Skip to main content

H.E. Mr. Umaru Musa Yar'Adua
President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
Office of the President
Aso Rock, Abuja

Dear President Yar'Adua,

We write to you at this midway point of your term in office to express our concerns about the slow rate of progress, and indeed significant setbacks, in addressing crucial human rights problems in Nigeria under your administration.

Nigeria has long suffered from endemic government corruption and mismanagement, which, among other things, rob ordinary Nigerians of their basic economic and social rights to health and education. In addition, the country faces ongoing political violence and state-sponsored abuses by the security forces, including extrajudicial killings and torture; civilian fallout from clashes between the military and armed militants in the Niger Delta; and outbreaks of sectarian violence that have claimed hundreds of lives over the past two years. We are deeply concerned that your administration has failed to address the root causes of these human rights problems or tackle the impunity that allows these abuses to persist.

We recognize that many of Nigeria's human rights problems are deeply entrenched and have been inherited from previous administrations. Furthermore, we view as promising some policy initiatives that your administration has taken, including establishing committees on police and electoral reform, and forming a presidential panel of investigation into the 2008 inter-communal violence in Jos. However, these initiatives have yet to have a tangible, positive impact on the lives of ordinary Nigerians. We believe that specific steps can and should be taken now to improve your administration's human rights record. We therefore urge you to take concrete and meaningful steps to tackle the following very serious human rights problems.


In your inaugural address on May 29, 2007, you pledged to pursue an impartial "zero-tolerance" policy towards corrupt officials. But in the two years since that pledge, fledgling anti-corruption efforts that began under your predecessor have been severely weakened. Most notably, we are deeply concerned that the actions of your administration have undermined the credibility and effectiveness of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)-the only institution that had pursued criminal investigations into the corrupt activities of powerful ruling party officials. Although you took the encouraging step after taking office of publicly declaring the value of your personal assets, you have failed to require other senior government officials to follow your lead. Moreover, the National Assembly, controlled by the ruling party, has still not passed the Freedom of Information Bill.

As you are aware, rampant government corruption and mismanagement have led your country's citizens to suffer gross rights violations, including lack of access to basic healthcare and education. Despite Nigeria's tremendous oil wealth, its abject poverty and infant and maternal mortality rates still rank among the worst in the world. Public funds that could have been spent on improving the lives of ordinary citizens have instead been squandered and stolen by members of Nigeria's political elite. Corruption also lies at the heart of political violence, as politicians use stolen government revenues to sponsor criminal gangs to rig elections marked by violence and fraud.

During his tenure as executive chairman at the EFCC from 2003 to 2007, Nuhu Ribadu pursued politically sensitive investigations into suspected corrupt activities of powerful ruling party officials. In his 2006 testimony before the Nigerian Senate, Ribadu identified 31 sitting governors as "corrupt," although they enjoyed immunity from prosecution at that time. During his tenure, Ribadu also indicted on corruption charges erstwhile untouchables, including a former inspector general of police and nine former state governors. Although the institution's credibility was at times questioned for its apparent selective prosecution of political opponents of then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, under Ribadu the EFCC indicted hundreds of individuals collectively implicated in the theft of the equivalent of several billion US dollars.

In 2007 Ribadu took the bold step of arresting and charging with 103 counts of corruption former Delta State governor James Ibori. Two weeks later, the inspector general of police ordered Ribadu to resign; he has since been demoted and dismissed from the police force, and following numerous death threats and an apparent assassination attempt, fled the country. Meanwhile, a dozen senior EFCC investigators who worked under Ribadu have also since been removed from their positions. Since the new executive chair of the EFCC, Farida Waziri, assumed office in June 2008, only three former governors have been charged with corruption. She has failed to prosecute several individuals credibly implicated in the massive looting of the state treasury-including former Rivers State governor Peter Odili-and Ibori's case has been effectively stalled. One senior government official has been convicted during Waziri's tenure in office-Lucky Igbinedion, the former Edo State governor accused of embezzling the equivalent of millions of US dollars-but was fined a mere US$25,000 and released without any jail time following a plea bargain agreement with the EFCC.

