Human Rights Developments

Nigeria entered a second year of civilian rule under the presidency of (former general and military ruler) Olusegun Obasanjo. Yet the new government failed to fulfil the hopes raised by the elections of 1999. The National Assembly passed only five bills during the year, and was struck by repeated corruption scandals, even as it debated new anti-corruption legislation. Ethnic and communal tensions among and within Nigeria's thirty-six states were exacerbated by the lack of a democratically drafted constitution, as well as the heritage of military rule – in particular, ongoing security force abuses. More positively, the government affirmed its commitment to the international human rights regime by signing the treaty for the establishment of an International Criminal Court in June 2000.

The seven-member commission chaired by retired judge Chukwudifu Oputa, appointed by President Obasanjo on becoming head of state to investigate past human rights abuses, made little headway during the year. The commission's public activities and the training of its personnel were funded by donors working with civil society groups. However, in October, the commission announced a series of public hearings to be held in five cities by February 2001. The Nigerian government brought charges in October 1999 against a number of members of the regime of General Sani Abacha, including his son Mohammed Abacha, for offenses including murder, attempted murder and conspiracy in relation to "death squad" activity, and theft of public funds.

Despite commitments to respect the rule of law, government agencies refused in some cases to honor court orders. In one case in late 1999, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency failed to release suspects granted bail by the Federal High Court for several months. Many laws continued to reflect their military origins and infringe on the rights of the Nigerian people, including the Public Order Act and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Decree.

The government continued a program of prison decongestion, but prison conditions remained life-threatening. In January 2000, the government announced that all prisoners awaiting execution for twenty years or more would be granted pardons, and that those awaiting execution between ten and twenty years would have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Minister of State for Internal Affairs Alhaji Danjuma Goje stated in July that pretrial detainees represented over 70 percent of the prison population, and that 32,000 were currently incarcerated awaiting trial.

The Nigerian government recruited more than 33,000 officers to the police, in an effort to fulfil plans to nearly double the size of the force from its June 1999 strength of 135,000. But the force was still regulated by a colonial law first promulgated in 1943. In July 2000, civil society groups established a network on police reform to which government officials were invited.

There was some media harassment during the year. On January 19, 2000, more than fifty police invaded the International Press Centre, Lagos, and arrested everyone present, including several journalists, following a press conference given by the Oodua Liberation Movement. Several individual journalists were detained for various periods throughout the year after reporting on alleged calls for a military coup, demands for ethnic self-determination, or protests at an increase in the price of fuel.

The rights of women in Nigeria were routinely violated. The Penal Code explicitly stated that assaults committed by a man on his wife were not an offense, if permitted by customary law and if "grievous hurt" was not inflicted. Marital rape was not a crime. Child marriages remained common, especially in northern Nigeria. Women were denied equal rights in the inheritance of property. It was estimated that about 60 percent of Nigerian women were subjected to female genital cutting. Cross Rivers and Edo States adopted legislation banning the practice and imposing criminal penalties; the governor of Rivers State announced that he would follow suit. Child labor, especially in domestic work, often completely unpaid, remained common. There were numerous reports of the organized trafficking of children between Nigeria and other West African countries, and of women within West Africa and between Nigeria and Europe. In February 2000, police announced the arrest of a Lagos-based businessman in connection with the sale of women and girls to Europe; in August, another man was arrested in Anambra State for trafficking children to other countries in West Africa.

Several states in northern Nigeria extended the application of Islamic Sharia law to criminal offenses or announced plans to do so. Sharia law punishments, including amputation and flogging, were imposed for offenses such as cattle theft and fornication, and local Islamic voluntary organizations worked with Sharia courts to enforce the Sharia laws.

