The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been asked to consider indictments against nine named senior military officers in Nigeria following allegations that they've been responsible for some 8,000 deaths since 2009 in the war against Islamist extremists, Boko Haram.
The call came from Amnesty International following the publication of a "sickening" report alleging that the nine – including the chief of the defence staff – sanctioned the detention of more than 20,000 men and boys, more than a third of whom subsequently died of starvation, suffocation or other types of torture.
"Whilst an urgent and impartial investigation of these war crimes is vital", says Amnesty's secretary general, Salil Shetty, "this report is not just about the criminal responsibility of individuals. It is also about the responsibility of Nigeria's leadership to end the culture of impunity in the armed forces."
The Amnesty report, Stars on their Shoulders, Blood on their Hands, has been described as "fully credible" by John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based independent think thank, who served as US Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.
Drawn from six field investigations and more than 400 interviews, the document, he said, “details the security services’ flagrant human rights abuses with great precision”.
Former detainees as well as military sources described how prisoners were tortured to death, hung on poles over fires, tossed alive into deep pits, or interrogated using electric batons.
It was, Mr Campbell added, "a damning indictment" of the administration of Goodluck Jonathan, who was replaced as Nigerian president by former general Muhammadu Buhari in an election last month, and who allegedly took "no steps" to end the killings and detentions.
With alleged abuses on both sides, human rights groups have been urging the ICC for some time to become involved in Nigeria, with a suggestion, for instance, that the abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram last year could be a case of genocide against the country’s Christian community.
This latest attempt to seek ICC indictments against the nine senior officers is based on the possibility that Mr Buhari might be encouraged to purge the upper echelons of the army and security services – seeing it as an opportunity to replace Mr Jonathan’s appointments with his own.
“Should he wish to do so, he could also ask the ICC to open an investigation”, said Mr Campbell.
Independent Nigerian analysts believe, however, that because Mr Buhari is regarded first and foremost as a nationalist, he is unlikely to call for the assistance of what might be regarded as an “external” judicial body.
They believe that instead he is more likely to review existing institutions or create new ones to address allegations of human rights abuse.
Many of the killings recorded by Amnesty appear to be reprisals by the army and associated militia in the north-east of the country following attacks by Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to Islamic State in March.
“Soldiers go to the nearest town or village and kill all the youths indiscriminately”, recounted one senior military source quoted in the report. “They’re people who may be totally innocent, often not even armed.”