Events of 1991
Human Rights Developments
Throughout its six-year tenure, the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida has relied on force to ensure its stay in power. In the process, the Babangida government has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of students and others who demonstrated against its policies, the detention without trial of thousands of government critics, the silencing of opposition organizations and the erosion of the rule of law. In 1991, the continuation of those practices furthered the deterioration of an already crumbling civil society.
Babangida's tightly controlled program of transition to civilian rule, due to be completed by October 1, 1992, purports to be building a democracy. But the program has included a prohibition on all independent political parties and the denial of the right to vote to many other Nigerians. The government claimed that such controls were necessary to eliminate the ethnic, religious and regional violence that has plagued the country in the past. During 1991, however, escalating political violence and several outbreaks of religious riots in the north indicated that the old problems remain unsolved.
In December, thirteen former governors, senators and ministers were arrested for violating the ban on participation in politics by former politicians. They were accused of sponsoring candidates for state governorship elections and were ordered by the Transition to Civilian Rule Tribunal to remain in police custody until they reappear before the tribunal on January 16, 1992. However, the ban was lifted on December 18 with a government announcement that "the time has come when the old and new should mix, cooperate or compete."
Although President Babangida repeatedly has declared his intention to complete the transition program on schedule, the growing violence has provoked official warnings that the transition is in danger of being derailed, and has encouraged speculation that the government might use the instability as an excuse to remain in power. Even if the military leaves office as planned, its success in manipulating the political system, weakening the courts and destroying such civilian institutions as the labor movement and student unions has ensured that the fragile new government will be vulnerable to future military influence. With less than a year to go, the government continues to rely on strong-arm tactics, and has refused to loosen its grip on civilian institutions.
Elections in 1990 had been conducted using an experimental method known as the "open ballot," in which voters line up behind photographs of their chosen candidates, rather than the secret ballot, as provided by Nigerian law. The possibilities for voter intimidation inherent in the open ballot system were obvious. In March 1991, the government announced that it would conduct an extensive nationwide opinion poll to canvas the views of Nigerians on the new voting system. Shortly thereafter, the government declared that, based on what was said to be the results of the poll, the open ballot would be used in all future elections.
The government continued its practice of ruling by military decrees, which are prohibited from being questioned by the courts. State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree 2 of 1984, the most widely abused and feared decree, provides for virtually unlimited detention without trial. In 1991, the government used Decree 2 to continue to hold relatives and acquaintances of suspected participants in the April 1990 coup attempt who are still at large. Those who remain in detention include Gloria Mowarin, the girlfriend of a suspected coup financier, whose release was ordered by the court on February 19. Pregnant at the time of her detention, she miscarried in her seventh month. Others include Gloria Awhirin and Rhoda Ackah, two sisters of Great Ogboru, the alleged coup leader. In June 1991, a High Court judge appealed to the federal government to order their immediate release on humanitarian grounds. One is nursing a baby. Dorah Mukoro, wife of Major Saliba Mukoro, an alleged coup participant, reportedly escaped from detention in September, along with her children. She gave birth in detention less than two months after her arrest.
As in past years, the government in 1991 was extremely sensitive to allegations of official corruption, which is widely recognized as one of Nigeria's most intractable problems. In the most talked-about case of the year, Jennifer Madike was arrested on January 10 for allegedly collecting a bribe from three men on the pretext that she was to deliver it to Fidelis Oyakhilome, then chair of the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency, to secure the release of two detained suspected drug dealers. She was later detained under Decree 2, amid rumors of the involvement of First Lady Maryam Babangida in the scandal. She was not produced in court until March 22, after numerous complaints filed by her lawyer, human rights activist Femi Falana, who is also president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers and vice president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. Madike was later charged with stealing and official corruption. Her cousin was arrested on April 17, and both women were subsequently charged with forgery in connection with a letter that the two claim was written to Madike by Mrs. Babangida. Madike became seriously ill in custody and is still denied access to her lawyer, despite several court orders.
One of the most damaging effects of military rule on the justice system has been the use of special tribunals. Lacking internationally recognized judicial safeguards, they hear a variety of cases considered by the government to be particularly sensitive, including cases of armed robbery, treason, corruption, drug trafficking and subverting the transition to civilian rule. Those convicted in some cases have no right of appeal. Others may be appealed to a Special Appeal Tribunal, but the appellate decisions must then be confirmed by the government. Until 1991, military officers sat on tribunals along with judges, but according to Decree 9 of 1991, tribunals now consist of one civilian judge. While a small improvement, this change does not address many of the fundamental problems of the tribunals, including a presumption of guilt, inadequate legal representation, disproportionately stiff sentences and strictly circumscribed provisions for appeal. In addition, the continued existence of a parallel court system weakens the authority of the regular courts.
