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Nigeria: Spiraling Violence Threatens Elections

(New York, April 10, 2003) - An upsurge of politically motivated violence is threatening the legitimacy of impending elections in Nigeria, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 39-page report, "Testing Democracy: Political Violence in Nigeria," documents numerous cases of political violence across Nigeria and discusses the weak response by government and police to date. Starting with local government primaries for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) in 2002, Nigeria has seen an increase in violent clashes between political factions led by politicians and their supporters at all levels of government.

"The success of Nigeria's new democracy depends on stemming this kind of violence," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. "President Obasanjo has said a lot recently about the need to act, but he hasn't brought most of the perpetrators to justice."

The Human Rights Watch report is based on research in Nigeria during December 2002 and February 2003, and includes several case studies that illustrate patterns of violence across different states, highlighting the theme of impunity. Although police carried out arrests in some of the more high profile cases, very few have led to successful prosecutions. The cases include:

  • In Delta State: Disputes over the distribution of electoral wards among ethnic groups in and around Warri caused large-scale outbreaks of violence in February and March 2003. Dozens of people were killed and several villages were destroyed in fighting, first between the Urhobos and Itsekiris, then between the Ijaws and Itsekiris. A large military contingent was deployed to the area in March amid reports of indiscriminate attacks by the security forces on Ijaw communities, whom they held responsible for the killing of four soldiers.
  • In Bayelsa State: In July 2002, dozens of people were killed when two youth groups in Ogbolomabiri clashed during the PDP local government primaries. One of the groups was supported by then-Commissioner for the Environment in the Bayelsa State government, the other by a manager of President Obasanjo's 1999 election campaign in Bayelsa. Neither leader has been prosecuted.
  • In Rivers State: Fighting between the PDP and the opposition All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) in August 2002, in the lead-up to the voter registration exercise in Ogu/Bolo local government, resulted in the displacement of hundreds of non-PDP supporters. Several people active in local politics have disappeared or been killed since then. A politically motivated attack resulting in serious injury to a young man in the Ogoni area, and the armed invasion of the home of an Ogoni activist in the state capital Port Harcourt, are also documented.
  • In Kwara State: A conflict between Governor Mohammed Lawal and his former political mentor, Olusola Saraki, has led to numerous violent incidents. In August 2002, as Saraki and his supporters shifted from the ANPP (the governor's party) to the PDP, the state PDP chairman, Ahmed Pategi, was killed. Armed supporters of the governor killed two people at a wedding ceremony in September 2002. In November 2002, a bomb exploded in the office of a newspaper owned by Olusola Saraki's son, Bukola Saraki, injuring five people. Lawal and Bukola Saraki will face each other as candidates for governor on April 19.
  • In Enugu State: A split in the State House of Assembly between supporters and opponents of Governor Chimaroke Nnamani has led to a political crisis and outbreaks of violence including the beating of legislators and the presence of armed thugs on the house of assembly grounds.
  • In Plateau State: Plateau has experienced recurring violence between ethnic groups considering themselves natives or "indigenes" of the state and those they view as "settlers." This division has manifested itself in political violence. Scores of people were killed in May 2002 in a fight that erupted at a venue of PDP local government primaries and spread to surrounding neighborhoods in Jos, the state capital of Plateau.

The report documents several high-profile assassinations, including the killing on March 5 of Marshall Harry, vice chairman for the south-south zone of the opposition ANPP, who was an outspoken critic of the Rivers State governor.

While the report assigns primary responsibility for preventing and punishing cases of political violence to the Nigerian government and police, political parties were also urged to strengthen the disciplinary processes within their parties, and to adopt and publicize a pro-human rights and anti-violence stance.

The report discusses the role of foreign governments and intergovernmental organizations in supporting peaceful elections. International delegations from the European Union, the Commonwealth, and the United States will observe certain stages of the Nigerian elections. Human Rights Watch urged these groups to make plans to also monitor local government elections, where the risk of violence could be even higher. Foreign governments are urged to put pressure publicly on the Nigerian government to prevent and prosecute specific cases of political violence.

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