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(Abuja) – Nigeria’s incoming president, Muhammadu Buhari, should take immediate and concrete steps to address large-scale violence, endemic corruption, a lack of accountability for abuses, and other pressing human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said today. Buhari will be sworn in on May 29, 2015.

“Buhari promised to address the violence, corruption, and injustice that Nigeria’s citizens face each and every day,” said Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the people’s hopes are not to be dashed, the incoming president and his government should quickly turn his promises into concrete action and take steps to improve human rights.”

Buhari, a retired major general, was, from 1983 to 1985, at the head of a military government that had toppled the civilian administration of President Shehu Shagari. His period as head of state was marked by arbitrary arrests, restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, and retroactive criminal laws. During the recent election campaign, Buhari acknowledged these past problems and said he would change.

Since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, more than 20,000 civilians have been killed in sectarian, communal, or political violence and almost 1.5 million have been displaced from their homes. Very few of those responsible for the violence, whether state or non-state actors, have been arrested or held to account.

The northeast conflict with the militant Islamist rebel group Boko Haram will be one of Buhari’s most pressing challenges. More than 7,000 civilians are believed to have died since 2010 and close to a million are displaced. The group has targeted civilians, abducted hundreds of women and girls, forcefully conscripted young men and boys, and destroyed villages, towns, and schools. In recent months, Boko Haram has also carried out attacks against civilians in neighboring Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.

In responding to Boko Haram, Nigerian government security forces have been implicated in grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including incommunicado detention of Boko Haram suspects without charge or trial, and extrajudicial killings. While some soldiers have been prosecuted in military tribunals for offenses such as cowardice and mutiny, almost no one in the security forces has been held to account for human rights abuse.

The new Nigerian government is expected to request increased international support for its counteroffensive operations against Boko Haram and for its security forces more generally. Given the security forces’ well-documented human rights abuses, donor governments should be very cautious in how they respond and should set clear conditions for helping with security sector reform, such as suspending, investigating, and holding to account senior military officers for whom there is credible evidence of involvement in serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

“Buhari needs to end the cycle of violence and take bold action to ensure the judiciary investigates and prosecutes anyone implicated in serious human rights abuses, whether Boko Haram fighters or the military and police,” Segun said. “Buhari should start a new chapter in the northeast, and ensure that Nigerian security forces respect domestic law, human rights, and international humanitarian law in all their operations.”

Violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt is another pressing problem for the incoming president. Several thousand people – both Muslims and Christians – have died in inter-communal violence in the past six years fuelled by competition for power and access to land between nomadic and farming communities. Mobs have killed many of their victims based simply on their ethnic or religious identity.

Nigerian authorities have rarely prosecuted those responsible, including the police or military who have been implicated in serious abuses. On May 2, 2015, according to media reports and local sources, security forces killed at least 28 people when they attacked the Langtang and Wase communities following the killings of six soldiers a few days earlier.

Authorities have also failed to address the root causes of inter-communal violence. They include state and local government policies that exacerbate divisions by discriminating against members of ethnic groups they classify as “non-indigenes” – people who cannot trace their ancestry to what are said to be the original inhabitants of an area.

Buhari should end divisive state and local government policies that discriminate against “non-indigenes,” Human Rights Watch said. The new administration should sponsor legislation to expressly bar all federal, state, and local government institutions from unlawful discrimination against “non-indigenes.”

Despite Nigeria’s tremendous oil wealth, corruption and weak governance have driven a wide gap between the ruling elite and the population, leaving poverty, malnutrition, and mortality rates among the worst in the world. These problems are most acute in the north – the country’s poorest region – but also in the resource-rich Niger Delta, where widespread poverty and unemployment, exacerbated by environmental degradation and corruption, have created discontent and facilitated the growth of extremist groups.

Buhari campaigned on an anti-corruption platform saying that he would fight its scourge in public office and ensure the removal of the constitutional immunity clause that protects the president and governors from criminal investigation and prosecution.

The new administration should take immediate steps to strengthen oversight and watchdog institutions such as the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) to permit them to function without interference or partiality.

The new administration should also repeal the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill, which President Goodluck Jonathan ratified in January 2014. The law, which contradicts Nigeria’s constitution and international human rights treaties, criminalizes public displays of affection between same-sex couples and penalizes organizations advocating the rights of LGBT people.

“The relatively peaceful election that brought Buhari to power marked an important moment for Nigeria and showed there is strong momentum for change,” Segun said. “Nigeria faces serious economic, social, and security challenges in the years ahead, and the real test for Buhari’s new administration will be to address the challenges while respecting human rights.”

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