The human rights situation in Nigeria continues to deteriorate. The current "transition program" supposedly designed to restore Nigeria to civilian elected government on October 1, 1998, is wholly fraudulent. Anyone who criticizes the program or the government may be subject to harassment, including arbitrary and prolonged detention or even arbitrary execution. There is no evidence that the government intends to halt the flagrant violations listed below.
1. Violations of the right to vote and participate in public affairs
Nigeria has been ruled by military governments for all but ten years of its post-independence history. The current ruler, Gen Sani Abacha, took power in a coup in 1993, after the annulment of elections designed to return Nigeria to civilian government. The presumed winner of those elections, M.K.O. Abiola, has been in detention charged with treasonable felony since 1994, after he declared himself president on the anniversary of the elections. A fresh transition program announced in October 1995 is underway, but elections for local and state governments have not been free or fair. All the indications are that General Abacha himself will stand for election in presidential elections due in August, and thus ensure that the military remains in power if not technically in office.
The principal problems with the transition program include the following. There is no independent electoral commission. Only five political parties have been registered, none of them with a political program, all of them close to the military government. Four of the five have announced that Abacha is their preferred "consensus candidate." Candidates in local and state-level elections have been screened and disqualified on spurious security grounds. The draft 1995 constitution, intended to come into effect at the completion of the program in October 1998, has not been promulgated or even published.
Meetings of pro-democracy and human rights groups, as well as other gatherings of people seen to be critical of the government, are frequently disrupted. For example, in September 1997, security officers broke up the farewell party organized by the human rights community for outgoing U.S. ambassador, Walter Carrington. Journalists critical of the government are subjected to harassment and detention, while the laws governing the transition program make criticism of the program itself a crime.
2. Arbitrary detention and harassment of the opposition
Since October 1997, the number of detentions, especially of journalists and human rights activists, has increased alarmingly. The State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No.2 of 1984 permits indefinite detention without trial. Blatantly political charges of treason, sedition, or other offenses, including charges of corruption, are also used to silence critics. Among those recently arrested are Ogaga Ifowodo of the Civil Liberties Organisation; Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a lawyer from the chambers of well-known human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi; Onome Osifo-Whiskey, the managing editor of the outspoken Tell magazine, and Batom Mitee, the brother of Ledum Mitee, exiled acting president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and co-defendant with Ken Saro-Wiwa.
The situation in Ogoniland is particularly serious, and suspected members or leaders in MOSOP are regularly detained. Security forces arrested and detained several dozen people in Ogoni in November and December 1997. An unknown number remain in detention. MOSOP reports that two people were recently killed by security forces: Beatrice Nwakpasi, shot dead by soldiers who opened fire on a crowd of dancing people celebrating Ogoni Day on January 4; and Daniel Naador, detained in connection with the January 4 celebrations and beaten so severely that he died in custody two weeks later.
An alleged coup plot on December 21, 1997 has given the authorities a pretext to detain several dozen army officers and civilians, and charge a number of them with treason. Among them is Lt. Gen. Oladipo Diya, previously deputy head of state, who is rumored to have urged General Abacha not to stand as a candidate for the presidency in the forthcoming elections. In November 1997, Gen. Sani Abacha made one of his periodic announcements that a review of detainees would be undertaken and that the government would grant amnesty "to those detained persons whose release would constitute no further impediment to the peace and security of our country." Despite some further official references to the review of cases and the release of detainees, there is no evidence that a review panel has in fact been set up. Most worrisomely, the Inspector General of Police, Alhaji Ibrahim Coomassie, has denied in the last few days that General Abacha has made any promise to review the cases of political detainees.
In addition to detention, critics of the government are subjected to general harassment by the security forces, especially the State Security Service (SSS). This harassment is generally more severe outside Lagos, where opponents of the government are more exposed, but Lagos-based human rights lawyers, journalists, pro-democracy activists or opposition members are also subject to regular SSS attention. The government also regularly confiscates the passports of those it would rather did not travel overseas to speak about Nigeria.
