By Libby George
Feb 7 (Reuters) - A special panel named by Nigeria's National Human Rights Commission launched an investigation Tuesday into recent Reuters reports on rights abuses by the country's army. Those familiar with the commission's past work say it faces stiff challenges.
The state-funded NHRC does its best to press officials to act in the interest of citizens whose rights have been violated, eight sources with knowledge of the commission said. But they said the NHRC, whose inquiry was supported by the government amid an international outcry, is hobbled by a lack of authority to compel military leaders and other officials to prosecute or punish anyone.
None of these people, including rights lawyers and researchers, was aware of any major cases handled by the commission that had led to the prosecution of senior Nigerian officials - a lack of accountability underscored in United Nations and U.S. State Department reports. The commission has secured financial restitution for some victims of abuse.
"Nigeria does not have a decent track record at holding its own accountable," said Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at Lagos-based consultancy SBM Intelligence, who has followed the commission's work. "That is even more stark if the stakeholders are military."
Despite the "brave, serious" people on the commission, a government referral to the NHRC translates to "let's bury the matter," said human rights lawyer Nelson Olanipekun, founder of Gavel, a nonprofit promoting justice.
The commission-appointed panel, headed by a former Supreme Court justice and including a former major general, is investigating two Reuters articles published last year. The news agency reported on Dec. 7 that the army has run a secret program of coerced abortions in the country's northeast, where it has been battling Islamist insurgents since 2009. The program has ended the pregnancies of at least 10,000 women and girls freed from insurgent captivity, according to witness accounts and documents. On Dec. 12, again citing dozens of witnesses, Reuters reported that the army intentionally killed children in the war, under a presumption they were, or would become, terrorists. Nigerian military leaders said the abortion program did not exist and that children were never targeted for killing.
Commission Executive Secretary Tony Ojukwu, a veteran human rights lawyer and activist, declined to comment for this story, apart from urging Reuters in WhatsApp messages to "exercise caution" so as not to prejudice people against the NHRC. It would be improper, he said, for him to engage with Reuters because the news agency could be summoned as a witness in the investigation.
A Reuters spokeswoman said the news agency stands by its reports on military abuses, adding: "We are committed to covering events in Nigeria in an impartial and independent way, as we do around the world."
Spokespersons for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, the attorney general and the military did not respond to requests for comment about the NHRC probe and rights abuses.
The U.S. defense and state departments, the United Nations Secretary-General, the German foreign minister, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all called for Nigeria to investigate the Reuters findings. After initially saying an investigation would be a "waste" of his energy, Nigerian Chief of Defense Staff Lucky Irabor agreed, amid international pressure, to cooperate with an NHRC probe.
Asked about the new panel, the U.S. State Department urged the Buhari administration to empower a rigorous investigation. "We implore the Nigerian government to give the NHRC the resources and access necessary to conduct" such a probe, a State Department spokesman said in an email. The investigation should include "access to military and other government-controlled locations, as well as military personnel."
Historically, Nigerian security officials have harassed commission members, according to a former NHRC chair and a UN questionnaire answered by the NHRC in 2012. Chidi Odinkalu, an outspoken chairman of the commission until 2015, told Reuters he was detained more than once by police and security services, and continually felt unsafe in terms of "physical security, digital security, residential security."
"That came with the territory," he said of the government pressure.
LARGE MANDATE, LIMITED POWER
The commission was established during Nigeria's military rule in 1995. In a 2002 paper, two Nigerian scholars called the body "a red herring" to distract from human rights violations. A 2010 law gave it more authority.
The NHRC now has the ability to recommend prosecution. But only the attorney general, the police inspector general or prosecutors can launch criminal proceedings. To pursue alleged wrongdoing by the military, an officer would have to initiate a court martial.
The NHRC, described on its website as an "extra-judicial mechanism for the respect and enjoyment of human rights," has a 16-member governing council nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate. It includes lawyers, journalists and activists, as well as non-voting representatives from three ministries.
