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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 folderProtection of civilians
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentLimits and dissonance
View the documentAn array of norms


While many Nigerians related vivid stories and expressed strong opinions on the horrors of war and its aftermath, their views on the treatment of civilians during wartime are far more complex and nuanced. When asked generally to volunteer their opinions, respondents were strongly supportive of limits that protect civilians. However, when the questioning turned from abstract concepts to specific scenarios, many respondents retreated into a more pragmatic, situational stance.

Limits and dissonance

Nigerians are generally in favour of limiting attacks on civilians. Of those surveyed, 60 per cent believe that combatants should "attack only enemy combatants and leave civilians alone", while only 8 per cent think that it is acceptable to "attack enemy combatants and civilians". (See Figure 3.)

FIGURE 3 Combatants and civilians (per cent of total population responding)

Twenty-nine per cent of those surveyed choose the middle way, i.e., that combatants should "attack enemy combatants and avoid civilians as much as possible". This conditional response opens the door into a grey area in which attacks on civilians are allowed - at least in certain circumstances - and in which the rules of armed conflict begin to break down.

However, when prompted to volunteer their own guidelines for combatants, 37 per cent of Nigerians offer answers that promote the sanctity of civilians and civilian areas, while 9 per cent believe "everything is allowed". This divides down further into 16 per cent who believe combatants should not "kill or attack civilians"; 11 per cent who think that they should not "kill or rape women"; 5 per cent who believe they shouldn't "fight in civilian areas"; and 5 per cent who believe combatants shouldn't "kill children or the elderly". (See Figure 4.) However, 37 per cent of Nigerians surveyed do not name any act that they think should be prohibited. Among those distant from the conflict geographically (i.e., those who lived outside the area of fighting) and among those under the age of 40, the figure is even higher: 42 per cent and 44 per cent, respectively.

Similar gaps emerge when Nigerians consider what actions should not be allowed in war. While south-easterners rank robbing and stealing first (22 per cent), people in the rest of the country rank them at a distant 7 per cent. This may be explained by the fact that for south-easterners the war was fought on their home ground and they were the main victims of looting by combatants. For those living outside the south-east, the most often mentioned act is killing/attacking civilians (13 per cent), while for south-easterners it is ranked second, with 19 per cent. Nine per cent of all Nigerians surveyed believe "everything is allowed"; 15 per cent of combatants and 12 per cent of people who were kidnapped agree.

FIGURE 4 What combatants should not do (per cent of total population responding) (open-ended question)

Focus group and in-depth interview participants also reveal strong feelings about the protection of civilians. As one woman eloquently summed up, killing civilians violates the laws of simple common sense: "So if then they attack the civilians, who then will be left after the war?" (IDI, student, Lagos)

The combatant soldier under no circumstances is expected to go and attack the civilian population. (FG, former Federal Army commanders, Kaduna)

It is wrong because the soldiers are with weapons while the civilians are with empty hands, civilians don't have arms. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt)

[Moderator: Should combatants be allowed to do anything they want in fighting their enemy?]

No, no, certainly not. That will amount to giving a blank cheque to somebody. If you say that then they can just be allowed to do anything they want, it means they can rape women, it means they can loot properties of people, it means they can destroy the sources of livelihood... (IDI, scholar, Lagos)

The principal work of a soldier is to defend and protect the lives and property of civilians, do you understand what I mean? And the civilians are those who are not armed, they are not trained, they are not soldiers, so you are to fight to defend them, to protect them and when you turn to fight them, then, it is wrong. (IDI, disabled Biafran war veteran, Lagos)

While these kinds of opinions clearly serve as a starting point for viewing Nigerians' feelings about war, they are not absolute. When presented with possible situations that often occur in war - many of which happened in the Biafran conflict - the ideological walls protecting civilians clearly begin to crumble.

When told that civilians are voluntarily providing food and shelter to the enemy, the percentage of Nigerians who approve of attacks on them rises to 31 per cent. When respondents are told that civilians are being forced to provide food to combatants, that percentage falls by about one-third, to one in five (20 per cent). Similarly, when asked if it is acceptable to attack civilians if they are forced to transport ammunition for the enemy, more than one-third of Nigerians surveyed (36 per cent) say it is. If civilians are voluntarily transporting the ammunition, that percentage jumps to a slight majority - 51 per cent. These increases are not in themselves surprising, they represent the real-life dilemmas inherent in modern conflict, conflict that often blurs the line between civilians and combatants. (See Figure 5.)

FIGURE 5 Acceptance of war practices (per cent of total population responding)

Perhaps not surprisingly, south-easterners are more likely to say that depriving civilians of food, medicine or water is wrong than are Nigerians in other parts of the country (68 per cent versus 57 per cent), probably reflecting the memories of the widespread famine and deprivation that gripped Biafra during the fighting and in the period following the war.

The opinions of those who actually fought in the war are comparable to those who did not. While 53 per cent of combatants sanction attacks on civilians who voluntarily supply ammunition, 51 per cent of non-combatants agree. Similarly, of those who think that combatants should "attack only enemy combatants and leave civilians alone", 50 per cent agree that is acceptable to attack those who voluntarily provide ammunition, while 36 per cent in the same category think it's acceptable to attack civilians who are forced to provide ammunition to combatants.

