integrating civilian protection into Nigerian military policy and practice

The latest issue of Humanitarian Exchange is entitled The Lake Chad Basin: An Overlooked Crisis? It focuses on the humanitarian crisis in Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin and has articles looking at areas from the evolution of armed opposition groups and the failure of the humanitarian system to ensure effective response to sexual violence and abuse and mental health and psychosocial needs. In it, I have an article about the military and civilian protection in northeast Nigeria looking at work I was involved in with the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

When Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati wal Jihad (JAS, commonly known as Boko Haram) came to Khadija’s town, she was seven months’ pregnant with her eighth child. Her husband was one of the first to be killed as fighters went from house to house killing every man over the age of eight. After hiding them in the ceiling of her home, Khadija dressed 18 men in women’s clothing and smuggled them to safety. They escaped over the mountains into Cameroon (and still call her, years afterwards, to thank her for her help). The following month, after warnings from a neighbour that fighters were taking away children, Khadija escaped, walking with her seven children for two days until they reached safety, where she gave birth. The family moved and were moved four more times. Her brother-in-law gave Khadija a place to stay, but told her she was not allowed to leave the house. Without enough food to feed her children and with no means to earn money to buy more, she moved her family again, and is now living in an unofficial IDP settlement on land donated by a host community. ‘At least here I have freedom,’ she told me.

I was talking with Khadija (not her real name) to find out the harm civilians had experienced in north-eastern Nigeria, and the actions Nigerian security forces had taken to mitigate causing harm themselves, and to protect civilians from harm caused by others. What was striking about Khadija’s story was the complete absence of the military from it. Indeed, soldiers stationed nearby had run away when they heard JAS fighters were approaching, leaving the civilians in the area to fend for themselves. Such failure to protect communities from violence is one of three major ways that military action or inaction has led to civilian harm. The others are failure to prevent collateral damage during military operations, thereby causing direct and indirect harm, and direct targeting of civilians, with unlawful detention, harassment, the destruction of property, sexual violence against women and girls, indiscriminate targeting of certain groups, such as young men, torture and excessive use of force.

Changing these dynamics requires fundamental shifts in mindsets, policies, training and the conduct of operations. There have been important and welcome steps in this direction. President Buhari committed to taking action on human rights violations by the military at his inauguration in May 2015, and the army has created a human rights desk to investigate alleged abuses. Although not always publicised, there have been investigations, court martials and punishments as a result. Nigeria has revised its rules of engagement and code of conduct to reflect international humanitarian and human rights standards, and a protocol is being drafted on handing over children encountered during operations to civilian child protection actors. In October 2016, the Chief of Defence Staff committed to drafting and implementing a civilian protection policy.

The Nigerian government has taken these steps in part in response to international pressure to improve the military’s record on human rights, including the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation into the situation in north-east Nigeria, as well as media coverage of particular incidents of civilian harm. Beyond this, however, there is increasing realisation among political and military decision-makers that a sole focus on ‘defeating the enemy’ is not enough to win this particular war: it also means winning the support of civilians. In some locations, we have seen changes in the way the military is engaging, with civilians telling us that ‘soldiers are not like they were before’. This is far from uniform across the region, but it does provide an entry point for building commitment to civilian protection and providing concrete tools to operationalise it.

CIVIC in Nigeria

CIVIC aims to improve protection for civilians caught in conflict, advising international organisations, governments, militaries and armed non-state actors on adopting and implementing policies to prevent civilian harm. We have been working in Nigeria since 2015 to improve protection for civilians caught in conflict, engaging with government, the military, civil society and communities themselves. We conduct workshops and training sessions on topics including civilian protection, children in conflict, tracking civilian harm, making amends and sexual exploitation and abuse. We have also been asked to help develop a curriculum and content for military schools and colleges to ensure that civilian protection is integrated into the training soldiers and officers receive. Workshops with civilians explore ways they can protect themselves, encouraging them to learn from previous experiences of attacks to plan and strategise. Finally, we bring civilians and security personnel together to discuss local security threats and plan ways forward, including, crucially, honest discussion about soldiers’ behaviour.

In Borno State in the north-east we have been engaging with security personnel and civilian communities in the state capital Maiduguri, as well as in local government headquarters in locations such as Dikwa. These workshops have gleaned the following lessons.