Some NHRC findings, such as compensation awards, are enforceable by the courts. But if the body lacks at least six members, NHRC decisions have no effect under the law. President Buhari, who came to power in 2015, left the commission without a quorum for five years, until 2021.
Commission findings are supposed to be public and a spokeswoman said they were posted on its website. However, Reuters was unable to find some reports, including two concerning alleged mass shootings of civilians in 2015 and 2020. The news agency asked the NHRC for access to all reports; the commission did not make them available.
The NHRC isn't necessarily the only investigative body looking into rights violations in Nigeria at any given time. In 2019, Agnes Callamard, a UN official monitoring executions, reported that more than 20 Nigerian panels, including some appointed by the NHRC, existed at the time to probe specific abuses by the military, police or militia members. None, to her knowledge, had brought about prosecutions.
These panels "appear to be used mostly for whitewashing purposes, or to facilitate a 'cooling of the political temperature,'" Callamard wrote.
The U.S. State Department reported that in 2019, 2020 and 2021 it had found no reports of NHRC investigations having "led to accountability." A spokesman told Reuters that accountability meant "credible, transparent investigation, and where warranted, prosecution and punishment."
During the Buhari administration, sources familiar with the commission said, the NHRC has focused on training, privately pressing officials on human rights, and awarding payments to victims of abuse. The commission's mandate extends beyond alleged government abuses to include "public enlightenment," improving access to education and health care, and mediating disputes.
The NHRC's budget has doubled since 2015, to about 3 billion naira ($6.53 million) in 2021. But its caseload has grown faster, tripling in the same period to about 1.7 million. The NHRC in the past has complained of insufficient funding. In its 2018 budget request, it noted that if it were to spend just 5,000 naira ($10.89) on each complaint, it would need 5 billion naira($10.89 million) annually to handle that year's caseload.
RUNNING THE RISK
The NHRC has ventured into politically sensitive territory before.
In 2013, the military allegedly killed as many as 200 civilians in the town of Baga, in northeastern Borno state. The NHRC, in a preliminary report released to local media, said the case "illustrates serious concerns about proportionality of the use of force." No one in the military appears to have been prosecuted. The defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment. At the time, the army blamed the carnage on Boko Haram.
In another case, the army allegedly killed more than 300 members of a Shi'ite minority sect in 2015 after some members blocked a military convoy in northern Kaduna state. A state judicial commission faulted the military for its disproportionate use of force. While an NHRC panel also faulted those who took lives, it said the immediate cause of the clash was the Shi'ite group's blockage of the highway and recommended the group apologize to the army for violating its right to move freely, according to a 2016 press conference. Reuters was unable to obtain the full report.
No prosecutions in the army have been announced.
In October 2020, thousands of protesters successfully demanded the disbanding of the police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), members of which the NHRC found had extorted, tortured and killed civilians. That same month, the army and police opened fire on protesters in Lagos, killing at least 11, according to a state judicial panel. The government rejected the panel's report, citing errors and insufficient evidence.
Before the protests, in a 2018 report, an NHRC panel had recommended that "immediate disciplinary actions" be taken against any police officer who violated human rights, "along with criminal investigations and prosecutions."
Afterward, in September 2022, the commission reported that hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution had been paid so far to about 100 Nigerians in SARS cases. The NHRC also recommended that 28 police officers be prosecuted, according to a commission statement.
No police prosecutions have been announced. Chief Superintendent of Police Olumuyiwa Adejobi did not reply to a request for comment.
At the end of last year, an assistant superintendent of police shot dead a pregnant lawyer at a Lagos state checkpoint on Christmas day. Amid public outcry, the officer was charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Questioned on Channels TV about whether anything had changed since the 2020 protests, NHRC executive secretary Ojukwu said police reform takes time.
"It does seem the situation has not substantially improved," he said.
($1 = 459.2000 naira) (George reported from London. Also contributing were David Lewis in Nairobi and Reade Levison in London. Editing by Julie Marquis and Alexandra Zavis)