In April and early May, Nigeria is planning to hold elections for national and state office, hoping for the first successful civilian-to-civilian transfer of power since independence in 1960.
Some Nigerian officials have publicly condemned the rising political violence. The fifteen-page briefing paper, “Nigeria at the Crossroads: Human Rights Concerns in the Pre-Election Period,” documents how politicians across Nigeria have used violence as a tool to acquire or retain political support, wealth and influence. It is based in part on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in Nigeria in December 2002.
“A successful transfer of power means more than just keeping the country from falling apart,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “It means that voters must be protected from intimidation and violence aimed at silencing their voices. It means that candidates must be able to stand for office without fear of bloodshed.”
Many politicians have taken advantage of rampant poverty and unemployment to recruit young men, who intimidate and even kill their opponents or opponents’ supporters. For example, in Kwara state, supporters of the governor and the leading gubernatorial candidate have been in conflict, leading to the killing of a state party chairman in August 2002 and the bombing of a newspaper office in November 2002.
Some of the worst violence took place during the primaries of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), particularly in the oil-producing state of Bayelsa, in the south. Politically-motivated killings and other attacks have occurred in many other areas, including the southeast and the southwest. In central and northern states, some politicians have used religion and ethnicity to galvanize political support or opposition, stirring up sentiments that could spark further communal violence in Nigeria, as evidenced by the so-called Miss World riots in Kaduna in November 2002.
Most of the cases of political violence remain unresolved. Although the police have made some arrests, prosecutions are rare. “Impunity is encouraging ruthless politicians to believe they can continue using violence to silence their opponents,” said Takirambudde.
The Human Rights Watch briefing paper also documents the status of preparations for elections, and makes recommendations to the Nigerian government and the international community on how to help prevent political violence and ensure that the elections are free of human rights abuses.
“People in Nigeria have proven they are eager to vote and participate,” said Takirambudde. “But many may still be left out, either because of the bungling of preparations by the electoral commission, or because of outright intimidation and fraud by candidates.”
While the Independent National Electoral Commission's (INEC) recognition of twenty-four new political parties in December 2002 was a welcome development, INEC's January 17, 2003, announcement of very substantial "processing fees" for each fielded candidate has presented a new obstacle to the less established parties. In addition, despite widespread complaints of violent intimidation and fraud in the first voter registration exercise in September 2002, INEC has not fully explained when and exactly how eligible voters can appeal their exclusion from the voters’ register. A short voter registration period from January 21-23, which took place only in centralized locations, seemed unlikely to resolve all of these cases, and the logistics of a period of claims and objections planned for February remain unclear. The timing of local elections, originally scheduled for April 2002, also has yet to be finalized.
Human Rights Watch urged foreign governments and international organizations to mobilize observer delegations at least several weeks in advance of elections to monitor conduct in the pre-election period when violence is likely to be most intense, and to continue to support Nigerian groups who will undertake the bulk of the monitoring work.
“Nigeria has emerged as a leader in international fora like the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), which is trying to emphasize the importance of good governance and respect for human rights,” said Takirambudde. “But to maintain its credibility there, Nigeria needs to prove it is willing and able to deal with human rights violations at home, including political violence.”