Human Rights Developments
An unsuccessful but bloody military coup attempt on April 22 weakened the already fragile state of human rights in Nigeria in 1990. The military government of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida used the attempt as the occasion for a massive crackdown on civilian opposition figures and institutions. The government's heavy-handedness in this and other instances called into question whether the planned transition to civilian rule, due to be completed in 1992, would proceed.
A total of 69 alleged coup plotters were executed in 1990, after trials which lacked the most basic safeguards. Forty-two were shot on July 27; twenty-seven more were killed on September 13 after a retrial. Military and civilian suspects alike were tried by a military tribunal, presided over by a former government minister who was later reappointed to his ministerial post. The proceedings were conducted in camera. The accused were not allowed to choose their own legal counsel. There was no judicial appeal.
The crackdown on dissent that followed the coup attempt shook the foundations of Nigeria's fragile civil society. A number of newspapers and magazines were temporarily closed. Journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, politicians, religious figures and academics were targeted for arrest and harassment. Several leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) were temporarily detained for protesting discrimination against Christians.
The universities, which have been a particular target of the government for some time, continued to suffer in 1990. In December 1989, the government promulgated Decree 47, which authorizes imprisonment and fines for any student found guilty of taking part in a demonstration or organizing a protest. In March 1990, a government announcement of an agreement for a $120 million World Bank loan for the 21 federal universities touched off boycotts and demonstrations by students who feared that part of the agreement would require a cut in academic programs and staff. Some of the demonstrations were broken up by armed troops. After the coup, a number of students were arrested, particularly members of the National Association of Nigerian Students, which has been banned since 1986. Three academics, Professors Obaro Ikime and Omotoye Olorode and Dr. Idowu Awopetu, were arrested and detained for three months after the coup; they were later forced into retirement for "the public interest." In an August 27 address to the nation, Gen. Babangida legalized the Academic Staff Union of Universities, which had been banned since 1988, on the basis that "universities can, and indeed should, make positive contribution to the emergence of a new sociopolitical order." However, the President warned:
In addition to the bashing it took after the coup, the press endured mounting threats on its independence in 1990. Shortly before the coup attempt, then Chief of General Staff Augustus Aikhomu accused the media of leading a campaign "to bring down the government." Later in the year, Aikhomu again urged journalists to promote views to ensure unity, peace and stability. Finally, the Government threatened to implement Decree 59 of 1988, which establishes the Nigerian Media Council and authorizes it to set entry qualifications for journalists, keep a registered list of journalists and monitor their conduct according to ethical standards. Late in 1990, however, authorities indicated that the legislation may be subject to further revision.
The State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree 2 of 1984 was a major focus of Nigerian human rights groups in 1990, particularly the Civil Liberties Organization. The decree, which cannot be challenged in court, has been regularly used to silence government critics; probably hundreds of Nigerians are currently detained under it. In late January, the government amended the decree by reducing from six months to six weeks the initial period that a detainee may be held before his or her case is administratively reviewed. However, a detention may still be renewed indefinitely. The amendment also removed the authority of the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Inspector General of Police to detain suspects by decree, vesting this authority exclusively in the Chief of General Staff. In addition, the amendment established a panel to review the cases of all those currently being held under Decree 2. The decree was widely used by the government to detain opponents in the aftermath of the attempted coup.
In a case which gave rise to widespread concern, the government denied due process to a section of the urban poor in Lagos. Some 300,000 residents of the Maroko slum were left homeless when the government razed their neighborhood in July, after giving residents a mere seven days' warning. Attempts to bring the matter before the courts were fruitless; the one court that agreed to hear the case set the date for the hearing two days after the planned demolition, then dismissed it on the grounds that the dispute had been overtaken by events. The former residents were settled in camps, which are overcrowded and lack heat, light, sanitary facilities and clean water. There is not enough food and no medical services. Police have reportedly assaulted, raped and harassed the residents.
The government has continued to keep a tight hold on labor organizing, ever since it dissolved the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC) in 1988, apparently for its opposition to government policies. The government has sought to control the reconstituted NLC, and in 1990 cancelled May Day celebrations, citing fears of security problems in the wake of the coup attempt.
