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Democratic Developments in Sub-Saharan Africa: Moving Forwards or Backwards?

Testimony of Africa Division Senior Researcher Chris Albin-Lackey before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on African Affairs

Thank you, Chairman Feingold, and Members of the Committee, for inviting Human Rights Watch to participate in this hearing. My name is Chris Albin-Lackey and I am a senior researcher with the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. For the past two years, I have worked documenting Nigeria's deplorable human rights record across a range of issues. I was in Nigeria before, during and after April's general elections. Previously, I covered Ethiopia for Human Rights Watch, including during the run-up to its May 2005 elections.

This hearing could not be timelier, and Nigeria and Ethiopia both stand as clear examples of the reasons why. The course of events in both countries today has laid bare some basic failings of US policy towards Africa. Nigeria's failed elections in April were a terrible setback for hopes of democratic reform - and a stark reminder of the disastrous state of governance in that country. The Ethiopian government's deplorable human rights record has now manifested itself in military atrocities against its own people in Somali region and against Somali civilians in Mogadishu. In both cases, the Administration's uncritical acceptance of systemic human rights abuses has weakened rather than strengthened the incentives for reform.

There is no reason why these failed policies cannot be changed in a way that would allow Washington to play a more constructive role in promoting human rights and democracy in Nigeria, Ethiopia and elsewhere across the continent. Doing so would require a deeper engagement with underlying human rights issues - and a realization that the mere act of holding elections does not by itself lead to either respect for human rights or genuine democracy. It would also require a shift away from policies that have seen the US avoid opportunities to level forthright public and private criticism, and in some cases targeted diplomatic pressure, around human rights issues. And finally, the Administration must abandon a tendency to set standards so low that governments can meet them without respecting their basic human rights obligations at all.

Nigeria's 2007 Elections

Nigeria's rigged April polls were not unique - all of Nigeria's elections since the end of military rule in 1999 have been marred by widespread fraud and violence. But this year's elections were particularly shocking because they were brazenly stolen with the collusion of the very government institutions charged with ensuring their credibility, including Nigeria's electoral commission and police force.

Many Nigerians were cynical about the government's intentions long before the elections were held, arguing they had been "programmed to fail" from their inception. They felt the process was more "selection" than "election." Nonetheless, many of the Nigerians with whom I have spoken were truly dismayed at how insulting and hollow the voting process was in the end.

Another Human Rights Watch researcher and I spent the better part of February through April in Nigeria and observed the gubernatorial and presidential polls in four states. We witnessed ballot boxes stuffed in plain view; gangs of ruling party toughs interfering with vote collation; voters chased away from their polling units by gangs armed with cudgels; legions of small children casting ballots; and myriad other abuses. These observations mirrored those reported by other international and domestic observers.

The real tragedy of the elections was best symbolized by the futile courage many Nigerian voters, police officers and others displayed in trying to salvage the process. At one polling station in Katsina State, I watched a large group of voters hold their places in line even after becoming enveloped in a cloud of tear gas. Policemen had misfired a gas canister aimed at a gang of thugs menacing the polling station and the voters continued to stand in line even though finding it difficult to breathe or open their eyes.

At another polling station, a frantic police officer pulled me aside to tell me that the government was stealing the election and to ask if there was anything that could be done to stop it. And an election observer in Rivers State told me that a group of ruling party thugs had come to her polling station, chased away everyone waiting in line, and demanded that the young man in charge hand over the ballots. When he refused, the thugs locked him and the ballots in the trunk of their car and drove away laughing as he screamed in panic.

Elsewhere the elections simply did not take place. In Rivers, groups of would-be voters sat outside all day at their designated polling centers, waiting despondently for ballot materials and polling officials to arrive. Unfortunately they never did. The next weekend in a town called Dutsi in Katsina State, I spent hours trying to track down electoral officials because all the ballot papers had disappeared. In the end, it turned out that large quantities of ballot materials had been diverted to the home of the local government chairman. Elsewhere, ballot boxes had been stuffed and votes counted hours before the polls were scheduled to close. The official results reported an overwhelming majority for the PDP even in places where voting did not take place at all.