Human Rights Watch believes you can do much more to address the deeply rooted and devastating corruption in Nigeria. We are greatly concerned that the actions of your administration have undermined the work of the EFCC and further entrenched the impunity enjoyed by corrupt government officials. We urge you to publicly state your commitment to holding public officials accountable, including senior ruling party politicians, and to support that commitment by taking the following steps to improve transparency and accountability in Nigeria:

  • Call on the National Assembly to pass the Freedom of Information Bill, which would give Nigerians the legal right to compel government institutions to release important information such as government budgets, expenditure reports, and financial audits.
  • Enact a law requiring the president, all members of the National Assembly, and all ministers in the federal cabinet to follow your example by issuing and publicizing annual declarations of the total value of all personal assets. Require all state governors and senior state and local government officials to do the same.
  • Subject state and local government expenditures to greater oversight and transparent audits. This should include requiring all state and local governments to compile and regularly publish funding sources, budgets, expenditure reports, and contracts awarded, and requiring that funds allocated to discretionary budget lines be reported in detail.
  • Investigate, arrest, and prosecute according to international fair trial standards, or publicly explain the reasons for not prosecuting, the 31 former state governors identified in 2006 as "corrupt" by then-EFCC Executive Chairman Nuhu Ribadu.
  • Propose an amendment to the Nigerian Constitution that would rescind the immunity from all criminal prosecution currently enjoyed by sitting governors.

Free and Fair Elections

In the aftermath of Nigeria's April 2007 elections, which were marred by widespread violence, vote-rigging, and intimidation, you promised to reform Nigeria's violent and corrupt electoral process. During the 2007 elections, corrupt politicians and their political "godfathers" openly recruited and armed criminal gangs who raided polling stations, attacked voters, and brazenly stuffed or carried off ballot boxes. The announced final results of the polls bore little resemblance to what had taken place on the ground. In many areas, such as much of the oil-rich Niger Delta, little or no voting took place, but the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) still reported record turnouts and landslide victories for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). Since then, one-third of the gubernatorial elections won by the PDP have been overturned by Nigeria's courts on grounds of electoral malpractices or other irregularities. But two years later, and despite your pledges of reform, elections in Nigeria are still determined by violence and fraud rather than the will of the people. A case in point is the April 25, 2009 gubernatorial election re-run in Ekiti State, during which ruling party officials were once again widely implicated in fomenting violence, and INEC officers in vote-rigging and fraud.

Human Rights Watch is encouraged by your acknowledgment that the Ekiti elections "resulted in violence and widespread complaints of unwholesome practices by politicians of all persuasions, in alleged collaboration with electoral and security officials," and by your instructions to security agencies to investigate and prosecute those responsible for "violence, intimidation of voters, bribery of electoral officials, and other breaches of the law" during the Ekiti elections. However, that such blatant criminal behavior by the ruling party was allowed to happen in the first place reflects a longstanding political failure to tackle the root causes of electoral abuses and bring those responsible to account. We note with concern that two years after the 2007 polls, your administration has still not investigated, much less prosecuted, those responsible for sponsoring or carrying out the 2007 election violence that left at least 300 dead.

We welcome the initiatives that you have taken on electoral reform by establishing an electoral reform committee and sending draft legislation to the National Assembly that would amend Nigeria's existing electoral laws. But as you conceded in your May 29, 2009 statement marking your administration's two years in office: "Systems alone will not give us free and fair elections." We therefore emphasize the urgent need for credible and impartial leaders to uphold the integrity of electoral laws and institutions, noting with concern that the current INEC chairman, Maurice Iwu-who has presided over and legitimized the results of the phenomenally flawed 2007 national elections and the recent Ekiti elections-has lost the confidence of leading civil society groups, the Nigerian Bar Association, and Nigeria's opposition parties. To begin to restore confidence in Nigeria's electoral process, we urge you to take the following immediate steps:

  • Launch a transparent, comprehensive, and impartial investigation into allegations of corruption, vote-rigging, and sponsorship of political violence committed during and since the 2007 elections by elected officials, members of the police force, and INEC personnel. Prosecute in accordance with international fair trial standards those found implicated in election violence and fraud.
  • Dismiss the current INEC chairman Maurice Iwu and appoint, for approval by the Senate, a new chair who has broad civil society support and the confidence of Nigeria's political parties.

