Although casualties may abound in any armed conflict, the need to protect civilians is sacrosanct. The Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre strongly believes this and has for months unending, pursued and sustained this advocacy campaign to ensure its legislation. Chiemelie Ezeobi reports that recently in Lagos, the group held a media parley on the precarious situation
Across the globe, civilians are often caught in between crossfire, especially when they live in proximity to military targets. At other times, they are victims during use of force at checkpoints and during raids, use of indirect fire in populated areas, use of inappropriate weapon systems, targeting errors or mistaken identity on the basis of faulty intelligence and lack of preparation for civilian presence on the battlefield.
The reason is not far-fetched; most times, during conflict situations, civilian harm can come in form of death, injury, property loss (homes, businesses, livestock); civilian infrastructure damage (schools, hospitals, water treatment facilities); loss of livelihood and psychological trauma.
These and more are why the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) have continuously mobilised and championed advocacy within the government, military, and civil society to advance policies and practices that will help minimise civilian harm.
In its series of advocacy campaign, CISLAC has advocated for better protection for civilians while condemning armed conflict and the absence of genuine political will to realise accountability for conflict areas, adding that such serious violations has deepened a culture of impunity with negative impacts of violent conflict on civilians like mental trauma, loss of livelihood, and displacement, among others.
Protection of Civilians
Without a doubt, in any armed conflict, Protection of Civilians (PoC) is important. Essentially, Protection of the Civilian population is a basic element of humanitarian law that states that all civilians and all those not taking part in the fighting must on no account be attacked and must be spared and protected. In fact, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols contain specific rules to protect civilians.
Although the concept of PoC has been progressively introduced to a wider audience, however, within the framework of conflict operations, the full implementation of this principle is hindered by a number of shortcomings, such as the limited understanding of roles and responsibilities, and the lack of clear methods and guidelines.
Advocacy by CISLAC
In a recent media parley themed “The Precariousness of Protection: Gains, Strains and Pains Around The Protection of Civilians And Civilian Harm Mitigation in Armed Conflict”, CISLAC Executive Director, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani commended CISLAC’s deep engagement with state and non-state actors in numerous states to support civilians in developing self-protection strategies.
According to Rafsanjani, civilians in the North-east, North-west, North-central and South-east Nigeria are caught in the middle of an ongoing conflict between the Government of Nigeria and multiple Armed Opposition Groups (AOGs) that have grown from Boko Haram since 2009.
He said: “Tens of thousands have lost their lives, with many more injured and millions displaced from their homes and facing food insecurity. Efforts to defeat AOGs have been complicated, however, by a well-documented history of civilian harm and abuse by government security forces resulting in poor civil-military relations generally.
“In 2020, CISLAC began engaging with MDAs, CSOs, media, internal security institutions and the military across the country to address the civil-security relationship, which according to civilians in the region, is a critical component to realising improved protection.
“CISLAC began by providing training for Nigerian security forces on protection of civilians and civilian harm mitigation. Recognising that civilians are the best agents of their own protection, CISLAC then sought to enable civilian advocacy through the formation of State Civil Security Relations Platforms.
“The goal of these platforms was to first assess the threats to the communities and then to pursue improved protection outcomes through advocacy and engagement with security forces.”
Amplifying PoC Conversation Also speaking, CISLAC Programme Manager, Defence and Security, Salaudeen Hashim, said the high level of vulnerability of civilians across the country formed the basis for the meeting, adding that the level and the framework of protection remained weak and that some of the framework provided by the state to provide protection was also weak.
Therefore, he said the media interaction was to amplify the conversation around the protection of civilians and civilian harm integration, adding that “we believe that all of these things together would actually allow for a robust protection framework and a regime that will advance the course of man’s security and promote the level of citizens participation in governance”.
He further disclosed that CISLAC had held both horizontal and vertical engagements with policymakers and civilians and a lot of commitment have been demonstrated on the protection of civilians because it is germane and the right thing to do.
Calling for the passage of the bill on the protection of civilians currently before the National Assembly, he added that ““There is a policy before the Federal Executive Council, there is also a bill before the National Assembly so these two frameworks at different levels have gone far.
“We are hoping that the president passes this before the end of the year so as to put in place the policy that protects civilians which will be a plus because CISLAC has always advocated better protection for civilians and has always engaged security agencies on ways to bridge the gap between the people and security agents.
