Mass trial of suspected Boko Haram militants will undermine Abuja’s efforts to tackle the group
The Government said on 9 October that more than 2,300 suspected Boko Haram militants will appear in court in the coming weeks. About 1,670 detainees held at a military base in the central state of Niger, will be tried first, followed by 651 others held in Maiduguri, capital of the north-eastern state of Borno. The move comes amid a wave of attacks by the group in Borno State and areas bordering Cameroon. For example, on 28 September, militants killed three people and burnt dozens of homes in a raid targeting rural communities in Borno State’s Guzamala area. An earlier suicide bomb attack on 31 August against a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Banki town, located at the border with Cameroon, killed eighteen people. Meanwhile, at least 35 cross-border suicide bomb attacks against security forces in Cameroon’s Extreme North have been reported in the last three months.
The attacks highlight that, although Boko Haram has been significantly weakened by Nigerian and regional military operations, it retains sufficient manpower and explosive-making capabilities to stage frequent suicide bomb attacks in the North-East and border areas of neighbouring states. Moreover, the recent increase in attacks suggests that Boko Haram is also able to exploit growing fatigue among local vigilante groups. Such groups play a key role in identifying and disrupting suicide bomb attacks, but have become increasingly frustrated with a lack of government support and reward in recent months. The group’s resilience also undermines Army Chief Lt Gen Tukur Yusuf Buratai’s claim in July that Boko Haram had been militarily defeated. It is therefore likely that the authorities hope the mass trials of suspected militants will provide evidence that Abuja is effectively tackling the group.
However, it is unclear whether Nigeria’s justice system can handle mass trials; with only four judges handling thousands of cases the trials are unlikely to be successfully completed in at least the next three months. Moreover, human rights groups have said the detainees are unlikely to have fair trials given these will be held in secret. Hundreds of the suspects’ families have also launched an appeal insisting that their relatives were victims but arrested by soldiers as suspects. Amnesty International said in a June 2015 report that more than 20,000 people had been arbitrarily arrested as part of the fight against Boko Haram and that, to date, only nine suspected militants had been convicted for their links to the insurgency. Given this, the mass trials are likely to trigger more accusations of human rights violations committed by the authorities, and further fuel local perceptions in the North-East that the Government is unable to take effective action against the ongoing Boko Haram violence.
Such anti-government sentiment is in turn likely to be exploited by Boko Haram as it seeks to boost recruitment efforts within Borno’s local communities. Many reject the largest faction of the group led by Abubakar Shekau due to its indiscriminate targeting of IDPs and civilians. However, those seeking revenge against the Government over its treatment of the detainees may be more easily convinced to join the Islamic State-affiliated faction, as it primarily targets security forces. A subsequent boost in this group’s numbers would compound Boko Haram’s resilience and increase its capabilities, likely leading to an increased tempo of attacks against government assets and personnel in the North-East.