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Nigeria’s military guard the campaign headquarters of President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Nigeria, Feb. 25, 2019.  © AP Photo/Jerome Delay

(Abuja) – The Nigeria elections in 2019 that brought President Muhammadu Buhari back into office for a second term were marred by political violence, some of it by soldiers and police officers, Human Rights Watch said. Buhari should take concrete steps to address the widespread political violence, and to ensure accountability for human rights abuses by soldiers and police as he begins his second term.

The election period included persistent attacks by factions of the insurgent group Boko Haram in the northeast; increased communal violence between nomadic herdsmen and farmers spreading southward from north-central states; and a dramatic uptick in banditry, kidnapping, and killings in the northwestern states of Kaduna, Katsina, and Zamfara. Security forces have failed to respond effectively to threats to people’s lives and security.

“The lack of meaningful progress in addressing the prevalent political violence, as well as lack of accountability for rights abuses, marked Buhari’s first term in office,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “He should put these issues at the front and center of his second term agenda and urgently take concrete steps to improve respect for human rights.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 people, including voters, journalists, election observers, activists, and Independent National Electoral Commission officials in Rivers and Kano states, and documented 11 deaths specifically related to violent interference in the election process during the February 23 presidential election and subsequent state elections.

The national and state elections in February, March, and April 2019 contributed to the general insecurity across the country. The politically related violence reported in many states was in contrast to the relatively peaceful 2015 elections that brought Buhari into his first term in office. According to a report by SBM Intelligence, which monitors sociopolitical and economic developments in Nigeria, 626 people were killed during the 2019 election cycle, starting with campaigns in 2018.

Kano state, in northwestern Nigeria, has the highest number of registered voters in the country. Rivers state, in the Niger Delta, receives the largest share of crude-oil-based national revenue, representing significant electoral value to any political party. The history of elections in both states is replete with violence by state security agencies and criminal elements. Human Rights Watch focused its research on both states in view of projections and reports of violence during the 2019 elections. Despite police claims of increased security measures to ensure peaceful voting, there seems to have been little or no police response to reports of threats and acts of violence by hired political thugs and soldiers against voters and election officials, Human Rights Watch found.

Voters and election officials said that policemen either fled or stood idly by, fueling allegations of complicity, as perpetrators stole election materials, disrupted voting, and harassed voters. Witnesses said that the police also shot live rounds of ammunition and used teargas to disperse people protesting voting disruptions.

Witnesses said that after a soldier was killed in the town of Abonnema, in Rivers state, on election day, soldiers shot at residents, killing an unknown number of people. They also carried out sweeping arrests and arbitrarily detained several people. “The soldiers were on a rampage, shooting at anyone around,” said a 37-year-old man who witnessed the episode. “As I made my way to flee, I saw people dive into the river, many with gunshot wounds. The next day I saw three dead bodies riddled with bullets floating in the water… I heard many more bodies were later recovered from that river.”

The army said in a statement that on election day, unidentified people attacked soldiers, killing one, and that the soldiers killed six of the attackers in response.

On March 15, the spokesperson for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Festus Okoye, accused soldiers of intimidation and unlawful arrest of election officials in the state. The Nigerian Army on the same day announced the creation of a committee to investigate allegations of misconduct against its personnel during the elections. The committee was given two weeks to produce its findings, but it has not published its report.

Banditry and the recurring cycles of deadly violence between herdsmen and farmers appear to have taken the lives of thousands. According to civil society reports, over 3,641 people have died from deadly clashes between herdsmen and farmers since 2015 and at least 262 people have been killed by bandits since the beginning of 2019 in Zamfara State alone. The government deployed 1,000 military troops to the state in response, but few of those responsible for the violence have been arrested or held to account. 

The northeast conflict with Boko Haram and its splinter groups also remains one of Buhari’s pressing challenges. Although Boko Haram’s territorial control has shrunk to small pockets of villages around Lake Chad as a result of sustained government military action since 2015, the group continues to carry out attacks against civilian and military targets in the region and in neighboring Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.

In recent months, renewed fighting between Nigerian government forces and a faction of Boko Haram, known as Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), has led to secondary displacement of civilians.

Security forces have been implicated in serious abuses, including arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention without trial, torture, extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence against women and girls in camps for displaced people. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 27,000 civilians have died and about 1.8 million people have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict in 2009.

Authorities have also failed to address impunity for killings by security forces elsewhere in the country. The authorities have yet to publish the report of the Presidential Judicial Panel set up in August 2017 to investigate the military’s compliance with human rights obligations, allegations of war crimes, and other abuses by the military.

“Nigerian voters have entrusted Buhari with another opportunity to address the nation’s serious human rights problems, including political violence,” Ewang said. “He should start by reforming the security forces to ensure strict compliance with human rights standards, and prompt investigation and prosecution of those credibly implicated in abuses.”

For more on electoral violence during the 2019 general elections, please see below.

