Background Briefing

The Response of Nigeria’s International and Regional Partners

At a diplomatic level, Nigeria’s international partners were not highly critical of Nigeria’s 1999 and 2003 elections. Looking back on those polls in a recent interview with Human Rights Watch, one western diplomat described the bloodshed, corruption and outright rigging that characterized those polls as “bumps on the road” towards democracy and greater respect for human rights.124 This attitude was largely reflected in the public responses of most foreign governments.125

Nonetheless, in the years since 2003, western diplomats have repeatedly stated that the forthcoming polls must display clear improvements over the 2003 process.126 UK government officials in particular have stated repeatedly that the 2007 vote must mark a “significant” improvement over 2003 and that anything less would be “unacceptable.”127 As the elections draw near, however, there is increasing reason to doubt that there is any substance to these rhetorical commitments.

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has come closer than any of Nigeria’s other foreign partners to articulating a coherent benchmark by which to measure the success or failure of the April polls in demanding “significant” improvements over 2003. However, there is no clarity in policymaking circles as to how that measurement will actually be made. Several FCO officials admitted as much to Human Rights Watch, with one official stating that “We don’t have a detailed scorecard in comparison to 2003…The reaction of the Nigerian people is what determines the reaction of Her Majesty’s Government.”128

Among Nigeria’s diplomatic partners and in western policymaking circles in particular, there is a widespread perception that Nigeria sits perpetually on the brink of potential disaster.129 In situations such as elections that exacerbate existing political tensions, these concerns lead many foreign governments to behave as though any outcome that does not lead to widespread civil strife is inherently acceptable. In the context of elections and Nigeria’s human rights record more generally, this has led Nigeria’s key diplomatic allies to repeatedly set the bar so low that the Nigerian government can clear it without registering any meaningful improvement.

This problem of diminished expectations was clearly evident in international reactions to Nigeria’s 2003 elections. For example, in its final report on the 2003 elections, the EU observer team put a positive spin on the deaths of at least 105 people in election-related violence, writing that “A positive feature of these elections was that levels of election related violence was significantly lower than feared.”130

In the run up to April’s vote the same attitudes have manifested themselves in an unwillingness to criticize the Nigerian government’s failure to address the problems afflicting the current process. Many foreign governments seem ready to accept purported evidence of good intentions as substitutes for concrete action on the part of the federal government, police and election officials. Echoing the sentiments of several other diplomatic officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch, one European diplomat said that he placed more importance on his belief that INEC Chairman Maurice Iwu “is trustworthy and believes in the importance of free and fair elections” than on the numerous indications that INEC and other institutions are failing to do their jobs.131

While going to great lengths to appear supportive of Iwu and INEC more generally, no western government has been forthrightly critical of the government’s numerous failures in organizing the April polls and in ensuring that the rights and safety of voters are protected. One western diplomatic source acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that “there has probably not been nearly enough of that going on” from the US side.132 Other governments have done no better; as one Abuja-based diplomat put it, “Most heads of mission here are just not saying anything.”133

Just as worrying is that in the event that Nigeria’s diplomatic allies do conclude the 2007 elections are not up to standard, it is not at all clear what if anything this would mean. US and UK officials, for example, have not articulated what consequences, if any, would follow an election they did not regard as “credible.” As one UK diplomatic source put it, “We have not formulated anything yet as to what might be at stake.”134 More dramatic and difficult policy responses aside, it does not appear that any foreign government is even prepared to publicly condemn the electoral process even if it does turns out to mirror the “unacceptable” benchmark set in 2003.

African Union election observers in 2003 offered no criticism of the polls, instead praising their “congenial atmosphere” and making no mention of violence in their final statement.135 Neither the AU nor ECOWAS has issued any public statements of concern in the run-up to the 2007 polls.

The European Union, Commonwealth, National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Economic Community of West African States and possibly the African Union are expected to send substantial observer missions to witness the April polls. There will be no shortage of information for Nigeria’s foreign and regional partners to draw on in formulating their responses to the elections. But it remains to be seen whether influential regional and foreign governments will be more honest in the conclusions they draw from that information than they were in 2003. As a leading official with one international organization that will field monitors to observe the April polls put it, “Let’s not cook up any new standards here just to make the elections look acceptable…when the international community takes that stance they are really condoning what is going on.”136 

If Nigeria’s April elections are as violent and as fraudulent as those of 2003, the international community would do a great deal of damage to its own reputation as well as to the hopes of Nigeria’s voters if it failed to describe the elections in a manner consistent with the experience of the mass of Nigerian society. The indefensibly positive reactions of western governments and regional organizations to the 2003 elections were demoralizing to Nigerian civil society and to ordinary citizens. They also signaled that any “insistence” by foreign governments that Nigeria conduct its elections in a credible manner need not be taken seriously by the Nigerian government. As one Nigerian civil society group put it in 2003, “Congratulatory messages by the American and British government to the PDP victors in this election have demoralized most citizens, since legitimacy has apparently been given to undemocratic practices by these western ‘champions’ of democracy.”137

If the cycle of violence and corruption that passes for political competition in Nigeria is to be broken, credible free and fair elections are the proper starting point. The human rights situation in Nigeria can only improve if the right of the people to choose their own government is respected and defended first. That right is at serious risk in the upcoming elections. If the elections do not represent a significant step forward in Nigerians’ struggle to hold their leaders to account through legal means, those who attempt to paint an unjustifiably rosy picture of events risk casting themselves as enemies of democracy.

124 Human Rights Watch interview with western diplomatic official, Abuja, February 21, 2007.

125 The White House put out a statement after the 2003 elections which read in part, “[t]he United States congratulates the people of Nigeria for what was largely a peaceful expression and exercise of their right to vote…[t]he widespread violence predicted by many did not happen.” Statement on Nigerian Elections by the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House, May 2, 2003. African governments and the AU offered no criticism of the elections. 

126 Similar rhetoric has not been forthcoming from Nigeria’s African partners.

127 Human Rights Watch interviews with UK diplomatic officials, Abuja, August 2006 and February 26, 2007.

128 Human Rights Watch interview with UK diplomatic official, London, February 26, 2007.

129 In a report that generated considerable public and governmental outrage in Nigeria, the US Government’s National Intelligence Council published a report in 2005 wherein an independent panel of experts speculated that the “outright collapse of Nigeria” by 2015 was a real possibility. “Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future,” National Intelligence Council, March 2005.

130 “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. 28.

131 Human Rights Watch interview with western diplomatic official, Abuja, February 22, 2007.

132 Human Rights Watch interview with western diplomatic official, Abuja, February 21, 2007.

133 Human Rights Watch interview with western diplomatic official, Abuja, February 22, 2007.

134 Human Rights Watch interview with UK diplomatic official, Abuja, February 22, 2007.

135 Statement by the African Union observer/monitoring team on the 2003 presidential, gubernatorial and National Assembly elections in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

136  Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, February 22, 2007.

137 “The 2003 elections in Ebonyi State: a report by the Human Rights Centre, Ebonyi State.”