Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On Accountability Within the Nigerian Military

Mr. President, nearly a year ago when Muhammadu Buhari became the first Nigerian to defeat a sitting president through the ballot box I greeted the news with cautious optimism.  For the most part, his message was and remains one that encourages greater cooperation between the United States and Nigeria to defeat Boko Haram and chart a brighter course for Africa’s most populous nation. 

Recent attacks by Boko Haram have served as a sobering reminder of the challenges Nigeria continues to face, and I have supported every initiative by the Obama Administration to counter this scourge.  Through my role as Ranking Member on the Department of State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee I have also supported hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid for Nigeria annually, particularly for public health activities.

But words and money only go so far.  While President Buhari has taken positive steps to combat corruption and his government has shown more interest than his predecessor in addressing the development challenges in the north, reports of human rights abuses by the Nigerian military continue to undermine the government’s reputation and effectiveness.  Unfortunately, this is nothing new.  And although President Buhari has taken some initial steps to reform the military far more needs to be done when it comes to accountability for such crimes.

I want to highlight an incident which, although tragic, provides an important opportunity for President Buhari to begin to reverse the long history of impunity within Nigeria’s security forces.  According to credible reports, on December 12, 2015, a convoy that was transporting Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff was unable to bypass a gathering orchestrated by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Zaria, and the ensuing clashes resulted in as many as 300 civilians killed and many others detained.  According to information I have received, many of the bodies were quickly buried by soldiers without the permission of family members, making it difficult to determine the death toll but also making it hard for victims’ families to know who had been killed and who had been taken into custody.  The Kaduna State Government subsequently established a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate the incident, a positive first step, and it is expected to complete its work sometime this month.

Serious questions, however, have been raised about the impartiality of the Commission.  While I understand that the inquiry is being conducted at the state level, it has national implications.  The fact that President Buhari has said little about this situation – noting only that it is “a military affair” – is worrisome given the potential for wide-ranging implications and the commitments he made during his inaugural speech to ensure discipline for “human rights violators in the armed forces.”

I hope the Buhari administration fully supports the Kaduna State Government Judicial Commission of Inquiry and takes whatever steps are necessary to ensure it fulfills its responsibilities.  The risks are great if the Commission is deemed not to have been impartial and thorough in its review and if the findings are not publicly released and acted on, as appropriate.  At the very least, a significant opportunity will have been missed to demonstrate that the Government of Nigeria values and defends the rule of law, is committed to transparency, and seeks to make real progress on issues of justice and accountability. 

While this is an issue that Nigeria must tackle, I stand ready to support any assistance the United States can provide to help President Buhari strengthen Nigerian institutions of justice and combat impunity. 

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