Background Briefing

Background and Introduction

On April 14 and 21, Nigerians will head to the polls to elect a new president, governors for Nigeria’s 36 states and legislators at both the state and federal levels.1 It is difficult to overstate the importance of these elections, which should mark the first transition from one civilian head of state to another in the country’s 47-year history as a nation. 

Ordinary Nigerians’ experience with government since independence in 1960 has by and large been characterized by corruption, violence and abuse. This was especially true under the succession of military dictators that ruled Nigeria for 30 of its first 39 years of independence. Nigeria’s military rulers muzzled the press, denied Nigerians any right to influence the manner in which they were governed, and targeted government opponents with harassment, arrest and even murder.2 While the purported justifications for military rule had much to do with the need to combat “indiscipline” in government and in society more broadly, Nigeria’s dictators squandered and stole billions of dollars as poverty became more widespread and increasingly severe in its consequences.3

Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 but has not held free and fair elections in the intervening years. The 1999 elections that first brought the current administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo to power were so badly flawed that the US-based Carter Center was led to conclude that “[r]egrettably…it is not possible for us to make an accurate judgment about the outcome of the Presidential election.”4 Other foreign and domestic observers also noted widespread irregularities and fraud in the elections at all levels. Nonetheless, the international community treated the 1999 elections as a positive step forward and accepted the legitimacy of the results.

Nationwide elections again took place in 2003 and were again marred by widespread fraud and human rights abuse. In some areas the campaigns were also bloody; more than 100 people lost their lives in the weeks surrounding the elections. Intimidation of voters and candidates was rife in many areas; vote buying was common; ballot boxes were stolen; and results were falsified. As in 1999, these problems were well documented. The EU observer mission, for example, found evidence of “widespread electoral fraud” in many areas and concluded that “[i]n a number of States the minimum standards for democratic elections were not met.”5   

The 2003 elections resulted in landslide victories for President Obasanjo and his ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). In his home state of Osun, for example, Obasanjo garnered a remarkable majority of 99.92 percent of all votes cast.6 In the restive Niger Delta, PDP candidates won overwhelming majorities in areas where violence had been rife and where polling stations were never even opened.7 While acknowledging these flaws, the international community was restrained in its criticism and overall treated the results of the 2003 elections as though they were legitimate.8 Local government elections held in 2004 were also marred by widespread violence and fraud and their results were also accepted with scant protest on the part of Nigeria’s foreign allies and donor governments.9

The governments produced by these elections have largely failed to realize Nigerians’ hopes that the end of military rule would bring about greater respect for human rights and progress in combating poverty. Unrestrained by any real accountability to the electorate, many of those elected officials who came to power in fraudulent elections have committed abuses against their constituents and engaged in the large-scale looting of public resources.10

The consequences of unaccountable governance in Nigeria have been severe. As documented by Human Rights Watch and other organizations, human rights abuses remain pervasive in Nigeria.11 Corruption is rampant at all levels of government, crippling basic health and education services and other social infrastructure in spite of rising oil revenues in recent years. Nigeria’s security forces have exacted bloody reprisals on civilian communities on numerous occasions with complete impunity.12 The practice of torture is rampant among officers of the federal police force.13 While more than 11,000 Nigerians have lost their lives in intercommunal clashes along ethnic, religious and other lines since 1999, government has done little to bring those responsible for such violence to account even though it acknowledges that this violence is often the result of political manipulation by those in power.14

If Nigeria’s human rights record is to improve, Nigerians must be able both to exercise a genuine choice in a free and fair election and to hold their leaders to account through democratic means.15 Election to political office must become less dependent on the strategic deployment of corruption and violence. If this process is to start at the 2007 elections, the April polls must be far more credible; they must be less violent, better organized and more reflective of the actual decisions made by voters than those held in 1999 and 2003. Unfortunately, much of what has occurred in the run-up to the April polls seems to indicate that the elections will again be badly flawed in ways that impact the human rights of voters and once again deny them a real voice in selecting their next government. 

