Federal Republic of Nigeria

Head of state and government: Olusegun Obasanjo (replaced General Abdulsalami Abubakar in May)
Capital: Abuja
Population: 103.4 million
Official language: English
Death penalty: retentionist

The human rights situation continued to improve, with further releases of political prisoners. Military decrees which provided for administrative detention and unfair political trials were revoked just before the military handed over to an elected civilian government in May. Communal unrest and inter-ethnic killings increased in several parts of the country, particularly in the Niger Delta, where soldiers were alleged to have used excessive and lethal force in dealing with protests and armed groups. The death penalty remained in force but fewer executions were reported.

Return to civilian government

Elections for state assemblies and governors were held in January, followed by national assembly and presidential elections in February. These were further steps in a "transition to civil rule" relaunched by the military government headed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar after the death of General Sani Abacha in June 1998. Retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, military head of state from 1976 to 1979 and a prisoner of conscience from 1995 to 1998, won the presidency and was inaugurated on 29 May 1999. While irregularities seriously marred the elections, the outcome was broadly accepted.

In early May the military government promulgated a new Constitution. This document had remained unpublished after a part-elected Constitutional Conference had made recommendations in 1995 and after further amendments had been made by the military government.

The government announced a review of the Constitution after widespread criticisms of its undemocratic inception, its centralization of powers to the federal government, including over the police and judiciary, and its transfer of jurisdiction in cases involving the government from state-level High Courts to Federal High Courts, which are considerably fewer in number.

In April the UN Commission on Human Rights, which had appointed a Special Rapporteur on Nigeria in 1997, ended its inquiries. The Special Rapporteur reported on the first visit he had been able to make to Nigeria in November 1998 and the improvement in the human rights situation. The Commonwealth, which had suspended Nigeria's membership following the executions in 1995 of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists, lifted the suspension in May.

Major legislative changes

Two military decrees were promulgated in late May which revoked 31 military decrees, including those which had suspended human rights provisions of the 1979 Constitution and removed the powers of the courts to challenge actions by the military government. Others were amended to restore jurisdiction to the ordinary courts in criminal cases. Fears were expressed by human rights and other groups after several northern states, led by Zamfara State in October, took steps to extend the jurisdiction of Shari'a (Islamic law) courts and to introduce more severe corporal punishments.

Decrees revoked included the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree, No. 2 of 1984, which provided for the arbitrary and indefinite detention without charge or trial of any person deemed by the government to be a threat to the security or the economy of the country. It was used to detain hundreds of prisoners of conscience.

Also rescinded were decrees which provided for special courts used to imprison and execute government critics after grossly unfair political trials. The Treason and Other Offences (Special Military Tribunals) Decree, No. 1 of 1986, provided for Special Military Tribunals headed by members of the military government. Between 1986 and 1998, these tribunals held treason trials which failed to meet nearly all standards of fair trial, resulting in a total of 79 executions of armed forces officers and the imprisonment of dozens of prisoners of conscience and possible prisoners of conscience. The Civil Disturbances (Special Tribunals) Decree, No. 2 of 1987, provided for Civil Disturbances Special Tribunals directly appointed by the military. Between 1987 and 1995, such tribunals conducted politically motivated and unfair trials, in 1995 resulting in the execution of nine Ogoni activists.

Other decrees revoked were the Treason and Treasonable Offences Decree, No. 29 of 1993, which broadened the definition of treason, and the retroactive Federal Military Government (Supremacy and Enforcement of Powers) Decree, No. 12 of 1994, which prohibited legal action challenging any government action or decree.

Among the decrees amended to restore the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts was the Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Decree, No. 5 of 1984, which provided the death penalty for armed robbery. Jurisdiction in armed robbery cases was restored to the state-level High Court, with a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. More than 2,600 death sentences had been carried out under military governments since 1970, most of which were passed by Robbery and Firearms Tribunals, now effectively abolished.


In June the government constituted a judicial commission of inquiry headed by Mr Justice C.A. Oputa, a retired Supreme Court judge, to investigate past human rights violations and make recommendations on redress for victims and preventive measures. Its mandate, to investigate abuses between 1984 and May 1999, was extended in October back to 1966. It received more than 11,000 submissions, many in relation to human rights violations in Ogoniland in the mid-1990s. Hearings had not started by the end of the year.

A number of officials and associates of the previous military government were charged with involvement in human rights violations. In October Mohammed Abacha, a son of former head of state General Abacha, and four others, including senior security officials, were charged in connection with the murder in June 1996 of Kudirat Abiola. She was the wife of Moshood Abiola, the reported winner of the 1993 presidential elections which were annulled by the military, who died in detention in 1998. One of the same security officials and an army doctor were also charged in connection with the suspected murder in custody in December 1997 of retired Major-General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, a prisoner of conscience and former deputy head of state. In November, five senior armed forces and police officers were charged in connection with the attempted murder in February 1996 of Alex Ibru, a newspaper proprietor and former government minister.

