On February 18, 2018, Boko Haram kidnapped one hundred and ten schoolgirls from the Government Girls Science and Technical College (GGSTC) in Dapchi, a town in Yobe State in northeastern Nigeria. About a month later, the group killed at least thirty-four people in an attack on a military base outside of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, also in northeastern Nigeria.
These attacks come after repeated claims by the Nigerian government about Boko Haram’s demise. Just days before the February 2018 abduction, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari stated that Boko Haram is “gradually drawing to an end.” While the 2017 death toll, at approximately nine hundred lives, is a fraction of the six thousand killed by Boko Haram in 2015, Boko Haram killed more people in 2017 than it did in 2016. The conclusion that Boko Haram is coming to an end is thus premature at best and optimistic at worst. Unsurprisingly, President Buhari was forced to backtrack his confidence and acknowledge a “national disaster” after the February 2018 kidnapping.
Inaccurate forecasts about the future of Boko Haram are not, however, Nigeria’s only controversy in its campaign against the insurgent group. Nigeria’s handling of terrorism suspects is an equally, if not more pressing concern.
In the fall of 2017, Nigeria began a mass trial of approximately 1,600 suspected Boko Haram suspects. This was the largest legal investigation into Boko Haram to date. Commencement of the mass trial was in large part a response to criticism about how Nigeria had arrested and held suspected insurgents – Nigeria has been accused of arbitrarily arresting civilians based upon little or no evidence and of holding thousands of suspects for years in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions without access to lawyers or any appearances in court.
While the commencement of the trials was certainly a step in the right direction, these trials were not without their own controversy. Nigeria chose to hold the fall 2017 trials in closed court, barring the public and the media from attendance.
Some in the Nigerian government argued that secrecy was necessary in order to encourage witnesses and judges to participate. Previously, when Nigeria had attempted terrorism cases in open court, judges and witnesses were harassed and received death threats, making it difficult for prosecutors to obtain evidence and therefore also difficult for courts to reach convictions.
Concerns by rights groups about the fairness of trials conducted in secret have led Nigeria to conduct the next round of prosecutions in open court. For the second round of trials, which began in late February 2018, invitations were extended to civil rights and human rights groups as well as journalists. There has been little public comment from those who attended this round of trials, perhaps indicating that the proceedings were unremarkable and adequately fair. To address concerns about the length of time many suspects were held without trial – some for as long as eight years – these courts applied “time served” to those who were convicted so that time spent in prison before trial would not go unaccounted for.
The Buhari administration has in many ways done a better job of dealing with Boko Haram than did the prior administration of Goodluck Jonathan. In finally processing Boko Haram suspects previously held for too long and in promptly responding to concerns about the quality of terrorism trials, Buhari has shown a willingness to comply with international human rights norms. Nigeria still has a long way to go in eradicating Boko Haram’s violence, so President Buhari should be careful about too-optimistic language. But the international community can nonetheless acknowledge the positive steps his administration has taken in maintaining the moral upper hand in the conflict.
Alexandra Bodo is a 2L at Columbia Law School. In the summer of 2017, she interned at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York in the National Security and Cybercrimes Section. After graduation, she will be an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City.