Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Human Rights Developments

Human rights, pro-democracy, and labor activists were imprisoned; press freedom was restricted; and the powers of the judiciary were severely circumscribed in Nigeria as military rule extended into the twenty-seventh year out of the country's thirty-five years of independence. General Sani Abacha, who seized power in November 1993, announced on October 1, Nigeria's independence day, that he would remain in power until 1998, fueling skepticism in Nigeria and internationally about the military's promise of a transition to democracy. With the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists on November 10, the Abacha government demonstrated its utter contempt for the rule of law.

The closed trials of some fifty alleged coup plotters, including former Head of State General Olusegun Obasanjo and former Deputy Head of State Major-General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, by a seven-man military tribunal, exemplified the progressive disintegration of the rule of law throughout the country. Most of the defendants were detained incommunicado and without charge between March 1995 and the start of the trials in early June 1995. They were denied access to independent and freely chosen legal counsel, although they had the option to be represented by armed forces personnel with legal training. In late July, forty of the defendants, who included active and retired military personnel as well as civilians, were convicted and sentenced, some to varying terms of imprisonment and others to the death penalty. The tribunal's decision was not subject to review by a higher court, but only to confirmation by the Provisional Ruling Council. On October 1, General Abacha announced that the Provisional Ruling Council would commute the sentences of those defendants who had been sentenced to death. Critics of the Abacha government claimed that the government "fabricated" the coup crisis to perpetuate its tenure; the government produced no compelling evidence that a coup attempt actually occurred.

Chief Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election, also remained in detention under harsh conditions in late 1995, notwithstanding his deteriorating health. In April 1995, Abiola agreed to a conditional release on terms proposed by General Abacha. These terms included confinement to his house, a ban on future political activities, and a prohibition against leaving the country. However, Abacha later reneged on his promise on the ground that the courts were adjudicating Abiola's case. Although Abiola was charged with treason after he proclaimed himself president in late June 1994, his trial has been adjourned indefinitely.

Most of the draconian decrees promulgated by the Abacha government in the fall of 1994 remained in force throughout 1995. These decrees banned independent publications that criticized the government, dissolved the governing bodies of the trade unions, and limited the scope of judicial authority by, for example, permitting the administrative detention of persons deemed to present a "security risk" for renewable periods of three months and suspending the right of habeas corpus. The government also promulgated the Money Laundering Decree of 1995, which gave government officials the authority to tap telephone lines, monitor bank accounts, intercept mail, and access computer systems to prevent drug trafficking and money laundering.

Although the Nigerian government renewed Decrees 6 and 7, which imposed additional six-month bans on The Punch and The Concord, in early June, these decrees were lifted on October 1. The government attempted to silence outspoken journalists in 1995, including George Mbah, the assistant editor of Tell magazine, who was arrested and detained on May 5, 1995, reportedly after he published an article about the alleged coup attempt in March 1995. Kunle Ajibade was detained on May 23, 1995, reportedly after he refused to reveal his sources for an article in The News magazine, which claimed that military panels of inquiry had found no evidence of a coup attempt. Chris Anyanwu, editor-in-chief of The Sunday Magazine, was arrested and detained in March 1995, released without charge, and subsequently rearrested in late May or early June. Ben Charles Obi, editor of Classique magazine, was arrested and detained on May 9, 1995. These individuals, who were subsequently convicted of involvement in the alleged coup, were originally sentenced to life imprisonment, but their sentences were commuted to fifteen years.

Throughout 1995, the trade unions were run by government-appointed administrators. Several trade union leaders, including Frank Kokori, Wariebi Kojo Agamene, Francis Addo, and Fidelis Aidelomon, were detained in August 1994 because of their involvement in the oil workers' strike for democracy and were still imprisoned at the end of the year.

Arrests and harassment of human rights and pro-democracy activists were commonplace throughout 1995. Both Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, chairman of the Campaign for Democracy (CD), and Femi Falana, chairman of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, were arrested on January 12, 1995. Both were released on January 20. Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, secretary-general of the CD, was arrested on January 17. At the time of this writing, he was still in incommunicado detention_notwithstanding a ruling by the Lagos High Court on May 25 that he should be unconditionally released. Shehu Sani, CD coordinator for Kaduna, was arrested on March 9; he also remained in detention.

