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Nigeria Under Scrutiny

Published in: ThisDay (Nigeria)

The Nigerian government, which is proudly hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting beginning today needs to get its own house in order before it can claim credibility in terms of human rights.

Despite President Olusegun Obasanjo's leading role in regional initiatives such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), and his many public statements promoting human rights and good governance, the values he claims to champion are beyond the reach of most Nigerians.

Obasanjo, himself a former military head of state, may be less ruthless than some of his military predecessors. But since he came to power in 1999 his civilian government has been responsible for serious human rights abuses. Justice has been the exception rather than the rule. No one, for example, has yet been charged or tried for the massacre of hundreds of people by the Nigerian military in Odi in Bayelsa State in 1999 and in Benue State in 2001.

A Human Rights Watch report, to be released today, exposes the government's alarming crackdown on freedom of expression. The assumption that since the end of military rule Nigerians can express themselves freely is false. This year journalists, human rights activists, opposition party members and peaceful demonstrators have been arrested, detained, and suffered ill-treatment and intimidation, because they criticised government policies.

In recent weeks police have disrupted public processions organised by Ogoni activists to commemorate the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists in 1995. On November 10 in the southern oil port of Bonny, police arrested 17 Ogoni activists, several of whom said they were beaten. The activists face charges of unlawful procession and conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.

Police arrested more than 20 Ogoni activists near Port Harcourt four days later because they had taken part in a vigil. Leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People have also received death threats in recent weeks.

And last Monday, three journalists from Insider magazine were arrested by Lagos police, detained for two days and charged with sedition and defamation of character, in connection with an article alleging that the vice-president and national security advisor were involved in large-scale theft of crude oil.

In extreme cases, the government's reaction to dissent has resulted in killings and torture. Peaceful protesters who demonstrated against US President George Bush's visit to Nigeria in July were arrested and tortured on the orders of senior police officials.

Large public demonstrations protesting against an increase in the price of fuel in June were dealt with brutally by the police. At least 12 - and possibly more than 20 - people were shot dead and several journalists covering the protests were beaten.

Elections in April and May, which returned Obasanjo to power for a second term, were marred by violence and intimidation, fraud and ballot-rigging. Scores of people were killed and many more injured.

Human Rights Watch found that much of the violence was carried out by supporters of the ruling People's Democratic Party. Few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

Yet the elections were warmly welcomed by governments in Africa, Europe and the US. Most foreign governments remained silent about the electoral violence. Their reactions to the elections stood in stark contrast to their statements on Zimbabwe. The southern African country has been publicly and repeatedly condemned by the international community.

Nigeria's friends have a crucial role to play in denouncing abuses and in pressing President Obasanjo to deliver on his promises to the Nigerian people. The forthcoming Commonwealth summit, which will be held in Abuja, presents the perfect opportunity.

Unless they address such abuses in all Commonwealth countries, governments will stand accused of applying double standards.

If they persist in turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in the country where they are meeting, or allow themselves to be muzzled by diplomatic considerations, the credibility of the Commonwealth will be seriously undermined.

Nigeria, as the summit's host and a close diplomatic ally of key Commonwealth actors such as Britain and South Africa, should not be allowed to escape scrutiny.

On the contrary, African and western governments alike have a responsibility to use their political and economic alliances with Nigeria to push for significant improvements.

Their message to President Obasanjo should be clear: End impunity for human rights abuses, and initiate reforms that will ensure genuine and long-lasting democracy in Nigeria.

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