  1. Military personnel are keen to improve how they approach civilian protection, but often do not know what it means. They welcome engagement and, if they see CIVIC facilitators as open and non-judgemental, are honest and reflective in raising the difficulties they come across in their operations. For example, one question asked in every workshop is what to do when coming across children associated with armed conflict.
  2. Finding ways to build empathy with civilians is key to shifting attitudes and behaviour. Some military personnel can have low levels of understanding of the power dynamics between themselves and civilians and of basic human rights, resulting in defensive attitudes, particularly around the use of force in crowd control and sexual exploitation and abuse. CIVIC’s first substantive exercise focuses on building empathy, drawing on and adapting the ‘In Her Shoes’ methodology. Workshop participants reflect on a range of issues, including the reasons why civilians choose to stay in their homes rather than flee, the lack of options they have to escape violence and find help, the different forms of harm suffered by women and men and by able-bodied and disabled people and the impact of sexual exploitation and abuse.
  3. It is important to consider power dynamics within the military. Military personnel are more likely to take civilian protection seriously if they see commitment by commanding officers. However, this needs to be balanced by the need for honest conversation and reflection in more discursive sessions. Military hierarchy is particularly strong in Nigeria, and junior officers will often not speak in front of senior officers. As a result, while we ask commanding officers to be present during the start and end of workshops, they are not there during exercises and discussion.
  4. Sustained effort is needed to ensure women’s voice and participation in engagement with security forces, particularly given low levels of female representation among security, particularly military, personnel. We proactively seek to include female security personnel in our work, and ask field commanders to include all the women from their unit or brigade in activities. We also bring civilians together to articulate a common platform of issues they wish to bring to security forces. Although these are mixed sessions, women make up between 60% and 75% of participants. CIVIC has found that women are more likely to discuss what is actually happening than their male counterparts, as men are more likely to be careful of what they say and can find it difficult to be critical of security agencies. One significant gap concerns the participation of people with disabilities, and CIVIC is considering holding separate sessions for women and men with disabilities to address this.
  5. For dialogues between civilians and security forces to be meaningful, it is useful to:
  • engage intensively with security forces and civilians separately beforehand, building on modules and role-plays on community engagement;
  • bring civilians together with military personnel who are most likely to interact with civilians i.e. those at more junior ranks, rather than leaders;
  • keep speeches to a minimum and break into small groups almost immediately to build personal relations and empathy. Participants are asked to introduce themselves and their life histories
    before talking about their protection and security concerns. Groups debrief in plenary, a list of issues is developed and participants come up with suggestions for action to address them. These suggestions are then taken to a debriefing discussion with the field commander;
  • ensure that civilians are in a majority in small groups so they are more likely to be prepared to speak, and have a 3:1 ratio between women and men;
  • give groups as much time as they need for discussion, being flexible with timings if necessary;
  • combine military personnel of different ranks during group exercises as junior soldiers may panic when confronted with civilians and their stories, may be unsure how to respond and may do so defensively. Having mixed ranks not only ensures more meaningful engagement but also has an important demonstration effect as junior soldiers learn from senior counterparts how to respond to civilians and their concerns;
  • involve members of civil society if possible, so that they can follow up with security agencies afterwards; and
  • facilitate the closing session carefully to ensure that the conversation is forward thinking and conducted in a way that minimises the risk of military personnel responding defensively.

6. Long tours of duty affect concentration, interest and morale. Some military personnel have spent between three and five years in the theatre, and admit that this amount of time away from their families can make them act more harshly towards civilians. CIVIC has also noticed reduced interest in civilian protection among this cohort than among soldiers who have spent less time in the theatre. The precise links between tours of duty, trauma and ability and interest in protecting civilians in north-eastern Nigeria are unknown, and represent an important area for future research.

Progress – but much more yet to do

Although we have seen some positive progress during our time in the north-east, there is a long way yet to go. To be meaningful, commitments and policies on paper need to be translated into action. Unfortunately, civilians are continuing to be harmed in at least five main ways. First, there is a lack of clarity around how to translate the distinction between combatants and civilians into practice. This is not surprising given the challenges of this particular type of conflict, but the idea, widespread among many military personnel, that all people in a particular area are ‘on the other side’ has grave consequences when it comes to levels of civilian harm. As one senior military official told us: ‘When we can’t see the enemy, civilians become the enemy’. Second, the use of schools and hospitals by the military, sometimes with the military on one side of the compound and civilians on the other, is of concern. Not only is this in direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions, but it also means that services for civilians are reduced, and they can become targets.

Third, restrictions on the movement of food and goods, designed to deprive the enemy of essential supplies, exacerbate civilian harm. Fourth, widespread sexual exploitation and abuse continues. Although this is expressly prohibited under Nigerian law, institutional culture is uneven. While some commanders take a zero-tolerance attitude and initiate investigations into allegations, others have made excuses, pointing to time away from wives and girlfriends and that soldiers do not physically force the women and girls concerned. Fifth, mistrust and suspicion between the military and civilians persist. For civilians, actions that damage trust include harassment and abuse, restrictions on economic activity that seriously damage livelihoods, perceptions of collusion between armed opposition groups and some members of the military and soldiers engaging in businesses such as cattle rearing and trading. Many civilians believe that soldiers have little interest in the conflict ending due to the money they are making from it.

The picture is one of uneven progress, and many people like Khadija continue to suffer harm in north-eastern Nigeria. Changes are needed at five levels: in concepts, policies, operations, training and accountability. Conceptually, the military needs to ensure the protection of civilians, and not assume that the elimination of non-state armed opposition groups equals effective security or even victory. In terms of policy, Nigeria needs to develop an overarching, government wide policy or Executive Order on civilian harm mitigation that is validated by and applicable to all ministries, agencies and departments involved in the delivery of security. When it comes to operations, the tactical directives issued to commanders must emphasise the protection of civilians in all operations, and all operational orders must have an annex detailing specific guidance on protection of civilians, whether issued by the armed forces or security agencies. Military and security agencies also need to establish focused, iterative and graduated training models on protection of civilians for operational headquarters, units and commanding officers in selected training schools, throughout the professional military education system and when it comes to unit training at the operational level. The final step is the implementation and enforcement of a system to hold senior leaders accountable for failures to protect civilians, as well as to address allegations of misconduct, including sexual exploitation and abuse, by military personnel. Although institutional change can take decades, the initial steps the Nigerian military has made can be cemented into a solid foundation for civilian protection and built upon with immediate effect by taking action at these five levels.

Last week, I took part in a discussion at the Overseas Development Institute about topics raised in the issue. You can watch the panel discussion and Q&A sessions in the videos below.

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