Communal unrest

Hundreds died in inter-communal clashes across the country. Scores of people reportedly died in conflicts between the Ijaw and Itsekiri over land and oil rights in May and June around Warri in the western Niger Delta. Two of Nigeria's three largest ethnic groups, the Yoruba and Hausa, were involved in inter-communal killings in July in Sagamu, southwest Nigeria, followed by reprisal killings in Kano, in the north, and in November in Lagos when more than 100 were reported killed. In the Niger Delta attacks on oil installations grew, as did the hostage-taking of oil workers for ransom; a number were reportedly killed.

The security forces were reported to have used excessive and lethal force against youths protesting against the security forces in the Niger Delta and agitating for a halt to oil production. The armed forces were also reported to have killed defenceless civilians and razed their homes, in reprisal for the killing of police and soldiers by armed groups.

In January soldiers reportedly shot dead up to 20 people in and around the town of Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa State, after a call by Ijaw groups for the military and the oil companies to leave Ijaw territories.

  • Wariebi Ajoko, a 14-year-old boy, was among those killed outside his home in Olobiri-Kaiama. Soldiers took the boy's body away and it was not returned to the family. His father was among community elders detained and tortured by the security forces, and forced to drink their own urine after being held for days in the open without food and water.

In September soldiers reportedly carried out reprisal killings in Yenagoa after the killing of at least two soldiers. The government ordered an internal army inquiry.

In November at least 40 people, including soldiers, were reportedly killed in the town of Odi, near Yenagoa, after an armed group fired on soldiers seeking to arrest them and the armed forces responded by bombarding the town. The armed group had allegedly murdered 12 police officers. A Senate committee which visited a week later reported that the town had been razed and that several corpses remained in the streets. The authorities provided no information about those killed or arrested and no inquiry was instituted.

Releases of political prisoners

The releases of political prisoners which started following the death of General Abacha continued during 1999. In March at least 39 prisoners of conscience and possible prisoners of conscience held in connection with alleged coup plots were released.

Ten soldiers were released who had been imprisoned since a coup attempt in 1990, two of them despite being acquitted by a Special Military Tribunal.

The remaining 17 prisoners convicted of involvement in a fabricated coup plot by a Special Military Tribunal in 1995, all armed forces officers, were released. Civilians convicted in the same 1995 trials had been released in 1998.

Eight armed forces officers and six civilians convicted in April 1998 of involvement in an alleged plot in 1997 were released. Death sentences imposed on six of them, including Lieutenant-General Oladipo Diya, deputy head of state to General Abacha, had been commuted in 1998.

Supporters of the Islamic Movement

Supporters of the Islamic Movement, an Islamist group in northern Nigeria, were released on completion of prison sentences, or on payment of fines in place of their prison sentences. They were reported to have been convicted after politically motivated and unfair trials in 1996 and 1997.

  • Mohamed Aminu Ahamed was reported to have died in May as a result of harsh conditions and medical neglect in Lapia prison, Niger State, where two others convicted in the same trials – Abdulkadir Magaji and Mohammed Salisu – had died in 1998.


Under military rule, journalists continued to be detained for questioning, usually briefly, after publishing articles critical of the security forces or on the basis of unsubstantiated complaints.

  • In February the police in Lagos arrested two employees of The News group of newspapers, Kingsley Uwannah and Kayode Sofuyi, and detained them without charge for a week. Three other employees were detained overnight and also released without charge.
  • In October Jerry Needam, an editor of a newspaper produced by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), was detained incommunicado and without charge or trial for three weeks in Port Harcourt. Police were reportedly seeking the source of a leaked police order which characterized MOSOP and other human rights groups in the Niger Delta as "enemy forces" and which revealed a lack of clarity about when the security forces could use lethal force against protesters. He was released without charge after three weeks.


Detainees arrested by police and military were routinely subjected to beatings and detained in harsh and insanitary conditions.

  • In April Ugochukwu Agi, a teacher and human rights defender, was arrested with two others, beaten by soldiers and detained for three days with criminal suspects who stripped and also beat him. The reason for his detention appeared to be his involvement in local community protests over an explosion at the Obite gas plant in Rivers State in March which killed five employees, and longstanding community concerns about the gas plant. He was released without charge.

As many as 20 young people, including children aged 14 and 15, were reportedly wounded in nearby Ogbogu when a joint military and paramilitary police anti-robbery unit reportedly fired on protestors.

Death penalty

At least 11 death sentences were passed and three executions carried out. The executions, one in Cross River State in March and two in Osun State in May, were of three men convicted of armed robbery by Robbery and Firearms Tribunals. They were carried out by firing squad. No executions were known to have been carried out after the return to civilian rule.

AI action

In July AI submitted reports detailing hundreds of individual cases of human rights violations to the Oputa investigation panel and made recommendations to the government about the powers and resources which would contribute to the effectiveness of the investigations. AI also raised a number of concerns with the government.

  • Moussa Goukouni, a Chadian teacher and former diplomat, was reportedly arrested in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, on suspicion of links with a Chadian armed opposition group, and in August transferred to a military camp near Lake Chad. AI asked the Nigerian authorities about his case, in light of the extrajudicial execution in Chad in 1992 of deportees from Nigeria, and further extrajudicial executions in Chad in 1996.

AI country reports and visits


  • Nigeria: Releases of political prisoners – questions remain about past human rights violations (AI Index: AFR 44/001/99)


AI visited Nigeria in June and July to carry out research and to attend organizational meetings with AI members in Nigeria.

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