Cover Image
close this bookCountry Report Nigeria - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 56 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAbout the People on War project
View the documentCountry context
View the documentCountry methodology
View the documentExecutive summary
Open this folder and view contentsThe war experience
Open this folder and view contentsProtection of civilians
Open this folder and view contentsBreakdown of limits
Open this folder and view contentsCaptured combatants at risk
Open this folder and view contentsGeneva Conventions and limits in war
Open this folder and view contentsThe role of the ICRC/Red Cross
Open this folder and view contentsReconciliation and the future
View the documentAnnex 1: General methodology
View the documentAnnex 2: Questionnaire*

Executive summary

Less than a decade after its independence, the Biafran war cut Nigeria into two unequal parts. Goaded by a distrust that erupted into ethnically partisan violence in the mid- and late 1960s, leaders of the south-eastern region seceded in 1967. Pitted against troops from the rest of Nigeria, the Biafran army engaged in a pitched battle largely fought on Biafran soil in what was generally considered a conventional war, with two armies fighting for control of territory and resources. More than 30 months of bitter fighting later, perhaps as many as 3 million Nigerians had died in combat or from hunger or sickness, and a million south-easterners and other displaced people crowded into what Biafran territory managed to survive the final Federal assault of the war.3

3Nigeria - A Country Study, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1991, Chapter 1: Historical Setting, the Civil War,

Although some aid organizations were active during the conflict and more of them after the cessation of hostilities, the Biafran war was characterized by the widespread suffering of civilians, mostly due to starvation and disease. Despite a vigorous attempt by the Federal government to reconcile the two sides, the effects of the war still linger in Nigerian society, even though more than half of its present-day population was born after the war ended. South-easterners still feel frozen out of many jobs in government and the civil service, and feel unwelcome in other parts of the country, where they had once set up thriving immigrant communities.

As revealed in this consultation, the people of Nigeria still have vivid and profound memories of the war, memories that very much affect the way they view war today, three decades later. The consultation explored the degree to which Nigerians experienced the negative effects of war. Of the 13 possible negative consequences examined by the ICRC project - ranging from imprisonment to sexual assault to the death of a close family member - those living in the south-eastern region were disproportionately affected. The percentage of south-easterners who experienced these consequences is far greater than in the rest of the country, in some cases by a factor of almost ten to one.

The concentration of the war in one area also affects the way Nigerians perceive the treatment of captured combatants, the rules of war and the Geneva Conventions, international aid and the role of the ICRC and Red Cross. While those who lived further away from the conflict are more likely to say they would adhere to certain limits regarding attacks on civilians and abuse of captured combatants, they are less likely to recognize the existence of laws that prohibit such actions. In turn, those who lived in or near the area of conflict are more likely to know of the Geneva Conventions and be familiar with their purpose, to be aware of laws governing conflict, to welcome international intervention and to identify the red cross emblem.

These are the other main findings of the ICRC consultation:

The war's toll. Although the war ended almost three decades ago, it still deeply affects Nigerian society. The uneven geographical distribution of the war meant that its negative effects were distributed unevenly as well.

· Nigerians experienced the war to varying degrees depending on where they lived; while 68 per cent of south-easterners lived where the war actually took place, only 16 per cent of those living in the rest of the country say the same.4

4The south-eastern region in the survey, encompassing what was known from 1967-1970 as the Republic of Biafra, is defined as the following states within the Federal Republic of Nigeria: Bayelsa, Imo, Rivers, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi, Abia, Akwa Ibom and Cross River.

· Over three times as many south-easterners surveyed (59 per cent) as those living elsewhere in the country (17 per cent) say a family member was killed in the conflict.

· Looting and rape were comparatively widespread in the south-east. A majority in that area (59 per cent) report having their houses looted, compared with only 8 per cent in the remainder of Nigeria. Forty-seven per cent of south-easterners say they knew someone well who was raped, compared with only 7 per cent of those in other areas.

· The negative effects of the war were felt disproportionately. When presented with a list of 13 possible negative consequences, 38 per cent of south-easterners experienced eight or more, compared with an average of 3 per cent in the rest of the country. Conversely, 62 per cent of Nigerians living in regions other than the south-east report suffering none of these negative consequences, compared with only 14 per cent of south-easterners.

Protection of civilians. Although vast numbers of Nigerians died as a result of the conflict, and although many people recounted profoundly negative personal experiences in the focus groups and in-depth interviews, solid majorities in all communities feel that civilians should be protected during armed conflict.

· A majority of Nigerians - 60 per cent overall - think that combatants should leave civilians alone during war. Among those close to the fighting, 64 per cent of those who lived in an area where the war took place and 62 per cent of those living in the south-east support that statement.

· Nigerians' feelings about the protection of civilians are strongly rooted in norms and laws, rather than pragmatism. Among those who believe that there should be limits on what combatants can do, 65 per cent of Nigerians say that certain actions are "wrong" rather than that "they cause too many problems".

