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(Abuja) – The Nigerian government should not interfere with legal challenges to the badly flawed presidential elections held last weekend, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch researchers in two northern states observed widespread violence and vote-rigging that was mirrored throughout the country.

Human Rights Watch observed violence and intimidation in Gombe and Katsina states in an electoral process that denied large numbers of voters the opportunity to cast their votes. Where voting did occur, it was marred by the late opening of polls, a severe shortage of ballot papers, the widespread intimidation of voters, the seizure of ballot boxes by gangs of thugs, vote buying and other irregularities.

“Instead of guaranteeing citizens’ basic right to vote freely, Nigerian government and electoral officials actively colluded in the fraud and violence that marred the presidential polls in some areas,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “In other areas, officials closed their eyes to human rights abuses committed by supporters of the ruling party and others.”

According to domestic and international election observers, the same trends were in evidence throughout much of the country. The Transition Monitoring Group, Nigeria’s largest domestic observer organization, called for a re-run of the presidential polls while European Union observers documented massive irregularities and said that the process “cannot be considered to have been credible.” Teams from the US National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute both said that the process “failed the Nigerian people.”

Voters intimidated and turned away

Human Rights Watch and others found similar patterns of fraud and abuse in state polls held nationwide a week before the presidential election. The end result in both cases was a landslide victory for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Katsina state was a key electoral battleground because it is the home state of both the PDP candidate and current state governor Umaru Yar’adua and his most prominent challenger, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. In many communities in Katsina state, Human Rights Watch observed that polling stations never opened. However, these same areas later announced overwhelming victories for the PDP. In Dutsi municipality, Human Rights Watch saw crowds of would-be voters waiting for polling materials that were never delivered. Ballot boxes and ballot papers were instead diverted to the home of the local government chairman, where Human Rights Watch found ballot boxes along with staff of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), who were loitering about and claiming that voting had already been completed and the results tabulated. The ranking INEC official in Dutsi told Human Rights Watch that voting had finished just two hours after the opening of polls due to “the massive enthusiasm of the voters.” Tally sheets in the possession of electoral officials indicated a large turnout with 95 and, in some cases, 100 percent of all votes cast in favor of the PDP. One local opposition candidate told Human Rights Watch, “I expected rigging, but I never imagined they would not even allow the people to cast their votes.”

Where voting did occur, Human Rights Watch observed serious irregularities and intimidation. Voters were not afforded secrecy as ballot boxes were set up outdoors with other would-be voters crowding around them. At some polling stations visited by Human Rights Watch, PDP party agents stood over voters’ shoulders watching as they marked their ballots. Human Rights Watch saw money exchanged for votes in many areas and elsewhere scores of young children turned up to vote with voter registration cards in hand. At several polling stations, ballot boxes or ballot papers were stolen by gangs of thugs.

Violent clashes

In General Buhari’s hometown of Daura, supporters of his opposition All Nigerian Peoples’ Party (ANPP) rioted when it was discovered that electoral officials had delivered only half of the ballot papers that should have arrived at local polling stations. In the clashes that ensued, homes and business of prominent PDP members were torched, two people were killed, and at least six were wounded. The following day in Daura’s general hospital, Human Rights Watch saw several badly wounded young men, including one young teenager who had been shot in the stomach allegedly by soldiers attempting to bring the rioting under control.

In the whole of Gombe state, voting did not begin until after 3 p.m., due to the late arrival of presidential ballot papers by plane from Abuja. In some areas, the materials simply did not arrive at all. In Balanga and Yamaltu Deba local governments, voters waited in vain for electoral materials and INEC staff to appear. Presiding officers and polling clerks in Balanga were dismayed by the non-arrival of materials; one INEC clerk in Talasee, Balanga told Human Rights Watch: “I am not surprised people are angry, there was no election in Balanga.” Human Rights Watch saw voting materials distributed at the INEC office in Yamaltu Deba, but even as ballot papers were sent off to their polling areas, INEC and PDP officials made off with the result sheets that should have accompanied them in a private car. The results recorded on the result sheets are the only official record of results.

Some voting did take place in Gombe town. But in six polling stations visited, voting began between 3:30 and 4 p.m. and had ended by 5 p.m., before most registered voters had cast their ballots. In Federal Low-cost I polling unit, local residents claimed that no more than 130 people had voted by 5 p.m. However, official result sheets at the collation centre claimed that more than 900 votes had been cast in that short period, 876 of them for the PDP.

