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eyeWitness and partners file urgent appeal to UN regarding extrajudicial killings in Nigeria

Empty bullet casings on the ground

Verifiable footage reveals that extrajudicial killings are taking place in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria. ©ICON via the eyeWitness to Atrocities app

On 7 June 2022, eyeWitness to Atrocities (eyeWitness) and partners filed a joint urgent appeal to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions expressing grave concern for a series of extrajudicial executions carried out in the context of the conflict between certain herder and farming communities in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria.

The submission, filed with the International Committee On Nigeria (ICON), Rev. Canon Hassan John, and the Bwaatiye Community Development Association (BCDA), is based on a combination of footage captured with the eyeWitness to Atrocities camera app, documenters’ notes, open-source material, and witness accounts. Amongst other measures, it requests the Special Rapporteur to both seek information from the relevant Nigerian authorities and recommend the creation an inquiry or fact-finding mission.

Documenting village attacks and extrajudicial killings in Nigeria

Violence between certain herder and farming communities in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria has been rapidly escalating for the last five years, taking on increasingly ethnic and religious dimensions. Part of the ongoing crisis involves violent retaliatory attacks on one another’s villages and civilian populations.

Since 2019, ICON, Hassan John, and BCDA have partnered with eyeWitness to gather potential evidence of historical and ongoing attacks against farming villages. These attacks have resulted in extrajudicial killings, property destruction, and forced displacement. eyeWitness worked closely with partners and provided tech support, training, and guidance as appropriate.

“ICON has been fortunate to discover and utilise the eyeWitness to Atrocities app,” said Kyle Abts, ICON Executive Director. “The app gives our local investigators and reporters the courage and dedication to record and report incidents because they know it will yield significant results. We appreciate the professionalism and dedication to the app development and to our local partners who are reporting.”

Many of the attacks took place in isolated villages with limited WiFi and cellular connectivity, making it particularly difficult for documenters to both access the sites and capture verifiable information. Hassan John explained, “The app has been so valuable for me, especially in villages where it is difficult to get verifiable information in a system where incriminating information is quickly denied. The app has proven to be an incredible companion for data collection because of its simplicity of use, security, and offline functionality. In remote villages with poor internet connectivity, the app has solved the problem of both low bandwidth and internet unavailability. Even when I lost my phone at one point, I actually lost none of the data.”

Evidence of frequent, planned, and collective attacks against unarmed civilians

To date, eyeWitness has received almost 5,000 photos, videos, and audio files relating to the escalating conflict in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria.

eyeWitness’ legal team, supported by a roster of pro bono lawyers, conducted a visual analysis of the footage, and identified 377 representative photographs and videos relating to 69 attacks carried out between October 2017 and January 2022. The metadata collected by the eyeWitness to Atrocities app revealed that the recorded attacks took place in locations across the Nigerian States of Adamawa, Kaduna, Nasarawa, and Plateau.

The footage reveals that victims – including women, children, and the elderly – were killed by indiscriminate gunshot, and firearms and cutting weapons at close range. On at least three occasions, victims were beheaded. Many of those who survived sustained serious injuries such as gunshot wounds and lacerations. Furthermore, assailants almost systematically set villages on fire and destroyed food reserves. Several churches were burned down, as well as at least one clinic and one school. These fires were also responsible for numerous civilian deaths.

Crucially, additional evidence such as witness accounts intimate that the attacks were not random. Rather, they were frequent, planned, and collective and targeted specific segments of the civilian population. On all occasions, attacks were carried out by well-armed men, some of whom carried AK-47 assault rifles.

“After analysing the footage, documenters’ notes, witness accounts, and open-source information, we believe that the incidents outlined in this urgent appeal amount to clear violations of the right to life, protected under the Nigerian Constitution and international human rights law,” said Anna Gallina, eyeWitness’ Associate Legal Advisor. “There also appears to be sufficient evidence in volume and quality to warrant an investigation into whether crimes against humanity have been, and continue to be, committed in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria.”

Justice and reparations for survivors in Nigeria

Evidence suggests that initiatives taken at both the Federal and State levels of the Nigerian Government have proven inadequate to halt the killings, with some attacks benefitting from the alleged complicity, if not the active involvement, of security forces. To this day, only a handful of attacks have led to formal investigations, the findings of which remain inaccessible to the public, with no prosecutions in sight.

Moreover, the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s preliminary examination into the Situation of Nigeria, which concluded in 2020, did not relate to attacks carried out by armed non-State actors in the context of the conflict between herders and farmers in the Middle Belt region.

“A core part of our work at eyeWitness is connecting our partners with accountability mechanisms and advocating for the footage we receive. Unfortunately, there is no known active investigation into the situation in the Middle Belt,” explained Julianne Romy, eyeWitness’ Legal Advisor. “It is essential that adequate steps are taken to provide redress to the victims and hold perpetrators to account.”

The joint submission urges the Special Rapporteur to, among other actions, seek information from the relevant Nigerian authorities about the steps taken to investigate and prevent the attacks, undertake a country visit to Nigeria, recommend the establishment of a fact-finding mission or inquiry, and recommend the creation of a United Nations Special Rapporteur with a country mandate on Nigeria. With attacks being carried out by both sides of the conflict, eyeWitness’ legal team emphasise that the UN Human Rights Special Procedures should take a holistic approach, particularly where future investigations are concerned.

“We hope that not only will the Special Rapporteur take action, but that other groups and individuals in Nigeria will use the eyeWitness to Atrocities app to gather reliable evidence of these attacks,” said Romy. “Information gathered now is key to justice in the future.”

About the urgent appeal

Images captured by ICON, Rev. Hassan John, and BCDA with the eyeWitness to Atrocities app.

Photo and video analysis conducted by eyeWitness and a roster of pro bono lawyers.

Historical satellite imagery analysis conducted by eyeWitness.

Open-source investigation conducted by eyeWitness and a pro bono researcher.