· A significant percentage of Nigerians refuse to condone the practice of kidnapping civilians. About three in ten (29 per cent) think kidnapping is "part of war". Thirty-three per cent of combatants and 32 per cent of those living outside the area of fighting agree.

Attacks on non-combatants. Despite three decades of relative peace, Nigerians' willingness to protect civilians who are seen to be assisting the enemy often falters. Just as the limits broke down during the conflict itself, so too do they break down when respondents are confronted with possible scenarios emphasizing the confusion and ambiguity inherent in war.

· A significant percentage of Nigerians (31 per cent) say that is allowable for combatants to attack civilians if they voluntarily provide food and shelter to enemy combatants - 36 per cent of those who lived outside the area of conflict agree (compared with 26 per cent of those within), as do 35 per cent of combatants (compared with 29 per cent of non-combatants). When told civilians are being forced to provide such assistance, 23 per cent of south-easterners and 18 per cent of those living in the rest of the country countenance such attacks.

· A majority of Nigerians - 51 per cent - believe it is acceptable to attack civilians who are voluntarily transporting ammunition for enemy combatants. When told that the civilians are being forced to transport ammunition, that figure falls to 36 per cent.

· Significant fractions of Nigerians believe that attacking the enemy in populated villages or towns "knowing many civilians would be killed" is simply "part of war". Almost one-third of Nigerians, 32 per cent, agree with this statement. Thirty-four per cent of those who lived where the war took place and 30 per cent of those who lived outside the area of conflict think attacking populated villages or towns in such circumstances is acceptable. Furthermore, less than one-third of Nigerians (31 per cent overall, compared with 37 per cent in the area of conflict and 27 per cent outside it) believe there are laws that prohibit such behaviour.

Captured combatants at risk. As in the case of civilians, when presented with hypothetical situations in which they are required to make a personal decision about what they would do, Nigerians waver in their willingness to protect captured combatants.

· More than half of the respondents in both areas, 58 per cent of those who lived outside the area of conflict and 51 per cent of those who lived in it, say they would refuse to help a wounded enemy combatant who had killed someone close to them. Similarly, more than half of those who report they lived outside the area of conflict (57 per cent) say they would not save a surrendering enemy combatant who had killed someone close to them - compared with 39 per cent who lived in the area of conflict.

· Most Nigerians are inclined to limit the rights of captured combatants. Close to half of Nigerians (48 per cent) would not allow captured combatants to contact their relatives; 51 per cent of those who lived outside the area of conflict and 44 per cent of those within it agree. However, much lower percentages say they would refuse to allow a visit by a representative of an independent organization: 23 per cent of Nigerians overall would refuse to allow such a visit, as would 27 per cent of those who lived outside the area of conflict and 16 per cent of those who lived within it.

· A significant number of Nigerians (58 per cent) approve of the use of torture in order to obtain important military information.

· When asked what they would do if the other side were killing its captured combatants, close to one in four Nigerians (22 per cent) say they would do the same.

The rules of war. Nigerians believe that rules of war keep conflict from getting worse, but they also consider that such rules only go so far and are liable to be frequently broken.

· Substantial majorities (71 per cent of all Nigerians surveyed, 78 per cent of south-easterners and 67 per cent of those living elsewhere in the country) believe that the Geneva Conventions keep war from getting worse.

· Awareness of the rules of war is low. Only 37 per cent of those who report living where the war took place and 25 per cent in the rest of the country think that there are laws prohibiting combatants from depriving civilians of food, medicine or water.

· Nigerians display varying degrees of willingness to punish those who have committed crimes during war. While around half of south-easterners, who comprise the largest percentage of people living in the area of conflict, think that there are rules that are so important that those who break them in wartime should be punished (52 per cent), support for punishment is lower among those in the rest of the country (39 per cent).

· Most Nigerians look to international, rather than domestic, bodies to mete out punishment. While a strong majority (66 per cent) of south-easterners think an international criminal court should be responsible for punishment, only 38 per cent of those in the rest of the country agree.

International institutions. All Nigerians, but especially south-easterners, look favourably on international institutions and their missions, and nearly all Nigerians, regardless of geography, think better days lie ahead for their country.

· Overwhelming majorities of all populations - 81 per cent of south-easterners and 84 per cent of those living elsewhere - say they would like to see more intervention from the international community to assist civilians during wartime.

· Most Nigerians (84 per cent) are familiar with the red cross emblem. While over one-third (35 per cent) of south-easterners accurately name what the red cross emblem protects - medical buildings and vehicles and Red Cross personnel - a significantly smaller percentage of Nigerians in the rest of the country (16 per cent) do so.

· A solid majority (60 per cent) of Nigerians believe the ICRC/Red Cross played the biggest role in protecting civilians during the conflict; 36 per cent say "international humanitarian organizations" played the biggest role. South-easterners are most likely to credit the ICRC/ Red Cross (73 per cent), compared with 51 per cent of Nigerians in the rest of the country.

· The vast majority of Nigerians (82 per cent) are optimistic that the peace will last in the future. Only 8 per cent think there will be more war.