Detainees speak of horrific torture within Giwa barracks, allegations military authorities deny
Ahmed Imam’s crime seemed despicable and clear enough one recent afternoon. In violation of what seems an unwritten code in his troubled city, he attempted what appeared unacceptable: running a shop too close to the scene of a deadly bomb blast.
Such an infraction should possibly bestow on him a dutiful right to knowing the perpetrators of the act, or personally bearing the culpability-as the security forces fighting Islamist insurgency, launched by the Boko Haram sect, seemed to believe.
So as the dead and the wounded were evacuated from the bloody spot in what has become Nigeria’s hotbed of religious militancy, armed soldiers rounded up dozens of men within the vicinity of the attack in Maiduguri, and herded them into vans that later delivered them to a cell.
“Over 50 of us were arrested and we were bundled into the military vehicle the same way people transport firewood from the bush to the city centre,” Mr. Imam, who asked that his real names not be revealed for his safety, said recently.
At the facility, named Giwa Barracks-a vast unit with multiple cells- the men were handcuffed from the rear around a pillar, and their bodies stretched intermittently while they were flogged.
Some only left months later after paying huge “bail” sums.
The detention, and the punishment, which human rights groups have branded “torture,” and have urged their immediate end, has redefined the federal government’s military operations against the sect which burrows itself within the civilian population, from where it delivers devastating blows, providing a platform for the Joint Task Force to get back at the perpetrators, and often times, the innocents.
A recent report by the Amnesty International titled “Trapped in the cycle of violence” documents stories analogous to what Mr. Imam told PREMIUM TIMES.
In the report, one suspect who was also detained at Giwa Barracks painted a grim picture of events military authorities often deny as non-existent.
He said detainees caught during raids- not confrontations with the forces-are entitled to almost no rights. They are given food once in two days and are denied access to water and electricity.
“Many of us were infected with a lot of diseases. In fact, it is a place one will become more radical and prefer to be a member of the Boko Haram even if you are not one,” the suspect quoted by the report said.
He said many detainees were crammed into drums and inflamed from beneath. “Many of us didn’t survive it. That is why as you can see every part of my body is burnt,” he said, before warning that “if they did not incapacitate me, I will join Boko Haram free of charge and fight back. Don’t forget the soldiers killed my father and elder brother and set our house ablaze.”
Months after the damning report by the Amnesty International and the US-based Human Rights Watch, residents said the illegal detention and torture continued. In some cases, those detained only regained their freedom after parting with hundreds of thousands of naira, they said.
Almost more than any before, the unrest in mainly Borno and Yobe States, and other parts of the north, linked largely to the Boko Haram sect, has proved the deadliest, with more than a thousand people killed in bomb and gun attacks since 2009.
As the insurgents sustain their assault, so has the federal government which has hit back forcefully with grounding military operations that often violate basic conflict rules recognized internationally, with many innocents killed and several thousand displaced.
Allegations are rife of soldiers firing indiscriminately into crowd in retaliation for the killing of a personnel, and vested interest using the JTF to get back at perceived enemies who they label as members of the sect.
Military authorities have constantly denied any of such exist, vowing to sanction errant officers involved in untoward practices.
Spokesperson for the JTF, Sagir Musa, denied residents were arrested randomly and detained at the Barracks. He said suspects are only taken to Giwa Barracks if there is a strong suspicion that they are members of Boko Haram.
If investigations determine that a suspect is innocent or not culpable, he said, a central intelligence committee will write to the overall commander of JTF recommending for the release of the suspect and they are allowed to go.
Mr. Musa also denied that suspects taken to the barracks are tortured.
“Some of them may feel they are tortured because in the first instance they are being barricaded in one place and that is torture to anyone who values his freedom, but to say we are using any form of equipment or physical torture is absolutely not true,” he said.
But such steadfast tone would seem hardly sufficient in scaling down the stream of allegations of abuse circulating around Maiduguri and environs.
According to former detainees freed recently from Giwa Barracks, the tragic narratives heard outside are hardly fabricated or fairytales.
Mr. Imam, the shop owner, said some of those arrested with him after the explosion, were lined up to face the sun for hours. “They don’t even talk to you or ask you anything, once they bring you there they just start treating you first before the questions will come later,” he said.
He said he counted three main cells at the barracks with one larger than the remaining two.
“In my cell alone, there were three hundred and fifty suspects, the same number in the one close to us, while the bigger cell has over six hundred suspects inside,” he told PREMIUM TIMES. “You hardly get four hours of sleep each day because there are too many people with very little space”.
With the shortage of space, meals (mostly rice) were served twice a day, he recalled. “You cannot get more than five to six spoons from both the morning and evening meals.”
Mr. Imam was recently released after spending four months and ten days at the barracks. He said he stayed that long because his family could not afford to raise the money they were asked to pay as “bail”.
Mr. Imam’s brother, who identified himself as Umaru, said when he visited the barracks to enquire about the brother’s whereabouts shortly after his arrest, he was asked to pay a “bail” of N300 thousand. He claimed that relatives of those released paid the amount.
Another victim’s account turned out more disconcerting. At Gwange, in Maiduguri, the family paid N200, 000.00 to have the victim, who refused to be named, released, after his father and brother had been torture and killed.
Many of those who spoke with us refused to be named, fearing retributions.
A civil rights activist, Shehu Sani, who has been involved in campaigns against the alleged highhandedness, said his organization, the Civil Rights Congress, was aware of serious allegations of gross abuse of powers not just in Borno, but neighbouring Yobe, Kano and Kaduna states.
“JTF’s incessant invasion of people’s homes in the name of searching for weapons; no law gave the military a blank cheque to invade people’s homes,” Mr. Sani said.
Mr. Sani’s organization has issued several statements and urged international attention on the allegations.
He said he needed to make it clear that “under a democratic system the JTF has no right to engage in any act of arbitrariness, disproportionate use of force, unlawful arrest and detention and violation of privacy.”
Alongside the range of tales about how residents and detainees are treated by the forces, one of the most worrisome seemed that involving residents themselves, often business associates, exploiting rogue officers to get at fellow residents who they frame as insurgents.
One resident narrated how an acquaintance, who excelled in mobile phones sales, was allegedly “setup” by a rival as a Boko Haram member.
One night, troops raided the trader’s family house and arrested his brothers since he had travelled. After complaints were laid, authorities realized the JTF team that carried out the raid, was in the wrong location, raising suspicion and prompting investigation.
A military source soon hinted that another phone trader had alerted the group, accusing the phone trader of dispensing SIM cards to Boko Haram members.
Spokesperson for the JTF, Mr. Musa, said the team was committed to “decisively and appropriately” respond where there are violations.
“Whoever has reason to complain of torture or extortion or any other serious misconduct should forward his complain to the JTF headquarters or call the Task Force Hot Lines (which are widely circulated),” he said.
“We will surely investigate and punish confirmed offenders and where necessary we do brief the complainants accordingly.”
Just this week, reports said the JTF had effected large scale release of many of its detainees, particularly those at Giwa Barracks.
But Mr. Imam said there was nothing really to celebrate about the news.
“Even while I was there, they were releasing people, especially those who pay for their bail, but the thing is if they release ten persons in the morning, you can be sure that twenty or thirty more will be brought before the day runs out.”