As the second anniversary of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election approached, the Abacha government stepped up arrests of human rights and pro-democracy activists at an alarming rate, presumably in an effort to stifle criticism. On June 3, 1995, State Security Service (SSS) members broke up a meeting of the Democratic Alternative (DA), and arrested and detained without charge DA President Alao Aka-Bashorun and Dr. Onje Gye-Wado, a member of its National Coordinating Committee. Those activists who were arrested and detained without charge in the week preceding the anniversary included Olisa Agbakoba, president of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), CLO campaign officer Tunde Akanni, Femi Falana, and Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti. Most of these individuals were released shortly after June 12.

General Abacha's announcement on June 27, 1995 that he was lifting a ban on political activity generated hope that arrests of government opponents would diminish. On July 3, however, the SSS arrested and detained Chief Gani Fawehinmi, National Coordinator of the National Conscience Party and one of Nigeria's most prominent human rights lawyers, shortly after he had criticized the Abacha government at a press conference. Fawehinmi was released on July 18, the same day that the SSS arrested Chima Ubani, secretary-general of the DA. As of this writing, Ubani remained in detention.

In late July, the SSS arrested Abdul Oroh, the executive director of the CLO, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, and Dr. Tunji Abayomi, the chairman of Human Rights Africa and legal counsel to General Olusegun Obasanjo. These arrests appeared to be in response to a protest letter these individuals wrote to General Abacha which was published in Nigeria's This Day magazine on July 21, 1995. Abayomi was arrested following a press conference in his chambers, at which he alleged that the government had no concrete evidence of a coup plot.

Arrests of members of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), which includes politicians, retired military officials, and pro-democracy figures who support Abiola's installation as president, as well as other government opponents were commonplace in 1995. Those held as of this writing included NADECO General Secretary Ayo Opadokun and Acting General Secretary Wale Osun. Abiola's personal physician, Dr. Ore Falomo, was detained on April 20, apparently because he publicized his concerns about Abiola's deteriorating health and harsh conditions of imprisonment; Falomo was later released.

Human rights violations in Ogoniland, an oil-rich area in southeastern Nigeria, were particularly severe in 1995. The Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, has been at the forefront of the confrontation between the indigenous communities of the Niger Delta, the oil companies, and the government. Like other communities in oil-producing areas, the Ogoni contend that multinational oil companies, particularly the Shell Petroleum Development Company, with the active cooperation of the Nigerian government, have ravaged their land and contaminated their rivers, while providing little, if any, tangible benefit in return. In the wake of the May 21, 1994 murders by a mob of four Ogoni leaders who had been branded as pro-government, the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force embarked on a series of punitive raids on Ogoni villages. These raids were characterized by flagrant human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shooting, arbitrary arrests and detention, floggings, rapes, looting, and extortion. The security forces continued to arbitrarily arrest, detain, and beat Ogoni civilians in 1995. In late July, security agents raided and sealed the MOSOP office in Port Harcourt.

Shortly after the May 1994 murders, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ogoni activists Ledum Mitee, Barinem Kiobel, John Kpuinen, and Baribor Bera were detained. On February 6, 1995, the prosecution charged them with four counts of murder at the first session of the special tribunal established expressly to hear their case. The eight-month delay in filing charges in the case, in conjunction with the procedural irregularities that characterized the trials_including the presence on the tribunal of an active member of the armed forces, the highly militarized tribunal premises, and the lack of any provision for independent review_strongly suggested that the charges were politically motivated. On March 28, the special tribunal assumed jurisdiction over the cases of ten additional defendants, all of whom were formally charged on April 7 with the murders of the Ogoni leaders.

