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Peace & Security

25,000 missing people in Nigeria: What is the government doing to find them?

28 September 2023
Reading time: 7 minutes

Families of missing relatives are angry that instead of releasing innocent people, the government is focusing on the rehabilitation and reintegration of former combatants.

Angry, sad and disappointed relatives of more than 25,000 missing Nigerians say the government has forgiven, rehabilitated and reintegrated surrendered and repentant insurgents but it is doing nothing to find their innocent relatives who were wrongfully and arbitrarily detained at the peak of the 14-year conflict in Borno State.

They have not heard anything about their missing loved ones from authorities and the families do not even know if they are still alive or dead.
They say it is a grave injustice that the penitent insurgents are being given special care while the missing people are “lost and forgotten” by the government.

They were reacting to a report on the latest figures of missing people undertaken by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which said there were about 64,000 “disappeared people” across Africa. In Nigeria alone, more than 25,000 people had been reported missing. And almost 14,000, or more than half of the missing, were children.

The ICRC report prompted HumAngle Media and News Lines Magazine to carry out a monthslong joint investigation, published on September 18, about the missing people in Nigeria.

Their investigation revealed that the military and other security operatives – from the start of the insurgency in 2009 – helped to drive this crisis through a campaign of arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention, extrajudicial killings, mass burials and deliberate attempts to obscure their actions.
Nigeria has battled the Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’way Wa’l-Jihād (JAS), better known
as Boko Haram, scourge for 14 years.

The investigation revealed that arbitrary and unexpected arrests were common at the peak of the insurgency. It said that at the time there were still many active members of the JAS spread across Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State.

“People were killed every week, from ordinary civilians to community leaders, politicians, government workers, security agents, students and their teachers. No one was safe. Gunfire and bomb explosions were commonplace.”

In 2012 alone, according to data compiled by the Nigeria Security Tracker, at least 335 civilians and 92 security agents lost their lives to insurgent attacks in Maiduguri. Outside the city, insurgents had broken their associates and other inmates out of prisons and attacked more ambitious targets, including military barracks, the national police headquarters and the United Nations building in Abuja.

The investigation found that soldiers in Borno state had no foolproof way to tell insurgents apart from civilians; as a result they treated everyone with extreme suspicion. The soldiers thought residents were contributing to the insurgency by sheltering insurgents or withholding information. They were particularly wary of large gatherings.

This led to massive arrests and the detention of many innocent people, particularly youths.
Kachalla Grema Kyari, a security analyst, told RNI that based on observation there was a gap that needed to be addressed regarding the government’s demobilisation, disassociation, reintegration and reconciliation (DDRR) programme.

He said that by the time it was launched in 2018, thousands of innocent people had been wrongfully arrested and detained by the military in various facilities, including the Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, and many families of missing people were still trying to seek justice for their loved ones.
Many were angry that instead of focusing on releasing innocent people who had been arbitrarily detained, the government – through the DDRR programme – was focusing on the rehabilitation and reintegration of former combatants or surrendered and repentant insurgents.

“It is imperative for the federal and Borno State governments to set up a fact-finding committee to investigate all the detention facilities and, if not convicted of any crimes, release all those who had been arbitrarily arrested. Many families don’t know the whereabouts of their missing relatives and they don’t know if they are dead or alive. The government should inform the families and, if still alive, free those found to be innocent and compensate and console the relatives whose loved ones had been killed or had died in detention. If the government can forgive those who carried guns and were part of the insurgency, they should certainly look after those whose innocent relatives were arrested based on suspicion and arbitrarily detained without trial,” Kyari said.

“I am calling on the Borno State commissioner of information and internal security, Usman Tar – as an expert in security-centred governance – as well as governor Babagana Umara Zulum to initiate processes to investigate the whereabouts of the missing persons. Sometimes, the military does not take orders from the state government and that is why I am requesting the support of Vice-President Kashim Shettima, who was the governor of Borno State for the eight years when most of the missing people were arrested and arbitrarily detained. This happened under his watch.

“There is a need for the military, federal and state government authorities to collaborate to find the whereabouts of these missing people who were wrongfully arrested, based purely on the suspicion of being a terrorist. If those innocent people are still in detention, then the military should release them and, if it is confirmed the missing people are no longer alive, then the government or the military should come out and apologise by compensating and consoling the affected families.”

Many of the families whose relatives were still missing told RNI they were extremely concerned and unhappy about how the government was handling the issue of surrendered and repentant insurgents while seeming to ignore the issue of missing innocent people.

Fannami Amadu, said two of his brothers, Malam Hassan and Buba, were wrongfully arrested by the military at the peak of the insurgency.
“To this day, I do not have any idea about whether they are alive or dead. The military arrested Malam Hassan in the Baga Road area of Maiduguri when he was returning from a friend’s wedding in Damasak. That was eight years ago. Buba was a student at Ramat Polytechnic in Maiduguri and he disappeared on his way to school. We have still not heard whether he was detained or killed. For all we know he might still be alive in detention.

“There are so many of us who have missing relatives and friends. We are begging the military and the government to release our relatives and brothers because we can swear to Almighty Allah that they are innocent. They are not and never were terrorists. It is a grave injustice to us to see how the government is treating former combatants with care while we keep clamouring to know the whereabouts of our missing brothers.”

Ya Shuwa Bulama Abba Massa told RNI that about 10 years ago the military had arrested most of the young men in Molai village, including her son.
“We have heard nothing from the authorities. We don’t know whether they are dead or alive. If they are still alive, the government must release them. They are innocent. It is shocking for us to know that they have forgiven, rehabilitated and reintegrated former fighters who laid down their arms. Now they are living normal lives and we still live with the angst about where our missing relatives are.
“If the government does not show concern about the innocent people in detention and the families of missing people, then we don’t know how and where to get justice. The whole system is showing no concern about the real victims of the insurgency and human rights violations.”


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