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Politicians versus Practitioners: Who is really responsible for human rights abuses in the aftermath of terrorism-incidents – Dr Anneli Botha

March 1, 2018


Politicians versus Practitioners: Who is really responsible for human rights abuses in the aftermath of terrorism-incidents

By Anneli Botha

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 6 (2018), Number 4 (March 2018)

In the aftermath of an attack, the public understandably demand answers and action from politicians and security forces. Starting with blame as to why an attack hadn’t been  prevented in the first place, politicians promise action (for political reasons), and the public will hold both accountable if action is not immediate. Accepted action includes immediate answers as to what happened, how it happened and who were responsible, followed by swift action against those deemed responsible. A strong response is intended to be interpreted by the public as ‘being in control’ and not to lose trust in the security forces, while government wants to portray an image of strength to its countrymen and the broader international community. It is often also for this reason that government would claim victory. For example, President Muhammadu Buhari in a statement on Christmas Eve 2017, declared “the long-awaited and most gratifying news of the final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists in their last enclave in Sambisa Forest.” This was echoed on 7 January 2018 by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Yusuf Buratai, that his troops have won the war against Boko Haram. These declarations come exactly three years after President Buhari announced that Nigeria had “technically” won the war. While in early February 2018, Abdulrahman Dambazzau, the Minister of the Interior, described the group as “completely decimated” and that the group’s structure was degraded and its leadership dismantled. Minister of Information Lai Mohammed cited the “resumption of flights, bubbling nightlife, and football matches in Maiduguri” as signs normalcy has returned to the Borno State capital. Even more detrimental, Rogers Ibe Nicholas, the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole in Maiduguri, declared Boko Haram “completely defeated.”[i] Just to be proven wrong by subsequent attacks, often achieving the opposite of what government intended.

Returning to deciding who should be blamed for human rights abuses. Although the public and politicians will exclusively blame security forces for what transpired, should responsibility for abuses not be shared by politicians who created conditions conducive to abuse? Understandably security personnel decided on the way to act, but being under unrealistic pressure to produce instant answers and bring those to justice without providing the support and necessary ‘tools’ should share the blame.

On a strategic level, driving and committing these abuses give terrorists the moral upper hand, even justifying their actions as ‘understandable’. From the perspective of the terrorists committing these offences – from the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria, suicide bombings in Somalia, etc. – some of the primary objectives of a terrorist attack include: Firstly, exposing the inability of the state and its security forces to protect itself and its citizens against attacks. Secondly, to manipulate the public through fear to put pressure on the governments in order to change their policies towards the organisation. Thirdly, through committing acts of terrorism, terrorists intend to provoke a response from government. In other words, by provoking a response – often an over-reaction – the State and its security forces can be categorised as inhumane and contributing to radicalisation and recruitment. Therefore, government ultimately plays into the hands of the terrorists/insurgents.

In addition to a potential provocation strategy, politicians need to uphold the image of being in control and defuse public pressure. Consequently, the pressure placed on the government to provide answers and act is being transferred to the security forces to deal with those responsible for the attacks. Practically, security forces first need to investigate in order to identify those responsible. However, in reality, the longer it requires security forces to take action is often being interpreted as a sign of incompetence of both the government and its security forces. Consequently, politicians place enormous pressure on commanding officers to act – without completing investigations or gathering reliable information identifying those implicated in the attack. However, neither the public, nor politicians and commanding officers – that are often politically appointed – grasp the complexity of terrorism-related investigations. Even a domestic terror attack, without any international links, can be challenging.

Giving in under pressure, security forces often respond without the required evidence by rounding up any potential suspects in the form of mass arrests, even arresting family members of potential suspects (again without evidence). For example, according to individuals already convicted in Cameroon for their alleged involvement in Boko Haram,  security forces rounded up people indiscriminately, often justifying it by unrealistic reasons or ‘evidence’. Without a criminal justice culture that allows a suspect access to an adequate defence in a fair judicial system, in a majority of cases usually leads to conviction. Military tribunals often held in secret (justified by security concerns)in which the burden of proof is considerably lower than in criminal court, contribute to unfair practices, leaving many that are in fact innocent in prison, often facing long sentences.

In addition to the consequences of wrongful conviction there is the question which agency should take the lead in countering and preventing terrorism: the police or military. Understandably, the police is not equipped or trained to fight a counterinsurgency, similarly the military is not equipped to deal with the public or lead a criminal justice response that is based on the collection of evidence, completing forensic investigations and arresting suspects. Recognising the very different mandates, the military can play a support role to assist the police in establishing control and stability to an area under the control of insurgents. However, once control has been established, the military should step aside and play a supportive role to the police. However, many countries on the continent historically provided more support to the military to secure regime security. Consequently, instead of investing in the police to fulfil its mandate, much needed resources and human investment did not end up where it was really needed. Addressing the public’s perception that those responsible for acts of terrorism do not deserve mercy, is in fact the primary reason for a country to be guided by evidence, the law and not emotions. It is the best strategy to prevent over-reaction as well as identifying and successfully prosecuting those responsible for the atrocities.

A successful prosecution depends on recognising that the law is impartial and should be followed throughout – from the beginning of the investigation till the end. A common mistake is to assume that the legal framework only applies to when the case goes to court. Therefore, the law is not always seen as relevant when it does not suit the investigation, and is consequently disregarded when the investigation or prosecution is confronted with challenges. It is especially under these circumstances that both investigators (police) and prosecution should be guided by the long-term objective (successful prosecution) and not short-term solution (file charges or bring the suspect to court). Through seeing and focusing on the ‘bigger picture’ people need to:

  • Prevent short cuts. Instead go the extra mile in securing that the investigation follows all leads and covers all angles.
  • Focus on the evidence and not perceptions. The presumption of innocence needs to be respected throughout the investigations in the minds of those involved. Therefore, investigators should not exclusively focus on evidence that fits into a pre-set expectation and consequently disregard everything else.
  • Follow operating procedures that respect the legal framework


Furthermore, it is essential to respect due process and the rule of law, not only in the country in which the offence was committed, but also in the countries where the suspects were arrested. In not following the rule of law and due process in the country with primary jurisdiction where the case will be heard, illegal procedures in other countries will threaten the entire legal process. For example, the prosecution of suspects arrested in Kenya to be prosecuted in Uganda was threatened under allegations of extraordinary rendition. This is particularly relevant in terrorism-related offences that would be put in the spotlight due to the nature of the incident.

Pressure is a natural consequence of terrorism, yet the manner it is channelled will ultimately influence the success of short-term measures and the long-term strategy against terrorism and radicalization. This requires strategic thinking on the part of government and its security forces not to play into the hands of the enemy. The focus of every member of the security forces therefore needs to be to realise that their actions have consequences that could harm or benefit the country’s counterterrorism strategy and vision. Government equally has a responsibility to be honest with its citizens and allow its security forces to take action, even though it might take time beyond its period in office.

[i]SonalaOlumhense, ‘The ‘defeat’ of Boko Haram’, Punch, 11 February 2018, available at (accessed on 14 February 2018).

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