2023 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom winner

Nightmare in Nigeria

About the Project

The Nigerian military has long been accused of human rights violations. But in a series of investigations, “Nightmare in Nigeria,” Reuters reporters Paul Carsten, David Lewis, Reade Levinson and Libby George exposed abuses more insidious and brutal than previously recorded, or even imagined.

The victims: thousands of women and children in Nigeria’s northeast, site of Abuja’s long, bloody, Western-backed war against Islamist insurgents. The methods: forced abortions, and targeted killings of children.

On December 7, the team reported that the Nigerian Army has run a secret, systematic and illegal abortion program, ending at least 10,000 pregnancies among women and girls, many of whom had been kidnapped and raped by militants. The abortions mostly were carried out without consent – often without the victims’ prior knowledge. Then, on Dec. 12, the team revealed that the military has intentionally killed children, from babies to adolescents, with a blurring frequency across the northeast. The rationale: The children too were, or would become, “terrorists.” One goal of these tactics, Reuters found, was not just to annihilate the insurgency – Boko Haram and its Islamic State offshoot – but to wipe out a perceived insurgent bloodline.

Carsten, based in Abuja, was on a story in northeast Nigeria a few years ago when he heard mention of army-ordered abortions – a shocking claim in a country where terminating pregnancy is almost always illegal. Within months, he built a network of women and security force members who told similar stories: Pregnant women and girls supposedly liberated by the army were being transported by the truckload, under armed guard, for abortions at barracks and hospitals. Troops, and health workers under army orders, tricked “patients” into taking abortion pills, or threatened and beat detainees into submission. They strapped the victims down, sedated them, and forced open their legs to insert pills or surgical tools. As one soldier put it: “They put something in there and twist it, like those things butchers use, like scissors, they push it inside and twist it. You’ll see her scream as they’re moving it inside of her.” Some bled out and died.

As the scope of the atrocities became clearer, another tip surfaced: The army was targeting children for death. Carsten and colleagues Lewis, Levinson and George found witnesses who reported that children were lined up and shot; gunned down while fleeing; smothered or poisoned in front of mothers. Bodies often were hidden in mass graves. Leads mushroomed. Reporters weeded through their hundreds of pages of notes, constructing detailed spreadsheets. In parsing the thousands of reported child killings, they narrowed their sights to six robustly corroborated incidents in which at least 60 children died. Among the toughest to reconstruct: a July 2020 roundup and massacre of at least 10 children, and several adults, near a frontier town – an event no resident ever had spoken of publicly, for fear of army retaliation. The team persuaded witnesses to meticulously describe scenes and draw maps that were used, in conjunction with satellite imagery, to verify accounts.

Judges Comments

Horrifying and vivid. Judges said this four-part series was expertly reported and extremely well written. The project’s findings spurred a human rights commission probe.