(New York, December 31, 1998) — Human Rights Watch condemns the fatal shooting by soldiers of at least three Ijaw youths holding a peaceful demonstration yesterday in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta.

Another twelve deaths are reliably reported but their names not confirmed. Following the demonstration, which was to demand the withdrawal of oil companies operating in Nigeria, Military Administrator of Bayelsa State declared a state of emergency, imposed a dusk to dawn curfew, and banned all meetings. At least twelve demonstrators were arrested and taken to an army camp outside Port Harcourt.

"This is a serious backward step for Nigeria," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "Head of State General Abdulsalami Abubakar has been moving the country in the right direction, but these killings and the declaration of a state of emergency in Bayelsa State raise concerns that the current government is returning to the repressive methods used by the Abacha regime."

Human Rights Watch called for the government to establish an immediate inquiry into the shootings and to discipline or charge those responsible, as appropriate; to release or charge before the ordinary courts those arrested; and to respect the rights of Nigerian citizens to internationally guaranteed rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression. Human Rights Watch called on the oil companies operating in Nigeria to urge the government to exercise restraint and abide by its obligations to respect international human rights law.

The youths shot dead were among those demonstrating in different communities across the Ijaw areas of the Niger Delta in support of the "Kaiama Declaration" adopted by Ijaw youths on December 11. The Declaration stated that any oil company employing the services of the Nigerian security forces would be "viewed as an enemy of the Nigerian people" and advised oil company staff and contractors to withdraw from Ijaw territory by December 30. The youths demanded that all multinational oil companies should "extinguish their flares and withdraw from Ijawland" by January 1, 1999. The latest shootings of unarmed demonstrators are part of a pattern of abuses against those protesting the activities of the oil companies operating in the Niger Delta.