The former Governor of Lagos State, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, emerged as the winner of Nigeria’s closely watched presidential elections held in February 2023. Despite repeated calls to Nigerian authorities to pursue accountability for past elections-related abuses and address widespread insecurity, the February elections were blighted by logistical failures and violence at the polls.
Barring a potential opposition victory in petitions to overturn election results, President-elect Tinubu, who is scheduled to be sworn in on May 29, is due to inherit a set of complex national crises including worsening banditry in the Northwest, separatist agitation in the Southeast, and the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast.
At this pivotal moment for Africa’s most populous democracy, President-elect Tinubu should place human rights at the center of both domestic and foreign policy considerations.
At home, Tinubu should take aim at critical levels of insecurity, ensure protection for civilians and accountability for rights abuses, protect Nigerians’ rights to freedom of expression, and prioritize efforts toward the realization of an adequate standard of living for all.
Abroad, Nigeria has a pivotal role to play – especially in the West Africa region – by supporting constitutional democracies and standing up for fundamental rights and democratic freedoms. President-elect Tinubu should promote the independence and respect for the rulings of African human rights institutions and regional courts, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice.
The following are suggested key priorities for the new administration to promote and protect human rights:
1. Promote a civilian protection agenda in conflict areas.
Several armed groups and criminal gangs active in parts of the country jeopardize the safety of millions of Nigerians.
In the Northwest, gangs of armed men and boys commonly called bandits carry out widespread killings, kidnappings, sexual violence, and looting. In the Northeast, the conflict between the Islamist armed group Boko Haram and the Nigerian security forces continues to exact a tremendous toll on civilians, millions of whom are displaced and in dire need of humanitarian aid.
Within and around the areas surrounding the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), armed groups have increased their kidnappings and attacks, including a prison break near the seat of the federal government by the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a breakaway faction of Boko Haram.
Anti-government groups apparently clamoring for secession in the Southeast endanger citizens as they kill and maim to enforce what they call a sit-at-home order, which requires people to stay home and shut down all public places including businesses and schools.
Security forces responding to the security crisis across the country continue to be implicated in gross human rights abuses including arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, and apparently indiscriminate airstrikes. The authorities have repeatedly failed to hold officers responsible for abuses to account.
- Ensure the prompt investigation and prosecution of alleged security force abuses including but not limited to extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention.
- Repeal or reform sections of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act that violate international human rights standards, including violations of due process and overbroad provisions that criminalize the delivery of humanitarian aid to people living in conflict zones and that allow the authorities to brand perceived critics as suspected terrorists.
- Deploy adequate security measures and personnel to protect vulnerable communities from attacks. Ensure that the judicial system maintains oversight over the criminal justice system and that terrorism suspects are not detained beyond the legally stipulated period. Ensure prompt investigation of attacks against civilians and bring those responsible to justice.
- Fight corruption in the security forces.
- Urgently address the underlying factors that give rise to conflict and foster recruitment into armed groups or criminal gangs, such as poverty and inequality, intercommunal disputes, conflicts between groups over their livelihoods following the impact of climate change, and the failure of law enforcement to ensure justice and accountability.
2. Respect and protect media freedom and the right to free expression.
Various government actions indicate significant backsliding on media freedom and the right to free expression. They include the 2021 ban on Twitter, which lasted for eight months; efforts to introduce a social media bill aimed among other things at criminalizing government critics; arrests and detention of critics and journalists; and sanctions on media outlets for critical reporting. The incoming Tinubu administration should take steps to reverse course.
The administration also needs to address blasphemy accusations by individuals and groups which have led to mob killings, arrests, and prosecutions, including of children.
- Direct the security agencies to refrain from threatening, attacking, arresting, or detaining citizens or journalists who are critical of government officials or who express concern over issues that need government attention.
- Direct the National Broadcasting Commission to withdraw all sanctions against media outlets for critical reporting.
- Ensure justice and accountability for blasphemy-related mob killings and move to repeal the country’s blasphemy law, which is inconsistent with international human rights law.
3. Bolster the social safety net to tackle entrenched poverty and inequality.
The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare existing inequalities in countries worldwide. In Lagos, Human Rights Watch documented the economic impact of the pandemic on the urban poor, affecting their ability to realize their economic and social rights. The absence of a functioning social security system meant that ad hoc government assistance, including cash transfers and food handouts, reached only a fraction of people who needed help.
A study by the Nigerian bureau of statistics published in November 2022 indicates that over 133 million Nigerians, about 63 percent of the population, experience multidimensional poverty. The Tinubu administration should apply lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic and strive to put measures in place to progressively realize the right to an adequate standard of living for all Nigerians.
- Draft and support legislation that recognizes Nigerians’ right to social security and other economic and social rights.
- Develop a national strategy to fulfill the right to social security, building on the federal government’s existing social protection policy.
- Review and harmonize existing domestic laws and policies with regional and international law standards on the right to an adequate standard of living, which encompasses adequate food, water, and housing.
- Ensure accountability and transparency for spending on social security.
4. Address the needs of internally displaced people.
The incoming administration has a duty to promote and protect the rights of people displaced by the conflict with Boko Haram and other crises across the country including banditry in the Northwest. The Nigerian government is obligated under regional and international law to meet the basic needs of internally displaced people and to seek lasting solutions to the problem of displacement by promoting pathways to voluntary return, local integration, or relocation in safe and dignified conditions.
A recent Human Rights Watch report documented that hastily arranged camp closures violated internally displaced people’s rights in Borno State, the epicenter of the Boko Haram conflict. Authorities did not consult with impacted people or provide them with adequate information or sustainable alternatives prior to the camp shutdowns, leaving thousands in desperate situations.
- Engage with the Borno State government to halt further camp closures until adequate alternatives are available to displaced people, and work with relevant state authorities and the humanitarian community to explore and provide durable solutions for displaced people.
- Ensure adequate provision of necessities including food, water, and shelter for internally displaced people.
- Ensure that relocations and returns of all displaced people are guided by the African Union’s Kampala Convention, the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the National Policy on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and other applicable standards.
5. Create a foreign policy that centers human rights.
Recent unconstitutional changes in government and a slow transition from military to civilian governance in Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso cast a pall over the future strength of constitutional democracies in West Africa. The manipulation of constitutions by incumbent presidents to increase or extend term limits may lead to the violation of the rights and will of the people.
Across the region, authorities need to balance combating armed Islamist insurgencies with counterterrorism operations that respect fundamental rights. The Nigerian military and security forces have acted as judge, jury, and executioner in response to the trauma and brutality of terrorist attacks on civilians in the region. This undermines criminal justice processes, subverts the rule of law, and is contrary to international human rights law.
- Issue a declaration recognizing the competence of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to receive cases from non-government organizations and individuals.
- Support efforts by ECOWAS and the African Union to restore constitutional order in Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso, including the need to hold those responsible for coups accountable based on the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
- Champion justice and accountability for serious crimes such as the Karma massacre in Burkina Faso and the Moura massacre in Mali, including the arrest and prosecution of those responsible in domestic courts and in the International Criminal Court when domestic measures are not effective.
- Prevail on countries in the region and the wider continent to enshrine greater respect for rights.
- Urge ECOWAS Heads of State to respect presidential term limits in national constitutions.
- Ensure justice and military responses to terrorism in the region conform with respect for the rule of law and human rights.