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May 1999
Vol.11, No. 2 (A)















The Niger Delta has for some years been the site of major confrontations between the people who live there and the Nigerian government's security forces, resulting in extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and draconian restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. These violations of civil and political rights have been committed principally in response to protests about the activities of the multinational companies that produce Nigeria's oil and the use made of the oil revenue by the Nigerian government. Although the succession by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar as head of state in June 1998 brought a significant relaxation in the repression the late Gen. Sani Abacha inflicted on the Nigerian people, human rights abuses in the oil producing communities continue and the basic situation in the delta remains unchanged.

When he took office, General Abubakar canceled the "transition program" established by General Abacha—which had apparently been designed to install the military head of state as a "civilian" president, released political prisoners, and instituted a fresh transition program under conditions of greater openness. Local, state, and national elections were held in December 1998 and January and February 1999, and were intended to lead to the inauguration of a civilian government, headed by president-elect and former military head of state Olusegun Obasanjo, on May 29, 1999. Since the death of Abacha, and in the context of the greater competition within the political environment encouraged by the elections, there has been a surge in demands for the government to improve the position of the different groups living in the oil producing areas. In particular, members of the Ijaw ethnic group, the fourth largest in Nigeria, adopted the Kaiama Declaration on December 11, 1998, which claimed ownership of all natural resources found in Ijaw territory. There has also been an increase in incidents in which protesters have occupied oil industry flow stations and stopped production or taken oil workers hostage.

In February 1999, Human Rights Watch published a 200-page report, The Price of Oil: Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria's Oil Producing Communities, which examined human rights violations connected to the suppression of protest at oil company activities. The report went to press before details of a security force crackdown in the Niger Delta in late December 1998 and January 1999 were available. The current short report describes those events, on the basis of interviews conducted in the delta region during February 1999. We conclude that the military crackdown in Bayelsa and Delta States in late December 1998 and early January 1999 led to the deaths of several dozens of people, and probably more than one hundred; the torture and inhuman treatment of others; and the arbitrary detention of many more. These abuses took place as a response to demonstrations held by Ijaw youths in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State, and Kaiama, a community an hour away by road. The demonstrations were initially peaceful, and the majority of those killed were unarmed. Some were summarily executed. In another incident, two communities in Delta State were attacked by soldiers, using a helicopter and boats commandeered from a facility operated by Chevron, following an alleged confrontation that took place at a nearby Chevron drilling rig. More than fifty people may have died in these incidents. Chevron has asserted that it had no choice in allowing its contractors' equipment to be used in this way. The company did not issue any public protest at the killings; nor has it stated that it will take any steps to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Soldiers remain deployed in the riverine areas of Bayelsa and Delta States. While there are genuine security concerns relating to kidnappings of oil workers and to inter-community conflict, especially in Delta State, these soldiers are responsible for ongoing human rights violations. These violations range from routine extortion of money at roadblocks to arbitrary detention and torture. On a few occasions, individuals have also been summarily executed.

The recent elections were deeply flawed in many parts of Nigeria, but the elections held in the South-South zone, the area including the oil producing communities of the Niger Delta, were particularly problematic. Observers noted widespread electoral irregularities in Rivers, Bayelsa, and Delta States, those most troubled by recent protests.

Following the completion of the election process, the government of General Abubakar appointed a committee to consider the needs of the Niger Delta, which has recommended the immediate disbursement of 15.3 billion naira (_), U.S.$170 million, on development projects and the establishment of a Niger Delta Consultative Council, madeup of government figures and representatives of the oil companies, to oversee development projects. General Abubakar's government has also held discussions with selected leaders from, in particular, the Ijaw ethnic group, in relation to this plan.

The crisis in the oil producing regions will be one of the most pressing issues for the new government of Nigeria when it takes office on May 29. The level of anger against the federal government and the oil companies among the residents of the oil producing communities means that further protest is likely, as are further incidents of hostage taking and other criminal acts. The crackdown in the Niger Delta over the New Year indicates the extent to which the current government, which has otherwise showed increased respect for human rights, is still prepared to use military force to crush peaceful protest, rather than to seek to address the issues being protested. Yet any attempt to achieve a military solution will certainly result in widespread and serious violations of Nigeria's commitments to respect internationally recognized human rights. To avoid a human rights crisis, the incoming government must allow the peoples of the Niger Delta to select their own representatives and to participate in decision-making concerning the future course of the region. The flawed nature of the elections makes it all the more essential that attempts to address the grievances of the delta communities involve discussions with individuals who are freely chosen by the communities of the delta and with a mandate to represent their interests, rather than with individuals chosen by the government as representative. In addition, the government must take steps to reestablish respect for human rights and the rule of law, and to end continuing human rights violations resulting from the deployment of soldiers in the delta region.

The oil companies operating in Nigeria also share a responsibility to ensure that oil production does not continue at the cost of violations of the rights of those who live in the areas where oil is produced. Given the deteriorating security situation in the delta, it is all the more urgent for the companies to adopt systematic steps to ensure that the legitimate protection of company staff and property does not result in summary executions, arbitrary detentions, and other violations. Systematic monitoring and protest of human rights violations by the government, and steps to ensure that the companies themselves are not complicit in such human rights violations, are more important than ever.

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