Overall, the elections period was extraordinarily violent, claiming an estimated 300 lives between the campaigns and two days of actual voting. Throughout much of the country, gangs of thugs - sponsored by local politicians - attacked polling stations, sending voters fleeing as they carted off ballot materials. Sometimes, they simply sat alongside the road stuffing ballot boxes in clear view of passers-by. In Gombe State, my colleague interviewed a young man who was attacked with machetes and left for dead by PDP thugs who suspected that he was trying to persuade his elderly grandmother to vote for the opposition. And in Oyo State, voters were held hostage to the whims of a notorious political "godfather" who openly sponsored armed gangs to roam the streets attacking opponents of the ruling party and its candidates.

The United States Government Reaction

In the wake of Nigeria's April polls, the State Department issued a statement that expressed "regret" at the conduct of Nigeria's April elections and also reaffirmed the Administration's eagerness to build upon its "excellent bilateral relations" with Abuja and to work with the Nigerian government to improve the conduct of future elections. This would have been an appropriate reaction if Nigeria's April polls had merely been "flawed." But in fact the conduct of the polls displayed a determination on the part of Nigeria's ruling party not to allow Nigerians any real say in choosing their next President. This in turn leaves little hope for real democratization, accountable governance or greater respect for human rights.

The Administration's expressions of concern over April's open display of contempt for democratic principles have been so timid that Nigeria's new government will see no reason to take them seriously. That reaction seemed to express the very low expectations the Administration placed upon the elections in the first place; many diplomats with whom I spoke in Abuja were privately deriding the process as an "election-like event" months before the first ballot was cast. If anything, the message sent by the Administration's response is that countries like Nigeria can avoid international criticism simply by going through the motions of holding periodic sham elections.

These disturbing events should concern the Administration enough to formulate a more robust and effective response than it has previously. One in seven Africans is a Nigerian; it is not possible to talk of promoting democracy and human rights in Africa and ignore Nigeria. Further, the lack of any meaningful international reaction to Abuja's open abandonment of democratic principles threatens to resonate far beyond Nigeria's borders.

Moving Forward: Lessons from Current Failures

Rhetorically, support for human rights and good governance is a central component of US policy in Africa. Too often, however, the Administration's efforts to promote democracy and accountable governance have proven scattered, inconsistent, and unnecessarily timid. The US government has consistently proven itself a willing and helpful partner to African governments that are genuinely interested in the promotion and protection of democracy and human rights. But the Administration has not succeeded in dealing with governments that display a palpable hostility toward suggestions of greater political openness or respect for the rights of their citizens to participate in politics. Washington could begin to address that failing, and have a more positive impact across the continent, by focusing on three distinct policy goals:

1) A Sustained Focus on Broader Human Rights and Governance Issues

Too often, US policy has eschewed complex and sustained engagement with deeper processes of reform and democratization in favor of a simpler but ineffective focus on dramatic one-time events such as elections. It has also placed too much emphasis on maintaining good relationships with often-abusive African heads of state while glossing over systemic problems that run far deeper than any one individual. In some cases, policymakers give the impression that this is due to resource constraints precluding the development and implementation of more holistic policies. The end result is shallow policies that simply do not work.

In Nigeria's case, April's disastrous elections were largely a reflection of a broader crisis in governance that has originated from rampant corruption, human rights abuses and a basic lack of accountability on the part of government at all levels. Nigeria's overall human rights record remains deplorable. Corruption has hobbled the capacity of government to spur progress despite booming oil revenues. Nigeria's police engage routinely in extortion and torture of criminal suspects and ordinary civilians. Politicians foment political and ethnic violence with complete impunity, recruiting armed gangs themselves or turning religious and ethnic divisions to their political advantage.

