President Muhammadu Buhari, in his Easter message to Nigerians, vowed to “make mass killings, abductions and other criminal atrocities things of the past in our beloved country”.
But Buhari could also be guilty of mass killings according to international law. He could be prosecuted on the grounds of “crimes against humanity” and “command responsibility” for those crimes. “Crimes against humanity” include widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.
There are two clear cases of such a crime under Buhari’s watch in which the evidence is overwhelming. The first was in Zaria, Kaduna State and involved the killings of hundreds of Shia Muslims by the Nigerian army from December 12 to 14, last year. Human Rights Watch has a detailed account of the “unjustified” massacre, including statements from witnesses here.
The second case of crimes against humanity involves the shooting of unarmed pro-Biafran protesters in Aba, Abia State on 9 February this year.
Buhari’s liability for the actions of Nigerian security forces falls under the doctrine of “command responsibility”. This means that “a commander is liable for the criminal misconduct of subordinates which the commander ordered, or about which the commander knew or should have known, and failed to take reasonable action to prevent”. The “commander” can be military or civilian and Buhari is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Command involves an obligation to actively enforce the law.
Buhari could argue that he didn’t know civilians would be shot in Zaria or Aba, but the test of “command responsibility” also includes indirect liability for failure to prevent or punish criminal conduct.
The evidence of these failures from Buhari is quite strong. During a “media chat” in January this year, the president suggested that the Shia in Zaria provoked the retaliation from the soldiers, claimed that the motorcade of the Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai was like a “sitting duck”, and it was clear that he was in no mood to punish the criminal conduct of the soldiers.
Buhari clearly took sides with the army and seemed to back their version of events. But as Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch said: “The Nigerian military’s version of events does not stack up. It is almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people. At best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group.” Buhari and his army chief Buratai are both Sunni Muslims.
The president’s incriminating reaction to the shooting of the pro-Biafrans in Aba was captured in an Al Jazeera interview broadcast earlier this month. The interviewer asked him to watch footage of the shooting and he refused saying, incredibly, that the protesters “should not be joking with Nigerian security”.
This is damning evidence of a commander disinterested in punishing subordinates that have committed a crime against humanity. It makes Buhari criminally responsible for the actions of the officers that fired at civilians.
The doctrine of “command responsibility” was a significant factor in the judgment against Radovan Karadzic, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison on Thursday, after being found guilty by a special U.N. court in The Hague, Netherlands of genocide and other crimes against humanity over atrocities that Bosnian Serb forces committed during the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said that the judgment confirmed Karadzic’s “command responsibility for the most serious crimes under international law carried out on European soil since the Second World War.”
The killing of Shia Muslims in Zaria and pro-Biafran protesters in Aba – in terms of numbers – are not on the scale of 1990s Bosnia, but they are still crimes against humanity. The likelihood of Buhari having his day in the International Criminal Court (ICC) may seem remote for now, but the case against him is quite compelling.