1999 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.5
Civil Liberties: 3
Political Rights: 4

Ratings Change

Nigeria's political rights rating changed from 6 to 4 following the holding of free and largely fair local, legislative, and presidential elections. The country's civil liberties rating changed from 4 to 3 due to an easing of repression against journalists, human rights workers, and political opponents, and the release of a number of political prisoners.


Fifteen years of military rule ended in May 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo assumed power as Nigeria's president. His victory in the February elections, with 63 percent of the vote, did not represent an absolute departure from military rule, however, because Obasanjo himself is a former general; he led a military regime from 1976 to 1979. Nevertheless, his is Nigeria's only military ruler to have voluntarily handed over power to civilians. Obasanjo, who spent three years in prison under former military ruler Sani Abacha, quickly moved to keep the military in check. He purged the armed forces of several hundred senior officers and then announced plans to cut the military by 30,000, down from 80,000, over a period of four years.

The military has ruled Nigeria for all but ten years since independence from Britain in 1960. Its generals and their backers argued that they were the only ones capable of keeping a lid on simmering tensions between Muslims and Christians, and among the 122 million people who constitute the country's 250 ethnic groups. The Hausa-Fulani from northern Nigeria have dominated the military and government since independence. The Yoruba and Igbo people and smaller groups of the south deeply resent this domination and what many see as exploitation of their far richer lands. The north is largely Muslim while the south is mainly Christian. With the easing of repression, ethnic and religious conflicts erupted violently in several areas of the country in 1999, leaving hundreds dead and displacing thousands. The violence could turn out to be only a spasmodic episode in a freer and more democratic society, but it could also escalate and spread if not handled properly by the new government.

Despite an escalation in social conflicts, the country's human rights situation improved dramatically. Thousands of prisoners were released from overcrowded jails, and commissions were set up to investigate rights abuses, corruption, and the judiciary. Decrees allowing detention without trial and suspension of constitutional guarantees for human rights were repealed. Abuses by security forces, including extortion, arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings, continued, however, especially in the oil-rich Niger Delta region.

Nigeria initially appeared to be emerging from several years of military rule under General Ibrahim Babangida in 1993 when presidential elections were held. Moshood K. O. Abiola, a Muslim Yoruba, was widely considered the winner, but the military annulled the results. It continued to rule behind a puppet civilian administration until General Abacha, a principal architect of previous coups, took power himself in November 1993. A predominantly military Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) was appointed, and all democratic structures were dissolved and political parties banned. Chief Abiola was arrested in June 1994 after declaring himself Nigeria's rightful president. He died in detention, after suffering from lack of proper medical care, just five weeks after Abacha himself died suddenly in June 1998.

The departure of the two most significant figures on Nigeria's political landscape opened possibilities for democratic change. General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the army chief of staff, emerged as the consensus choice of the military's PRC as the country's next leader and promised to oversee a transition to real civilian rule. Local, legislative, and presidential elections were held before he handed over power on May 29.

A priority of the new government is to try to rid Nigeria of the corrupt practices of the past that have bled the country of billions of dollars in revenue. Abacha alone is estimated to have spirited away $2.2 billion. The new government began mending its ties with the international community. Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth was lifted, and the United States resumed military cooperation with the government.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Elections in Nigeria have been marred by intimidation and fraud. The recent polls were also plagued with irregularities, but there was no indication of a concerted, organized effort at manipulation. Local and international observers accepted the results. The Independent National Electoral Commission organized the voting. Several dozen human rights, pro-democracy and other nongovernmental organizations formed the Transitional Monitoring Group, which deployed more than 10,000 election observers throughout the country. Up to 600 international observers also monitored the process. During legislative and presidential polls, violations included stuffing of ballot boxes, vastly inflated figures for voter turnout, intimidation and bribery of both electoral officials and voters, and alteration of results at collation centers. Irregularities were particularly serious in the Niger Delta region. Election tribunal proceedings to determine disputed results were also marked by fraud.