“We have a platform where we engage technical staff within the state actors to also be participants in the process and of course help them to influence the rules of engagement.
“We help them to support the kind of tactical approach they adopt in every theatre. For every theatre there are various kinds of approach that must be put in place.
“So, we have helped in terms of technical support and assistance, we are also helping in providing regular trainings and this week we are having specialise trainings for desk officers for elections in the nine commands.
“These are the kind of support we provide to ensure that protection is institutionalised so it is important that there is a paradigm shift from what is existing and that in itself can have a new regime in terms of how you deal with the protection of civilians.”
The GainsSpeaking on the gains recorded so far, Rafsanjani said in addressing the evolution of the conflict in Nigeria and the ongoing civilian protection challenges, CISLAC with support from Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) has been mobilising champions within the government, military, and civil society to advance policies and practices that will help minimise such civilian harm.
Harping on one of the major gains, he said that for one year, CISLAC worked with the government to develop a national civilian protection policy and draft legislation that would put civilians at the heart of every civil security operation in Nigeria.
Expressing satisfaction at the progress made thus far with the House of Representative Committees on Defence and Security, as well as members of the Technical Working Group, he also commended the media for providing a robust platform to challenge the norms within the protection space.
Giving update on how far the bill had gone, he said “there is currently a draft bill at the National Assembly waiting to be listed in the order paper after an extensive legislative engagement and capacity development sessions; and a draft policy before the Federal Executive Council (FEC) awaiting presidential assent.
“At the same time, CISLAC has mentored senior defense and security stakeholders and community militia leaders to institutionalise civilian protection practices within their respective institutions.”
Beyond this, he said the goal in the “outgoing year is to build the capacity of stakeholders within the defence and security architecture to avoid civilian harm in the course of their activities.
“In conflict-ridden areas, CISLAC is deeply engaged with communities’ governance structures to support civilians in developing self-protection strategies and bringing their protection concerns to armed actors in the area.
“We also brought together local communities and security forces to discuss protection concerns and improve civilian protection. For example, Plateau and Adamawa has a robust civil security relationship, a platform that now allows them gather early warning and process them with response agencies – an uncommon occurrence in the region.”.
Pains of Conflict for Civilians
According to Rafsanjani, beyond the gains, the pains consist of intimidation, harassment and physical assault by security forces, adding civilians reported they were regularly intimidated, physically assaulted, extorted, and had their properties stolen or seized by security forces.
He said: “They also complained about the frequency with which security forces were careless with their weapons, often shooting indiscriminately and sporadically into the air.
“Civilians described the unprovoked physical assaults of young men who security forces believed might have been sympathizers or members of AOGs; civilians returning from their farms or collecting firewood who were accused of conspiring with AOGs while outside the trenches and subjecting them to harsh interrogation, threats, and physical violence..“The security institutions were also responsible for checkpoints on roads connecting area towns and at these checkpoints or while on patrol they would demand that civilians pay bribes before they could pass through.
“Within the garrison towns the military and community militias supporting security efforts would sometimes abuse their position for personal gain. When food items were distributed, it was sometimes seized by military.”
Sexual Exploitation, Abuse of Civilians by Security Agents
In most conflict situations, sexual abuse is rife and Nigeria is not any different. Rafsanjani noted that on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA), civilians claimed that security agents and other nontraditional state security institutions regularly engage in practices of sexual exploitation and abuse.
He said: “Rape by security forces was reported as common. Young ladies in conflict areas have become riffles in the hands of personnel. This has created resentment among young people who see this as an emerging threat.
“In the Walking Paradox experience, the number of women impregnated by personnel is a recipe for a new concern and the need to interrogate the social impact of various theatres.
“Feedbacks from various state level engagements had it that security forces would enter civilian homes, remove the women and subsequently abuse them. Security forces were frequent patrons of women who had resorted to prostitution as a coping strategy once other economic opportunities were no longer available.”
Lack of Accountability Fuels Apathy in Reporting Abuses He however stressed that its all due to lack of accountability, adding that given the abusive practices, civilians resent and fear security forces.
“Civilians opined that they have few avenues for seeking justice for the wrongs they suffered. Some reported to the police while others appealed to the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) and traditional leaders, but with few results.
“In many areas the appropriate mechanism for reporting violations and abuses simply did not function any longer with local governance left to the military because local officials had fled before the area was secured,” he disclosed.
