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In most of the [polling] units, there were no elections-just a triumph of violence.
- Human rights activist and election observer, Rivers State, April 16, 2003.

Both Nigeria’s federal and state elections in 2003 and local government elections in 2004 were marred by serious incidents of violence, which left scores dead and many others injured. The scale of the violence and intimidation, much of which went unreported, called into question the credibility of these elections.

In April and May 2003, at least one hundred people were killed and many more injured during federal and state elections in Nigeria. The majority of serious abuses were perpetrated by members or supporters of the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In a number of locations, elections simply did not take place as groups of armed thugs linked to political parties and candidates intimidated and threatened voters in order to falsify results. The violence and climate of intimidation facilitated widespread fraud, invalidating the results of the elections in many areas. Nevertheless, the elections were hailed as peaceful by Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was re-elected, and were widely praised by foreign governments, including Nigeria’s key foreign allies. The 2003 elections were significant for Nigeria as the country’s first sustained transition from one civilian government to another.

One year later, local government elections took place across Nigeria on March 27, 2004. These elections too were characterized by serious violence and intimidation, as well as widespread fraud and rigging. There were reports of dozens of people killed before, during and after the local government elections. The impunity which protected those responsible for violence during the 2003 elections, especially politicians of the ruling PDP, has persisted. By failing to bring to justice those responsible for these crimes, the Nigerian government has effectively sent out the message that violence is an acceptable component of the conduct of elections.

The stage for this unacceptably high level of violence was set in the year leading up to Nigeria’s 2003 elections, during which hundreds of people were killed in political clashes or targeted killings, without any serious official response in terms of investigation and prosecution. Although government officials had publicly vowed to punish perpetrators of political violence in the pre-election period, it was clear by the time of the 2003 elections that these were empty statements. Most of the perpetrators from all sides of the political spectrum have escaped without facing justice. Broad international support for President Obasanjo, without pressure to ensure accountability for political violence, has favored this climate of impunity.

This report documents cases of electoral violence in 2003. It concentrates on incidents which occurred during the election period in April and May 2003, whereas earlier reports documented political violence in the preceding months.1 It also refers to incidents of violence reported around the 2004 local government elections, although most of Human Rights Watch’s detailed research was undertaken before those elections took place. The information in this report is drawn primarily from Human Rights Watch research carried out in Nigeria in 2003, with a particular focus on southern and southeastern states where there was the highest level of violence; it is supplemented with incidents documented by Nigerian human rights organizations and election observers. The report focuses on cases of physical violence and intimidation; it does not describe other forms of electoral abuses and fraud which have been documented extensively by national and international observers deployed during the elections.2 However, in many cases, it was easy to establish a direct link between the violence and the official results of the elections. The level of violence and intimidation, particularly in those areas which are the focus of this report, leads Human Rights Watch to conclude that at least in those locations, the election results cannot be considered meaningful or representative of the free will of voters.

The report exposes a pattern of impunity for violence committed, in particular, by the PDP. PDP members or supporters who were alleged to be responsible for abuses almost always escaped serious investigation or prosecution, or were released very soon after their arrest. In a typical case in which an opposition party member was killed by PDP supporters in Imo State, the perpetrators were reportedly heard “boasting that they will kill more people and nothing will happen, since they belong to the ruling P.D.P.”3

Political violence has not been the exclusive preserve of the PDP. Candidates and supporters of the larger opposition parties, including the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), the United Nigeria People’s Party (UNPP), and the Alliance for Democracy (AD), also carried out acts of violence in the pursuit of electoral victory. Furthermore, whenever violence was instigated by supporters of one party—whether the ruling party or the opposition—their opponents usually did not hesitate to respond in kind.

Human Rights Watch is publishing this report to highlight the cost of ignoring political violence and to urge all those concerned—in the first instance, the Nigerian government, the leadership of the political parties, and the security forces—to take measures to prevent violence in the next general elections in Nigeria scheduled for 2007. As a priority, Human Rights Watch is calling on the Nigerian authorities to bring to justice all perpetrators of electoral violence, regardless of their political affiliation. Election tribunals have been set up to consider the grievances of defeated candidates who want to challenge the outcome of the elections. However, these tribunals do not deal with cases of criminal violence, which fall within the remit of the regular court system.4

Attempts to sweep the 2003 election violence under the carpet will have long-term consequences for Nigeria. If the government continues to allow these crimes to go unpunished, those with political ambitions for the next elections will revert to the same tactics, knowing that they are unlikely to have to answer for their actions. This has already been demonstrated by the conduct of parties and candidates in the 2004 local government elections.

At the time of writing, many Nigerians are already contemplating the prospects for the 2007 elections, and candidates are actively preparing their ground. It is essential for the Nigerian government to act in good time to prevent further loss of life in 2007 and to ensure that the next elections are peaceful and fair. Human Rights Watch is urging the Nigerian government to put in place mechanisms for ensuring and enforcing accountability for political violence in advance of the 2007 elections, including the creation of a special task force to monitor and act on reports of incidents of violence and to work with the judicial authorities to ensure that those responsible for these acts are brought to justice.

This report also describes the weak international response to political violence during the Nigerian elections. Political and economic considerations related to Nigeria’s influence within Africa have made many international actors reluctant to criticize President Obasanjo’s human rights record. Statements by the United States and the United Kingdom governments issued in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 elections typified the strength of international support for President Obasanjo and a willingness to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. Yet Nigeria’s foreign partners have a critical role to play in urging the government to end impunity for political violence, and to remind it that failure to do so will not only significantly jeopardize the prospects for the 2007 elections, but will invalidate Nigeria’s attempts at democracy as a whole. It will also undermine its emerging influence within regional bodies such as the African Union and its leading role in initiatives such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

Human Rights Watch is appealing to foreign governments to address the issue of electoral violence explicitly with the Nigerian government by insisting that preventive strategies are in place before the 2007 elections, and by offering appropriate support and assistance. Governments or inter-governmental organizations sending delegations to observe future elections in Nigeria should train and encourage their observers to monitor and report on incidents of violence; they should base their assessments and public statements about the elections on these reports as well as on broader political and human rights developments monitored in the pre-election period.

[1] See Human Rights Watch report “Testing democracy: political violence in Nigeria,” April 2003, and Human Rights Watch briefing paper “Nigeria at the crossroads: human rights concerns in the pre-election Period,” January 2003.

[2] Several thousand election observers were deployed around the country in 2003, the majority by Nigerian civil society organizations, such as the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG, a coalition of Nigerian non-governmental organizations), the Justice, Development and Peace Commission (JDPC, linked to the Catholic Church), the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations of Nigeria and the Muslim League for Accountability (FOMWAN / MULAC), the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), and others. There were also several international observer delegations, as described elsewhere in this report.

[3] Letter to the Assistant Inspector General of Police, Umuahia, by Uche Osuji and Associates, acting on behalf of the relatives of Onyewuchi Iwu, who was killed on April 19, 2003, in Ikeduru local government, Imo State.

[4] On March 24, 2004, an election tribunal ruled that Governor Boni Haruna of Adamawa State had been elected fraudulently, and that fresh governorship elections should be held in Adamawa State. The governor, who had stood for the PDP, was reported to be intending to appeal against this decision – the first of its kind against a state governor.

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