(New York, September 19, 2002) - Critics of the Anambra state government in southeastern Nigeria have been receiving death threats following the assassination of Barnabas Igwe and his wife on September 1, 2002, Human Rights Watch said today.
Igwe, chairman of the Onitsha branch of the National Bar Association (NBA), had been an outspoken critic of Anambra state Governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju. Close colleagues who had also criticized the governor have faced threats and intimidation before and since his assassination.
“There is strong, credible evidence that Igwe and his wife were targeted for political reasons – because of Igwe’s and the NBA’s public criticism of the Anambra state government’s performance,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “Their deaths highlight the risks faced by other critics of the government.”
Human Rights Watch called for an independent and impartial investigation into the killings and the prosecution of those responsible.
Barnabas Igwe and his wife Abigail, also a lawyer, were killed in Onitsha on September 1, the day after they returned from the southwestern town of Ibadan where they had attended a national conference of the NBA. They were traveling home when a group of assailants attacked them with machetes and shot them several times, then ran them over with their vehicle. According to the police, the perpetrators did not steal anything from the victims.
In the days preceding the killing, Igwe and other close colleagues who had denounced abuses by the state government received direct threats from senior officials in the Anambra state government, face to face and through telephone calls on personal mobile phones. The threats were explicitly linked to criticisms by Igwe and his colleagues of the state government’s failure to pay the salaries of government workers for several months. The lawyers had given the government a 21-day ultimatum to pay the salary arrears or resign; they had made these calls in public statements, widely broadcast through the media. State government officials had previously made repeated attempts to silence them, for example by offering bribes to withdraw their statements, which they rejected.
Human Rights Watch is urging the Anambra state and federal governments to take all measures necessary to ensure the safety of Igwe’s colleagues and to take prompt action against any official engaged in intimidation, threats or other abuses.
“We were alarmed to hear that people very close to the victims have been receiving death threats even since the killing of Igwe and his wife – including the very day after the killings, when at least one person was told that he would be next. We are extremely worried for their safety,” said Takirambudde.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned at reports that the police attempted to prevent a rally from taking place in Onitsha on September 18, organized by the NBA to express solidarity for the victims and to demand action. Apparently the police had been told that there would be violence at the rally. However, the organizers were simply planning a peaceful protest to condemn the killings and commemorate the victims.
“The authorities are responsible for ensuring that the police protect those taking part in peaceful demonstrations, whatever their message,” said Takirambudde.
Human Rights Watch also called for the immediate release of two relatives of Igwe, who were arrested on September 12 for distributing posters protesting the killing and demanding justice, and detained by police in the state capital Awka.
In response to accusations by the NBA and others that he was personally involved in planning the killing of Igwe and his wife, Governor Mbadinuju announced that he would set up a panel of inquiry. He has denied any involvement in the killing and has reportedly offered three different theories: that Igwe and his wife were killed by armed robbers (a theory the police have ruled out); that Igwe may have been targeted by people from his local community; and that the governor’s own political opponents had orchestrated the killing with the specific intention of blaming it on the governor.
“Only an independent investigation can reveal the truth and identify the real perpetrators,” said Takirambudde. “In view of the pattern of politically-motivated abuses in Anambra state in the last few years, and the impunity which has protected those responsible, we believe that an investigation should be set up by the federal government – especially in the face of allegations that the Anambra state governor himself may be personally implicated.”
Investigators should not include members of the state government or any other individuals who may have a direct interest in the outcome of the investigation.
“We are calling on the police, judicial authorities and federal government of Nigeria to ensure that those responsible for the murder of Igwe and his wife, as well as other cases of political killings, are brought to justice promptly and to end the impunity which has protected the perpetrators of such abuses until now,” said Takirambudde.
Human Rights Watch said that the Anambra state government should cooperate fully with the criminal investigation and should initiate disciplinary measures including suspension, as appropriate, of any state government officials responsible for issuing death threats.
This is not the first time that opponents of the Anambra state government have been targeted. In a report published in May 2002, Human Rights Watch and the Lagos-based Centre for Law Enforcement Education documented several other cases of politically motivated killings, arrests and torture by the Bakassi Boys, a vigilante group used by the Anambra state government to intimidate its opponents. Among those targeted for their perceived opposition to the state government were Prophet Eddie Okeke, killed in November 2000; Chief Ezeodumegwu G. Okonkwo, a local government chairman killed in February 2001; and Ifeanyi Ibegbu, minority leader of the Anambra State House of Assembly, detained and tortured by the Bakassi Boys in August 2000. No one has been prosecuted in these cases.