In the face of increasing evidence of the tribunal's bias against the defendants, the original defense team withdrew from all the cases by mid-July 1995 in order to avoid legitimizing the proceedings before the tribunal. The immediate impetus behind their withdrawal was the tribunal's refusal to admit into evidence a videotape or transcript of a government press conference on May 22, 1994, the day after the murders, where Lieutenant-Colonel Komo, the military administrator of Rivers State, accused MOSOP of carrying out the murders. The videotape also includes a statement by A. M. Kobani, a prosecution witness, which contradicts his testimony in the case against Saro-Wiwa, Mitee, Kiobel, Kpuinen, and Bera, in several material respects. The defense team intended to use Kobani's earlier statement to undermine his credibility.

At least one of the defense lawyers subsequently employed by the government Legal Aid Council also resigned, reportedly after being denied access to Ken Saro-Wiwa. Security agents made the representation process even more difficult when they confiscated important files and videotapes from the MOSOP office in Port Harcourt and then sealed the premises.

In late October, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Barinem Kiobel, John Kpunien, Baribor Bera, Saturday Dobee, Felix Nwate, Nordu Eawo, Paul Levura, and Daniel Gbokoo were convicted and sentenced to death; the remaining defendants were acquitted. On November 8, the Provisional Ruling Council confirmed the sentences of those convicted. Despite world appeals for clemency, all nine defendants were executed by hanging in Port Harcourt on November 10. The executions underscored General Abacha's complete disregard for human rights and international law.

The Right to Monitor
Despite severe constraints on their activities and a persistent government campaign of arrest and harassment of their staff, Nigerian human rights groups continued to document and publicize abuses due to the courage and commitment of their local activists. The Constitutional Rights Project (CRP) and the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) engaged in fact-finding and documentation of human rights abuses throughout the country, filed cases in national courts, and in some cases filed petitions with international treaty bodies. Both the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDHR) and the Nigerian Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADL) also filed cases in national courts. CDHR supplemented its litigation efforts by publishing and distributing leaflets to generate increased awareness of human rights developments and by organizing symposia and rallies to promote human rights and democracy. The Legal Research and Resources Development Center acted as a clearinghouse for human rights reports and documentation from local and international NGOs, published human rights education materials in easy-to-understand English and local languages, and trained paralegals to use these materials in reaching out to deal with the concerns of local communities. The Port Harcourt Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law continued to develop its network of paralegals, who educated local communities in southeastern Nigeria about their rights, provided legal advice and assistance, monitored governmental accountability, and documented abuses. The Nigerian branch of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) filed cases in national courts, organized educational programs, and undertook community organizing. The Campaign for Democracy and the Democratic Alternative were involved in community organizing and political consciousness-raising throughout the country, with a view to sustained mass political action.

The Role of the International Community
The defeat of a resolution on Nigeria at the February 1995 session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was an indication of the divided sentiments of the international community with respect to human rights abuses in Nigeria. The draft resolution advocated a return to democratic rule and called upon the Nigerian government to reinstitute the right of habeas corpus, release political detainees, restore press freedom, lift arbitrarily imposed travel restrictions, and respect the rights of trade unionists. The resolution was rejected by twenty-one votes to seventeen, with fifteen abstentions; while most Western countries supported the resolution, most African and Southeast Asian nations opposed it. In meetings with Nigerian officials, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the human rights situation in Nigeria.

The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists on November 10 provoked a strong reaction from the international community. The U.S., Britain, and other countries withdrew their ambassadors. The Commonwealth countries, which were meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, suspended Nigeria's membership_the first time such an action had been taken. The Commonwealth set a two-year deadline for the Nigerian government to restore democracy and constitutional rule or face expulsion. Nelson Mandela, speaking at the Commonwealth summit, called the executions a "heinous act." The European Commission suspended development cooperation with Nigeria and recalled its head of delegation. Britain announced a total ban on arms sales. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) condemned Nigeria for the executions as did U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector lending arm of the World Bank, was considering a loan of US$100 million plus $50 million in equity to an entity called "Nigerian LNG, Ltd." for the construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in southeastern Nigeria and a gas pipeline through the Niger delta to the northern part of the country. The direct recipient of the funds would have been the Shell Petroleum Development Company (the Nigerian subsidiary of Royal Dutch/Shell), which is involved in a joint venture with the Nigerian government, Elf, and Agip. After the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists on November 10, the IFC decided against the project. On November 15, however, Shell announced that the project would go forward.