To meet eligibility requirements for national assembly elections, a party needed to receive five percent of votes cast in 24 of the country's 36 states in the December 1998 local elections. Members of the bicameral assembly are elected for four-year terms for the senate and house of representatives. Obasanjo's People's Democratic Party (PDP) won 59 senate seats and 206 house seats in the 1999 elections. The All People's Party (APP) won 24 seats in the senate and 74 in the house, while the Alliance for Democracy (AD) won 20 senate seats and 68 house seats. Obasanjo won the presidency, which carries a four-year term, with 63 percent of the vote compared to 37 percent for the AD's Samuel Oluyemi Falae.

The constitution that came into force on May 29, 1999, was promulgated by General Abubakar only three weeks before the new government was inaugurated. Members of civil society called the adoption process illegitimate, without input from the Nigerian people, and said it failed to provide for the national human rights commission established under Abacha, which was able to carry out some useful work. The national assembly announced in September that it would undertake a constitutional review.

The minister of justice proposed reforms to the judiciary, including greater independence, and reconstitution of the Judicial Services Commission. Abubakar repealed a number of repressive military decrees, including the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree of 1984, popularly known as "decree two," which allows unchallenged detention without trial. Other laws continued to infringe on rights, including the Public Order Act and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Decree.

Freedom of assembly is respected, and numerous human rights and nongovernmental groups operate freely. For the first time since 1993, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People was allowed to organize openly. Te writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni rights activists were hanged in November 1995 after a show trial on murder charges. Unrest and repression spread throughout the Delta region in 1999 as local communities and ethnic groups demand a greater share of the oil wealth of their land. A number of armed youth groups have emerged to defend their ethnic and economic interests, including the pro-Yoruba Oodua People's Congress, the pro-Hausa-Fulani Arewa People's Congress, and Ijaw militants of the Niger Delta. Two hundred people were killed in ethnic clashes in the Delta in May, and 60 people died in a conflict between Hausa-Fulanis and Yorubas in July alone.

Obasanjo announced the appointment of a panel, chaired by a retired supreme court judge, to investigate human rights abuses since 1966 and to prevent future violations. A number of states disbanded abusive paramilitary anticrime units established under Abacha. Although the new groups did not include soldiers, they were accused of a number of rights abuses.

Before the handover to civilian rule, all remaining high-profile political prisoners were released by General Abubakar, as well as civilians linked to alleged coup plots and convicted by military tribunals in unfair trials. Several of Abacha's close associates arrested after his death remained in detention, facing charges of human rights violations and theft of government funds. In October, General Abacha's son Mohammed and his security chief appeared in court charged with the June 1996 murder of Kudirat Abiola, wife of Moshood Abiola. Incarceration remains harsh and often life-threatening. Nearly 10,000 prisoners are reported to have died of disease or other causes from 1990 to 1995. Almost 36,000 prisoners were detained awaiting trial, some for several years. The Obasanjo government appointed a national prison reform committee to advise on prison conditions.

Media freedom has improved substantially under Obasanjo. Restrictive decrees remain in force, however, and press groups are opposed to new constitutional provisions that would entrench government control over the media. Private radio and television stations have protested against high licensing fees.

Freedom of religion is respected, although there was an escalation in clashes between Muslims and Christians in 1999. Tension increased after northern Zamfara state adopted Sharia (Islamic law) in October. Other states are considering similar measures, while the southern Cross River state threatened to declare itself Christian.

Nigerian women face societal discrimination, although educational opportunities have eroded a number of barriers over the years. Marital rape is not considered a crime and women are denied equal rights to inherit property. About 60 percent of Nigerian women are subjected to female genital mutilation. Child labor and child marriages remain common, and there were continued reports of trafficking in women and girls abroad for purposes of prostitution.

Free trade union activities are resuming after being suppressed for several years. Union leaders were released from jail, and some decrees limiting trade union activity were repealed. A monopoly established by the Trade Unions Act, however, remains in place. Representatives to the National Labour Congress were elected in January to replace the administrator appointed by the Abacha government.

Corruption and fraud loom as impediments to sustained economic growth in Nigeria, but efforts were made to improve transparency. An anticorruption bill was introduced to the national assembly, and steps were taken to reduce corruption in the fuel-distribution sector, making fuel more easily available to the general population. Discussions are underway to restructure the country's oil sector, which provides 90 percent of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings. The government committed to an economic restructuring program monitored by the International Monetary Fund, which offered a $1 billion standby loan. The European Union lifted remaining sanctions against Nigeria in June.

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