There are over 25,000 missing people in Nigeria, making it the country with the highest number of missing individuals in Africa. Many of these disappearances occurred during the Boko Haram crisis, as the Nigerian army fought to combat the Islamist insurgency. During this time, thousands of civilians were arrested and detained at the Giwa barracks in Maiduguri, with few ever being released. A recent HumAngle/New Lines investigation has discovered evidence of summary executions, extrajudicial killings, and mass burials in Maiduguri during this period, in violation of international law.
The extrajudicial killings that took place during the military counterinsurgency operations in northeast Nigeria were largely undocumented, and documenting them has become increasingly challenging due to their occurrence years ago. However, combining on-the-ground reporting with satellite imagery analysis and open-source intelligence, remnants of these human rights violations have been found.
In May of this year, HumAngle/New Lines visited 15 sites in Borno State, where it was suspected that bodies of people killed extrajudicially or who died in detention were buried or dumped. The investigation took photographs, collected supplementary information, and utilized open-source intelligence and geospatial tools to further analyze the coordinates.
The investigated sites varied in nature. Some were within established cemeteries or near morgues where bodies were improperly deposited, while others were secret burial sites where victims of extrajudicial killings were allegedly dumped. Determining if these sites were mass burial sites required the use of various tools and techniques, including archival satellite images, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensor data, and field coordinate data.
To gain access to SAR satellite data, the NASA archives were utilized. SAR satellites utilize microwave energy for imaging, allowing for the collection of ground range detection sensor data, which can detect surface changes and variations below the ground surface. By comparing suspected mass grave features with known burial sites, underground disturbances were measured, increasing the confidence in the assessment.
Attempts were made to contact the Nigerian army and the Civilian Joint Task Force for comments on the investigation’s findings, but no responses were received. Local sources in Maiduguri confirmed the burial of individuals brought by the military to Gwange cemetery in mass graves. Through the use of SAR scans, the probable site of a mass burial in the cemetery from 2014-2015 was identified.
Additional evidence, such as witness statements and press reports, supported the occurrence of multiple mass burials in the cemetery during that time. Satellite imagery also revealed notable clusters within the cemetery, suggesting the presence of numerous bodies brought for mass burials.
The investigation’s findings shed light on the extensive human rights violations that occurred during the Boko Haram crisis and emphasize the importance of addressing these issues.