On 20 March 2017, a group of protesters barricaded the Abuja office of Amnesty International (AI), harassed and intimidated its staff, and asked the organisation to quit Nigeria within 24 hours. The protesters displayed placards with such statements as: “Amnesty International, stop buying time for Boko Haram to kill us”, “Amnesty International, you are silent when terrorists attack the people”, “Amnesty International, you bark at our military like dogs”, and “Enough is enough! Amnesty International wants to turn Nigeria into abattoir.”
AI is a non-governmental organisation whose stated objective is ‘to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated’.
However, one of the human rights groups behind the protests, the Save Humanity Advocacy Centre, said it had noticed that whenever the organisation ‘mourned’ for criminal gangs or terrorists in its released reports, those groups then increased their attacks.
The Save Humanity Advocacy Centre also accused AI of emboldening Boko Haram terrorists by undermining the country’s security agencies through negative reports.
Rationale behind the attack
The protest stemmed from AI’s 2016/2017 report, which alleged human rights abuses by Nigerian security agencies in their war against Boko Haram and when quelling protests in other parts of Nigeria. The organisation reported that 240 people, including infants, had died in a military detention centre in Borno in 2016, while 177 pro-Biafran agitators were killed extra-judicially in the same year.
However, the acting director of Directorate of Defence Information, Brigadier-General Rabe Abubakar, denied the claim in a statement, saying, “They were contrived lies orchestrated to blackmail and ridicule the Nigerian Armed Forces.”
The protesters were caught at Unity Fountain in Abuja, collecting money from their alleged sponsors.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said that the report never condemned the atrocities committed by the terrorists in North-East Nigeria. “Such an omission made the scenario captured in the report itself to totally lack conformity with both local and international standards,” said Clement Aduku, the ministry spokesperson, in a statement.
Melvin Ejeh, the executive director of Global Peace and Rescue Initiative (GOPRI), another of the groups that spoke for the protesters, warned that they would lead other actions, including a five-day ‘Occupy Amnesty International’ protest, if the organisation did not shut down its operations and leave Nigeria. “We will get this evil out of our land before it plunges us into a real war,” he said.
The Save Humanity Advocacy Centre also accused AI of emboldening Boko Haram terrorists by undermining the country’s security agencies through negative reports. “We are worried, and indeed sad, to note that each time peace and normalcy is returning to these troubled parts of the country, Amnesty International, an international human rights body, mindlessly punctures the essence of this by cooking up baseless reports that maliciously indict and disparage efforts of the Nigerian security architecture, by alleging unsubstantiated human rights violations,” said the organisation’s executive secretary, Ibrahim Abubakar.
Human rights groups respond
Human rights activists condemned the attack, saying it was a threat to other human rights organisations operating in the country. In an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer and board member of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), said, “AI should not be harassed and stigmatised simply for exposing the human rights violations and abuses by the military in the north-east of the country.”
Another human rights lawyer, Mike Ozekhome said that AI has gone around the world examining human rights violations, and Nigeria cannot suddenly be an exception.
“Was there no Shiite problem, where 100 innocent Nigerians were buried in a shallow grave? Was there no Kaduna massacre, where 800 people were killed in their homes and buried?” Ozekhome asked.
SERAP and other human rights activists believe that the attack was sponsored and coordinated by a GOPRI group. A few hours after protesting, the protesters were caught at Unity Fountain in Abuja, collecting money from their alleged sponsors.
The deputy director of SERAP, Timothy Adewale, said, “SERAP will continue to work to challenge any attempt to restrict, silence or eliminate the voices of credible civil society in the country.”
Call on federal government to take action
When President Muhammadu Buhari took power in 2015, he met with the leadership of AI and promised to look into their allegations of serious human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by the Nigerian military. However, since he made the promise, those allegations have not been investigated.
Falana said that if Nigeria wanted to get a good report from AI, the federal government must ensure that it probes the military.
“I urge Buhari to institute an independent body to investigate all allegations of human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by the military in the context of the fight against Boko Haram in the north-east of the country,” Falana said in his letter to the president.
The attack was a threat to other human rights organisations operating in the country.
Implications of attack
The Nigerian government operates a democratic system, and therefore has an obligation to support and protect civil society groups and human rights defenders against violence and sponsored attacks, said SERAP’s Adewale.
Commentators agreed, saying that human rights organisations operating in the country may now be subject to attack if the protesters were not called to order by the government. “Any failure not to hold to account those who may be responsible will invariably increase the vulnerability of civil society in the country and strengthen the perception that attacks against NGOs and human rights workers can happen with impunity,” said Adewale.
Falana said that to allow the sponsored attack to happen would be to endanger and undermine the work not only of AI but also of other civil society groups in the country. “This will, in turn, create a climate of fear and send an intimidating message to the human rights movement, in particular, and the entire country in general,” he said.
“If the federal government does not end the mob attacks on AI, it will take legal action nationally and internationally, including approaching the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders for a remedy,” said Adewale.