The 2019 Election Violence

Nigeria’s elections have historically been fraught with controversy, violence, and other abuses, with the 2015 elections, widely believed to have been largely free of violence, bucking this trend. There were reports of voter intimidation and violence around the 2019 elections at both the federal and state levels, including by armed men hired by candidates and political parties and by security forces, including the national police.

Bauchi, Benue, Kano, Sokoto, Plateau, and Rivers states were particularly affected by violence during the March 9 gubernatorial elections. The Independent National Electoral Commission canceled elections in places where the elections were disrupted, and held supplementary elections later. Kano state had supplementary elections on March 23, and Rivers state on April 13.

Kano and Rivers states were probably the worst hit of the six states. They were identified by both local and international analysts ahead of the elections as holding great potential for electoral violence. Both are major political strongholds for the two leading political parties, Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Abdullahi Ganduje of the APC won the 2019 election in Kano, and Nyesom Wike of the PDP won in Rivers state.

In 2011, post-election violence, including killings, broke out in Kano in after the announcement of Buhari’s loss to then incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan. Even during the relatively peaceful 2015 general elections, Rivers state recorded the highest number of incidents of violence with 16 out of the 66 incidents documented by the Independent National Electoral Commission across the country. The stakes were particularly high in both states in the run up to the 2019 elections, owing to a widely reported rivalry between the incumbent and former governors.

The political history of both Kano and Rivers states is of hotly contested elections characterized by violence, ballot box snatching, and maiming and killing both by state security agencies and by criminal elements.

Pre-Election Tensions

In Rivers state, supporters of the PDP and APC candidates for governor clashed several times between 2017 and 2019. Former Governor Musa Kwankwaso’s supporters called off a planned January 2018 visit to Kano when the State Police Command warned that the visit would undermine public peace and security. The warning came shortly after media reported that a former commissioner in the Ganduje government urged the governor’s supporters to “stone” Kwankwaso if he ever came to Kano.  

In both states, witnesses described violence by criminal elements hired by parties to disrupt the voting.  

Attacks on Election Commission Centers, Polling Places

Witnesses in Rivers state said that people they identified as criminal elements working for the APC and the PDP were implicated in violence at election commission centers and polling places. They hijacked voting materials, disrupted voting, and countered the activities of rival groups.

Eight people, including four election poll workers in Emuoha, Phalga, and Bonny, during the state elections said that unidentified men armed with machetes, glass bottles, rods, and sticks stormed the polling places and the election commission’s registration center. The armed men threatened to kill the officials, destroyed ballot boxes, tore up ballots and snatched tallies of results.  

They assaulted and beat some election officials, the witnesses said. One person in charge of a polling place said the attackers beat and slashed a female colleague with a knife. Another official said that people they did not know called and ordered her and her colleagues to go to a certain location to sign off on election results they knew nothing about. She fled the area in fear for her safety.  

Two people said that security agents in the town of Abonnema, including soldiers at the INEC center, where voting materials for polling places were distributed, did nothing to stop unidentified men suspected of being sent by the APC from harassing and intimidating voters who were trying to ensure that voting materials reached their polling places.

“PDP thugs were angry and ready to strike back,” said one 43-year-old man who witnessed the incident. “They carried guns and machetes and blocked the road into the community with logs, tables, sticks and other objects. They were prepared for battle.”

The witnesses alleged that the “PDP thugs” shot and killed a soldier who attempted to remove the barricades on the road to enable a military vehicle to enter the community.

A 33-year-old voter from Kalabiama, in the Bonny local government area, said that he witnessed a fierce battle between APC and PDP supporters at his polling place, during which military officials shot indiscriminately to disperse them, injuring many people.

Infiltration by Armed Men From Outside the Area

Seven witnesses in Gama, Dala, and Masoka areas in Kano said that armed men came into their communities a day before the supplementary elections, causing fear and apprehension all around. Two witnesses in Gama said they saw scores of men with sticks and machetes converge at Gama Tudu Primary School the day before the elections. One witness said he had reported the huge influx of armed men to the police, but that the police took no action to prevent the men from disrupting the voting at several polling places.

“We know the thugs were sponsored by the APC because the next day during the supplementary elections the thugs were targeting people attempting to vote for the PDP at polling units,” a 44-year-old voter from Gama said. “They didn’t allow people vote If they were not voting for the APC.”

Two witnesses reported that during the March 23 governorship supplementary elections in Gama, armed men controlled the voting line despite the presence of police officials. “The thugs were everywhere and controlled everything,” said a 26-year-old man. “They tried to discover who people on the queues were voting for. The environment was very tense and intimidating. Many people were discouraged and did not bother to vote because they feared for their safety.”  

Attacks on Voters, Journalists, Observers

Witnesses in Gama and Dala reported that voting was not secret because voters had to cast their ballots in full view of election officials, security agents, and criminal elements. A 25-year-old man from Dala said that after he cast his vote for the PDP, a known APC supporter in their community grabbed him by his collar and punched him in the face, knocking him unconscious and knocking out four of his teeth.

