Events of 1994

Human Rights Developments

Nigeria edged closer to political chaos in 1994, after the brutal suppression of a broadly supported campaign to remove the military from political office. At the end of 1994, the country was further from the goal of its pro-democracy movement than it had been the previous year. A major concern in the ongoing crisis was the rise of ethnic and regional tension. The government's brutal way of dealing with pro-democracy strikes and demonstrations hardened the separation between north and south and increased the likelihood of more serious outbreaks of violence. During 1994, hundreds of critics of the military regime were arbitrarily detained, and many were killed or wounded as protests and demonstrations were attacked with military force.

General Sani Abacha, who seized power in November 1993, proved unwilling to try to peacefully resolve the political crisis that began in June 1993, when results of a presidential election were annulled by Abacha's military predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida. Protests over the cancellation of the election forced Babangida out of office in late August 1993, and his hand-picked civilian successor, industrialist Ernest Shonekan, was deposed in November by General Abacha, Babangida's defense minister.

Upon seizing power, General Abacha disbanded the national and state legislatures, removed the elected civilian governors, and banned all political activity, while, at the same time, avowing his intention to return the country to democracy.

In January 1994 the government announced that a constitutional conference, controlled by the military, would be held to decide Nigeria's future form of government. This announcement was greeted with scorn by pro-democracy leaders, who viewed it as yet another attempt to prolong the military's stay in power and refused to participate in the military's scheme.

In early May, Moshood Abiola, widely believed to be the winner of the 1993 presidential election, announced his intention to form a "government of national unity." The following week, the formation of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was announced. The group, made up of politicians, retired military officials, and pro-democracy figures, was formed in an effort to coordinate and focus the various pro-democracy factions around four main demands: (1) the military must leave political office; (2) Abiola must be installed as president; (3) a sovereign national conference must be held to debate the country's future; and (4) the country must be restructured along truly federal lines. NADECO immediately called on the government to install Abiola as president before the end of May, and called for a boycott of the Constitutional Conference elections, the first of which was to be held on May 23.

Elections to select 273 of the 369 delegates to the Constitutional Conference (the remainder of whom were government appointees) were largely boycotted in the Yoruba-dominated southwest, the home region of Abiola. On the day of the elections, approximately fifteen human rights and pro-democracy activists were arrested, allegedly for trying to disrupt the elections. They were later released.

In late May and early June, members of Nigeria's disbanded legislature met secretly and issued statements calling on Abacha to surrender power to Abiola. On June 1, Ameh Ebute, the former senate president, publicly announced the senators' decision to reconvene. Ebute was arrested the following day. Many more arrests of former senators, former members of the House of Representatives, former governors, and others quickly followed. Many of those arrested were detained without charge for days or weeks. At least thirteen, however, were charged with treason and held for nearly two months before being released on bail. They included six senators, several governors, and several members of NADECO. The six senators were granted bail when they appeared in court on July 27, but their passports were impounded on court orders and they were put under surveillance. Some have been detained again; others have gone into hiding.

On June 11, Chief Abiola declared himself president. He was arrested on June 23 and held incommunicado until his first court appearance on July 5, when, at a Federal High Court in Abuja that had been set up especially for his trial, he was charged with various counts of treason. He was initially refused bail for several months, but the judge ordered that he be given access to his doctor, lawyers, and family members. Abiola's charges were later amended to five counts. According to these charges, Abiola "levied war against the State," "form[ed] an intention to remove or overawe otherwise than by constitutional means the Head of State," "conspired to do an illegal or treasonable act," and "represent[ed him]self to be the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria."

Abiola's health has deteriorated dramatically while in detention. Early in September, the Nigerian Medical Association, whose representatives had been allowed to examine him in the presidential clinic, said that Abiola was critically ill, suffering from high blood pressure and a painful neurological condition that was affecting the use of one leg. Although he was granted bail on November 4, government officials reportedly indicated that Abiola would be freed only if he renounced his claim to the presidency.

The Constitutional Conference convened on June 28. The outcome of the conference, which is supposed to serve as the basis for next year's political program, was to be summarized in a November report; however, in November the delegates announced that they would not finish their work until January 1995. The lifting of a ban on political activities, which was supposed to take effect in January 1995, was also expected to be delayed. No date has been set for the military regime's departure from political office.