Despite the removal of members of the military from the special tribunals, military tribunals are still used to try certain cases. Nine soldiers and two civilians, accused of involvement in the April 1990 coup attempt, were tried in secret before a military tribunal in September and October. According to the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), a Nigerian human rights group, the suspects had been acquitted on similar charges in two previous trials before military tribunals and had been in detention for at least one year.29 They were denied counsel during their detention and were represented at the trial by army lawyers. The CLO filed a suit to restrain the trial and later learned that it had been concluded and that eight suspects had been sentenced to death and three to life imprisonment. Two weeks later, the government announced that, pursuant to its human rights policy, the death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and the life sentences to ten years' imprisonment.
Corruption in the judiciary has worsened under the Babangida government which, at the highest levels, has shown a lack of respect for the courts. A government-sponsored candidate who headed the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) from 1989 to 1991 assured a policy of nonconfrontation with the government. In March 1991, at the opening ceremony of the African Bar Association meeting in Abuja, the government announced a one million dollar "gift" to the NBA, much to the embarrassment of many Nigerian lawyers. On August 7, Attorney General and Minister of Justice Prince Bola Ajibola announced a plan to require licenses for all lawyers; many feared the plan would be used to exert greater control over the bar.
The last two military governments' hostility to academic pursuits has crippled universities throughout the country. In 1991, students were the targets of a renewed siege. The crackdown began in late May in response to an ultimatum issued by the banned student organization, the National Association of Nigerian Students. The ultimatum included demands for the reinstatement of suspended students, the unbanning of student unions on several campuses, and the undertaking of reforms in university administration. A number of students were arrested in the days before the ultimatum deadline, and protests occurred on campuses throughout the country on the day of the deadline. Two students in Lagos were killed during a campus clash between armed security agents and unarmed students. A government panel that was appointed to probe the riot, headed by the chair of the college's governing council, echoed police claims that the use of lethal force had been justified.
In June, the police admitted holding two hundred students. Many have since been released, but others have been arrested. Seven student leaders who were arrested in late May and early June were detained under Decree 2; they were held in harsh conditions in two Lagos prisons until their release on August 21. Several of them were tortured. The students went on hunger strike and were not given medical attention despite serious medical complications. Upon their release, the students were forced to sign an "Undertaking to be of Good Conduct," which forbids them from commenting on their detention, suing the government for the detention, and participating in student protests.
The government has filed trumped-up criminal charges against a number of student activists for their role in demonstrations, including four at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) who appear to have been falsely accused of a murder. Students who were present when the murder at OAU occurred reported that the victim was killed by a mob and that the arrested students were not in the area at the time. Many others have been expelled from university.
In response to the unrest, the Education Minister has threatened to require every student-union leader to undergo special training. He stated that the "leadership" program would "promote development-oriented student unionism as against the preaching and practicing of non-conformism."
Police brutality, a major issue in the country, has not been seriously addressed by the government, although it was an important focus of domestic human rights groups in 1991 and was a major point of criticism of the government's response to religious riots that broke out in the north on several occasions throughout the year. Security agents were widely accused of not acting quickly enough to contain the violence and of using excessive force once violence erupted. The inspector general of police warned that the police would "deal with" anyone who spread rumors about persistent unrest in Bauchi. In mid-October, General Babangida cut short his visit to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Zimbabwe when violence broke out in Kano. Hundreds were killed in several days of violence following the announcement of an open-air Christian revival. According to Christian refugees, security forces did not act decisively at the outset because of fears of provoking the Islamic leadership in the area. When violence escalated, the police fired indiscriminately at crowds, using live ammunition.
The Nigerian press, which for years was regarded as the most vibrant in Africa, has been increasingly under attack over the last few years. In 1991, the government continued its policy of closing down newspapers and arresting journalists who reported on such sensitive topics as corruption and student demonstrations. Government attacks on the press included:
- Three newspapers in Lagos owned by John West Publications were shut down in March for thirteen days for what was described as "embarrassing publications" against the president and his wife, relating to the Jennifer Madike case described above. Under the heading "IBB, Maryam [Babangida] named in Jennifer's deal," the offending story, which appeared in the Lagos Evening News, reported the contents of a letter purportedly written by the chair of the Drug Law Enforcement Agency in which he justified the need to detain Madike under Decree 2. The paper's editor and news editor were arrested and detained for a few days.
