(Port Harcourt, April 17, 2007) – Voting on April 14 in key Nigerian states including Rivers and Anambra was so marred by fraud, intimidation and violence that the results in at least those states should be canceled and the polls re-run, Human Rights Watch said today. Nigeria’s regional and international partners should press the Nigerian government to make all necessary changes to hold a free and fair presidential election on April 21, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch researchers monitoring the conduct of elections in both Rivers State, Nigeria’s largest oil producer in the restive Niger Delta, and Anambra State in southeastern Nigeria, observed the open rigging of an electoral process that deprived voters of the opportunity to cast their ballots in many areas. Voting failed to take place in many areas where Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) later reported voter turnout in excess of 90 percent. In several areas of Rivers State, local observers and foreign journalists watched ballot boxes being stuffed with ballots marked in favor of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in full view of the public. The extremely high voter turnout as reported by INEC was not borne out by the situation witnessed on the ground, indicating that the elections in those two states were systematically rigged in favor of the PDP.
“In several key states, the Nigerian government failed completely in its obligation to conduct a free and fair election.” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless the government dramatically changes course, next weekend’s presidential elections will be undermined by the same patterns of violence and fraud we saw last Saturday.”
Similar reports of rigged results and little or no voting have emerged from journalists, domestic and some international election observers, and other credible sources in many other Nigerian states, including Enugu, Oyo, Osun, Delta, Cross River, Zamfara, Lagos and Ekiti. The European Observer Mission noted widespread problems leading to voter disenfranchisement and called on the INEC to give serious consideration to re-running the election in several states.
In Rivers State, voting did not take place at all in several areas. Polls that were scheduled to open by 8 a.m. either opened after midday or not at all. Human Rights Watch saw only two functioning polling centers across three different local government areas in Rivers State during the course of an entire day; hundreds of designated polling centers were completely deserted. Local observers reported identical scenes in other communities throughout the state. Human Rights Watch saw groups of voters sitting outside of their assigned polling units well into the afternoon, waiting in vain for electoral officials and materials to arrive.
“We are just waiting here since morning,” one would-be voter in Emohua local government told Human Rights Watch. “We want to vote, but there is no election here.”
Where voting did occur, it was in some instances marred by widespread ballot-stuffing, often in full view of election observers and journalists. For example, Human Rights Watch witnessed armed men on motorcycles driving toward Emohua local government headquarters on April 14, where they engaged in a firefight with police and military personnel and reportedly made off with stacks of ballot papers and other materials. Elsewhere, observers and journalists witnessed ballot boxes being stolen from several polling centers by groups of thugs who pushed voters aside to seize the materials.
Other voters apparently stayed away for fear of violence. One woman told Human Rights Watch that she would not vote because “I don’t want to die.”
Another man, observing the smoldering ruins of a police station that had been attacked and burned to the ground by unknown assailants during the night before election day in the Rivers State capital Port Harcourt, told Human Rights Watch that he would not vote because “if the police cannot ensure their own security, what can they do for me?”
The official results of Rivers State elections appear to have been blatantly rigged in favor of the ruling PDP. According to all credible reports from journalists and local and foreign observers, turnout of Rivers State’s 2 million registered voters was extremely low across the state. But official returns announced by INEC later pegged voter turnout at roughly 86 percent across the state, and at more than 90 percent in areas such as Okrika local government area where numerous observers and other sources reported that not a single ballot was cast all day.
Human Rights Watch observed the delivery of ballot boxes that were nearly empty to one collation center in Port Harcourt, but electoral officials later reported voter turnout in those same areas at more than 90 percent. Official results overwhelmingly favor the ruling party, with Rivers’ Resident Electoral Commissioner announcing that PDP gubernatorial candidate Celestine Omehia had won more than 90 percent of all votes cast.
In Anambra State, the polls were similarly disastrous. Human Rights Watch visited 10 polling stations in rural areas across Anambra Central and Anambra South senatorial zones. In most cases, polling stations visited by Human Rights Watch simply did not open at all, with no officials and no voting materials present. Human Rights Watch spoke to three women at 5 p.m. in Nwafor Uruagu Primary School in Nnewi, Anambra South, who had been there since morning waiting to vote. “INEC will have to fix another date for us,” they said. Observers with the Catholic Church’s Justice, Development and Peace Commission showed Human Rights Watch hundreds of observation reports from Anambra North and Anambra Central senatorial zones recording no votes cast at all.
