The International Criminal Court (ICC) is looking into potential crimes against humanity committed in Nigeria's Plateau State. The court's prosecutor's office confirmed last week that it is analysing a massacre that killed over 300 people in January.
By Thijs Bouwknegt
The killings took place some 30 kilometres south of the city of Jos in Plateau State in central Nigeria, where in January Christian and Muslim mobs went on a rampage with guns, knives and machetes.
The ICC's decision to launch an examination into possible crimes against humanity follows a petition filed by Nigerian rights organisation the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) to Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo's office in The Hague.
In a letter last week, the prosecutor's office said that investigators are reviewing if there is a reasonable basis to start investigations in Nigeria, which is a state party to the ICC. "Analysis will be carried out as expeditiously as possible," the letter said, but further cautioned, "that meaningful analysis of these factors can take some time."
The ICC further said that it would see whether it has jurisdiction over the crimes committed, and if any Nigerian courts are investigating or prosecuting the atrocities.
Court of last resort
SERAP on January 29th requested the permanent war crimes court prosecutor to “to investigate proprio motu allegations of unlawful killing of at least 326 people and perpetration of other crimes under international law during the violence in January 2010 in Jos, Plateau State of Nigeria; and the reports that the military and police used excessive force against both Christians and Muslims in responding to the violence.”
The ICC is a court of last resort and it can act only if states are unable or refuse to deal with the most serious crimes under international law. SERAP claims that the Nigerian government "in effect, has shown itself unwilling or unable to transparently and effectively investigate and prosecute" the allegations.
ERAP lawyer Femi Falana, who had sent the petition to the ICC on behalf of the rights group, welcomed Ocampo's move. "This is fantastic news for the victims of the unlawful killing and other abuses that took place in Jos earlier this year, and previous outbreaks of deadly violence in the city."
"Ending impunity for the cycle of violence in many parts of Nigeria is essential for sustainable peace, stability and security, and for the country's social, economic and political development," Falana said.
After the worst of the mid-January violence in and around the nearby town of Kuru Karama, President Goodluck Jonathan pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice. "Those found to have engineered, encouraged or fanned the embers of this crisis through their actions or pronouncements will be arrested and speedily brought to justice," he said.
But the President's warnings did not prevent fresh atrocities. After his statement, up to 500 people - including women, children and babies - were killed when three villages near Jos were attacked. The attacks are said to have been in revenge for the January massacre.
Decade of violence
Nigeria is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), more than 13,500 people have died in religious or ethnic clashes since the end of the military rule in 1999. Plateau state, where Jos is located, lies in the so-called middle belt between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south.
The massacre south of Jos is the latest in a series of deadly incidents in and around Plateau State. HRW documented an unprecedented outbreak of violence in Jos that claimed as many as 1,000 lives in September 2001. More than 700 people died in May 2004 in inter-communal clashes in the town of Yelwa in the southern part of Plateau State, and at least 700 people were killed in the violence in Jos in November 2008.
(Additional editing: Marijntje Lazet)