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Letter to UK Prime Minister Blair Regarding His Upcoming Trip to West Africa

Dear Prime Minister Blair:

We welcome your visit to West Africa this week, and your pledge to make Africa a priority of the Labor Party's second term. At a time when many international actors are distracted by the "war on terrorism" and are reducing their assistance to the continent, the United Kingdom has committed itself to bringing international attention to the pressing issues on the continent. We urge you to use your trip to West Africa to describe the importance that your government attaches to respect for human rights in Africa and how it intends to integrate these concerns into its policy in this region. Well-timed public statements on the observation of international law, justice for egregious violations of that law, and respect for fundamental civil and political rights would make clear your government's commitment to these issues.

The following are some of our main concerns and recommendations in two of the countries you will be visiting - Nigeria and Sierra Leone.


Halfway through the four-year term of Olusegun Obasanjo's presidency, the overall human rights picture in Nigeria remains poor. Despite investigations into past abuses, there have been alarming developments, in particular recurring violence between ethnic or religious groups in several parts of the country. Nigerians are expressing disillusion with the lack of fundamental change since the advent of a civilian government in 1999. The legacy of decades of repressive military rule is still keenly felt. The military as well as the police continue to violate human rights with almost complete impunity, and the government has done very little to enforce accountability. Given the close ties between your government and that of President Obasanjo, and the fact that Obasanjo himself is a key player in the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) launched last year, it is particularly important that you raise publicly and privately these human rights concerns.

Massacres by the military: Between 22 and 24 October 2001, Nigerian soldiers killed more than 200 unarmed civilians in Gbeji, Zaki-Biam and several other towns and villages in Benue State, in a well-organized reprisal operation following the abduction and killing of nineteen soldiers by an armed group. The soldiers also destroyed hundreds of houses and other buildings in the area. The Nigerian government has failed to take any action against the soldiers or their commanders responsible for the killings in Benue, or even to issue a strong condemnation. On the contrary, President Obasanjo appeared to defend these actions. After forcefully denouncing the killing of the nineteen soldiers and urging that no effort be spared to track down the perpetrators, initially he barely responded to the news that the military had in turn killed unarmed civilians.

The events in Benue are reminiscent of a similar military reprisal operation which took place in November 1999 in Odi, Bayelsa state, in the south of Nigeria: following the murder of twelve policemen, soldiers went on the rampage and killed hundreds of civilians, perhaps as many as 2,000. More than two years on, no one has been prosecuted for these actions either.

Inter-communal violence: There has been an increase in inter-communal violence across Nigeria, particularly in the central / "middle belt" states (Nasarawa, Plateau, Taraba) and the north (Kano, Kaduna). Several thousand people have been killed in fighting between different ethnic groups in these and other states. There have also been repeated clashes in the southwest and in the Delta. Inter-communal violence is likely to be the most serious concern in Nigeria for the foreseeable future. There are a number of longstanding conflicts that could explode again at any time. One of the most serious in the last few months was the crisis in Jos in September 2001, which claimed more than 1,000 lives; another is the ongoing conflict between the Jukuns and the Tivs, and related tensions between other groups, in the central states of Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa.

In late 2001, the government finally embarked on a number of initiatives (meetings, special commissions) to study the problem, but it remains to be seen whether these will be effective remedies, or just another token exercise. To date the government has preferred to shy away from implementing concrete measures to prevent further violence.

Pre-election violence: With elections scheduled for 2003, this year will be a critical one for Nigeria. One of the main concerns for this period is the likelihood of pre-election violence. The prospect of elections has already created a sharp increase in political tension and in-fighting, as well as actual violence in different parts of the country. It is still unclear to what extent the murder of Minister of Justice Bola Ige in December 2001 was directly related to the elections, but his death can only further unsettle the political scene. President Obasanjo's endorsement of the electoral bill, which effectively prevents any new political parties from registering, has also provoked much anger and controversy.

Vigilante violence: Vigilante violence, and political use of vigilante groups, are likely to increase in the run-up to elections. A Human Rights Watch research mission in October 2001 uncovered serious human rights abuses by the vigilante group known as the Bakassi Boys, active in Anambra, Abia and Imo states, in the southeast. The Bakassi Boys have been responsible for public and very brutal executions, systematic torture and unlawful arrests and detentions, often with the active support of state government authorities. Likewise in the southwest, the O'odua People's Congress (OPC), a Yoruba ethnic militia group which has partly turned into a vigilante group, has been responsible for repeated outbreaks of violence. Some politicians have used these groups as thugs to support their re-election campaigns.

It is essential that Nigerian government authorities take measures to prevent further excesses by all these groups without delay, as in some cases, they are already escaping the control of government and security agencies. The emergence of these groups is clearly linked to the dramatic inadequacy of the national law enforcement agencies, especially the police. Long-awaited reforms of the police force should be a priority of the government. Measures should also be taken to discipline, and where appropriate, prosecute politicians who use vigilante groups for their personal or political ends.

Sierra Leone

Human Rights Watch praises the considerable commitment your government has shown towards maintaining stability in Sierra Leone. In particular we commend your willingness to make a long-term commitment to rebuild and reform the Sierra Leone Army, the Sierra Leone Police and the judicial system. While the human rights situation in Sierra Leone has dramatically improved, the rule of law remains dreadfully weak, and the poverty and corruption which gave rise to the decade-long conflict remains much the same. If there is insufficient reform within these key institutions and if the root causes of the war are not properly addressed, the precarious peace afforded by the disarmament of over 45,000 combatants will be in jeopardy. It is therefore essential for those involved in the training of soldiers and police, whose history of serious and systematic human rights abuses is well documented, to be ever vigilant and willing to support disciplinary and legal action against them. We also urge your government to use every opportunity to both privately and publicly address the continuing problem of corruption within the Sierra Leonean government.

Regionally, the countries within the Mano River Union remain plagued by violence and instability. Despite the tenuous peace and consequent improvement in the human rights situation in Sierra Leone, hostilities between the government of Liberia, and Guinea-backed dissidents from the Liberians United for the Restoration of Democracy (LURD), have led to serious human rights abuses in Liberia and threaten to undermine peace in Sierra Leone and indeed the region. The region is awash with arms and former combatants from the warring factions in Sierra Leone have been recruited over the past year to fight with both the LURD and Liberian security forces. We urge your government to adopt a regional approach to security, be willing to expose information about arms shipments and pressure governments that allow their territory to be used by proxy armies aimed at destabilizing one another.

Accountability for serious abuses is practically nonexistent and military impunity in all three countries remains a serious problem. The Special Court for Sierra Leone is important, not only to bring those responsible for atrocities during the Sierra Leonean war to account, but also in serving as a future deterrent to regional players. We praise your government's commitment to and investment in the creation of the SCSL. While funds for the court's first year have been secured, there are still shortfalls for the second and third years. We therefore urge you to consider assisting in securing the necessary remaining funds. We also urge you to support a redefinition of UNAMSIL's role to include the protection of the physical premises of the court, assistance with apprehension of those who have been indicted, and security for detainees.

As you are well aware, over one hundred former rebels from the Revolutionary United Front, Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and Westside boys continue to be held as "safe-custody" detainees without due process guarantees as stipulated under the Sierra Leonean Constitution. We urge you to pressure the government to abide by their obligations under international law, to allow for these detainees to have contact with family and counsel, and to allow RUF leader Foday Sankoh to be visited by delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

We wish you a successful and productive trip.


Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Africa Division

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