Role of Nigeria’s Federal Government

Many activists and ordinary Nigerians with whom Human Rights Watch has spoken have described the situation in the country since the return to civilian rule in 1999 as one of betrayal. As described in this report, many of Nigeria’s worst human rights problems have become deeply entrenched over the past eight years along with the openly corrupt, abusive and criminal conduct of many government and political party officials. Government at all levels denies ordinary Nigerians a genuine voice in selecting their leaders, fails to protect the populace from the violence linked to power struggles between members of the political elite, and has been selective and ineffectual in combating the corruption and mismanagement that have led government to fail in meeting some of its most basic human rights obligations. During the Obasanjo administration, the limited and inconsistent efforts to address corruption and improve governance had little impact curtailing abuses.

Challenges and Possibilities

If President Yar’Adua’s government is to succeed where its predecessor failed, it will need to implement a broadly based and persistent reform effort. This is a daunting and long term task, but there are some discreet and relatively straightforward policy steps the administration could undertake that could generate momentum towards more far reaching reforms and real benefit for the Nigerian population. Human Rights Watch’s recommendations to the Nigerian government and international community are set forth at the beginning of this report.

As a first and very important step, the Yar’Adua government must acknowledge the genuine problem before it, which is not primarily one of imperfect institutions, but rather a failure of those in power to obey existing laws or ensure accountability for politically motivated offenses. It may be unrealistic to expect President Yar’Adua to publicly acknowledge the extent to which his own government’s election was the product of fraud and abuse, but if his administration’s response to Nigeria’s crisis of governance is to be meaningful and far-reaching, it must at least implicitly take that reality into account. The problems that derailed the 2007 elections are the same problems that have crippled the capacity of Nigeria’s government and left it riddled with corruption and abuse.

The Yar’Adua government must also undertake an impartial and comprehensive inquiry into the most serious allegations of corruption and human rights abuses implicating elected officials at all levels of government since the return to civilian rule. Evidence of criminal wrongdoing by politicians and government officials should result in criminal investigations. In particular, the Yar’Adua government should set a new tone by responding to credible allegations of corruption and political violence by government officials with criminal investigations and, where warranted, prosecutions.

President Yar’Adua’s reformation of two key institutions that were central to securing the widespread PDP victories will be a crucial undertaking. In 2007 Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) discredited itself by trying to force opponents of President Obasanjo off of the ballot papers and by enthusiastically embracing the fraudulent results of the process it had organized. Nigeria’s federal police force and the EFCC have also suffered devastating blows to their effectiveness and credibility. The EFCC’s reputation was so badly tarnished during the election that the International Crisis Group called for a moratorium on all EFCC prosecutions until the institution’s independence and neutrality could be guaranteed.367 These and other institutions are in need of effective and comprehensive reform. But the best way to improve upon the integrity of the police, INEC, the EFCC and other institutions is to make it impossible for those in government to attempt to subvert those institutions with impunity.

The administration of President Yar’Adua will face daunting challenges should it seek to tackle the corruption, violence and impunity deeply rooted in Nigeria’s governance. President Yar’Adua came into office with a reputation for personal probity relative to other Nigerian politicians. Nonetheless, as described above, during Yar’Adua’s tenure as governor in Katsina State his administration sponsored groups that carried out political violence in support of the PDP.368 In the 2007 elections, Yar’Adua rode to power on the back of elections in which violence and fraud ensured victory for the ruling party. Seriously addressing the patterns of corruption, violence, and impunity at the heart of Nigeria’s governance crisis could be perceived as weakening the very foundations of the PDP’s hold on power by rewriting the rules of a game in which it has been the dominant player.

Signs of Reform

Since being sworn into office on May 29, 2007 President Yar’Adua made some encouraging gestures of respect for the rule of law and the notion of transparency in government. When Nigeria’s Supreme Court overturned the gubernatorial election of powerful PDP candidate Andy Uba in Anambra State, Yar’Adua made no effort to interfere with the implementation of that ruling. In July 2007, Yar’Adua gave a nod to demands for increased transparency by publicly declaring the value of his private assets.369 That gesture aroused no small degree of concern among some other elected officials who found themselves questioned by the Nigerian press about their reasons for failing to follow the president’s example.370

President Yar’Adua has publicly acknowledged that the elections that brought him to power were “not perfect” and contained “lapses and shortcomings.”371 He also promised to make a priority out of reforming the country’s electoral institutions, calling it a “national duty” to “raise the standard and quality of the conduct of our general elections.”372 To this end, the president convened a 22-member Electoral Reform Panel which is due to report back to him with recommendations within one year. The panel’s membership includes numerous widely-respected members of civil society, former judges and government representatives.

Yar’Adua has also promised to strengthen the capacity, independence and integrity of Nigeria’s police force and other institutions. Signs of the Nigerian judiciary’s independence and integrity in high-profile political cases have continued to present themselves since Yar’Adua’s inauguration. Yar’Adua has stated that respect for the rule of law will form a pillar of his administration.

In and of themselves such gestures along with limited promises of reform mark steps in the right direction. However, it is by its actions that the administration will be judged; deep and wide-reaching reforms are needed to transform the corruption, violence and abuse that have become part of daily politics in Nigeria.

367 International Crisis Group, “Failed Elections, Failing State?”

368 See above, Government Sponsorship of Political Thugs in Katsina State.

369 The total value of Yar’Adua’s total assets was $5 million. See “Nigeria’s New Leader ‘Worth $5 million,” BBC News Online, June 29, 2007, (accessed July 17, 2007). Some commentators urged that Yar’Adua explain an alleged discrepancy of several million dollars between this figure and the value of the assets he declared upon assuming the office of Katsina Governor in 1999.

370 Emmanuel Aziken, “Senators Divided Over Yar’Adua Assets Declaration,” The Vanguard, July 1, 2007. As of the time of writing, no high-ranking government official at the federal level has followed Yar’Adua’s example.

371 Tom Ashby, “Yar'Adua takes helm of crisis-ridden Nigeria” Reuters, May 29, 2007. 

372 “Nigeria electoral chief slams local, foreign observers over polls”, BBC monitoring Africa, May 3, 2007.