Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan said recently that “over 13,000 people have been killed” in the violent Boko Haram campaign against the Nigerian state.
“Over the past five years, we have been, and are still confronting threats posed by Boko Haram to peace and stability,” he told the UN Security Council in New York. "The costs are high: over 13,000 people have been killed, whole communities razed, and hundreds of persons kidnapped.”
His claim was widely reported in Nigerian press. We examined the evidence.
There are varying figures for the numbers of people killed since Boko Haram began its insurgency in 2009. (For more on the group, read our factsheet.)
The Nigeria Social Violence Project, under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins University Africa programme, has recorded 11,121 deaths since the start of the insurgency. Their figures include killings by the militants and by the Nigerian security forces, who have repeatedly been accused of extrajudicial killings by human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Other reports focus on shorter time-frames. Human Rights Watch has said that attacks by Boko Haram "killed at least 2,053 civilians … during the first half of 2014".
Killings by Boko Haram and the Nigerian military
According to Amnesty International “more than 4,000” people have been killed “by the Nigerian military and Boko Haram” this year.
Between May and December 2013, according to the United Nations Humanitarian Agency (OCHA), 1,224 people were killed by Boko Haram.
As for the deaths of civilians and militants at the hands of the armed forces, Amnesty International says it “received credible information from a senior officer in the Nigerian army that over 950 people died in military custody in the first six months of 2013”.
Add this to the 4,000 fatalities reported thus far in 2014, and the widely-held estimates of 3,000 to 4,000 deaths between 2009 and mid-2013, and the total number of people killed by Boko Haram and the Nigerian military would be, conservatively speaking, 9,000 to 10,000.
'Three to five times more people killed than reported'
Higher figures are reported by the Nigeria Security Tracker, a project run by Africa programme of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). It estimates the death toll from May 2011 (when it began its work) to August 2014 at over 17,500. This includes 6,742 deaths linked directly to Boko Haram, and a further 10,806 killings involving “Boko Haram and state perpetrators”. The latter category covers instances in which armed forces and insurgents have directly engaged each other, and in which it is not always clear who the victims are. CFR measures extra-judicial killings by state forces separately.
Asked why their figures are significantly higher than those reported by human rights organisations, Allen Grane, a research assistant on CFR’s Africa programme said: “When we add a violent occurrence to the tracker we always take the highest reported number. We do this as we have been told by multiple non-profits on the ground that the figures range from three to five times what is actually reported.”
The limits of counting deaths
The inconsistent death toll figures are understandable. According to the CFR: “Relying on press reports of violence presents methodological limitations. There is a dearth of accurate reporting across certain regions, death tolls are imprecise, and accounts of incidents vary. There is the potential for political manipulation of media.”
For its part, the Nigerian Social Violence Project cautions that its “categories overlap”, and therefore “deaths may be counted in more than one category”.
Conclusion: The 13,000 death toll is broadly accurate
The available data suggests that as few 9,000 and as many as 17,500 people have died in the insurgency. The latter figure includes killings by both Boko Haram and the Nigerian military.
It is unclear whether President Jonathan’s claim of 13,000 deaths referred to those at the hands of the insurgents or through the conflict in general. However, the statement would appear to be broadly accurate if killings at the hands of the military are also included.
Edited by Eleanor Whitehead