From 1999 until Nigeria's April elections, US policy focused on encouraging improvement in Nigeria's electoral processes and expressing support for President Olusegun Obasanjo, partly on the basis of his perceived commitment to reform and democratization. The current Administration did not condemn underlying patterns of human rights abuse and corruption. Instead, it essentially treated widespread patterns of human rights abuse and corruption as, in the words of one US diplomat in Abuja, "bumps along the road" to progress instead of what they actually were: evidence of deep, systemic problems that the Nigerian government was doing nothing to resolve. The dividends of that approach were on display last April as Nigeria's government made a mockery of its own pretenses to democratic governance through its brazenly rigged elections.

A similar approach and corresponding results have occurred in Ethiopia. Ethiopia's government is one of the most repressive in Africa. The Ethiopian military has been responsible for crimes against humanity in Gambella region and is committing serious abuses in neighboring Somalia and its own Somali region. Security forces routinely subject suspected government opponents to harassment, arbitrary detention, torture and in some cases, extrajudicial execution. Local officials, especially in rural areas, subject Ethiopians to surveillance and impose a climate of fear and intimidation that discourages free speech of any kind, much less active participation in politics. Neither the Administration nor any other foreign partner of Ethiopia has engaged robustly with those issues in the years since the current government came to power. This partly due to a feeling that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was a reformer and a reliable international partner in spite of his government's record on the ground.

2) Criticism, Confrontation and Pressure

The United States should display a greater willingness to publicly criticize abusive governments in Africa and mobilize other forms of leverage to create pressure for reform. There is never any "magic bullet" in Washington's arsenal, but strong public and private criticism of serious human rights abuses can lend momentum and credibility to the efforts of domestic reformers and human rights defenders. And Washington does have more tangible forms of leverage over many African governments, such as the power to condition military aid on meaningful human rights improvements. But these tools are often not deployed and in some cases the Administration's refusal to defend human rights principles, even rhetorically, has reached harmful extremes.

Again, Nigeria and Ethiopia are good examples of the scale and importance of the problem. Washington has often treated these governments as reliable partners in the promotion of human rights and democracy rather than determined impediments. Not only has this policy failed, but it has also emboldened leaders who have shown a willingness to undermine basic human rights.

The Administration is in no way to blame for the failure of Nigeria's 2007 electoral process, but its refusal level meaningful criticism against Nigeria's corrupt, abusive and unaccountable government sent the wrong signals. The Administration reacted to rigged and violent elections in 1999 and 2003 with uncritical acceptance. It also failed to urge in forceful terms that the 2007 elections be more credible than its predecessors.

The Administration's acquiescence regarding the rigged elections of years past is likely connected to the open and shameless manner in which the 2007 elections were stolen. Fearing no criticism from Washington or other key allies, the Nigerian authorities made little pretense even of concealing the deed. Worse, Nigeria was proven right in its cynical assumptions about the level of US interest in free and fair elections; the Administration issued only muted criticism following the 2007 debacle. The US government has also not applied any significant pressure on the new administration of President Yar'Adua to ensure accountability for past abuses or prevent similar ones from occurring in the future.

The US government has also not subjected Nigeria's government to meaningful criticism about more systemic patterns of human rights abuse since the end of military rule in 1999. To name just a few of the most glaring examples: Since 1999, the Nigerian military has burned several communities the ground and murdered several hundred Nigerian civilians. The Nigerian police routinely indulge in the practice of torture and extortion. And Government corruption has actively fueled conflict in the Niger Delta because federal authorities turned a blind eye to the efforts of Delta politicians to arm criminal gangs to help them rig the 2003 elections. None of these abuses has triggered any significant public criticism or other action on the part of the US government.

