Once a force for good, Nigeria's military, through militias, crosses border into darkness

Beau Brendler
Yahoo News
September 9, 2014
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Every week a new atrocity seems to strike the people of Nigeria’s north, where government forces have fought a nearly five-year war with the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The world’s attention briefly focused on Africa’s most populous, and one of its wealthiest, countries in April when Boko Haram  whose name crudely translates to “Western influence is sinful”  abducted 300 schoolgirls, apparently dispersing many to the service of leaders in its sphere of influence, which now stretches to neighboring Cameroon's border.

Boko Haram has been emboldened by the success of Islamic State, observers say, and like IS, the group has declared an intent to create a “caliphate,” a religious state where governing principles are interpreted from the Koran. In Boko Haram's case, the caliphate would be in Nigeria's north. The group has been known to massacre the inhabitants of entire small villages, using modern weapons or the ancient terror of beheading, and not sparing women or children.

The Nigerian military has sporadically tried to halt the group’s advance and had been regarded as a force for good. But now, as PBS FRONTLINE’s documentary, “Hunting Boko Haram,” chronicles in dozens of witness testimonials, video documentation and interviews, Nigeria's armed forces have crossed a boundary into darkness. As the raiser of militia groups under the two-year-old “Operation Flush,” Nigeria's army has trained, paid and haphazardly armed an amateur military that has become as deadly and feared a force as Boko Haram itself.

Caught between are Nigeria’s innocents.

“There is nowhere for people to go,” said Evan Williams, the Australian documentary writer and producer of “Hunting Boko Haram,” which can be seen exclusively here before its broadcast premiere tonight on PBS (check local listings). “They can’t go to the military or the police and say, ‘Where is my son, where is my father,’ without themselves being marked as having a possible tie to Boko Haram,” said Williams, who arrived in Nigeria five months ago after a double car-bombing in the city of Jos, where a substantial part of Muslim vs. Christian violence has occurred, left at least 118 dead.

Part one of "Hunting Boko Haram":

In the course of his reporting, a man who belonged to one of the Operation Flush militias gave Williams 35 video recordings depicting its methods and told him how he was beginning to deeply question the mission.

“The military and the state government gave them the power to hold and detain anyone,” Williams said in a telephone interview with Yahoo News. “The problem, and it remains, and it is intensifying, is that these militia are not trained, they are local boys, often with machetes. …They tortured confessions out of people  and as we know, torturing victims to get evidence is the least effective way of getting anything truthful.”

The videos were often shot on mobile phones, Williams said, as the militiamen sought to document activities to prove to their bosses that they deserved to get paid. The videos depict the worst kinds of torture. With machetes, swords, bows and arrows, Operation Flush militiamen were encouraged to deal with Boko Haram suspects as harshly as they chose, wherever they thought they might have found them.

Subsequently, Williams accumulated more than 120 videos, which he then corroborated with eyewitnesses, other members of Operation Flush militias, and human rights workers and experts. All wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from the military, he said, not from Boko Haram.

They depict a scenario reminiscent of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, where any whisper of collaboration with the enemy meant detention and worse. “The militia would move into a town, sometimes with the military, sometimes on their own,” Williams said. “They would do a security sweep, make sure all men were rounded up and forced to sit in the town square, and then try to determine who they thought was Boko Haram or not. They would start with some sympathizers who might identify others. They were getting paid, so they needed to keep finding victims they needed to find more people to keep the machine going.

“They would use a ‘computer,’ or a ‘spotter,’ who claimed to know Boko Haram in the area,” sometimes a child, Williams said. “He would pick out people, and then the militia would tie them up and beat them to get a confession and then turn them over to the military.” Occasionally, Operation Flush militias would even detain people who had been Boko Haram prisoners and had been released.

Part two of "Hunting Boko Haram":

Some of those handed over to the Nigerian military were brought to the Giwa Barracks in the city of Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state, and the scene of the worst Boko Haram attacks. One man who told Williams of his experiences at Giwa said that of 120 men taken with him to the barracks, only nine came out alive.

“When he was taken in, the first thing he was told is, ‘Welcome to your death house,’ ” Williams said. No one came to question them, the man told Williams, and dozens were held in small rooms for weeks. Many died of dehydration or cholera. Nothing that resembled due process of justice seemed to happen in Giwa, and it was only a substantial bribe paid to the military by his father that secured the man’s release, Williams said.

Operation Flush has created an environment in which innocent Nigerians have nobody to turn to for help in finding relatives that have gone missing at Boko Haram’s hands, for fear of being branded a collaborator, Williams said. Nigerians are likely turning to Boko Haram for protection from government militias operating without constraint.

“Up to 3,000 men were missing who had been detained by the military,” Williams said, but the number could be more than 4,000. Boko Haram itself, over a five-year period, is thought to be responsible for more than 5,000 civilian deaths.

“This is a deadly environment, and Boko Haram are savage,” Williams said. “But there has to be due process. There are a lot of innocent people being caught up in a situation where there should be more accountability.”

FRONTLINE's "Hunting Boko Haram" premieres tonight on PBS and can be
watched online here: Part one and part two.