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close this bookCountry Report Nigeria - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 56 p.)
close this folderCaptured combatants at risk
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View the documentTorture

(introduction...)

In much the same way as they feel about civilians in war, Nigerians who participated in the consultation actively support the fair and humane treatment of captured combatants. Eighty-one per cent of Nigerians surveyed believe that enemy combatants do not deserve to die, while only 16 per cent think they do. In turn, almost three-quarters of those surveyed (73 per cent) would not approve of killing captured combatants, even if the other side were doing so. (See Figure 8.)

About one in five Nigerians (22 per cent) say they would approve of killing prisoners in retribution, that is, if the other side were doing so. This fraction remains relatively constant through different subgroups: 20 per cent of those who lived where the war took place (compared with 23 per cent who lived elsewhere) and 21 per cent of south-easterners agree (as opposed to 23 per cent of those living in the rest of the country). Furthermore, almost one-third of combatants, 29 per cent, would approve of killing prisoners if the other side were doing so. In an interesting flip, while those closer to the fighting (those living in the area of conflict and south-easterners) are more inclined to protect civilians in war, it appears that they are no more inclined to say they support the fair treatment of captured combatants than their counterparts in the rest of Nigeria.


FIGURE 8 Captured enemy combatants (per cent of total population responding)

Focus group and in-depth interview participants echoed these sentiments and often gave unequivocal and unqualified opinions as to the treatment of captured combatants.

There are certain do's and don'ts which you have to observe, so killing of prisoners of war is definitely wrong. (FG, former Federal Army commanders, Kaduna)

They should not kill war prisoners. (FG, former Biafran captured combatants, Port Harcourt)

[Moderator: Is there any time when it's okay to kill such prisoners?]

No time. If you have them, you don't kill, keep them until after the war, release them. (FG, medical workers, Port Harcourt)

[Moderator: When is it okay to attack prisoners?]

[All] Never. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt)

They [prisoners] should be allowed to live to relate the history of the past. People would learn from their experience. (IDI, Red Cross volunteer, Lagos)

But as seen when discussing civilian protection, when presented with life-or-death scenarios that affect them personally, people are less willing to protect captured combatants. When asked if they would save or help a surrendering or wounded enemy combatant whom they knew had killed a person close to them, a majority of Nigerians say they would refuse to do either: 56 per cent of Nigerians say they would not help a wounded enemy combatant who had killed a person close to them and 50 per cent would not save a surrendering enemy combatant who had killed a person close to them. (See Figure 9.)


FIGURE 9 Wounded or surrendering combatants (per cent of total population responding)

In Nigeria, the population that was most affected by the war and its aftermath is more likely to advocate the humane treatment of defenceless captured combatants. While a solid 56 per cent of Nigerians as a whole would refuse to help a wounded enemy combatant who had killed someone close to them, people who were distant from the fighting appear even less likely to help. Fifty-eight per cent of those who lived outside the area of conflict say they would not help in this scenario, while 51 per cent of those who lived in the area of conflict say the same. While an even half of Nigerians as a whole (50 per cent) say they would not save a surrendering enemy combatant, 57 per cent of those who lived outside the area of fighting would refuse to do so, as opposed to 39 per cent of those who lived in war-torn areas.

A majority of Nigerians decline to place priority on the humane treatment of captured combatants - 44 per cent of respondents agree that prisoners should be allowed to contact their relatives. Of those who lived outside the area of conflict, only 40 per cent would allow contact with relatives, while a slight majority of those who lived in conflict areas (51 per cent) would do so. Combatants are even less likely to allow such privileges to captives: 47 per cent of non-combatants would allow contact with relatives, compared with only 27 per cent of combatants. However, combatants are no more or less willing to allow prisoners to be visited by a representative of an independent organization (67 per cent of combatants compared with 69 per cent of non-combatants).

Yet even focus group participants who maintained that captured combatants ought not to be subjected to abuse admitted that, when faced with a life-or-death situation in which they were confronted with a helpless enemy combatant, they might actively participate in his demise.

I will save his life. Later, I will kill him. (FG, medical workers, Port Harcourt)

As far as war is concerned, we have registered in our mind that we are fighting. If I capture a person, I will kill him. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt)

I will first of all get as much information before I kill him. (FG, female students, Enugu)

It depends on the mood you are [in]. If your spirit says forgive him, you can forgive him. If it says kill him, you will kill him. (FG, journalists, Lagos)

That is fighting, we are fighting. But after he was wounded and picked up to me, if I'm aware that by using him, I'm going to get useful information from him, I may not kill him but otherwise, I'll kill him. (FG, former Biafran field commanders, Enugu)

The only focus group in which every respondent agreed that captured combatants should be protected absolutely was the former Federal Army commanders in Kaduna. As one of these professional soldiers remarked, "Those are the evils of war, that will be signing out a vendetta - taking law into someone's hands." This is perhaps because, as members of the officer corps, these commanders had greater access to education and information regarding the rules of war than did rank and file or irregular soldiers.