Nigeria - Human Rights Watch World Report 1999 Corporations and Human Rights Campaign
Testimony of Bronwen Manby, Human Rights Watch
to the House Subcommittee on Africa
August 3, 1999

Thank you, Chairman, for your invitation to Human Rights Watch to address the subcommittee on the issue of human rights in Nigeria. My name is Bronwen Manby and I am a researcher working on Nigeria in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch has monitored the situation in Nigeria for several years, and has issued numerous publications about human rights violations in that country, most recently focusing on the situation in the oil producing regions of the Niger Delta.

The situation in Nigeria has substantially improved over the last year. Following the death of Gen. Sani Abacha in June 1998, the unprecedented repression he visited on the Nigerian people was relaxed during the interim government of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar. The inauguration of President Olusegun Obasanjo on May 29, 1999, brings some hope that the long series of military governments in Nigeria may be over.

While acknowledging the improvements that have taken place, Human Rights Watch would like to highlight our ongoing concerns, and raise issues for U.S. policy towards Nigeria in connection with those concerns. These include defects in the electoral process and the lack of a democratically drafted constitution, as well as the need for restoration of the rule of law and support for the process of investigating past violations. I will also address briefly the question of the resumption of U.S. military assistance to Nigeria. Finally, I will focus in more depth on the situation in the Niger Delta, which has the potential to derail the entire experiment in democracy now going forward.

Defects in the Electoral Process

When he took office, General Abubakar canceled the "transition program" established by General Abacha, 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, which led to the inauguration of a civilian government, headed by former military head of state President Olusegun Obasanjo. Although most international and domestic observers of the elections welcomed their peaceful completion as an important step forward in the return of Nigeria to civilian government, they also noted serious flaws in the process at all stages. These irregularities included vastly inflated figures for voter turnout, stuffing of ballot boxes, intimidation and bribery of both electoral officials and voters, and alteration of results at collation centres. The irregularities were widespread, but were particularly serious in the South-South zone of the country, the Niger Delta region. In addition, the party primaries, including the presidential primary of.the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) which led to the selection of Obasanjo as the presidential candidate, were marked by blatant purchasing of votes. At local and state level, candidates selected by party members from the district were frequently replaced at the instance of party leaders, without following proper procedures.

Human Rights Watch urges the U.S. government to work with state institutions and nongovernmental organizations in order to strengthen the links between the current government structures and their constituents and to ensure that the next elections held in Nigeria do represent a more genuine process. We also urge a review of the manner in which election monitoring is carried by U.S.-funded groups: it is important that election monitoring missions do not simply legitimize illegitimate processes.

The Lack of a Democratically Drafted Constitution

The constitution that came into force in Nigeria on May 29 was promulgated by General Abubakar only three weeks before the new government was inaugurated, following an unrepresentative drafting process that took place virtually without consultation with the Nigerian people. The 1999 constitution was finalized by a panel appointed by General Abubakar and adopted by the military Provisional Ruling Council. There is a consensus among Nigerian civil society organizations that the process by which the constitution was adopted was illegitimate and that the arrangements in relation to a number of crucial areas, including human rights and the rule of law, the structure of the Nigerian federation and the system for revenue allocation and resource management, are not acceptable. The Nigerian government should treat the current constitution as an interim document and should institute an immediate, inclusive, and transparent process for drafting a new constitution which will be legitimate in the eyes of all Nigerians.

The constitution's content also raises human rights concerns. For example, section 315(5) of the constitution provides that "Nothing in the constitution shall invalidate" a set of laws, including the controversial National Security Agencies Act and Land Use Act, which in addition can only be repealed or amended by a special majority of the National Assembly and Senate. Section 6 of the National Security Agencies Act provides that the president may make any law to confer powers on the Defence Intelligence Agency, the National Intelligence Agency and the State Security Services. The Land Use Act provides the government with an extraordinary and often arbitrary degree of control over land; its repeal is one of the central demands of groups protesting oil production in the Niger Delta area. As a result of section 315(5) of the constitution, these laws cannot be challenged in any court of law as being unconstitutional. The provisions relating to independence of the judiciary are also not satisfactory, while the constitution fails to provide for the national Human Rights Commission established under General Abacha, which has, against all the odds, been able to carry out some useful work, and should be strengthened.

Restoration of the Rule of Law:
Repeal of Military Decrees and Reform of the Justice System

Immediately before the handover of power to President Obasanjo, General Abubakar announced the repeal of a number of military decrees that had permitted a wide range of acts in violation of international human rights law. While a most welcome step, the many years of military rule in Nigeria have built up a large body of other laws that reflect their military origins and infringe on the rights of the Nigerian people. The U.S. should urge the Nigerian government to institute a comprehensive process of review of the laws in force, in conjunction with the national Human Rights Commission and the nongovernmental human rights community, with a view to the repeal or amendment of those that do not comply with the international human rights standards to which Nigeria is committed. Among the laws that should be examined are the Public Order Act and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Decree.

