(Lagos) – The Nigerian government’s partisan meddling in the electoral process and its unwillingness to tackle political violence threatens to undermine nationwide polls scheduled for April 14 and 21, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.
Federal authorities need to take concrete and dramatic steps to ensure a free and fair election. They must end their complacent attitude towards election-related violence and obey any forthcoming court rulings that reverse government efforts to bar opposition candidates from the polls.
“The Nigerian government should ensure that these elections mark a sharp departure from the violence and corruption that has marred the political system,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But it seems plain that this April, Nigerian voters will again face the threat of violence, intimidation and fraud.”
The Nigerian government has thus far failed to put in place some of the basic foundations for a free and fair election. Voter registration was marred both by logistical difficulties that prevented many Nigerians from registering, and by a basic lack of transparency that gives reason to doubt the integrity of the final electoral register.
Crucially, the Nigerian police have failed to make any real effort to investigate or prosecute politicians responsible for mobilizing violence ahead of the elections. The use of violence for political ends has become routine in Nigeria, and politicians in many states have mobilized and armed criminal gangs ahead of the elections in order to harass their opponents as well as to intimidate and disenfranchise the voting public.
“Electoral violence poses a tremendous threat to voters on polling day,” said Takirambudde. “But Nigeria’s police appear to be standing by as powerful politicians mobilize criminal gangs to undermine the vote.”
In the face of this police inaction, the severity of election-related violence has gradually risen in recent months, claiming scores of lives and injuring many more. According to the Nigerian press, more than 70 people have already been killed in election-related violence since November. Some credible estimates of the election-related death toll range considerably higher.
The police have carried out some arrests of youth engaged in fighting related to the elections. But even though well-placed police sources told Human Rights Watch that certain key politicians within the ruling People’s Democratic Party have been actively mobilizing violence with a view towards rigging the elections, Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police told Human Rights Watch that this was a “political problem” that did not demand a law enforcement response. One state commissioner of police told Human Rights Watch that he would be unlikely to pursue any such investigation lest he be sacked or forcibly retired.
The government’s anti-corruption unit, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, has selectively recommended candidates for indictment, which in turn led to their being barred from the ballot. These charges have not been brought to court. Instead, an “Administrative Panel of Inquiry” of questionable independence and lacking due process safeguards conducted two days of hearings confirming the indictments against 37 candidates. The indictments have helped to clear the field of opposition candidates in some of the country’s most high-profile statewide electoral contests.
Nearly all of the indicted candidates subsequently barred from the elections are either members of the opposition or ruling party supporters who are seen as being close to Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Abubakar has fallen out with President Olusegun Obasanjo and had been standing as one of the two strongest opposition candidates for president until he was also barred from contesting due to charges of corruption.
Meanwhile, allies of the president who are the subject of credible corruption allegations have been left untouched. Despite the controversial legal foundation of those actions, the Independent National Electoral Commission has indicated that it may not obey any eventual court ruling ordering it to allow those candidates to contest the election.
The upcoming general elections will be Nigeria’s third since the country broke with military rule in 1999. In the intervening years Nigeria has enjoyed its longest-ever stretch of uninterrupted civilian rule. But polls in 1999 and 2003 were marred by widespread violence, intimidation and vote-rigging. In some parts of the country, election results were declared wholly illegitimate by domestic and international election observers.
With similar problems pervading the current electoral process, Nigeria appears to be sliding in the direction of another bloody and unfair election. This could entrench pervasive patterns of violence and corruption as a central part of Nigeria’s political system. Politicians who come to office through corrupt and violent elections are unlikely to dismantle the vehicles of their own success.
Nigeria’s return to civilian rule has not resulted in the improvements in civil, political, social and economic rights that Nigerians had hoped for in 1999. According to international agencies, as many as 90 million Nigerians remain trapped in absolute poverty. Government, especially at the state and local level, is mired in corruption that undermines the provision of basic health and education services to millions of poor Nigerians. Government security forces continue to commit widespread abuses with impunity, ranging from the routine police torture of criminal suspects to the military’s devastating assaults on Nigerian communities in the oil-rich Niger Delta and elsewhere.
The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United States, Britain, and other members of the international community so far have said very little about the flaws in Nigeria’s current electoral process or the violence that has characterized many of the election campaigns. Nigerian civil society needs support from international authorities who are able to put moral and political pressure on their leaders.
“If the April polls are badly flawed, the international community must not remain silent as it did after the rigging of Nigeria’s 2003 elections,” said Takirambudde. “Nigeria’s regional and international partners need to speak up about Nigeria’s election if they hope to maintain their credibility as advocates of democratic governance in Africa.”