Policies marked by an even greater unwillingness to level criticism or apply diplomatic pressure have equally failed to yield positive results in Ethiopia. The United States and other partners of Ethiopia have not publicly called upon the Ethiopian government to reverse and remedy systematic patterns of repression. Ethiopia held elections in 2005 that were eagerly embraced by the Administration as a sign of progress in spite of overwhelming evidence that patterns of intimidation, harassment and violence had made political activity impossible across much of the country. This spring, Ethiopia's systematic and indiscriminate bombardment of Mogadishu, which caused up to 400,000 people to flee the city in a matter of weeks, failed to generate any condemnation from Washington - and this after the Administration's tacit support helped propel Ethiopia towards its decision to invade the country. Just last week, after the Administration was presented with news that Ethiopia's government would seek to impose death sentences on Ethiopia's most prominent opposition leaders, it only went so far as to express its "surprise" at the news.

The Arguments Against Speaking Out

Some US officials argue that criticism and attempts at deploying leverage are certain to prove ineffective at mobilizing change. But those sentiments are exaggerated. Washington may not have the power to bring about change on its own in most countries but it can often lend more significant momentum to reform than any other single actor. Just as importantly, the Administration's greater willingness to speak out publicly on human rights issues and use what leverage is available to advance human rights principles will lend greater credibility to US policies across the continent.

The United States is Ethiopia's largest bilateral donor of aid that includes substantial IMET and FMF military assistance. Washington is also a key international ally of both Ethiopia and Nigeria. This does not mean that the United States can or should dictate policy to either country, but it does guarantee that its opinion will be taken seriously and that public criticism could lend moral support to individuals and groups working for positive change within those countries.

By the same token, US silence on human rights issues often undermines the prospects for change by demoralizing domestic activists. Many Nigerians were dismayed at the lack of any appreciable US reaction to the stolen April polls. Ethiopians hoping for greater freedoms will not be encouraged by the fact that the United States will not even publicly condemn Addis Ababa's stated goal of executing its most prominent opposition leaders on trumped-up charges.

In some cases US officials have also argued against applying targeted diplomatic pressure or criticism against governments like Ethiopia and Nigeria because of a fear of damaging relations or "isolating" those countries. Ethiopia is regarded as a key regional ally in the global war on terror, while Nigeria is an increasingly important source of oil, as well as a partner in regional diplomacy and peacekeeping efforts.

It is certainly true that the United States' relationship with countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria involves real and important interests beyond the promotion of human rights. But it is not true that the only alternative to the status quo is "isolation" or a complete and sudden breakdown in bilateral relations. Too often it appears that such fears are reflexively trotted out as a boogieman to justify an indefensible policy of doing and saying nothing. And in some cases the situation is even worse than this; Ethiopia is a good example. Because the Administration supported Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia, its uncritical acceptance of the brutal ongoing military crackdown on civilian populations in the Ogaden and of abuses in Mogadishu appears to place Washington squarely on the side of a brutally oppressive government. This in a part of the world the Administration already worries may emerge as a stronghold for terrorist organizations hostile to the United States.

3) Higher Standards

When Washington does express concern to abusive and unaccountable African regimes about their human rights records, the bar is often set so disappointingly low that intransigent regimes can clear those hurdles without registering any meaningful progress at all. President Bush has decried what he calls a "soft bigotry of low expectations" at home in US education policy, but this phrase is an apt description of the Administration's policies towards key African partners regarding human rights.

Again, Ethiopia and Nigeria each offer a case in point. Officials within both governments have argued that human rights criticisms of their administrations are based on unrealistic and undeliverable expectations - that countries require time to adopt human rights and governance practices akin to what western critics can expect in their own countries.

Such criticisms lack merit. It may be unrealistic to insist that Ethiopia's government transform itself into a functioning multiparty democracy overnight. It is not out of line, however, to demand that the Ethiopian military stop staging attacks against civilian populations in Gambella and in the Ogaden, or that Addis Ababa refrain from executing the leaders of its opposition.