Violence in the Niger Delta

Over the past two years there has been a worrying increase in armed attacks by militants on oil facilities and kidnappings of oil workers and ordinary Nigerians in the Niger Delta. This has led to a parallel increase in the militarization of, and general insecurity in, the Delta. In July and August 2007, gangs of heavily armed militants unleashed an unprecedented wave of attacks on the streets of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, opening fire on crowds at random and gunning down scores of civilians in the streets. In May 2009, the Nigerian military launched a major military offensive against militants in the creeks of Delta State. Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about reports of loss of lives, property damage, and the displacement of residents by both armed militant and military operations.

Your administration's strategy to address the worsening situation in the Delta-an offer of amnesty to militants, military offensives, and the creation of a Niger Delta ministry-fails to address the root causes of the violence: endemic corruption by government officials, the resulting lack of development in the region, and the sponsorship of violence by government officials.

Many of the armed groups active today gained their experience and power as hired guns for ruling party politicians. Since at least 2003, politicians and government officials have used armed gangs to violently rig elections, including the 2007 elections, and to provide security for illegal oil "bunkering" operations. The July and August 2007 violence in Port Harcourt, for example, was carried out by armed gangs competing for access to illegal patronage doled out by government officials. Although your administration has ratcheted up military pressure on militant leaders in the Niger Delta, it has remained unwilling to apprehend and bring to justice the state agents, such as former Rivers State governor Peter Odili, who have armed and mobilized criminal gangs in the Niger Delta.

Meanwhile, your administration has failed to take effective steps to address the endemic corruption that sustains the ongoing poverty and aggravates political discontent in the Delta, as the oil wealth is squandered and embezzled by ruling party politicians. The four leading oil producing states in the Niger Delta received 38 percent of state government allocations in 2008, while the remaining 32 states in Nigeria-which account for 88 percent of Nigeria's population-shared 62 percent of the allocations. In Rivers State, for example, the state government's US$3 billion annual budget last year far exceeded the entire central government budgets for most individual West African nations. Yet there is shockingly little in these Niger Delta states to show for all this wealth. Abject poverty there remains among the worst in the world.

We therefore urge you to take the following immediate steps to protect the fundamental human rights of Niger Delta residents and to address the root causes of the violence:

  • Ensure that civilian life and property are respected during military operations in the Niger Delta and allow humanitarian agencies full access to the affected areas.
  • Investigate, arrest, and prosecute according to international fair trial standards state and local government officials in the Niger Delta who are responsible for embezzling public funds.
  • Launch an independent inquiry to establish the links between government officials-including former Rivers State governor Peter Odili-and criminal activities in the Niger Delta such as oil "bunkering" and the sponsorship of criminal gangs. Prosecute in accordance with international fair trial standards those found implicated in arming and sponsoring criminal gangs.

Inter-Communal Violence

Inter-communal violence has claimed the lives of more than 12,000 Nigerians during the past decade, including deadly clashes that have left hundreds of people dead in separate incidents in Plateau State, Kano, and Kaduna. Immediate steps should be taken to hold accountable those who have sponsored or carried out these killings and to eliminate discriminatory government policies against "non-indigenes," a root cause of much of this violence.

On November 28-29, 2008, renewed clashes broke out between Muslim and Christian mobs following disputed local government elections in Jos, Plateau State. The violence left hundreds dead in Nigeria's worst outbreak of inter-communal violence since 2004. At stake in the Jos local government elections was not just control of this key chairmanship position and access to lucrative federal allocations, but also control over determining which ethnic groups in Jos would be granted "indigene" status.