A strike was announced on June 27 by the National Union of Petroleum and Gas Workers (NUPENG), which included among its demands recognition of the results of the June 1993 election. Although the government declared it illegal, the strike began on July 4, as planned. A week later, NUPENG's white-collar sister union, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), joined. Although the strike did not initially affect oil exports, it had an immediate effect on domestic fuel supplies, sparking riots and protests. By August, the strike had seriously eroded oil export earnings as well.

In attempting to break the strike, Abacha resorted to bribes, threats, arrests, and eventually, when these methods failed, in mid-August dissolved the leadership of the oil unions and ordered workers back to work. Frank Kokori, NUPENG general secretary, was arrested on August 20 by agents of the State Security Services (SSS) in Lagos. Other NUPENG and PENGASSAN officials were also arrested, including the NUPENG president, Wariebi Agamene, who was arrested in mid-September by the SSS. Other oil union representatives have also been arrested. By early September, it became clear that the strike had been broken.

Many other unions, including the National Union of Banking and Financial Institutions, the National Union of Air Transport Services Employment, and the National Union of Local Government Employees, also joined the oil workers strike in early July and stayed out for much of the duration of the strike.

The National Union of Teachers also joined the strike in early July. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the national academic union, embarked on a strike on August 22, which is still in effect at this writing. Many universities had closed down even before the ASUU strike because of protests or school administrators' fear of such protests.

The national leadership of the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC), the national federation of labor unions, initially did not take a strong stand against the government. However, various state branches joined the strike in July. The national NLC finally went on strike on August 3-5, but it was not observed in the northern states. On August 17, the NLC executive was dissolved along with the oil unions' executives.

Attacks on pro-democracy activists have been ongoing throughout the crisis. Some activists have been killed; others have had their homes and offices bombed. Hundreds have been detained for periods ranging from several hours to several months. A number have been deprived of their passports.

Following the announcement of the oil union strike in late June and continuing through August, police and soldiers were unleashed on pro-democracy demonstrators with tear gas and live ammunition. An unknown number were killed, mainly in the Yoruba areas. Many of the killings occurred during suppression of peaceful protests, although in some demonstrations, especially in Lagos, violent thugs known as "area boys" took part in anti-military protests that were then suppressed with police gunfire. Violent police and military attacks on universities took place in the south; students were killed, beaten, raped, and arbitrarily detained.

Beginning in late August, there was a new trend in the increased level of lawlessness and terror: firebomb attacks on the homes of dissidents. Although none of the perpetrators of these attacks can be conclusively identified, the government's other abuses against members of the pro-democracy movement created the impression that the government was behind the attacks. Residences of pro-government figures were also destroyed, and a bomb was set off at the premises of the government-owned Radio Nigeria and Nigerian Television Authority in Kaduna, in northern Nigeria.

The detention of opposition figures has been common throughout the crisis. Among the well-known political detainees were Anthony Enahoro, the NADECO vice chair and a statesman who was at the forefront of the struggle for Nigerian independence. Many other politicians and human rights activists were also detained or went into hiding.

Also detained were members of the Ogoni ethnic group, who have protested the environmental degradation of their land by international oil companies, particularly Shell. The leader of the Ogoni movement, Ken Saro-Wiwa, has been detained without charge since May 23 and is currently believed to be very ill. He has been denied medical attention. In November, government-controlled media announced that he and other Ogoni leaders would be tried by a special tribunal in connection with the killing of four Ogoni leaders in May. Past trials before similar tribunals have not respected internationally accepted standards for fair trials.

The authorities also resorted to a variety of other tactics to harass and intimidate the opposition. Meetings were prevented or broken up by armed policemen. Pro-democracy leaders were placed under heavy surveillance. Passports were seized. Human Rights Watch/Africa is aware of at least thirteen passport seizures since July 1994; none has been returned. Those whose passports have been confiscated include Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.

The independent press was targeted throughout the crisis, as it was during the political crisis immediately following the annulment of the election in 1993. Newspapers were shut down; reporters attacked and arrested. On June 11, the Concord group of publications (owned by Abiola) and the Punch group of publications were shut by police. Both publishers sued for wrongful closure, but damages awarded by the courts were never paid. Punch began publishing again during the first week of August before it was finally sealed off on September 7, 1994. On August 15, the Guardian group of publications was closed down.

