Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How not to stop Boko Haram

Most likely the boy in this picture is now dead.

This picture was taken in "The Crack"; the local HQ of the Nigerian Police's Special Anti Robbery Squad in Maiduguri, Nigeria, a year ago.

It shows a young man, called Mohammed Zakaria, who was arrested by the policeman sitting behind him.

The 20-year-old confessed to being a member of the Boko Haram group, and showed police to where a cache of arms was hidden in a Damturu safe house in February last year.

When they brought him in to the office, the first thing I noticed was how he smelled. A thick, musty smell of body and fear.

Dry blood spotted his shirt, as he talked to us he tried to hide it in his lap, perhaps afraid that if the foreigners saw it he might be beaten again.

But it was there and I saw it.

He told my colleague and I he had been selling houseware; batteries, padlocks, brushes and the like, from a cart in the market when some men came up to him and asked him if he wanted to earn some money.

As he only made around 2,000 naira (about £8 or $12) a week, he said yes.

It was the start of an association that would end with him driving guns into Nigeria from the border with Cameroon to Yobe state.

So he said.

As the police routinely use torture as a method of "investigation" its difficult to say for sure what the truth is.

My colleague and I were both eager to leave "The Crack".

When we did, we looked at each other. "They will kill him won't they?" I asked. My friend nodded once.

We discussed what we could do. We thought about giving his name to a trusted local journalist, so that someone could make sure he went to trial and keep a light on him. But it was useless, one boy among so many? There really is no way of following up something like this.

I feel very uncomfortable about these "parade" pictures.

Normally I'd say to take a picture of a suspect who has not been tried and convicted in such circumstances is a violation of their rights.

I feel ashamed of taking that picture of Mohammed Zakaria, paraded in front of me like a trophy.

But look at these boys.

They were captured during a failed raid to rescue two European hostages, Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara in Sokoto this month, this is their "parade" photo taken by the Nigerian media.

Given the "normal" situation as we find it in Nigeria, It is unlikely that, at the end of a trial they will be given a sentence of death by a judge, invested with the power of the state to administer capital punishment.

It is unlikely they will live out the rest of their lives in a jail cell, pondering the error of their ways. It is unlikely a judge will consider a verdict on them, or even hear evidence against them. Maybe they won't even see a trial.

I think it is unlikely they will even get a lawyer.

Because, like their colleague, it is more than likely they too will be dead soon.

Perhaps taken to a scrubby bit of ground and shot unceremoniously in the head.

This video was taken in the aftermath of the 2009 Maiduguri uprising. It shows how the police deal with the situation (WARNING THESE ARE GRAPHIC):

So does this one:
Some of the officers in these videos, and their commanders, have been charged with murder.

But a lot of the anger that drives Boko Haram comes from the continuing brutal treatment the police mete out to Nigerians.

With every execution or police atrocity two things happen; Boko Haram draw more strength, and they become harder to stop.

People don't want to talk to the Nigerian police about Boko Haram.

If you do you could easily be the next one to disappear into "The Crack", it is thought.

Perhaps I'm wrong and these teenagers won't go the way of so many other young men in Nigeria. I hope so.
If the UK and the rest of the world want to help, they could start by insisting that Nigeria lives up to the rule of law, and they could provide more help to train the police force.

They could also use their diplomatic pressure to make sure that Boko Haram suspects are all accounted for during their arrest and detention, witness that they are tried and made to account for what they have done in a way that reflects the values that we claim to hold so dear.


  1. Keep up the reporting. The story has to be told. Few outside of Nigeria understand what is going on. The fear and slaughter is increasing by the day. I have been reporting and writing for some time on

  2. Thanks for this good article. It's terrible that people are losing sight of this more sinister menace, while being distracted by the spectacle of terrorism.


Tweet Follow @getwalker