Culture of SilenceWhat is the result of this? A Culture of Silence has become the order of the day. According to the executive director, without reliable options, many civilians simply adopt a culture of silence because they could not talk about these problems in public as those who attempted to report an abuse were sometimes beaten by the civilian security forces operating alongside the military.
“Civilians were scared of the security apparatus and felt powerless. One man said, “due to ignorance and illiteracy we did not know what to do and how to report.” In addition to being physically isolated within garrison towns, often unable to travel from their town to another, mobile phone networks across the North-east, North-west and North-central are unreliable. Even if civilians had the contact for someone outside their immediate area who could help them, there was no guarantee.” he added.
Strains Addressing the strains which he described as fostering Civil-Military Relations to Advance Protection Of Civilians, he said traditionally, civilians do not engage directly with the military due to many of the reasons described above, or because of local custom.
“Traditional, political or religious leaders would ordinarily perform this role on behalf of the community. However, many of these leaders no longer reside in their communities for fear of being targeted by AOGs, so although civilians have issues they need to address with security forces, they often have no means of doing so.
” CISLAC’s goal is to support stakeholders at the state level to catalyze a new and productive exchange between themselves and security forces to address protection concerns and to support civilian advocacy efforts on protection.
“The diversity of participants is critical to the success of the state platforms as it maximises the opportunity for all relevant protection issues to be raised and discussed in an impartial manner.
“Civilians underscored how their advocacy and the military’s response have improved the situation on the ground.
” Although some tensions undoubtedly remain, a participant recounted once that “Now there is marginal improvement in the relationship between the military and civilians”.
“Report from various interventions during the period under review posits that protection issues present at the time the civil security platforms were formed have improved, leading a participant to say that “now everything has improved we do not act like we did before. Before we used to leave everything to God. But now the situation has improved, we have access to report every situation, we know our rights in the community”.
Way ForwardProffering solutions, the Executive Director said CISLAC is recommending the National Assembly to as a matter of urgency, initiate legislative proceedings on the bill on protection of civilians and civilian harm mitigation in armed conflict in the National Assembly, to provide oversight frameworks and deepen accountability infrastructure within the PoC regime.
He also charged the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation should as a matter of urgency, reintroduce to the Federal Executive council; the PoC draft policy for immediate assent and provide a framework for protection to the citizens and residents of the Federal republic of Nigeria.
Also, he said civilians are best placed to advocate for their own protection when they have the confidence and necessary resources to articulate their concerns to security forces, adding that “the Government of Nigeria should help civilians better understand how security forces are organised and function, and how to present their concerns most effectively, including information on escalation channels/procedures if their initial appeals are blocked.
“Interventions of the government of Nigeria and international donor community intended to improve civil-security relations should consider the subject from the perspectives of both civilians and security forces, although the Government of Nigeria alone has a legal obligation to protect all civilians. Such interventions should be done with a “Do No Harm” approach.
“If civilians’ grievances toward the military remain unaddressed or civilians’ risk being targeted by AOGs as a result of perceived affiliation with the government, it may do more harm than good to bring the two groups together.
“Training of Nigerian security forces by the government of Nigeria and international donor community should emphasise POC, including CHM, leveraging experiential, role-playing exercises that build trainees’ understanding of the difficult choices civilians must make in conflict environments.
“This can help to overcome individual preconceptions and further humanise the experiences of all civilians within a diverse country like Nigeria. In addition, the Nigerian military should prioritise community engagement, training and exercises to help mitigate the potential for civilian harm, recognising that perceptions of the military are colored by civilians’ memories of past performance.
“Due to the regular redeployment of security forces within the country, and between the current divisional structure of Nigeria’s military, it is essential that training for deployed forces be regular and consistent to reinforce the protection of civilians.
“Training should also target officers/soldiers that have direct contact with civilians, which extends far beyond training for civil-security coordination officers,” he added.
Likewise, given the frequent military rotations, organisations should introduce community groups and their activities to military personnel on a recurring basis at multiple levels of command so they always have access to report protection threats.
In many areas, security forces (primarily the military) are now de facto responsible for local government in the absence of elected political leaders.“It is therefore critical that security forces take reports of violations seriously and are transparent with their accountability mechanisms.
“That security forces report on potential civilian harm resulting from their operations and activities, and offer acknowledgement or amends for such instances.
“That civilians need to be made aware of the appropriate channels for reporting potential violations and civilian harm, encouraged to report potential violations, and are protected from any retaliation by accused individuals or units.” he added.