Five photographers were assaulted by security forces and their cameras either confiscated or destroyed at a protest in Abuja on July 28, in which five people were killed during a court appearance by Abiola. The photographers were beaten with horse-whips, batons, and guns.

The News/Tempo has continually angered authorities since it began publishing in 1993. Its staff was targeted on several recent occasions. Bayo Onanuga, editor-in-chief, was arrested and detained briefly in August and September. Deputy editor-in-chief Dapo Olorunyomi was arrested twice after August. Journalists at Punch and The Guardian were also arrested in August. On August 26, two CNN reporters were forced to leave the country without explanation. Their expulsion occurred on the same day that CNN aired their report, which included interviews with two opposition leaders whose homes were firebombed the previous night.

On September 5, it was announced that General Abacha had promulgated a series of harsh new decrees targeting the press, the trade unions, and the judiciary. The decrees sanction the closure of the publications of the Concord group, the Punch group, and the Guardian group for six months from the time of their closures. The premises of all three publishers were to remain sealed-up during this period.

Other decrees dissolved the executive councils of the NLC, NUPENG, and PENGASSAN. The decrees, which were retroactively dated to August 18, 1994, forbid any court from inquiring into any actions taken pursuant to the decrees. They also suspended the constitutional protections of fundamental human rights for the purposes of the decree.

Another decree amended Nigeria's infamous administrative detention law, Decree 2, to allow persons who are deemed to present a security risk to be detained for three months without charge on orders either of the chief of general staff of the armed forces or the inspector-general of police. After three months, the detention order may be renewed. Previously, Decree 2 had allowed detentions for renewable six-week periods and only on orders of the chief of general staff. The amendment was made effective from August 18, just before a round-up of government opponents who remain in detention.

Another decree referred to Abacha's coup as a "military revolution," and stipulated that no "act, matter or thing done or purported to be done under or pursuant to any Decree or Edict" may be challenged in court.

On September 6, Attorney-General and Justice Minister Olu Onagoruwa called a news conference to distance himself from the decrees and threatened to resign if they were not rescinded. He was fired on September 12; no reason was given.

One of the most severe forms of human rights abuse in Nigeria was the repression of the Ogoni ethnic group in the oil-producing Niger delta region. Oil drilling has been responsible for the destruction of the environment in Ogoniland, which led to protests by the Ogonis and, in turn, resulted in their persecution. Oil companies, particularly Shell, have on occasion asked the government to intervene forcibly to suppress Ogoni protests, and their requests have been answered with military action. Hundreds of Ogonis were killed in attacks in 1993. On April 21, 1994, the Rivers State Commissioner of Police ordered an operation involving the military and police to "restore and maintain law and order in Ogoniland." Following the announcement, more villages were attacked, and more than forty Ogonis were killed. Many women and girls were reportedly raped, and villages were looted and burned to the ground. Hundreds of Ogonis were arrested and detained in military camps in the area; most were later released. Visitors to Ogoniland, both Nigerian and foreign, were prevented from conducting investigations into the Ogonis' complaints.

The Right to Monitor

Nigerian human rights groups were permitted to operate in 1994, but their work became increasingly difficult and dangerous. The abuses endured by groups such as the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDHR), and the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP) included physical attacks, which could not be definitively tied to any particular group, but were believed to be connected to the government. For example, in August 1994, the home of Clement Nwankwo, head of the CRP, was sprayed with bullets. Similarly, a firebomb was thrown at the headquarters shared by the Campaign for Democracy (CD) and CDHR, also in August.

Human rights monitors were detained on several occasions. Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, head of the CD and CDHR, was arrested on June 9, charged with treason, but later released. He was re-arrested on September 14 and released a week later, after being charged with sending "threatening letters to oil company heads." Many members of the CLO, CD, and CDHR were arrested throughout the south in connection with pro-democracy protests.

Meetings and press conferences were routinely prevented or broken up by police, including a press conference on July 18 at the headquarters of the CD and CDHR that was taken over by about fifty armed policemen. Again, on September 10, more than fifty policemen invaded CD headquarters at about 5:00 a.m. and stayed until about 10:00 p.m., during which time they harassed CD personnel and visitors. This attack was believed to be related to a meeting of the CD National Coordinating Council scheduled for that day.

