Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian government to initiate criminal proceedings against soldiers responsible for abuses in two recent incidents in the oil producing Niger Delta region.

"It looks like the new civilian government in Nigeria is using the same methods as the old military governments," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "The new regime has made progress in some areas of human rights, but these latest events in the delta cast doubt on President Obasanjo's real intentions."

On November 20, at least several hundred soldiers were deployed to Odi, where a gang of armed youths had killed a dozen policemen in recent weeks. The soldiers made no apparent attempt to arrest the suspected perpetrators, and instead systematically destroyed the village over the next two weeks, leaving only three buildings undamaged. At least several dozen unarmed civilians were killed in the army operation, possibly several hundred.

In Choba, in Rivers State, on October 28 soldiers dispersed demonstrators outside the premises of Willbros Nigeria Ltd, a subsidiary of an American contractor to the oil and gas industry, based in Oklahoma. The soldiers killed four people and raped a number of women from the community. The Nigerian federal government dismissed the reports of rapes, asserting that photographs alleged to show the soldiers assaulting the women were staged, and the police have refused to investigate. Human Rights Watch found the women's claims of rape to be fully credible, and believes that contesting the accuracy of the photographic evidence is an inappropriate response by the government to serious allegations of human rights violations.

There has been increasing unrest in the Niger Delta in recent years, as local people have demanded greater control over the natural resources, chiefly oil, found beneath their land.

"The government and oil companies have legitimate concerns over protest when it takes criminal forms. Hostage-taking or the killing of security officers deserve a serious response," said Takirambudde. "But this kind of brutality from the army is certain to make the situation worse. It will fuel arguments that there is nothing to be gained by attempting to dialogue with the new civilian government, and that people must take to arms to make their case."

Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian government to:

  • Undertake an immediate process of criminal investigation of the events in Odi and Choba with a view to instituting court martial proceedings for murder, rape, and other offences against those responsible for the army operations in each case, including both perpetrators and their commanding officers, where appropriate.
  • Appoint independent and public judicial commissions of inquiry into the events in Odi and Choba with a wide mandate to examine the causes and consequences of the army operations and to make recommendations for appropriate relief and compensation to those affected, including the rebuilding of Odi.
  • Undertake an immediate consultation process with a wide range of respresentatives of opinion in the delta with a view to ensuring that in future clear distinctions are drawn between legitimate political demands and criminal acts and that those allegedly responsible for criminal offences are arrested and tried according to Nigerian law.

The organization called on Willbros to:

  • Send staff from company headquarters to investigate the alleged rapes, killings and assaults by soldiers outside its premises on October 28 and 29, 1999; take steps to protest abuses with the appropriate authorities and urge that appropriate criminal and disciplinary action be taken against those responsible; review security arrangements to ensure that similar abuses cannot happen in future; and review its relations with the Choba community, consulting widely to develop means of improving that relationship.