On January 31, the government dropped criminal charges against Gani Fawehinmi, a prominent human rights lawyer, and Alhaji Balarabe Musa, a politician. The two had been separately charged in 1989 with offenses under the Transition to Civil Rule (Political Program) Decree 19 of 1987. The program for transition to civilian rule, which has been carefully orchestrated by the government, prevents all former politicians from running for election. In addition, in 1989, the government declared illegal all political parties then seeking registration. Thereafter, Gen. Babangida announced that only two government-created parties would be authorized -- one a little to the left, and one a little to the right. Musa was charged with launching a political party despite being banned from participation in politics, and Fawehinmi was charged with obstructing the transition-to-civil-rule program. Despite being granted bail by the courts, they were both administratively detained for several months under Decree 2. Fawehinmi was held incommunicado under harsh conditions.
On September 6, the police blocked the site of a planned national conference on Nigeria's political future. In a letter to the conference organizers published that day in a Nigerian newspaper, Attorney General Prince Bola Ajibola, who had been invited to the conference, stated that he would not attend and warned organizers that they might be subject to five-year prison sentences if they proceeded. Shortly before the conference was due to take place, on August 16, its chairman, Alao Aka-Bashorun, a well known government critic and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, was picked up for questioning by the State Security Service. His passport was seized. In December, a Lagos high court agreed to hear a five million naira (approximately $500,000) suit against the federal government for canceling the conference.
The weakening of the judiciary continued to be an issue in 1990. In addition to the debilitating effects of rule by military decree -- particularly Decree 13 of 1984, which states that no court challenges are permitted to any decree or edict of the government -- the government on a number of occasions has ignored rulings of the court. For example, in 1989, the Lagos High Court ordered the State Security Service to return the passport of Gani Fawehinmi. The passport was not returned until October 1990, when Minister of Information Alex Akinyele released it as an act of clemency, making no reference to the court order of the previous year.
Violence by the police continued to be a major problem in 1990. According to a paper delivered by the National Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in a recent conference on human rights and the administration of justice in Nigeria, 60 percent of a sample of accused persons alleged police mistreatment. The problem appears to be exacerbated by an attitude of tolerance adopted by the highest levels of government toward violence directed at common criminal suspects. For example, Lagos State Governor Col. Raji Rasaki publicly stated in 1990 that citizens should feel free to lynch armed robbery suspects.
Nigeria's prisons are notoriously overcrowded, and prisoners regularly die as a result of substandard conditions. In March 1990, seven of 29 armed robbery suspects due to appear before a military tribunal died in custody from undisclosed causes. A report the same month by the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) on the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison stated that 48 inmates had died in the course of the previous year. Although the government attributed these deaths to "natural causes," the CLO investigation revealed that malnutrition, 72 percent overcrowding, and a lack of medical attention to diseases such as tuberculosis were largely responsible.
The Bush administration made public statements about human rights in Nigeria only twice in 1990 -- on the two occasions that coup suspects were executed. A July 31 statement by the State Department said:
A statement on September 14, before the State Department had verified that the second round of executions had been carried out, merely acknowledged that death sentences had been handed down.
The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989, issued in February 1990, provided a generally balanced view of human rights conditions in Nigeria, although it played down both police abuses and prison conditions by referring to "press reports" and "frequent charges" of abuses, rather than addressing them in its own voice.
In replies to letters sent by Africa Watch about the role of the US government in promoting human rights in Nigeria, Bush administration officials have stressed that in private discussions with the Nigerian government they have consistently pressed for respect for human rights. Africa Watch believes that a stronger public stance is called for, since the Nigerian government has repeatedly avowed its respect for human rights.
In fiscal year 1990, direct US aid to Nigeria consisted of $11.5 million in development aid for specific projects and $100,000 in military training. For 1991, these levels remain roughly the same, but $6 million in Economic Support Funds has been added for unspecified development projects.
The Work of Africa Watch
Africa Watch began monitoring human rights in Nigeria in 1990, out of recognition of Nigeria's significance to the region and to Africa as a whole, and the important political development now under way. Four newsletters were published at various stages in the aftermath of the coup attempt, addressing the executions, arrests and press closings. The September newsletter also discussed the closing of the national conference.
On July 31, Africa Watch sent a lengthy letter to Gen. Babangida, raising a wide range of concerns relating to freedom of the press and religion, the weakening of the judiciary and labor unions, attacks on the universities, abuses by police and prison authorities, and the elections. After the second round of executions, a letter of concern was again sent to the President, as well as to the Nigerian ambassador to the United States, requesting permission for an Africa Watch delegation to visit the country. The government has not replied.
Africa Watch also sent letters to US officials with responsibility for Nigeria, alerting them to our human rights concerns.