U.S. and E.U. Policy

The U.S. has been the most outspoken member of the international community advocating for democracy and human rights in Nigeria. Limited steps were taken to press for reform after the annulment of the June 1993 elections, including the cancellation of all but humanitarian aid. Military relations between the two countries were also reduced. In July 1993, the U.S. announced that commercial military sales would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis with the presumption of denial. After Abacha's coup in November, a White House proclamation was announced "suspending the entry into the United States of immigrants and nonimmigrants who formulate or implement policies impeding a transition to democracy in Nigeria or who benefit from such policies, and the immediate families of such persons." These steps have all been maintained to the present.

In April 1994, relations between the two governments cooled even further when President Clinton added Nigeria to the annual list of countries making insufficient efforts to combat illegal drug production. This precludes Nigeria from receiving U.S. aid and from receiving U.S. support for loans from international lending institutions.

On July 27, Jesse Jackson arrived in Nigeria as President Clinton's special envoy and met with General Abacha, Chief Abiola, and members of the human rights community. He failed to make any progress in easing the deadlock and stated upon his return home that the U.S. and other countries should begin "assertive, aggressive diplomacy" to prevent civil war.

In late July, the House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning human rights abuses and calling on the Clinton administration to consider additional means of encouraging a return to democracy. On July 28, four U.S. congressmen, William Jefferson, Donald Payne, Lucien Blackwell, and Craig A. Washington, who were planning to visit Nigeria to investigate political developments and lend support to the pro-democracy movement, were denied visas by the Nigerian embassy in Washington. Nigerian ambassador Alhaji Zubair Kazaure later denied that they were prevented from visiting Nigeria.

Following the annulment of the June 1993 election, the European Political Cooperation (the foreign ministers of the European Community), issued a statement in which "the Community and its member States" decided to adopt the following measures: suspension of co-operation in the military sphere; restrictions on visas for members of the military or the security forces and their families; suspension of visits by members of the military; and suspension of any further cooperation aid. These policies have not, however, been stringently followed. The U.K. has permitted unofficial visits by members of the government. Former military strongman Ibrahim Babangida, who maintains strong ties to the present government, is reportedly living in Hamburg.

Some statements condemning human rights abuses in Nigeria have been made by European governments. Following the dissolution of the trade unions, the U.K. said it "deeply regretted the turn of events" in Nigeria, and called the banning of the trade union leadership "a further regressive act." On August 26, the E.U. urged the Nigerian government to halt a campaign against political opponents. The statement was released by Germany, which held the rotating E.U. presidency. The statement said it "deeply regret[ted]" the shutting down of newspapers, the dissolution of the boards of the labor unions and the NLC and called on the government "to reverse these trends and to move rapidly to restore Nigeria to a civil democracy to which all Nigerians, including the present regime, have pledged their support."

Weapons shipments have reportedly continued from some European countries. The U.K. has reportedly recently shipped 150 tanks that were ordered in 1992, according to The Economist (September 9, 1994). In both the U.K. and Germany, commercial sales of weapons are licensed by the government, allowing those governments the opportunity to stop the sales on human rights grounds.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Africa

Human Rights Watch/Africa continued to pay close attention to human rights abuses in Nigeria. A letter to General Abacha in June raised the issues of the attacks on the Ogonis and the arrests of pro-democracy activists. In July, Human Rights Watch protested the continuing detention of activists and press closures. A letter in August protested the abusive treatment of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

A press release in August detailed the killings and other abuses directed against members of the opposition. "The Dawn of a New Dark Age": Human Rights Abuses Rampant as Nigerian Military Declares Absolute Power, a report on human rights abuses relating to the pro-democracy protests, was published in October.

Human Rights Watch/Africa participated in a briefing for congressional aides on the Ogoni issue in July. Throughout the political crisis, it conducted radio interviews with the U.S. and foreign media.

Human Rights Watch/Africa and the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project conducted two missions to Nigeria in 1994 to investigate human rights abuses directed against women, focusing on abuses against widows in the southern part of the country and the plight of child brides in the north. A report on these matters will be published in 1995.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.