Human Rights Watch believes that one of the root causes of this violence is government policies that discriminate against "non-indigenes"-people who cannot trace their ancestry to what are said to be the original inhabitants of an area-relegating millions of Nigerians to the status of second-class citizens in their state of residence. "Non-indigenes" are openly denied the right to compete for state and local government jobs and are subject to discriminatory admissions policies at state-run universities. These discriminatory government policies along with the government's repeated failure to hold accountable those responsible for organizing or carrying out past inter-communal violence have served to reinforce this deadly cycle of violence and impunity.

We welcome your initiative in December 2008 to form a presidential panel of investigation to look into the November 2008 Jos violence. We note with concern, however, that findings of past commissions into violence in Jos and elsewhere were never acted upon by the government. To tackle the root causes of inter-communal violence in Nigeria and end this cycle of impunity, Human Rights Watch urges you to take the following immediate steps:

  • Investigate, arrest, and prosecute according to international fair trial standards the individuals responsible for organizing or carrying out the inter-communal violence that left hundreds dead in Plateau State (2001, 2004, and 2008), Kano (2004), and Kaduna (2000 and 2002).
  • Sponsor legislation that expressly bars all federal, state, and local government institutions from discriminating against "non-indigenes" with respect to any matter not directly related to traditional leadership institutions or other purely cultural matters.

Conduct of Security Forces

Nigeria's security forces have been widely implicated in serious human rights violations during your two years in office. The police have carried out scores of extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects as well as ordinary citizens, and routinely torture criminal suspects in interrogation. The police and army were collectively implicated in the unlawful killing of more than one hundred people while responding to the sectarian violence in Jos.

We note with concern, however, that despite the seriousness of these allegations, your administration has made no significant effort to hold members of the security forces accountable for these and past crimes, including the massacre of more than two hundred civilians by the military in Benue State in 2001 or the military's complete destruction of the town of Odi, Bayelsa State, in 1999.

The military has taken some significant steps to improve the professionalism, conduct, and discipline of its soldiers, but Nigeria's police force under the current inspector general of police remains deeply mired in endemic corruption and widespread abuses. We are encouraged that you have established a police reform committee and the Ministry of Police Affairs to oversee implementation of these reforms. While we note these potentially positive developments, the police force is in dire need of fresh, honest leadership willing to place a greater emphasis on these important human rights concerns. Your leadership is urgently needed to ensure that meaningful and lasting reforms in this notoriously corrupt institution are carried out without delay. To help restore much needed confidence in the security forces, Human Rights Watch urges you to take the following immediate steps:

  • Launch transparent, comprehensive, and impartial investigations into members of the security forces allegedly responsible for the extrajudicial killing of hundreds of people in Jos, Plateau State (2008), and Benue State (2001), and for the razing of the town of Odi in Bayelsa State (1999). Prosecute in accordance with international fair trial standards those found implicated in abuses.
  • Appoint a new inspector general of police who is demonstrably committed to rooting out endemic corruption and widespread abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and extortion; and hold the inspector general accountable for carrying out these reforms.

Your administration can and should do much more both to tackle the impunity that allows the human rights problems outlined in this letter to persist, and to address their root causes. We have attached a 10-point human rights agenda reiterating the recommendations made in this letter and urge you to exercise bold leadership to implement them without delay. Human Rights Watch stands ready to assist you in this urgent effort.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch


Attorney General and Minister of Justice Michael Aondoakaa
Minister of Foreign Affairs Ojo Maduekwe
Minister of Police Affairs Ibrahim Lame
Minister of Niger Delta Affairs Ufot Ekaette
Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Paul Dike
President of the Senate David Mark
Speaker of the House of Representatives Dimeji Bankole
Farida Waziri, Executive Chairman, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission
Roland Ewubare, Executive Secretary, National Human Rights Commission
UK High Commissioner to Nigeria Bob Dewar
US Ambassador to Nigeria Robin Sanders

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country