1 The elections for governors of Nigeria’s 36 states and members of their state houses of assembly will be elected on April 14, 2007. On April 21 Nigeria will elect a new president and members of the National Assembly.

2 Much has been written about abuses under military rule in Nigeria; after 1999 the government set up a panel chaired by Justice Chukwudifu A. Oputa to comprehensively investigate the record of human rights abuse under the period of military rule proceeding Obasanjo’s assumption of office in May 1999. The Obasanjo administration never published the report of the Oputa Panel but it was subsequently leaked and made public by several Nigerian civil society groups. It is available online in numerous locations, including at (accessed March 15, 2007).

3 The Executive Chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Nuhu Ribadu has estimated that Nigeria lost some US$380 billion to corruption and waste by those in government between 1960 and 1999. “Nigerian Leaders ‘Stole’ $380 Billion,” BBC News Online, October 20, 2006, (accessed March 14, 2006).

4 “Observing the 1998-1999 Nigeria Elections: Final Report,” Carter Center and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, November 1999, p. 12, (accessed March 14, 2007).

5 “Final Report on the National Assembly, Presidential, Gubernatorial and State Houses of Assembly Elections,” European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM), (accessed March 12, 2007), p.2.

6 International Crisis Group (ICG), “Nigeria: Want in the Midst of Plenty,” Africa Report No. 113, July 19, 2006, p. 7, (accessed March 14, 2007).

7 In Rivers State, for example, local civil society groups compared the pre-election period to a “low-intensity armed conflict” and many voters stayed at home or found their polling stations padlocked on election day. Yet, PDP Governor Peter Odili was returned to office in a landslide victory with nearly 100 percent voter turnout reported in some areas.

8 See below, The Role of Nigeria’s Regional and International Partners.

9 Ibid.

10 See for example International Crisis Group report “Want in the Midst of Plenty,” July 2006 and Human Rights Watch, “Chop Fine”: The Human Rights Impact of Local Government Corruption in Rivers

State, Nigeria, vol. 19, no. 2(A), January 2007, 

11 See for example Human Rights Watch, Nigeria’s 2003 Elections: The Unacknowledged Violence, June 2003,; Human Rights Watch, “Rest in Pieces”: Police Torture and Deaths in Custody in Nigeria, vol. 17, no. 11(A), July 2005,; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria – The “Miss World Riots”: Continued Impunity for Killings in Kaduna, vol. 15, no. 13(A),; Human Rights Watch, “They Do Not Own This Place”: Government Discrimination Against “Non-Indigenes” in Nigeria, vol. 18, no. 3(A), April 2006,; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria – Military Revenge in Benue: A Population Under Attack, vol. 14, no. 2(A), April 2002,

12 See, for example, Human Rights Watch, Nigeria – Military Revenge in Benue: A Population Under Attack, vol. 14, no. 2(A), April 2002,; Human Rights Watch, The Destruction of Odi and Rape in Choba (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999),

13 Human Rights Watch, “Rest in Pieces”: Police Torture and Deaths in Custody in Nigeria, July 2005; Press Release: UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Concludes Visit to Nigeria: Torture widespread in police custody in Nigeria, March 12, 2007 (HR/O7/35).

14 The minimum estimate of 11,000 is based on an ongoing survey of news reports, human rights reports and other literature undertaken by Human Rights Watch in 2006 and 2007. More than 500 separate incidents of violence were noted by HRW in the survey of news sources.

15 Nigeria is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, acceded to by Nigeria on July 29, 1993. Article 25 of the ICCPR provides that every citizen shall have the right to vote and be elected at "genuine" periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors without "unreasonable restrictions." The U.N. Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 25 sets out the authoritative guidelines for states party regarding the scope and nature of the rights and obligations under Article 25. Human Rights Committee, General Comment 25 (57), Adopted by the Committee at its 1510th meeting, July 12, 1996, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.7. Nigeria is also a party to the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, adopted June 27, 1981, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/67/3 rev. 5, entered into force October 21, 1986, ratified by Nigeria on July 22, 1983. Article 13 provides that every citizen “[s]hall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives in accordance with the provisions of the law.”