During the summer, a delegation of the Commonwealth visited Nigeria and met with representatives of the government, the business sector, and nongovernmental organizations. Upon their return, the leader of the delegation, former Canadian Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald, confirmed that the team had found evidence of repression, including a lack of judicial independence and deteriorating prison conditions.

The European Union
On July 14, 1993, the European Political Cooperation (the foreign ministers of the European Community) issued a statement on Nigeria in which the European Community and its member states agreed to suspend military cooperation, suspend visits by members of the Nigerian military and intelligence services, and impose visa restrictions for members of the Nigerian military, security forces, and their families. In early December 1993, the E.U. reiterated these measures and further recommended travel restrictions for all military staff of Nigerian diplomatic missions; case-by-case review, with a presumption of denial, for all new export license applications for defense equipment; cancellation of training courses for all Nigerian military personnel; case-by-case review of new E.U. aid projects; and suspension of all non-essential high-level visits to and from Nigeria. In late 1995 numerous E.U. member states called for clemency for the alleged coup plotters who had been sentenced to death.

The measures adopted by the E.U. have been selectively enforced. The European Development Fund has promised substantial assistance to Nigeria, including funds for export promotion, hard currency facilities for the government, as well as aid to the telecommunications industry, news agencies, and universities.

Although the United Kingdom has endorsed virtually all the measures adopted by both the European Political Cooperation and the E.U., the British government has evaded many of the above-mentioned restrictions in practice. In September 1995, British Prime Minister John Major met in London with Chief Ernest Shonekan, General Abacha's predecessor as president, in apparent defiance of visa restrictions. Moreover, notwithstanding the U.K.'s endorsement of the provision for case-by-case review of export license applications for defense equipment, the British government has issued at least thirty export licenses for military equipment since January 1, 1994. The president of the British Board of Trade has described all of this equipment as "non-lethal," although he refused to disclose the precise nature of the equipment. The U.K. is also reportedly completing delivery of eighty Vickers tanks pursuant to a contract executed in 1991. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not deny that weapons shipments have taken place since December 1993 pursuant to export licenses granted prior to the imposition of restrictions.

On October 12, the European Parliament called on the European Commission and the European Council to suspend the application of the Lomé Convention to Nigeria without delay, based on human rights concerns; this step would restrict aid and privileged access to E.U. export markets. The European Parliament also called on Commonwealth nations not to invite representatives of the present Nigerian government to the November 1994 Commonwealth meeting as an act of protest.

To protest the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists on November 10, the European Commission announced it was suspending development cooperation with Nigeria and recalling its head of delegation. Fifteen individual member states had already withdrawn their envoys.

United States Policy
Nigeria assumes considerable importance in U.S. policy, due to the country's size and importance on the African continent, its vast natural resources, and its economic potential. The U.S. has $3.9 billion invested in Nigeria, primarily in the petroleum sector. Since the annulment of the 1993 election, the Clinton administration has made strong public declarations condemning the Abacha government and has undertaken policy initiatives intended to facilitate a transition to democracy in Nigeria and to promote human rights. However, the Nigerian government appears to have been impervious to this pressure. Throughout most of 1995, U.S. diplomatic efforts focused primarily on the fate of the alleged coup plotters, with the exception of intermittent references in some public statements to broader human rights concerns. The U.S. embassy occasionally sent representatives to observe the trials of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists.

In response to the annulment, the U.S. canceled all foreign assistance to Nigeria, with the exception of humanitarian aid. In fiscal year 1995, U.S. aid to Nigeria amounted to $13.5 million, for projects concerning health, population, child survival, and democratization. The U.S. also ended all government-to-government military assistance and training, except counternarcotics training, requested the withdrawal of the Nigerian military attaché from the U.S., withdrew the U.S. security assistance officer, and suspended travel to Nigeria by the U.S. defense attaché. Since July 1993, when the U.S. announced that military sales would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, with the presumption of denial, the U.S. has granted less than twenty applications for export licenses for non-lethal defense equipment.