Hundreds of people lost their lives in communal violence across Nigeria. In late 1999 and early 2000, there were riots in which the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), a Lagos-based ethnic militia demanding devolution of power or even independence for the Yoruba southwest of the country, clashed with Hausas living and working in Lagos. A committee of the Lagos State Senate investigated the violence, and found that at least nine policemen, seven OPC members and 163 bystanders had lost their lives, and twelve police stations were burned down. Reports of the planned introduction of Sharia law led to clashes between Muslims and Christians in Kaduna in February 2000 and fresh violence in May. At least 700 people were killed in these disturbances and reprisal killings that followed in southeastern Nigeria, and thousands were displaced. Protracted communal and ethnic violence continued between the Aguleri-Umuleri (Anambra State), Ife-Modakeke (Osun State), and Jukun-Kuteb (Taraba State) communities.

The government response to this violence was often itself abusive. Speaking on national television in November 1999, President Obasanjo announced that police would be given orders to shoot on sight members of the OPC who refused to give themselves up. Police raids for suspected members of the OPC resulted in the arbitrary detention of hundreds of people and summary execution of dozens. In October, the presidency banned the OPC and ordered the arrest of its leaders, following further riots in which more than one hundred Hausas were killed by members of the ethnic militia. During the February riots in Kaduna, dozens were arbitrarily arrested and others shot by police. In April 2000, Mobile Policemen went on a rampage in the town of Suleja in Niger State and killed at least twenty civilians in a shooting spree following an attack by unarmed civilians on their post during communal riots protesting the appointment of a traditional leader. In July 2000, the governor of Anambra State stated that the "Bakassi Boys," a vigilante group also involved in anti-Hausa violence, had been renamed the "Onitsha vigilante services" and endorsed their activities. Although Minister of Police Affairs David Jemibiwon spoke out against the Bakassi Boys and other militias following this statement, he later seemed to back down from his position.

Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of an Igbo group called the Movement for the Actualization of the Biafran State (MASSOB), was detained for several days in April after he announced that the organization intended declaring the launch of a "new Biafra" on May 27. Uwazuruike was arrested again in August in Lagos, as he prepared to stage a demonstration at the U.S. embassy; in the same month, fifty-four MASSOB members were arraigned for treason.

The Nigerian government continued to deploy large numbers of soldiers and paramilitary Mobile Police across the oil-producing regions of the Niger Delta. As elsewhere in Nigeria, security force action was often indiscriminate, or targeted those who had done nothing but exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The federal task force charged with protecting oil pipelines carried out several extrajudicial executions in oil-producing communities in Delta State. The victims were persons accused of vandalizing pipelines or the theft of petroleum products. In late November 1999, Nigerian soldiers moved into Odi, a community of perhaps 15,000 people in Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta, and engaged in a brief exchange of fire with a handful of young men, after the killing of twelve policemen there. They then proceeded to raze the town. The troops demolished virtually every building and killed dozens of unarmed civilians. In September 2000, President Obasanjo again threatened to deploy the army across the delta.

In March and April 2000, repressive force was once again used in Ogoniland, Rivers State, home of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), of which Ken Saro-Wiwa was leader before his 1995 execution. Paramilitary Mobile Police were deployed following disturbances in objection to development projects to be funded by Shell, killed at least one civilian, razed a number of buildings, and arrested several Ogoni activists, including Ledum Mitee, a MOSOP leader. President Obasanjo visited Ogoniland in September 2000.

In response to local demands for greater resource ownership and benefits, President Obasanjo introduced a bill to establish a Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Conflict among the two houses of the National Assembly and the presidency meant that the bill had still not become law by September.

Defending Human Rights

Nigeria's numerous and sophisticated human rights groups were able to operate freely throughout the year. Indeed, civil society groups had a more ambitious legislative and reform program than the government.

The government-appointed National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), created in 1996, held a number of meetings to discuss human rights issues, most of them co-sponsored by nongovernmental human rights groups. In June 2000, the government dissolved the board of the NHRC and appointed new members, amid controversy as to the legitimacy of the procedure.