In Awka town in Anambra State, Human Rights Watch witnessed several polling stations open around noon, but because of widespread controversy surrounding the lack of result sheets to record results and voters registers at some polling stations, many voters refused to participate and only a handful of ballots was cast. One INEC official in Awka town told Human Rights Watch: “I am ready to do my job, but I do not have the appropriate materials. The register they gave me only has two names on it. It’s not my fault.”
The INEC official concerned explained that more than 100 people had been registered at that place.
The Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi was unable to vote in his home town. The vice-presidential candidates of both main opposition parties, the Action Congress and the All Nigeria People’s Party, were also unable to vote in their home areas because of an absence of INEC staff and polling materials.
Despite widespread reports from the Igbo elders forum, the governor, journalists, local and international observers and others that there was no real election in Anambra state, INEC announced PDP candidate Andy Uba as the winner with 70 percent of the vote. Despite the widely reported lack of voting in the state, Uba is said by INEC to have won more than 1 million votes; the total number of registered voters in Anambra State is 1.7 million. With many polling centers either closed or open for only a few hours, such high numbers of reported voters are not credible.
“With such obviously illegitimate results in both Rivers and Anambra states, controversy is inevitable and the threat of further violence looms large,” said Takirambudde.
Despite a heavy armed presence, security forces and government officials often did little to protect the rights of voters and the integrity of the process. For example, Human Rights Watch learned of several incidents in which voters in Rivers and Anambra states were faced with violence and intimidation. According to observers, local officials and armed men kept voters and party agents in some parts of Rivers State away from the polls. One opposition party agent in Ikwerre local government was dragged from the car of two journalists who had been interviewing him and beaten unconscious after alleging that the PDP was rigging the tabulation of results in his area. Police and state government officials standing nearby did not intervene.
In Port Harcourt, Human Rights Watch observed police allowing large numbers of youth with no legitimate connection to the tabulation process inside a collation point as uncounted ballots were being deposited inside of the building, suggesting that INEC was not in complete control of the process.
In three places in Anambra state, Human Rights Watch witnessed voters angered by the absence of complete materials and the late opening of polling stations threatening INEC officers, smashing INEC voting materials and scattering ballot papers. The INEC offices in Onitsha North, Onitsha South, Nnewi South and a local government office block in Awka North, Anambra, were burned in protest at the conduct of the election. According to eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, unidentified armed men killed the brother of a PDP candidate in Achalla. The police and army were deployed in significant numbers in Anambra state but were largely concentrated around INEC offices, and certain hotels in Awka town. Some polling stations had no police presence at all.
Journalists and international and local election observers have reported that the elections were similarly marred by violence, fraud and intimidation in several other Nigerian states. Ekiti State was marked by violent confrontation between PDP and Action Congress supporters, and election results were blatantly falsified in many areas. Violence was also reported in the northern state of Katsina, where opposition supporters burned down government buildings in protest at the announcement that the PDP had swept the state’s gubernatorial polls. Soldiers clashed with angry voters in Nasarawa state. PDP thugs beat up opposition party officials in Oyo state and hijacked ballot boxes, according to local observers. Nigerian authorities reported at least 21 dead in election-related violence countrywide, although local sources indicate that the death toll could be more than 50.
Nigerian electoral and government officials have not acknowledged the failure of voting in many areas, insisting that the polls were conducted in an entirely satisfactory manner. In Rivers, INEC’s Resident Electoral Commissioner publicly declared, with total disregard for the facts on the ground, that in “almost all” parts of the state, voting took place smoothly from early morning until the close of polls.
“The elections in Rivers and Anambra were blatantly stolen and their results cannot be allowed to stand,” Takirambudde said. “The elections should be re-run in those states, and anywhere else where the rights of voters have been systematically violated.”
Nigeria’s nationwide elections, conducted on April 14 and April 21, mark the country’s first handover of power from one civilian head of state to another.
The 2007 elections are also crucial because a failed election in 2007 could serve to entrench patterns of vote rigging and electoral violence as a central part of Nigeria’s political system. Nigeria has not held a free and fair election since the end of military rule in 1999; according to observers, national and statewide polls in 1999 and 2003 were marred by widespread fraud and violence, as were local government polls held in 2004. Due largely to widespread patterns of corruption and unaccountable governance, most of Nigeria’s population remains mired in absolute poverty despite rising government revenues since 1999.