In response to Abacha's coup in November 1993, the Clinton Administration suspended the entry into the U.S. of "immigrants and nonimmigrants who formulate or implement policies impeding a transition to democracy in Nigeria or who benefit from such policies, and the immediate families of such persons." The practical impact of these provisions has been reduced because they are waived for Nigerian government officials who seek to enter the U.S. for the purpose of attending meetings of international organizations, although the movements of such officials are restricted during their visits. In April 1994, President Clinton decertified Nigeria for its failure to control illegal drug trafficking, which meant that the U.S. was precluded from granting any foreign aid to Nigeria and from supporting Nigerian applications for loans from international lending institutions. All of the above policies remained in effect in 1995.

In 1995 President Clinton appointed a special emissary, Donald F. McHenry, who reportedly undertook at least five secret missions to Nigeria in an effort to expedite the transition to democracy and improve U.S.-Nigerian relations. General Abacha's prolonged transition timetable suggests that McHenry's efforts were at best marginally successful. Senior State Department and White House officials severely criticized the trials of the alleged coup plotters. In August, President Clinton reportedly warned General Abacha that a decision to execute the alleged coup plotters would have serious consequences for U.S.-Nigerian relations.

In response to General Abacha's October 1 statement, the White House issued a press statement criticizing the length of the proposed transition program as well as the government's failure to provide for significant civilian participation in national decision-making in any transitional government. The statement went on to welcome the decision to commute the death sentences of the alleged coup plotters, but called upon the Nigerian government to provide prompt clarification of their status. The statement also reiterated earlier calls for the prompt and unconditional release of political detainees and for an open appeal process for those convicted in secret trials.

After the execution of the Ogoni activists on November 10, the White House issued a statement strongly condemning the executions, stating that they "demonstrate to the world the Abacha regime's flouting of even the most basic international norms and universal standards of human rights." In addition to protesting the executions, President Clinton decided to recall Ambassador Carrington from Lagos for consultations; to ban the sale and repair of military goods and provisions of related services to Nigeria; to extend the ban on visas to include all military officers and civilians who actively formulate, implement, or benefit from the policies that impede Nigeria's transition to democracy; and to require Nigerian government officials visiting the U.N. or the international financial institutions to remain within twenty-five miles of those organizations.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Africa
Human Rights Watch/Africa issued numerous press releases denouncing arrests of human rights and pro-democracy activists, and wrote General Abacha in June to call for clemency for the coup suspects who had been sentenced to death. Also in June, Human Rights Watch/Africa sent letters to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights; the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, and Arbitrary Executions; and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of the Judiciary urging them to appeal promptly to the Nigerian government to prevent the arbitrary execution of the alleged coup plotters.

Based on a fact-finding mission to southeastern Nigeria in February, Human Rights Watch/Africa issued a report entitled The Ogoni Crisis: A Case-Study of Military Repression in Southeastern Nigeria. This report focused on the most recent phase of the crackdown in the Ogoni area, which began in late May 1994. Human Rights Watch/Africa used the report to encourage Royal Dutch/Shell and other multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria to adhere to a set of basic human rights principles in the course of their business operations. The report also comprised the basis of submissions to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the U.N. Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Letters to General Abacha in April and October protested the unfair trials of Ogoni activists charged with the May 1994 murders of four Ogoni leaders and called for them to be retried before and independent and impartial tribunal. After the execution of the last Ogoni activists on November 10, letters were sent to the European Union, the Security Council, and the multinational oil companies recommending various actions to be taken to isolate the military government of Nigeria.

Human Rights Watch/Africa provided information about human rights developments in Nigeria to the U.S. and international press, governments, and intergovernmental organizations. In July, Human Rights Watch/Africa testified on Nigeria before the Africa Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Human Rights Watch/Africa also participated in coalitions of nongovernmental organizations working on Nigeria in Washington, London, Dusseldorf, and Amsterdam.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page