Ballot-box stuffing

At collation centers in Kamara Primary School, Jekada Fari and the local government INEC office in Gombe town, Human Rights Watch witnessed the stuffing of ballot boxes by two young men who added ballot papers to a ballot box whose results were in the process of being counted by electoral officials, the filling in of result sheets by INEC officials together with PDP party agents, and the changing of results from one form to another. In the local government office in Gombe town, the electoral officer who was to supervise the collation of final results there was asleep in his office while PDP agents and INEC staff were filling in result sheets on the premises. No opposition party representatives were present.

Aside from the gross fraud perpetrated on polling day, ruling party supporters and hired thugs targeted members of the opposition for arrest and intimidation. Many opposition supporters and officials were detained without charge in Gombe state before and during polling day. Lawyers for the detained claim they are representing more than 200 cases. Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 opposition party representatives in Gombe police station who had been held for a week without charge. Even the police officer guarding them said: “They should be released, they have done nothing wrong.”

Nigeria’s security services played a controversial role in the polls. Police were widely accused of failing to do enough to protect voters from violence and safeguard the integrity of the process. In Gombe local government INEC office, three police officers watched while PDP agents intimidated an INEC official into changing a result sheet. A PDP cabinet member of the state government assaulted a candidate for the ANPP while in a police station in Deba, Gombe State and the police present simply watched.

In some areas, however, police personnel made valiant efforts to protect polling stations from gangs of thugs and general disorder. Too often, however, well-intentioned police officers appeared to have been intimidated by party thugs and the climate of intimidation. In one polling station in Katsina town, a police officer who attempted to stop the theft of a ballot box was beaten with his own club by a gang of thugs and forced to flee. At another polling place, the police officer on duty told Human Rights Watch that he felt he had been assigned a hopeless task because “the government just wants to impose their candidates upon the voters.”

“These elections were a true milestone for Nigeria, but they have signaled regression rather than progress,” Takirambudde said. “Eight years after the end of military rule, Nigeria has yet to hold a credible election raising concerns of four more years of poor governance and human rights abuse.”

Nigeria is currently enjoying its longest-ever period of civilian rule since independence in 1960 after having emerged from a disastrous stretch of military rule in 1999. However, general elections in 1999 and 2003 were marred by widespread rigging and violence, and the leaders thrown up in those elections have been implicated in rampant corruption and widespread human rights abuse. The country’s human rights record remains disastrous, fueled in large measure by the near-total impunity enjoyed by those in political office and in the security forces. Government at all levels remains hobbled by corruption and this has kept the majority of Nigeria’s citizens mired in poverty and deprived of basic health and education services.

Initial international reactions to the violence and fraud of the recent elections have been relatively robust. The US government said that it is “deeply troubled” by the outcome of the electoral process. The British Foreign Secretary said she was “deeply concerned” at the reports of fraud. This is a welcome contrast to recent years, where Nigeria’s foreign partners have largely been silent concerning widespread and serious human rights abuses in the country.

Human Rights Watch remains concerned that such sentiments will be followed up with real pressure in the weeks and months to come. The results of Nigeria’s elections will almost certainly be challenged in court, and Nigeria’s foreign allies should exert all appropriate pressure on the government to refrain from meddling in such litigation and to respect the eventual verdicts of the courts.

“The government should not interfere with the courts in considering the likely flood of legal challenges to follow from these deeply flawed elections, and should respect any court verdict,” said Takirambudde.

Human Rights Watch said the government should also be pressed to direct the INEC to release detailed breakdowns of the results at every polling station as soon as possible to allow for greater scrutiny of the process in areas where abuses were rife. In the longer term, Nigeria’s international partners should be robust in pressuring the federal government to combat the patterns of corruption, violence and impunity that have undermined governance in much of the country, especially at the state and local levels.

“In many ways, the polls showcased the patterns of corruption and human rights abuse that characterize the day-to-day reality for citizens in Nigeria,” said Takirambudde. “If Nigeria’s partners abroad are serious about reform, they must apply real pressure on the government to correct the country’s broader human rights issues and deep-seated problems of governance.”

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