015, file photo, a woman walks past Nigerian soldiers at a checkpoint in Gwoza, Nigeria, a town that had been liberated from Boko Haram.

Lekan Oyekanmi, Associated Press

Yagana Bukar was hiding in trees with seven other women and nine children when the soldiers approached. They were not Boko Haram, they assured her, but were from the Nigerian army, coming to reunite them with the families they had been separated from. The women climbed into the truck the soldiers were driving and headed back toward safety — or so they thought.

After they had driven some distance, the soldiers stopped the truck and asked to see her 4-month-old twins. They took the twins away, then brought them back “sleeping.” They were not sleeping. They were dead, smothered to death by the soldiers. The other seven children were led away from the truck into the nearby forest. Shots rang out and the soldiers returned without the children. When the mothers asked where their children were, they were told “Forget about the children. They are no more.” 

Bukar, no longer living in Nigeria, told her story to Reuters reporters during a year-plus investigation into atrocities being committed on Nigerian civilians, especially women and children, by the Nigerian army and other security forces.

More than 40 eyewitnesses spoke to Reuters and said they saw Nigerian forces kill children, or saw the bodies after an attack. Estimates total in the thousands. Reuters also interviewed an additional 15 security force members — soldiers, local militia members and armed guards — who said they participated in or observed targeted killings of children.

As with the in-depth investigation into 10,000 forced abortions, soldiers were “cleansing” the blood line of any Boko Haram insurgent DNA. 

“I don’t see them as children, I see them as Boko Haram. … If I get my hands on them, I won’t shoot them, I will slit their throat. ... I enjoy it,” one soldier told Reuters. Another said that the first time he shot a child in the head, he cried all night. Now, he numbs himself out with opioids, which leaves him indifferent — to children’s deaths and to his own. 

Intentionally killing civilians in an armed conflict is a war crime. If such killings are done in “widespread or systematic attacks” on civilians, it is a crime against humanity.

According to Reuters, the International Criminal Court prosecutor concluded in 2020 that grounds existed to open an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by both Nigerian security forces and insurgents, but the court has not opened one.

Since the Reuters report on forced abortions, the United Nation secretary-general called on Nigerian authorities to “fully investigate these allegations and make sure there’s accountability.” A U.S. State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. Embassy in Abuja is “seeking further information” and encourages the government of Nigeria to “take the allegations seriously.” 

The Nigerian military denies the reports and says there will be no investigation, as nothing wrong has occurred. Asking Nigeria to investigate its own potential war crimes seems like asking the fox to investigate why the hens keep disappearing. An independent, outside investigation is needed here.  

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, is the leading Republican on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee. He told Reuters: “This is a deeply disturbing report. Nigeria’s government, and our government, must investigate these troubling allegations. Swift action must be taken against those found to have carried out this policy of murder and violation of rights.”

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, told me: “As a member of Congress, I am sickened by these reports out of Nigeria. This is a gross violation of human rights and must be immediately addressed by the administration and international community. The use of violence and coercion against women and children is unacceptable and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. It is important that we stand in solidarity with the women and children of Nigeria and demand an end to these atrocities.” 

As these revelations are coming forward, President Joe Biden was meeting with leaders of African nations in Washington, D.C., including the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari. In meetings on Dec. 15, the U.S. government announced a first-ever strategy to “Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities,” to “respond to early warning signs of atrocities as a core national security interest.” It’s an important initiative, as “atrocities” often lead to “crimes against humanity” and even genocide. Surely, forced abortions and the killing of children qualify as atrocities.

The government also held a “Peace, Security, and Governance Forum” where key takeaways include efforts to promote “respect for human rights, strengthening justice systems; and reinforcing resilience in historically marginalized and conflict-affected areas.” The U.S. strategy on “Women, Peace and Security” includes promoting “women’s and girls’ empowerment, protection, and leadership in conflict and crisis situations,” and targeted efforts to support women in Nigeria (as well as Niger and Sudan), to “play an active role in preventing and mitigating violence and conflict.” Women can’t participate if they’re dead.

International diplomacy is important, but no government, including our own, should ever be willing to turn a blind eye to atrocities being committed in the name of “diplomacy.” Those atrocities are often incomprehensible, literally making it almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around what is happening. During World War II, Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish Underground, met with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and relayed to him in detail what was taking place in Nazi concentration camps. In 1999, he shared the story of what happened: “I told him what I knew and saw … mostly he listened in silence,” and then finally said, “I must say that I’m unable to believe what you told me.” The Polish ambassador, also present at the meeting, exclaimed: “Felix, you don’t mean it! You cannot tell him that he’s lying.” Frankfurter replied: “I didn’t say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe what he told me.” 

Even when actions are so violent and atrocious as to be incomprehensible, the world has a responsibility to shine a light into dark corners and to hold perpetrators accountable. In Nigeria, that light-shining has begun with in-depth investigations by Reuters. It must continue with an independent, outside investigation. And the killings must stop immediately.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.