Urhobo Historical Society
Human Rights Watch:
Nigeria’s Action on Bakassi Boys Welcomed
Letter to President Olusegun Obasanjo

October 10, 2002

His Excellency Olusegun Obasanjo
President of the Republic and
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces
The Presidency
Federal Secretariat
Shehu Shagari Way
Federal Capital Territory

Dear President Obasanjo,

I am writing to welcome your government’s initiative to put an end to the serious human rights abuses committed by the vigilante group known as the Bakassi Boys, active primarily in Abia and Anambra states. As you may know, Human Rights Watch has carried out detailed research on abuses by the Bakassi Boys, the findings of which are contained in our May 2002 report The Bakassi Boys: the Legimitization of Murder and Torture, published jointly with the Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN). The Bakassi Boys have not only been responsible for serious abuses, often with the support of state governments, but they have been able to commit repeated criminal acts with impunity and remained unaccountable. Since publishing this report, we have continued to monitor the human rights situation in the area. We were therefore interested to learn about the police operations which took place in several locations, first in Abia State in August 2002, then in Anambra State in late September, resulting in the arrests of scores of Bakassi Boys and the release of people detained unlawfully by the Bakassi Boys, many of whom had been subjected to horrific torture and mutilation.

We would be grateful for any further information from your government on the results of these operations, in particular the number of detainees released from each location, the number of Bakassi Boys who have been arrested, their identity, details of the charges they are facing, and when their trials can be expected to start.

While we regret that the federal government and police did not take action earlier, which could have saved hundreds of people from torture or killings at the hands of the Bakassi Boys, nevertheless we commend the decision to intervene at this time. However, critical to the success of this initiative will be the immediate implementation of a number of measures to prevent such a situation from occurring again. We therefore urge you to implement the following recommendations as soon as possible to ensure that the grave abuses carried out by the Bakassi Boys are not repeated and that the breakdown of law and order which gave rise to their creation does not return. These steps are all the more important in view of reactions from some sectors of the local population in Abia and Anambra states, including some state government officials, who have expressed displeasure with the police crackdown against the Bakassi Boys and called for their reinstatement.

The recommendations below supplement those contained in our report published in May 2002.

· Where sufficient evidence exists, bring specific criminal charges against the members of the Bakassi Boys who have been arrested, and ensure that they are brought to trial promptly and fairly, with guarantees of due process. Give clear instructions to police or other officials responsible for their custody that they should not be subjected to torture, ill-treatment or extrajudicial execution, and should always be held in official prisons or recognized places of detention. The fact that many of those detained may themselves have carried out acts of torture or killing and detained people unlawfully can never be used to justify subjecting them to similar treatment.

· Ensure that the police investigate not only the role of rank-and-file members of the Bakassi Boys, but also the role of the individuals who ordered them to carry out serious human rights abuses, and take appropriate judicial action against them. While any individual who has participated in acts of murder and torture should be prosecuted, legal responsibility also falls upon those who masterminded the violence.

· Resist any pressure from state government officials or other individuals to release members of the Bakassi Boys against whom there is evidence of participation in human rights abuses, as has happened in some cases in the past. Most recently, Human Rights Watch has received reports that agents of the Anambra State government may have been exerting pressure on authorities in Abuja to release those arrested by the police in September.

· Investigate all previous cases of human rights abuses by the Bakassi Boys and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. These should include the many cases of arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings documented by Human Rights Watch and CLEEN in our May 2002 report, as well as others. In almost all these cases, the perpetrators have continued to benefit from complete impunity.

· Make public all aspects of the legal proceedings in the cases involving the Bakassi Boys and their sponsors. This would help demonstrate the government’s commitment to respecting due process and the rule of law in these cases – part of a longer-term goal to educate the population on the importance of respecting the law, even, and especially, in the case of individuals who have shown blatant disregard for the law themselves.

· Provide compensation to the men and women who were unlawfully detained by the Bakassi Boys and ensure they receive appropriate medical treatment for injuries sustained as a result of torture. Ensure that they are protected from reprisals by sympathizers of the Bakassi Boys, or by those who may have organised their arrest in the first place.

· Take effective and long-lasting measures to ensure that the Bakassi Boys are not re-constituted or replaced by a similar organization in Anambra, Abia or other states. Such measures should concentrate on reform of the police force, whose apparent inability to control crime and protect the population was the main cause of the emergence of the Bakassi Boys in the first place. We refer you to our recommendations on police reform contained in our May 2002 report on the Bakassi Boys, particularly with regard to providing the police with an adequate number of personnel, better training and working conditions, and eradicating human rights abuse and corruption within the police. Human Rights Watch believes that such reforms should be the priority of the Nigerian government in order to prevent the resurgence of the Bakassi Boys or other similarly unaccountable groups. We believe that a blanket ban or prohibition of the Bakassi Boys is unlikely to be effective unless additional steps are taken to restore law and order in a manner which satisfies the population that their security is being taken seriously by the authorities and by the official law enforcement agencies – primarily the police.

· Initiate a process for repealing existing state laws that endorse the activities of the Bakassi Boys, such as the law which was passed to establish the group under the name Anambra Vigilante Services, in Anambra State, in 2000.

· Ensure that any group or individual exercising government-endorsed law enforcement powers is held legally accountable for their actions and observes international standards for law enforcement at all times, including the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

We would be grateful for any further information from your government on any other measures to prevent further human rights abuses by vigilante groups in Nigeria.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Africa Division

cc: Tafa Balogun, Inspector General of Police
Chris Olakpe, Police Public Relations Officer