3. Conditions of detention
Conditions of detention in Nigeria are generally life-threatening. If a detainee (political or criminal) does not have access to visitors who can bring food, clothes and other assistance (such as medicines) on his or her behalf, any prolonged period of detention is likely to result in severe damage to health, and possibly death. Only about N30 (U.S. 35›) per day is allocated per prisoner for food. Overcrowding is serious, with many prisons holding several hundred percent more prisoners than their nominal capacity. In addition, health care and medical facilities are grossly inadequate; approximately 4,000 prisoners die in custody a year, or 7 percent of the prison population of approximately 50,000.
4. Extrajudicial executions
Several cases of shootings of people apparently for political reasons have taken place since late 1995. A partial list:
- On February 26, 1998, armed men broke into the home of Tunde Oladepo, a journalist with The Guardian (Lagos) based in Abeokuta, Ogun State, and shot him dead in front of his family. Oladepo had recently written a story criticizing traditional rulers, including the chief of the local area, for endorsing the candidacy of General Abacha for president.
- On December 13, 1997 a bomb explosion at Lagos airport apparently aimed at Lieutenant General Oladipo Diya killed one person. The bomb was timed to explode during the delayed flight that Diya was to take. Diya himself was detained ten days later on allegations of involvement in a coup plot.
- On January 14, 1997, gunmen shot at Senator Abraham Adesanya the Deputy chairman of Nigeria opposition movement NADECO. The glass of his car was shattered though he suffered minor injuries.
- On June 4, 1996, Kudirat Abiola, wife of imprisoned president-elect Moshood K.O. Abiola was shot dead by a group of unidentified men as she was traveling on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway on her way to see the Canadian High Commissioner.
It is assumed by most Nigerians that these assassinations or assassination attempts were carried out on behalf of the Nigerian military government. No credible progress has been made in the investigations into the killings.
5. Death penalty
In January 1997, it was reported by the Military Administrator of Akwa Ibom State that 293 condemned prisoners were awaiting execution in the state. Large numbers of people are on death row in other states, though statistics are difficult to obtain. Many of those sentenced to death have been convicted by armed robbery tribunals, which do not respect international standards of due process. The tribunal members are directly appointed by the military authorities and are therefore not independent of government control. The judge who presides over the tribunal must hand down the death penalty if he or she convicts an individual of armed robbery (whether or not weapons were actually fired during a robbery), and, while the military administrator of each state must confirm each death sentence, there is no appeal to a higher tribunal or court in which the legal issues may be re-examined. Execution is by firing squad, usually public.
6. Undermining courts and the rule of law
It is the uniform opinion of Nigerian human rights activists that the quality of judicial appointments has deteriorated under the current government, and that the level of executive interference in court decisions has increased.
The court system in Nigeria is seriously starved of funds. Judges, magistrates and other court officers, including prosecutors (and police, who often act as prosecutors), are very poorly paid. Court facilities are hopelessly overcrowded, badly equipped and underfunded. Court libraries are inadequate, and judges may even have to supply their own paper and pens to record their judgments in long hand. There are long delays in bringing both criminal and civil cases to court. This financial crisis encourages the acceptance of bribes by judicial officers.
The regular court system in Nigeria has been seriously undermined by the creation of special tribunals, both to hear politically sensitive cases and to bypass the delays of the court system in the trial of high profile crimes. Most notorious of these tribunals are those created under the Civil Disturbances (Special Tribunal) Decree No.2 of 1987. One such tribunal tried the internationally-known human rights figure Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight Ogoni activists executed on November 10, 1995. Military decrees frequently include "ouster clauses," which prevent the regular courts from inquiring into the exercise of powers given by the decree. The Nigerian government regularly disregards the court orders made against it anyway. In almost all cases of detention of high-profile political or human rights activists, court orders have been obtained allowing members of the family or private doctors to see the detainee, or declaring that the detainee should be produced in court. The government routinely refuses to respect these directives.