Background Briefing


In 1999, Nigeria made a definitive break with a post-independence history dominated by three decades of abusive and unaccountable military rule. That year, the country returned to civilian government under the leadership of President Olusegun Obasanjo and since then has enjoyed its longest stretch of uninterrupted civilian rule since independence in 1960.

Unfortunately, the transition to civilian rule has not delivered democratically accountable government for Nigerians. Nigeria has not held a free and fair general election since the end of military rule; polls in 1999 and 2003 were characterized by widespread violence, intimidation, bribery, vote rigging and corruption. The officials who came to office through that process have generally not realized the hopes of Nigerians for socio-economic advancement and better governance. Instead, Nigeria’s population remains mired in poverty and despite limited advances government at all levels is riddled with corruption and abuse of human rights. Human rights concerns from access to health and education to police torture and military attacks on civilians form part of a broader failure of Nigeria’s institutions of government.

If the human rights situation in Nigeria is to improve, its government must reflect the genuine exercise of free choice by Nigeria’s voters, and be made accountable to the same. For this reason, nationwide polls scheduled later this month will be of landmark importance. If the polls mark a significant improvement over the bloody and fraudulent experience of 2003, they will give momentum to efforts to reform Nigeria’s battered system of governance and to improve the lives of ordinary Nigerians. But if the elections are afflicted with the same problems that undermined the legitimacy of past elections, such as violence, intimidation, the stealing of ballot boxes and the corruption of election officials, they will in all likelihood produce four more years of corrupt and abusive governance. Worse, the pattern set by three consecutive flawed national elections would risk entrenching the cronyism, violence and competitive rigging that has come to pass for political competition since 1999.

Unfortunately, as the elections approach the actions of the federal government and its agencies cast doubt on its commitment to multi-party democracy. Indeed the actions of the government so far are not those of an administration seeking to build the foundations of a vibrant democracy; instead, they look much more like a heavy-handed attempt to perpetuate control of the organs of state.

The pre-election period has seen scores of clashes between factions of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and between PDP and opposition supporters. Those clashes have claimed at least 70 lives, with some credible estimates ranging into the hundreds. Just as worrying has been the federal government’s failure to adequately respond to the violence. No real effort has been made to investigate, prosecute and hold accountable the sponsors of political violence in the run-up to the election. The resulting climate of impunity has led many powerful politicians to openly recruit and arm gangs to help them manipulate the elections and intimidate voters, confident that the police will simply stand aside and watch.

Along with the potential threat of widespread violence and intimidation around the polls, the government has failed to ensure some of the basic foundations of a free and fair election. Perhaps most serious, voter registration was marred by grave problems such as widespread complaints of under-registration, multiple registration and a failure to display the voters list. These and other shortcomings have left the integrity of the final voters list in serious doubt.

While appearing unable or unwilling to address these grave threats to the integrity of the electoral process, Nigerian government agencies have shown considerable vigor in devising ways to prevent key opposition figures from standing in the elections. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has announced that Nigeria’s vice president, who had emerged as one of the two most powerful opposition candidates for president, will be ineligible to stand for the elections due to allegations of corruption. The presidency also established a hastily-convened panel to bring “indictments” against opponents of the presidency among the opposition and within the PDP in administrative proceedings that made no pretense of offering fair hearings or due process.

While some of the allegations of corruption may be well-founded, the government has clearly been politically selective in choosing who to “indict” and who to leave free to contest the elections. What unites many of those who were indicted and disqualified from the polls is their perceived disloyalty to the president. This has engendered a widely shared belief within Nigerian civil society, within the media and among the broader population that the much-heralded ‘war on corruption’ has been transformed a political witch-hunt.

Many of those barred from the elections are challenging the legality of their exclusion in court, and so far Nigeria’s courts have showed real independence in enforcing the constitution and the law. But INEC has indicated that it may simply ignore any judgment ordering it to reverse its exclusion of certain candidates, explaining that the elections will by then be too near at hand to alter the ballot papers. This is disingenuous because it is the government’s own delay tactics that have prevented the issue from being resolved sooner.

The net effect of the police reluctance to tackle political violence, and the willingness of the EFCC and INEC to do the bidding of the ruling party has been the creation of a situation in which the rights of Nigeria’s voters are likely to be disregarded and abused. 

This report is based on research conducted in Nigeria during January and February 2007. Human Rights Watch researchers visited the states of Lagos, Oyo, Anambra, Delta and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), and interviewed representatives from local, state and federal government; political party officials from both the PDP and opposition parties; police officers; INEC officials; civil society officials; lawyers; traditional rulers; officials with international organizations; and diplomats from foreign missions. Some names have been withheld to protect the security of the individuals concerned.