The new civilian government has also made commitments to respect the rule of law. The minister of justice has announced that the government intends to respect court orders issued against it; a major step forward, if the commitment is real. The new government has also stated that it is committed to improving prison conditions, building on the improvements gained by the release of several thousand prisoners from overcrowded jails over the last year, many of them held for years without trial. A number of states have disbanded the notoriously abusive paramilitary anti-crime units established under the military government, replacing them with units that do not include soldiers. These include Operation Sweep in Lagos State, replaced by a new Rapid Response Squad, and Operation Flush in Rivers State, replaced by a Swift Operations Squad. The methods used by the new units seem, however, to resemble those of their predecessors. On June 25, 1999, for example, Adewale Adeoye, chairman of Journalists for Democratic Rights, was arrested by members of the Lagos State Rapid Response Squad, beaten, and detained overnight. He was held together with sixteen other people apparently arbitrarily selected for the purpose of extracting the bribes that they paid to be released.

Although the reforms announced are welcome, they are only the very first steps that are needed. There is an urgent need for the government to focus on issues relating to the administration of justice, in conjunction with the national Human Rights Commission and the human rights community in Nigeria as well as international agencies which can give technical assistance, in order to help restore respect for human rights and the rule of law respect that is essential not only for the rights of the Nigerian people, but also to promote the sort of external investment that will be necessary to bring Nigeria out of its current economic crisis.

Investigation of past Human Rights Violations

Immediately after he became head of state, President Obasanjo announced the appointment of a seven-member panel chaired by a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, to investigate "mysterious deaths" and assassinations and other human rights abuses under the military governments in office since 1984 and to make recommendations to redress past injustices and to prevent future violations. The panel was widely welcomed by human rights groups in Nigeria, though it is not yet clear exactly what mandate, powers, or budget it will have, or the date by which it will have to complete its investigation and present a report.

Human Rights Watch also welcomes the appointment of this panel and believes that it has the potential to play an important role in the establishment of a truly new beginning in Nigeria in the same way that the truth commissions in South Africa or Latin American countries have done. However, this potential will only be fulfilled if the panel is given sufficient powers, political backing and funding to enable it to carry out an effective investigation, sub poena witnesses, and make recommendations, including for prosecutions where appropriate. The U.S. government should support this process, and emphasize the importance for the investigation to be a thorough one to ensure that the cycle of impunity for human rights violations that has been the rule in Nigeria is broken.

Resumption of U.S. Military Assistance to Nigeria

With the inauguration of a civilian government, U.S. sanctions against Nigeria have been lifted, allowing for the resumption of military assistance to Nigeria, including under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. Human Rights Watch is concerned that any military assistance given to Nigeria should include strict human rights conditions. In particular, we believe that resumption of military assistance must be in the context of a well-thought out strategy for increasing the democratic accountability of the Nigerian military, while emphasizing that any future attempt by the military to seize power will be met with tough sanctions.

The U.S. government should enforce Section 570 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, the so-called Leahy amendment, in relation to Nigeria, and should monitor military units that receive U.S. military aid. The Leahy amendment prohibits funds from being provided to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the secretary of state has credible evidence that the unit has committed gross violations of human rights, unless the secretary determines and reports to the congressional committees on appropriations that the government involved is taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice. In this context, support for the panel chaired by Justice Oputa, and for prosecutions of military officials and others based on information received by the panel, could be of particular importance.

Strict control must be exercised over any military materiel supplied to the Nigerian government, for example for use by the Nigerian component of the ECOMOG peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone, to ensure that it is cannot be transferred for use in other contexts where human rights violations are likely, for example in the Niger Delta. The U.S. government should take steps to screen any Nigerian army officers selected to benefit from U.S. training to ensure that those who have been responsible for human rights violations in the past are not included.

The Situation in the Niger Delta

The crisis in the oil producing regions is one of the most pressing issues for the new government of Nigeria and has the greatest potential to lead to a serious deterioration in respect for human rights. 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, which reached a climax during the "Ogoni crisis" of 1993 to 1996, have been committed principally in response to protests about the activities of the multinational companies that extract Nigeria's oil and the use made of the oil revenue by the Nigerian government.

Since the relaxation in repression following the death of General Abacha, and in the context of the greater competition within the political environment encouraged by the elections and the installation of a civilian government, 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, youths from 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. In addition there has been an increase in criminal acts such as kidnappings of oil company staff in hope of ransom payments, and violence among neighboring ethnic groups over matters such as the location of local government headquarters, crucial in the distribution of oil resources.