- On May 29, the Lagos State government temporarily closed down the Guardian, a daily, after its coverage of the student killings in Lagos described above. Four journalists and two office assistants were arrested. The paper reopened nearly two weeks later. The journalists and assistants were released the next day without charge.
- William Keeling, a correspondent for the British daily Financial Times, was expelled from Nigeria and declared persona non grata. The government accused him of writing inaccurate articles "ostensibly to cause mischief and disharmony among Nigerians and between Nigeria and the rest of the world." The government's statement cited an article in which Keeling had accused the government of not reporting about half of the extra five billion dollars that it was estimated to have earned from higher oil prices during the Gulf war.
The Right to Monitor
Nigeria has a young and vital human rights movement. Three of the most active human rights groups are the CLO, the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDHR), and a new group, the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP). Other groups – including the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADL), the Academic Staff Union of Universities, and the National Association of Nigerian Students – and independent lawyers, including Gani Fawehinmi and Alao Aka-Bashorun, also have involved themselves in human rights issues. Although the government permits groups to operate and individuals to speak out, it does not hesitate to harass them periodically, as occurred regularly in 1991.
Femi Falana was harassed on numerous occasions, apparently because of his role as defense counsel for Jennifer Madike, whose case is described above. He was arrested on May 12, when security agents asked to see documents used in the defense of his client, and again on May 31, when he was accused of assisting student leaders in Nigeria at a time when he had been in the United States. In July, security officials threatened him with further action if he persisted with the Madike case. His passport was seized in October, when he was at the airport trying to leave the country to attend a meeting of nongovernmental human rights organizations from the Commonwealth countries. The meeting had been called to lobby the 1991 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference, which was being held in Zimbabwe. He was questioned over the next two days about the Madike case and accused of being insufficiently patriotic because of his opposition to the government-sponsored candidacies of Nigerians to fill prestigious positions in the international arena.30
The executive director of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, Clement Nwankwo, and the chairman of the CRPs's Lawyers Committee, Tayo Oyetibo, were questioned over a period of two days by officers of the Directorate of Military Intelligence about their defense of Dorah Mukoro, whose case is mentioned above, and the CRP's criticism of such government practices as rule by decree and the use of special tribunals. The CRP reported that the officers became angry when they refused to answer most of the questions.
At a weekly press briefing in early October, Nigerian Vice President Aikhomu spoke out against human rights groups and the rights they seek to uphold.
It is easy for them to point accusing fingers on people, but have we ever asked in this country how these so called self-styled humanist organizations are funded? Who are their backers; their particular interest in our society? Today, we are fighting people responsible for illicit dealing in drugs, rapists, people who want to turn the society into a jungle, but the so-called human rights organizations in this country have interest to defend the rights of these enemies of society more than anything else.
A few weeks later, after the CLO publicized the secret trial of coup suspects, the government made a public statement to the effect that something must be done to stop the CLO.
In November, the passport of human rights attorney Gani Fawehinmi was seized when he was on his way to London for medical treatment. No official reason was given for the action. Human rights attorney Alao Aka-Bashorun's passport, which was seized in 1990, has not yet been returned.
A speech by Vice President Quayle in Abuja on September 6 raised a number of human rights issues of particular significance to Nigeria and was an obvious message of caution to its leaders. Speaking before a meeting of Nigerian attorneys general, Quayle emphasized U.S. support for democracies and democratic values. Appropriately for the Nigerian situation, he listed "the basic principles of democracy: freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom of assembly; freedom from arbitrary intimidation and arrest; and, the rule of law which is the life-blood of democracy." Noting that "[d]emocracies must be governed by laws, not men," he detailed the importance of an independent judiciary and press in establishing democracy. In specifying the rights of the accused, he said: "They must be charged expeditiously; they must be free from physical abuse; the conditions of their imprisonment must meet minimum standards; and, they should be tried quickly and fairly." Quayle also appropriately drew attention to Nigeria's abysmal prison conditions.
In addition, Vice President Quayle raised human rights issues in his private meetings with General Babangida. Without providing details about these meetings, State Department officials indicated that some of the issues discussed were provisions for elections, including the open ballot and the ban on former politicians.
Quayle's speech was in marked contrast to typical U.S. human rights policy on Nigeria, which usually relies on "quiet diplomacy." Although U.S. Embassy officials in Lagos are in regular contact with local human rights groups and invite them to Embassy functions, the Embassy does not usually issue public statements on human rights issues. Nigerian human rights groups and others note that more public statements, along the lines of Quayle's speech, would go a long way toward pressing the government, which relies on its generally positive image in the West, to halt abuses.
