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Letter to Nigerian President Obasanjo on Violence in Niger Delta

Dear President Obasanjo,

Human Rights Watch has learned with great concern of the recent disturbances in Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa State, in which it is reported that several dozen people were killed by soldiers apparently acting on instructions of Bayelsa State Governor Diprieye Alamieyesegha.

It is our understanding that a confrontation took place on September 9 and 10 between youths and soldiers posted in Yenagoa since late last year. During these disturbances and over subsequent days soldiers shot dead several tens of people, some of them youths involved in disturbances who were summarily executed, others residents of the "Black Market" area of Yenagoa. Security force members subsequently torched the Black Market, destroying homes and traders' stalls. The area has since been partially bulldozed. A large number of soldiers are still posted at Yenagoa, and a machine gun remains mounted on the waterside, where it has been all year.

While the sequence of events is unclear, reports received by Human Rights Watch indicate that some local youths had been causing trouble by extorting money from travelers, and were handed over to the police by members of the local branch of the Movement for the Survival of the Ijaw Ethnic Nationality in the Niger Delta (MOSIEND), after which they were charged to court. Some of the troublemakers had, it is reported, previously been hired as supporters by Governor Alamieyesegha during his election campaign. However, other youths believed that they should not be charged, and protested at their detention. In the confrontation that ensued between the security forces and youths, one or two soldiers and youths were reportedly killed. Subsequently, in retaliation for the deaths of their colleagues, soldiers rounded up youths in Yenagoa and its neighboring communities arbitrarily, shooting several dead, and arresting others. They also went to the Black Market area and shot at people living there, including women and children fleeing the violence by trying to swim the nearby river. There are also credible reports that some youths who had been arrested and were to be taken to Ahoada police station to be detained were in fact summarily executed while traveling to Ahoada and their corpses discarded in the river.

While there are clearly problems related to law and order in the Niger Delta, indiscriminate retaliation by the security forces following confrontations with protesters can only fuel the discontent with the government and render a peaceful solution to the problems of the oil producing areas more unlikely. The recent events repeat in many respects a crackdown on protests organized by the Ijaw Youth Council in Yenagoa and its environs in late December 1998 and early January 1999, in which up to 200 people may have been killed by the security forces. Human Rights Watch published a report on these incidents, "Crackdown in the Niger Delta," of which copies were sent to the government at that time (further copies can be made available). The recent events unfortunately indicate that the current civilian government is prepared to use the same methods as the previous military one to suppress dissent.

Human Rights Watch welcomes the announcement by Director of Defence Information Col. Godwin Ugbo that there will be an internal army investigation into these incidents, but we call on you to appoint in addition an independent and public judicial inquiry, which should also have a mandate to inquire into the events of earlier this year. Those found responsible for abuses should be disciplined or charged with appropriate offenses and brought promptly to court.

We are also very disturbed by a document made available to us which is apparently an "Operation Order" issued by the state headquarters of the Nigeria police in Port Harcourt, Rivers State and sent to police commissioners and other police officials in the delta area. The order is dated August 18 and headed "Contingency Plans to Contain Activities of Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and other Interest Groups." It refers to an alleged IYC plan for an "Operation Total Closure of Flow Stations" due to commence on August 27. While the document warns that "hoodlums and other undesirable elements will take advantage of the situation to cause pandemonium and unleash their nefarious activities on the innocent citizens," it describes the IYC, MOSIEND, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), the Ijaw National Congress, human rights groups, and "criminals of all descriptions," equally and indiscriminately as "enemy forces."

Once again, Human Rights Watch is concerned that all those from the delta region who are unhappy at government and oil company activities in the area and make their voices known are targeted as the "enemy." If individuals have committed criminal offenses they should be arrested and charged with those offenses. If there is a well-founded fear of public disorder, proper measures for the maintenance of law and order in line with international standards are legitimate. However, under international law and Nigeria's constitution individuals have a right to freedom of association, assembly and expression, even if the views expressed are unacceptable to the government. We call on you to ensure that these rights are respected.


Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Africa Division

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