In response, large numbers of soldiers and paramilitary Mobile Police have been deployed across the delta. Although there is a clear need for law and order to be reestablished in those parts of the delta where the violence between neighboring ethnic groups has been worst, the security forces have both failed to protect civilians from violence in many cases, and have also themselves carried out serious and widespread violations of human rights. Security force action has often been indiscriminate, or targeted at those who have not committed any crime but have protested oil production in accordance with their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. During a military crackdown in late December 1998 and early January 1999 in response to largely peaceful protests in support of the Kaiama Declaration, dozens of young men were killed, most of them unarmed. Others were tortured and inhumanly treated; many more were arbitrarily detained.

In another incident in January 1999, 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 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. As in this case, the oil companies operating in Nigeria often fail to acknowledge any responsibility when security force action is taken in nominal defense of their facilities, although they have in many respects contributed toward the discontent and conflict within and between communities that results in repressive government responses.

In May and early June 1999, violence flared up in and around Warri, Delta State, where there has been serious conflict since 1997 among the Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo ethnic groups. Government has consistently failed to address the concerns of the different ethnic groups living in the area, and repeated inquiries into the violence have remained incomplete, or their results unpublished. As in the case of similar violence that regularly flares up between different ethnic or religious groups elsewhere in the country, there are also persistent allegations that senior figures in the military have favored one or other side in the conflict.

President Obasanjo visited the delta area in June 1999 and held discussions with local leaders. He has promised to bring greater development to the delta, and introduced to the National Assembly a bill to establish a Niger Delta Development Commission. Leaders of the ethnic groups based in the Niger Delta, however, have rejected the bill since it does not address their concerns surrounding revenue allocation and resource control.

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. Yet any attempt to achieve a military solution to these problems will certainly result in widespread and serious violations of Nigeria's commitments to respect internationally recognized human rights. While it is certainly necessary to establish the rule of law in the delta, a quiet achieved by repressive means can only be temporary and will result in more violence in the longer term.

To avoid a human rights crisis and achieve a peaceful solution to the unrest plaguing the oil producing regions, the new 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. During the recent elections, observers noted especially widespread electoral irregularities in Rivers, Bayelsa, and Delta States, those most troubled by recent protests. These problems make 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 appropriate response to acts of violence must be to arrest and prosecute those responsible, not to carry out indiscriminate reprisals against the entire population of the oil-producing regions. Those who peacefully protest the manner in which oil is currently produced have a right to make their voice heard.

The U.S. should urge the Nigerian government, among other steps, to appoint an independent judicial enquiry to investigate the human rights violations in the delta, including during the Ogoni crisis and over the 1998/99 New Year period, and to discipline or prosecute those responsible and compensate the victims. The government should take steps to replace soldiers carrying out policing duties in the Niger Delta area and elsewhere with regular police with training in public order policing and ensure that those police deployed have been vetted to exclude abusive officers. The government should institute an immediate, inclusive and transparent process of negotiation with freely chosen representatives of the peoples living in the Niger Delta to resolve the issues surrounding the production of oil.

The U.S.-based oil companies operating in Nigeria, especially Chevron, Mobil and Texaco which operate joint ventures with the Nigerian government, 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 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. Human Rights Watch has developed detailed recommendations to oil companies in its recent reports The Price of Oil: Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria's Oil Producing Communities (February 1999) and Crackdown in the Niger Delta (May 1999), of which copies have been supplied to the subcommittee.


In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, Human Rights Watch believes that the developments in Nigeria over the last year offer a real hope that the country can take its rightful place as a leader of the African continent and that its citizens can enjoy the respect for human rights to which they are entitled. However, the new government faces huge obstacles in achieving this goal in the face of the pattern of widespread and systematic abuse that has inherited from its predecessors, especially considering the shaky electoral foundations on which it stands. In particular, we are deeply concerned that the government may be tempted to respond violently to the discontent in the Niger Delta, a response that would catastrophically reverse progress towards respect for human rights in Nigeria as a whole. The U.S. government can play an important role in supporting legal and practical reforms by the Nigerian government through technical assistance and diplomatic pressure, and by assisting civil society organizations working towards increased respect for human rights. U.S. military assistance to Nigeria should be carefully tailored to ensure that it cannot be used to benefit officers who have been responsible for human rights violations or in situations where human rights violations are likely. The U.S. should also make clear to the Nigerian government that any attempt to resolve the crisis in the delta in a way that does not respect the rights of those who live in the oil producing regions is unacceptable. Equally, the administration should insist to the U.S. oil companies working in Nigeria that they must play their part in ensuring that oil production does not continue only due to the threat or actual use of force against those who protest their activities.


Defects in the Electoral Process

The Lack of a Democratically Drafted Constitution

Restoration of the Rule of Law

Investigation of past Human Rights Violations

The Situation in the Niger Delta