The 44-year-old Gama voter said he saw a man slap a woman when she attempted to thumbprint her ballot for the PDP candidate. “After seeing all this, any responsible person who loves himself will not go on to vote due to the magnitude of weapons and violence there,” he said. “I left quickly without voting.

A 34-year-old voter from Dala said he narrowly escaped being stabbed at his polling place because he is a known PDP supporter. His shirt and underwear were ripped, and his thumb was badly cut as he tried to ward off an attacker who wielded a knife.

Two witnesses in Gama confirmed reports that reporters of the BBC Hausa Service were not allowed at their polling places. They said they saw groups of men approach the journalists, ordering them to leave the community and threatening to seize their equipment. 

A 33-year-old journalist for Freedom Radio said that men armed with swords and sticks warned her not to interview anyone except APC supporters at a polling place in Gama.

A 39-year-old local independent election observer in Gama said that when he reported to officials in polling place 001 that a woman was trying to vote with another person’s voter card, a group of about 20 men attacked him, tearing his vest. He said he had to flee the polling place.

Another election observer, 42, said that armed men with APC tags who saw him and others with phones and recording equipment in Gama threatened them with harm if they didn’t leave. “At every polling unit we visited, we had concerns for our safety, there was so much hostility we had to leave,” he said.  

The APC has rejected allegations that the party sponsored anyone to disrupt elections.

Violence by Security Agents

In Rivers state, media reports of army troops’ deployment to Port Harcourt, the state capital, ahead of the elections stirred concerns about the role the military would play during the elections.

Human Rights Watch documented allegations of collusion between some security agents and suspected APC supporters to cart away ballot boxes and result sheets. Witnesses in polling places in Bonny, Abonnema, Isiokpo, and Okrika said that armed men chased voters and observers with weapons in the presence of military officials. In many cases, Human Rights Watch found military officials helped the criminal elements intimidate voters and cart away sensitive election materials.

Indiscriminate Shooting, Killing of Civilians

A 33-year-old voter said that a fight between APC supporters backed by the military and PDP supporters led to shooting by the military at a polling place in Kalabiama in Bonny during the presidential election on February 23, leaving many people injured.

Two witnesses said that after armed men killed a soldier during the presidential elections in Abonnema, soldiers retaliated by shooting allegedly at random in the vicinity. Some wounded victims drowned as they tried to swim to safety across a nearby river. Representatives of We the People, a local nongovernmental group, told Human Rights Watch that 40 people were killed and at least 52 people were injured.

A 43-year-old voter said that security agents arrested the only doctor at Abonnema’s only health facility, allegedly to prevent him from treating gunshot victims. The doctor was detained for more than three days at Bori Camp, a military base in Port Harcourt, the man said. “A hospital staff member told me that the Army officers carried the boy the doctor was treating and left him outside on the bare floor to die as they took the doctor away,” the person said. “The boy who had gunshot wounds died. I saw the dead body outside the hospital, it was there for more than one day. They accused the doctor of treating criminals.”

A 26-year-old election commission worker said that her brother was killed during the shooting. She was at the Abonnema area collation center when his friend called to tell her he had been killed. She found his body where his friends had hidden him because military officials were allegedly seizing the bodies of people their gunfire had killed. 

“I stayed with the body, watching my brother… until much later, when it was safe to move him his body out,” she said. “He was only 23 years old, trying to gain admission into the university. Something inside me left the day he died.” She said he had been shot in the back.

Two community residents said that large groups of soldiers arrived in the community and went on what they called a “rampage” the following day, ransacking homes and arresting men they believed to be PDP thugs and supporters. A 43-year-old voter said the soldiers forcibly entered his house, ransacked the family’s belongings, and threatened and intimidated his wife and children. He said that he and his brother narrowly escaped arrest by escaping through their back door and hiding in the bushes.

Inadequate and Ineffective Policing 

Four election commission workers assigned to run polling places in Rivers state said that police officers attached to their polling places  could do little to stop armed men from disrupting the elections because police personnel had been barred from carrying firearms at polling places to ensure the integrity of the process.

A 23-year-old man in charge of a polling place in Emuoha said that when thugs attacked, one of the two police officers attached to their polling place took off his uniform and fled with voters. The polling officials also said that despite repeated calls to the local elections commission office, no backup security was sent to help them.

The polling place officials said they reported the violence but that there has been no effort by the authorities to follow up or investigate. A 26-year-old election official from Gama in Kano said that four armed agents from the Department of State Security, the country’s chief intelligence agency, and seven unarmed police officers sat in their car doing nothing to stop or arrest APC supporters as they intimidated voters at the unit.  

An election observer in Kano said that at least 15 police officers who were at a polling place did not respond when he and his team of observers were threatened by thugs and ordered to leave.

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