These are vivid examples of how specific situations challenge Nigerians' preconceptions as to who should be caught up in war. Indeed, in many key areas regarding the treatment of civilians and combatants, the answers of those who give the unqualified response ("attack only enemy combatants and leave civilians alone") are statistically identical to those of the people who take the conditional response ("attack enemy combatants and avoid civilians as much as possible"). For instance, as mentioned, one-half of those who give the unqualified response say they would approve of attacking civilians who voluntarily transport ammunition for the enemy - but this is only one percentage point lower than those who gave the conditional response.9

9Seventy-three per cent of those who support attacking both combatants and civilians sanction such attacks.

This pattern holds true when respondents are asked about civilians voluntarily providing food and shelter to enemy combatants - 29 per cent of those giving the unqualified response say they support attacks on civilians in such circumstances, while 32 per cent of those giving the conditional response agree. Similarly, when told that civilians are forced to provide ammunition, those giving the unqualified response match those who give the conditional response (36 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively). Again, the same pattern is found when respondents are asked about civilians who were forced to provide food for the enemy (18 per cent versus 17 per cent).

Nigerians have mixed views about whether kidnapping, which was used as a tactic during the Biafran war, is acceptable. While 64 per cent of survey respondents overall think "it's wrong" to kidnap civilians for exchange, 29 per cent believe it's simply "part of war". Those who lived where the war took place are somewhat less likely to say they approve of kidnapping than are those who lived elsewhere - 26 per cent to 32 per cent. Similarly, older Nigerians are more likely to condone kidnapping than are younger Nigerians - 23 to 31 per cent.

Again, it appears that conditional answers creep in and threaten lawful wartime behaviour. When given a clear-cut choice in the survey as to whether kidnapping is "wrong" or "part of war", Nigerians frown upon hostage-taking as a means to get something in exchange. When presented with the same situation during focus groups and in-depth interviews, however, participants provide more nuanced opinions, but the conditional nature of adherence to rules governing war remains evident.

[I]f a civilian is kidnapped, it depends on what he is kidnapped for. If a soldier finds a civilian who is a very important person who is not a soldier, the army can capture the person... (IDI, disabled Biafran veteran, Lagos)

If I'm in trouble and I need to get out of it, any person I can lay hands on, I'll make use of the person, both kidnapping or whatever you call it. (FG, former Biafran field commanders, Enugu)

To me I say kidnap is sort of defence. The army get information from these civilians they kidnap. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt)

An array of norms

The vast majority of Nigerians offer normative reasons for opposing certain actions during wartime. The great majority of respondents (69 per cent) believe there are certain things combatants should not be allowed to do in fighting the enemy.10 Among these, 65 per cent choose a normative reason, "it's wrong", rather than a more pragmatic one, "it just causes too may problems" (32 per cent) to defend that position. South-easterners respond similarly, with 68 per cent saying "it's wrong" and 30 per cent saying "it causes too may problems".

10Thirty-seven per cent don't know or refused to volunteer an answer and 9 per cent say "everything is allowed".

When asked to choose from a list of reasons why some things are wrong, respondents point first to the protection of human rights (51 per cent) and second to religious principles (42 per cent).11 Comparable numbers of those who lived in the area of conflict and those who didn't choose "human rights" as a justification for why certain actions are wrong (50 per cent versus 52 per cent). Yet, there are marked differences between the two categories when it comes to religion (52 per cent in the area of conflict who say certain things are against their religion versus 31 per cent elsewhere) or the law (24 per cent in the area of conflict who say certain things are against the law versus 37 per cent elsewhere). (See Figure 6.)

11Respondents were allowed multiple responses.

FIGURE 6 Basis for the norm (per cent of total population responding "it's wrong") (top two choices)

South-easterners primarily base their objections to atrocities on their religious beliefs, with more than half of them (53 per cent) choosing religion as a basis for the norm. Although the vast majority of those living in the south-east are Roman Catholic, there is no specific evidence that points to religion as a more important aspect of society in the region, so this preference for religious norms may be yet another echo of the war. As the war left Biafra devastated and stripped of the bare necessities, those who survived may have turned to the Church for both spiritual comfort and material aid to a greater degree than did the rest of their compatriots. South-easterners may also feel frustrated about being denied independence and perhaps not fully allowed back into Nigerian society, thus requiring them to turn to institutions within their own community.

Similar findings were also uncovered in the focus groups and in-depth interviews, in which participants were able to present more detailed responses and offer their own array of choices, rather than picking from a list.

There is divine rule. There is an order in the Bible that thou shalt not kill. (FG, journalists, Lagos)

There is law... I think it is international human right law. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt)

[Killing civilians] is against the rules. Everything has rules. (FG, former Biafran field commanders, Enugu)

[Moderator: Where did the law come from that instructed you not to kill civilians?] From the headquarter. [Who?] The commandant. (FG, former captured Biafran combatants, Port Harcourt)

As shall be seen, the variety of responses as to why Nigerians think certain actions are wrong carry over into the way in which they view the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war in general.