Likewise, it may be unrealistic to call upon Nigeria to stamp out corruption and poor governance with a stroke of the pen. But it is not unrealistic to demand that politicians who openly recruit and arm criminal gangs for the purpose of rigging elections be held to account for the resulting abuses. Nor is it unrealistic to demand that Nigeria's federal government refrain from manipulating its own law enforcement agencies and electoral institutions for the express purpose of ensuring that free and fair elections do not take place.

Country-Specific Recommendations

There are some obvious first steps the Administration could take in improving the promotion of human rights in both Nigeria and Ethiopia:

Nigeria: Nigeria's new government came to power in elections that made a mockery of the democratic process. The Administration should strongly urge Abuja to undertake urgent reforms with a goal of making government more accountable and to avoid a similar debacle in 2011. That task is formidable but there are some obvious starting places. The Administration should publicly and privately urge the Yar'Adua government to:

  • Reform its electoral commission to make it more transparent, inclusive and independent.
  • Act to restore credibility to its Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), whose reputation was badly tarnished by its harassment of the President's political opposition before the 2007 elections. Nigeria should also conduct transparent and far-reaching inquiries into allegations of corruption leveled against former Governors by the EFCC that were allowed to drop. Where allegations have sufficient substance, they should result in prosecution.
  • Conduct a transparent investigation into allegations of election-related corruption and improper political manipulation involving the upper echelons of its police force and electoral commission.
  • Secure passage of Nigeria's long-delayed Freedom of Information law, a key piece of legislation that could tear away the cloak of secrecy that conceals the shameful details of many government abuses. The bill was effectively vetoed by President Obasanjo during his last days in office.

The United States does not have substantial economic leverage over the Nigerian government. Nigeria does however value its place as a respected member of the international community. The realization that the government's corrupt and abusive behavior at home could impact its standing around the world will matter in Abuja. Until Nigeria demonstrates a serious commitment to reform by at least beginning to make tangible efforts at fundamental reform like those listed above, there should be no bilateral meetings between Presidents Bush and Yar'Adua, and relations overall should not be as warm as they have been since 1999.

Ethiopia: The Administration should abandon its current policy of what amounts to a kind of "quiet diplomacy" on human rights issues, which has yielded no tangible dividends. Instead the Administration should:

  • Ensure that the provisions of the "Leahy Law" are fully adhered to, by verifying that no US military assistance to Ethiopia is benefiting military units that violate human rights with impunity.
  • Demand that Ethiopia not pursue the death penalty against opposition leaders and activists convicted of undermining Ethiopia's constitution, and insist that the rights of all detainees to due process be respected.
  • Publicly call for investigations into and accountability for ongoing human rights abuses committed by the Ethiopian military in Somali region and Somalia, as well as past abuses in Gambella.
  • Publicly call upon Ethiopia to end systemic patterns of political repression including harassment, arbitrary detention and torture of suspected government opponents.

The United States must also abandon its practice of cooperating with the Ethiopian government in secret renditions of people fleeing the conflict in Somalia and call on the Ethiopian government to acknowledge the real number of detainees and permit access to these individuals by independent international monitors. No US message about human rights abuses in Ethiopia will be taken seriously so long as the Administration is also asking Ethiopia to cooperate in the illegal detention and abusive interrogation of terrorism suspects.


Nigeria and Ethiopia represent two very different contexts where the same set of Administration policies has failed to promote human rights and genuine democracy. Abusive, corrupt and authoritarian governments there and in other parts of Africa will only be emboldened if these policies are continued. Washington does possess the means to play a more positive and prominent role in advocating and advancing democratic reform and respect for human rights across the continent. If the Administration begins to speak out about on-going abuses, insist on higher standards of respect for human rights, and engage more deeply with the broader human rights issues instead of just elections, there is a real opportunity to play a central role in bringing about change. And if the Administration did take that stand, it could set an example that other key countries in Europe and elsewhere could follow in reforming their own equally flawed policies.

Chairman Feingold and Members of the Committee, thank you again for this opportunity to speak with you today.

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