On several occasions throughout the year, Africa Watch wrote to State Department officials about Nigeria. In response to one letter, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen stated that the United States has expressed concern to the Nigerian government over "restrictions on freedom of the press, alleged police brutality, unjustified detentions, and very poor prison conditions." However, by citing relatively minor reform measures, such as the formation of special police units to investigate misconduct, as a solution for such monumental problems as violent police abuse, State Department officials displayed an unfortunate willingness to accept the government's attempts at largely cosmetic change rather than demanding serious solutions.
The chapter on Nigeria in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1990, published in February 1991, discussed many of the country's serious human rights issues, including the crackdown after the coup and the appalling prison conditions. However, it did not impart an accurate overall impression of the seriousness of human rights abuses and stopped short of holding top government officials responsible for such severe violations as police abuse. It also understated a number of problems, such as restrictions on academic freedom, and it gave a misleading report on the rights of workers, neglecting to state plainly that the government dissolved the national labor association, the Nigerian Labor Congress, in 1988.
The United States provided no direct military assistance to Nigeria in 1991. Fifty thousand dollars were provided for military training. Development aid for specified projects, mainly related to health, totaled eleven million dollars in fiscal year 1991. The Administration requested six million dollars in unspecified aid projects, but according to a State Department source, only two million dollars were spent. While in Nigeria, Vice President Quayle announced that this two million dollars would be used to support the transition program. Appropriately, the aid will not go to the Nigerian government, but will be channeled through programs sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to establish links between U.S. and Nigerian nongovernmental organizations. The aid will be used for programs involving human rights, legal issues, women's political groups, voter education, local government improvement, reporting on political and economic issues, and professional economic associations. A State Department source told Africa Watch that the Administration has requested one million dollars in unspecified aid for fiscal year 1992, to augment the previous year's program of support to the transition program. In addition, USAID has provided small grants for human rights concerns, including one for $16,500 for workshops to be held at the Nigerian Institute for Advanced Legal Studies to educate high court judges and government officials on issues related to human rights and the rule of law.
The Work of Africa Watch
In 1991, Africa Watch intensified its work on Nigeria, begun the year before. A mission went to Lagos for a week in late February and met with human rights groups, lawyers who are independently involved in human rights work, journalists, foundation representatives, academics, students and U.S. Embassy officials. Africa Watch collected information on the military's interference in Nigeria's judiciary and civil institutions during the transition program. In March, an Africa Watch representative followed up this trip by attending a meeting of the African Commission of Human Rights in Lagos, and took advantage of the occasion to meet members of human rights organizations, journalists and lawyers.
In April, Africa Watch published a newsletter, "Behind the Wall – The Civil Liberties Organization Releases a Damning Report on Prison Conditions Nationwide." The newsletter summarized the CLO report, and discussed such pervasive problems as the high mortality rate; torture and ill-treatment; overcrowding; insufficient food, medical care, clothing and sanitation; and lack of redress for prisoners' grievances.
The Africa Watch report, Academic Freedom and Human Rights Abuses in Africa, published in April, contained a chapter on the abuses suffered by students and academics under the Babangida government.
Articles by the Africa Watch staff on police brutality, military intervention in civil society, and press restrictions were published in the Atlanta Constitution, Africa Events and The Nairobi Law Monthly.
Africa Watch wrote to the Nigerian government throughout the year, including lengthy letters sent to President Babangida in June and July regarding the crackdown on students and related issues.
In October, Africa Watch published a fifty-five-page report, Nigeria: On the Eve of "Change"; A Transition to What? The report discussed Africa Watch's concerns regarding the transition process, specifically the tightly controlled transition program, the lack of respect for the rule of law, and the government's interference with civilian institutions.
Nigerian human rights groups were actively opposed to the candidacies of General Obasanjo for U.N. secretary general and Prince Bola Ajibola for judge of the International Court of Justice. The CDHR and NADL jointly published a paper explaining their opposition to the candidacy of General Obasanjo, Nigeria's military ruler from 1976 to 1979. They accused Obasanjo of detaining government critics without trial, establishing a ruthless security organization, violently suppressing protest and initiating other forms of repression. The CLO, CDHR and NADL have all protested the nomination of Prince Bola Ajibola because of his activities as attorney general and minister of justice in the Babangida government, including his role in subverting the rule of law by detaining political activists without trial and disobeying court orders.
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