April 11, 2003


Political violence poses a serious threat to the legitimacy of the state and federal elections that will take place in Nigeria from April 12 to May 3, 2003.[1]Since party primary elections for local government candidates began in mid-2002, hundreds of people have been killed as a result of political violence in Nigeria, and thousands displaced.Not all of this violence can be directly linked to the elections, but the heightened tension created by competition for public office has exacerbated existing conflicts and created new ones.Nigerian politicians, police and public commentators have regularly denounced political violence, repeated their resolve that those responsible for the crimes will be brought to justice, and urged citizens not to allow themselves to be used for political thuggery-politicians invariably round off these injunctions with an accusatory finger pointed at their political opponents.But little concrete action is taken against those who use violence to further their political ambitions.The perpetrators of violence and their sponsors often enjoy complete impunity for their actions both from the official law enforcement bodies and from their own political parties.

In the last days preceding elections and during the election period, the utmost vigilance by political parties, police and government will be required to ensure that political tensions are kept in check.The danger of clashes will not necessarily subside once the elections are over.Therefore, the Nigerian government, electoral commission and police must take serious steps now to bolster Nigerians' confidence in the electoral system and thereby prevent the post-election phase from degenerating into a period of violent protest and revenge in response to perceived electoral injustices.

The case studies included in this report reflect interviews with dozens of victims and witnesses of violence in the states of Bayelsa, Rivers, Kwara, Enugu and Plateau, chosen to illustrate different patterns of political violence.Because political power is one of the few ways to access wealth in Nigeria, politics often becomes what is frequently referred to in Nigeria as "a do-or-die affair."Individuals are so desperate to remain or get close to the center of power that they resort to ruthless methods that might be avoided if the economy and society offered other means of supporting themselves and their families.For the same reason, the use of political thugs is a phenomenon that occurs across Nigeria.Widespread poverty and unemployment leave young people, primarily young men, susceptible to informal "employment" by politicians or their supporters as small armed forces.However, the dynamics driving political violence differ to some extent in each state covered in detail by this report.In the southern states of Bayelsa, Rivers, and Delta, political conflict is often exacerbated by the desire to control the lucrative relationship between local communities and oil companies operating in the area.In Kwara and Enugu, personal hostility between leading politicians has led to violence between their supporters.In Plateau, those who call themselves "indigenes" or natives of the state have repeatedly clashed with those they view as settlers.Ethnic and religious divisions often play a part in defining the lines of conflict and are manipulated by politicians for their own ends.Nonetheless, the many causes of political violence overlap across states and defy easy classification.The cases illustrate different fundamental dynamics in each state, but also contain certain common themes across the country.

This report discusses the obligations of the government and security forces to prevent and prosecute political violence, as well as the important roles of the national electoral commission, political parties and the international community in helping to reduce such violence.The Nigerian government and police have failed to investigate or prosecute many cases of political violence, despite public statements that violence will not be tolerated.When arrests are made, police target low-level "thugs" more often than the politicians who sponsor them, in some cases also arresting youths unconnected to the incident in round-ups aimed at proving some action is being taken.On top of (and related to) a simple inability to perform thorough investigations because of a lack of resources, police are susceptible to corruption and undue influence by politicians or their wealthy and influential supporters.Even more seriously, police have been accused in some cases of actually participating in violence.Extrajudicial executions and excessive use of force by police have consistently been serious problems in Nigeria.Renewed law enforcement initiatives authorizing police to shoot on sight in certain circumstances have the potential to be used in some cases as a cover to assist unscrupulous politicians in intimidating or even eliminating their opponents and opponents' supporters.

