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The death of head of state Gen. Sani Abacha on June 8, 1998, brought to an abrupt end the discredited transition program that had apparently been designed for his self-succession as a civilian president, and brought the first hopes for several years of a genuinely elected government in Nigeria. New head of state Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar swiftly repealed the 1996 decrees bringing the Abacha program into existence and announced steps to hold fresh elections to install a civilian government at the end of May 1999. General Abubakar progressively released most civilian political prisoners, and announced that treason charges against some of those in exile (including Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka) would be withdrawn. However, decrees allowing detention without trial, suspending constitutional guarantees of human rights, and barring the courts from reviewing executive acts, remained in force. One month afterthe death of General Abacha, MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential elections, died in detention. Independent international pathologists who carried out a postmortem found no evidence of a cause of death other than heart disease, but his death was doubtless hastened by four years of incarceration without proper medical treatment.

Elections to state assemblies were held in December 1997, and to the national assembly in April 1998, under the Abacha transition program. Candidates were screened by the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON), by the State Security Service, and by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. Any candidate with connections to pro-democracy, human rights, or opposition groups was excluded. Turnout for the votes was very low. All five officially-sanctioned parties subsequently adopted General Abacha as their preferred presidential candidate for elections due in August, although by the time of his death Abacha had yet to declare his intentions formally.

Opposition figures who had refused to participate in Abacha’s transition responded more positively to the new program announced by General Abubakar, but concerns remained, including Abubakar’s endorsement of the draft constitution of 1995, prepared by a constitutional assembly that was not elected under free and fair conditions, and unpublished by General Abacha. Abubakar did then publish for discussion the constitution which was to come into effect when a civilian government took office. Human rights and pro-democracy activists also argued that any transition program under the control of the military could not lead to genuine elections, and that the new Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), despite its name, would necessarily remain subject to the military’s wishes. Accordingly, they called for a government of national unity to be established, including representatives from a range of groups opposed to military rule, to govern during the period leading to elections and to convene a “sovereign national conference” to draft a new constitution. Twenty-four political parties representing more mainstream politicians applied to the INEC to be registered.

A number of high-profile political prisoners were excluded from the releases ordered by General Abubakar during the weeks after he became head of state and remained in detention as of mid-October. They included military personnel convicted after unfair trials before military tribunals of involvement in alleged coup plots in 1990, 1995, and 1997, as well as civilians Niran Malaolu, a journalist convicted of involvement in the 1997 coup plot, and Turner Ogburu, convicted in connection with the 1990 coup plot and still in detention despite court orders for his release. Sheikh Ibrahim El Zak-Zaky, a radical Muslim leader, entered his third year in detention, charged with “publication of materials capable of undermining the security of the nation.” At least 163 bank executives remained in detention without charge under “failed bank” decrees passed by the Abacha government, although the government promised to review their cases. A number of close advisers of General Abacha were detained following his death, in connection with allegations of massive theft of government funds.

Decrees restricting freedom of expression remained in force, including the 1993 Offensive Publications (Proscription) and Newspapers decrees, although the new minister of information promised their review. The draft 1995 constitution included provision for a “mass media commission” to regulate the media, raising concerns over future restrictions on critical reporting. Prior to the death of General Abacha, journalists faced continual harassment from security forces, though the situation improved dramatically following his death. In August, a court ordered the federal government to pay 2.4 million (U.S.$28,235) compensation to Tell magazine in respect of 70,000 copies of the magazine seized in May 1993. However, a journalist was shot dead in a printer’s office in Enugu, eastern Nigeria, during the same month, by police who had come to arrest the printer. In August, the presidential task force on terrorism alleged that Bagauda Kaltho, a journalist missing since January 1996, had died in a bomb blast in Kaduna for which he was responsible. The publishers of News magazine, where Kaltho had worked, rejected this allegation, claiming that Kaltho might have died after being tortured in police custody.

Opposition rallies held before the death of General Abacha were routinely disrupted. Rallies held after Abacha’s death and in protest at the death of Chief Abiola were also broken up by police, with dozens of people arrested. Police warned prospective demonstrators that the Public Order Act requiring a police permit for assemblies was still in effect. In July, police also warned Muslim groups protesting the continued detention of El Zak-Zaky not to hold demonstrations; police shot dead five people taking part in demonstrations in support of El Zak-Zaky in Kaduna in September. In August, General Abubakar announced the repeal of decrees dissolving the national executives of unions in the oil sector and in universities and of the Nigerian Labour Congress, the union umbrella organization. Other decrees restricting the right to organize remained in force.

Nigerian citizens not actively involved in politics faced a consistent pattern of human rights violations both before and after the death of General Abacha. The security forces carried out summary executions and torture, and prison conditions remained life threatening. In July 1998 General Abubakar ordered the immediate release of prisoners held for extended periods on criminal charges without trial or held despite having completed the sentences handed down by the courts. Different state governments operated special task forces with names like “Operation Sweep” or “Operation Storm” that were among the most abusive units of the Nigerian security forces. Many of those arrested by these units were convicted of “armed robbery” before special tribunals which did not respect international standards; those found guilty were executed by firing squad without the right to appeal.

The rights of women in Nigeria were routinely violated. The Penal Code explicitly stated that assaults committed by a man on his wife were not an offence, if permitted by customary law and if “grievous hurt” was not inflicted. Marital rape was not a crime. Child marriages remained common, especially in northern Nigeria, with consequent serious health effects for children subjected to early pregnancy or to intercourse prior to sexual maturity. Women were denied equal rights in the inheritance of property; however, a landmark ruling from eastern Nigeria in September 1997 upheld a woman’s right to inherit her husband’s estate. It was estimated that about 60 percent of Nigerian women were subjected to female genital cutting. Child labor, especially in domestic work, often completely unpaid, remained common.

In Ogoniland, home of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), of which Ken Saro-Wiwa was leaderbefore his execution in November 1995, severe repression continued during 1998 until the death of General Abacha. The Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, created in response to the “Ogoni crisis,” summarily executed several people suspected of sympathy for MOSOP during raids carried out following MOSOP demonstrations, killing at least one after General Abubakar became head of state, and others were detained without trial. From September General Abubakar took progressive steps to relax security measures. Twenty Ogonis, held since 1994 on charges of murder before a special tribunal in connection with the same events as those for which Saro-Wiwa and eight others were hanged, were released in early September, and other detainees some days later. At the end of the month it was announced that the Task Force had been withdrawn from the region.

Elsewhere in the oil producing areas of the Niger Delta, police and soldiers responded to any threat of protest against oil company activity with arbitrary arrests, beatings, and sometimes killings. In May, about two hundred youths occupied an offshore platform belonging to Chevron, and closed down production. Soldiers killed two and injured another in the course of reoccupying the platform; Chevron later admitted transporting these troops. In July 1998 eleven youths protesting the failure of Mobil to pay compensation for damage caused by a major spill which took place in January were reportedly shot dead by police. Numerous other less serious incidents took place, and seemed to escalate, during the year.




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Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

Abduction and Enslavement of Ugandan Children

Human Rights Causes of the Famine in Sudan


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