The Role of the International Community

Bretton Woods Institutions

Several delegations from World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) visited Nigeria during the year. The IMF established a monitoring program at the Central Bank and finance ministry and in July 2000 agreed to a U.S. $1 billion standby credit facility. In May, theWorld Bank approved three new projects totaling U.S. $75 million, the first since 1993, to assist in the provision of universal basic education and to strengthen management of the economy, including measures aimed at increasing its transparency.

European Union and its Member States

The British government gave significant assistance to the new Nigerian government, emphasizing the restructuring of the military, tackling corruption, and economic reform (leading to debt relief) in its bilateral relations. Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short visited Nigeria in March and committed £15 million (U.S.$21 million) on development assistance to Nigeria in 2000/2001 and £25 million for 2001/2002. British Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain visited Nigeria in January, and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in June. Both Hain and High Commissioner Graham Burton (in a November 1999 speech) emphasized that democratic dialogue was the only way to resolve the Niger Delta crisis. President Obasanjo visited France in February and the U.K. in September 2000.

In September 1999, the French ambassador to Nigeria, speaking for the E.U., pledged a U.S.$40 million grant to Nigeria for 1999 and a further $30 million for 2000, a large part of which would be plowed into projects in the Niger Delta. Human rights-related assistance focused on strengthening civil society capacity, judicial and prison reform, rebuilding the trade union movement, and independent media.

United States

In August 2000, President Clinton became the second U.S. head of state to visit Nigeria. He pledged support for efforts to recover public funds looted during the Abacha era and for debt relief, and assistance to fight HIV/AIDS. He also called on the Nigerian government to increase oil production in an effort to lower world oil prices. Clinton did not publicly raise human rights concerns. The Export-Import Bank signed a deal for U.S.$1.2 billion in loan guarantees, and Clinton announced that Nigerian exports would be eligible for duty-free treatment under the GSP (generalized system of preferences) program.

Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI), a Virginia-based private security company, advised the U.S. government on reprofessionalization of the Nigerian armed forces, and a U.S. military team was based in Nigeria for most of the year. Defense Secretary William Cohen visited Nigeria in April 2000, and announced a U.S.$10.6 million military aid package, including funds to refurbish aircraft and train pilots. Nigeria participated with five other African countries in the U.S. West Africa Training Cruise in November 1999, allowing Nigerian naval officers to take part in various training exercises. In August, several hundred U.S. special operations forces began training and equipping five Nigerian battalions for peacekeeping work in Sierra Leone.

Secretary of State Albright visited Nigeria in October 1999 and urged Nigeria to complete the political reforms necessary to underpin the restoration of civilian rule, including repeal of repressive laws, strengthening of the judiciary, and consolidation of civilian control over the military. She endorsed efforts to investigate and prosecute past abuses, and stressed the U.S. desire to see solutions to the crisis in the delta based on the rule of law, not the use of force. Albright also pledged to "work with Congress" to triple or quadruple U.S. aid to Nigeria. U.S. aid for the year increased from the previous U.S.$7 million channeled through NGOs to U.S.$170 million, involving twenty-four U.S. government agencies. In January, Albright singled out Nigeria's transition program as one of four critical U.S. foreign policy issues in the coming year. Several other high-level U.S. officials visited Nigeria during the year.

Although Nigeria in March was deemed not to be in compliance with requirements for counter-narcotics certification under Section 481 of the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA), the administration issued a national interest waiver for the second year, thus allowing the U.S. to support assistance to Nigeria in six multilateral development banks and to restore FAA and Arms Control Export Act assistance to Nigeria. A five-year ban on flights between Nigeria and the U.S. was lifted in December 1999, and direct flights to Nigeria were scheduled to resume in October 2000.

The U.S. also launched an initiative to promote democratic governance and economic development in the Niger Delta by promoting dialogue among the U.S. and Nigerian governments, residents of the delta, and U.S. oil companies.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

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.