The Independent National Electoral Commission's (INEC) perceived willingness and ability to manage elections impartially can affect the level of political violence.[2]If elections are fair and transparent, it is more difficult for any group credibly to claim grievances that could lead to violence in the post-election period.The number of clashes provoked by party primaries, which quite often did not follow clear procedures articulated in advance, illustrates the importance of transparency at the general elections, where the stakes will be even higher.Unfortunately, at many stages of preparing for elections, including registration of political parties, accreditation of election observers, and setting the election schedule, INEC did not initially clarify the bases for making decisions, leaving it fairly open to criticism that it was favoring the ruling party.Separate state-level commissions responsible for managing local government elections, which were originally scheduled for April 2002, have still not announced a concrete plan for when and how they will take place.[3]

The political parties themselves have failed to impose discipline on their own members.While government officials and leaders of several parties have made public statements condemning political violence, public reprimands of their own party members, let alone more serious disciplinary actions within the parties, have been rare.In addition, parties and candidates have sometimes accused their opponents of participating in political violence with little apparent basis, which exacerbates tensions that could lead to violence between their supporters.As part of the process of growing from loose associations based on fleeting political interests to parties with true commitments to human rights, political parties need to begin to take criminal activities and human rights violations committed by their members more seriously, regardless of the criminals' status in government or within the party.

The international community has an important role to play in supporting respect for human rights in Nigeria during the elections.Strong and consistent statements from the international community denouncing serious abuses in Nigeria have been lacking over the last four years, despite signs that President Obasanjo would be sensitive to international opinion.While this public silence from the international community might have been designed to support the transition from military to civilian rule, it has left many in Nigeria with the impression that western governments, in particular, care little for their plight so long as the Nigerian government is nominally democratic, civilian, and reasonably friendly to western interests.The New Partnership for Africa's Development provides a fresh platform for both donor and African countries to exert pressure on Nigeria to prevent political violence, as they continue to provide election-related support to Nigerian government and civil society groups, and send observer delegations to monitor some stages of the Nigerian elections.

Included in this report are recommendations to the Nigerian government and security forces, political parties, and the international community.Among the key recommendations are: there should be prompt and impartial investigations and prosecutions of those suspected of having committed political violence, including those who help to arm or organize the immediate perpetrators.Police must ensure public safety by responding impartially to security threats, without excessive use of force.INEC should manage elections in an open manner according to established procedures so that all political parties can be confident that the rules have been applied in a fair-minded way.Political parties should suspend members who engage in political violence, regardless of party hierarchy, and are urged to adopt and publicize non-violence and respect for human rights as key principles of their party platforms.Members of the international community are encouraged to press the Nigerian government to prevent and punish political violence and other cases of human rights abuse.Foreign governments and inter-governmental organizations are especially urged to monitor local government elections, where serious violence may occur.

A briefing paper issued by Human Rights Watch in January 2003 described our general causes for concern in the pre-election period.[4]The current report follows up with more detailed information on incidents of political violence.It first presents case studies of political violence in four states: Bayelsa, Rivers, Kwara and Enugu.It then describes two crises where political conflict has occurred along religious or ethnic lines: the first in Jos, the capital of PlateauState; and the second in the southern oil city of Warri, in DeltaState.Cases of high profile assassination are next reviewed, followed by a section highlighting the role of police and the problems of impunity, arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial killings.Some problems that have plagued the management of the electoral process are next described, followed by a review of the roles of the political parties and of the international community in supporting peaceful elections.A full set of recommendations appears at the end of the report.

[1] Elections for the National Assembly are scheduled for April 12, 2003; the gubernatorial and presidential contests for April 19, with April 26 and 29 set aside for runoff polls; and elections to the State Houses of Assembly for May 3.Elections for local governments have not yet been scheduled.

[2] INEC is a constitutionally-created body charged with managing presidential, national- and state-level elections, including among other things registration of voters, certification of political parties, and monitoring certain aspects of party operations.

[3] The three-year tenure of local government officials expired on May 29, 2002.The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) held local party primaries over the course of 2002 in anticipation of the local council elections, and became the setting for numerous incidents of political violence.The local council primaries had originally been scheduledfor April 2002; they were postponed to August 2002, and finally postponed indefinitely; the state electoral commissions responsible for local election have yet to announce a final schedule.In the meantime, the state governors appointed local "caretaker committees" to administer local government affairs when the local council tenures expired.

[4] "Nigeria at the Crossroads: Human Rights Concerns in the Pre-election Period," A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, January 2003.