Role of Nigeria’s International Partners

Since 1999, Nigeria’s foreign partners have generally failed to apply meaningful pressure on the Nigerian government to end patterns of human rights abuse or make government more accountable. In urging adherence to basic standards of human rights or good governance, Nigeria's key diplomatic allies have routinely set the bar so low that the Nigerian government can clear it without registering any meaningful improvement. This problem has been most obvious during each of the elections Nigeria has held since returning to civilian rule. But the problem is not limited to elections: the polls simply provide a window onto a political system whose built-in incentives for violence and abuse are reinforced every time an election is stolen. If left unchecked, that system will both further embolden perpetrators and likely generate more frequent and serious human rights abuses over time.

In 1999, the international community largely welcomed the results of polls that were widely condemned by international and local observers, the independent press, and the opposition as being marred by widespread fraud. Officials explained their uncritical embrace of the badly flawed process by articulating a fear that criticism could destabilize Nigeria’s transition away from military rule. Nigeria’s 2003 elections were by all accounts more fraudulent and more violent than those of 1999 but again drew only muted criticism from Nigeria’s foreign partners.373 The United States government, for example, responded to the 2003 rigged elections with a statement that read “[t]he United States congratulates the people of Nigeria for what was largely a peaceful expression and exercise of their right to vote.”374 European and African governments, along with the European Union and African Union, also offered no meaningful public criticism of the polls.

The International Response to Nigeria’s 2007 Elections

Several of Nigeria’s key allies took a more robust rhetorical position in advance of the 2007 polls than they had in previous years. The United Kingdom publicly insisted that the elections mark some improvement over the 2003 process and stated that anything less would be “unacceptable.”375 Officials from other Western governments echoed these sentiments albeit in less forceful terms. However, US and European officials were reluctant to spell out what their insistence on improvement would mean should the Nigerian government simply ignore it. Months before the polls, one British official told Human Rights Watch that, “Nigeria can’t take for granted our response to the outcome of the elections.”376 But in the absence of any clearly articulated consequences, the Nigerian government appeared to do precisely that, and in the end, was proven right.

The disastrous direction in which Nigeria’s 2007 electoral process was heading was clear to many observers well ahead of the polls. Nearly two months before the elections, one official with an international organization that fielded an election monitoring team told Human Rights Watch that, “It’s either the most brazen attempt to rig I’ve ever seen or a combination of ineptitude, outright contempt for the people and disregard for the democratic process…This election, you can already call it.”377

Nigeria's foreign partners were unwilling to criticize the well publicized problems in organizing the process or even forcefully demand that the Nigerian government attempt to put things back on track. One western diplomatic source acknowledged to Human Rights Watch during the run-up to the polls that “there has probably not been nearly enough of that [criticism in response to early indications that the elections would be rigged] going on” from the US side.378 Another Abuja-based diplomat acknowledged prior to the elections that, “most heads of mission here are just not saying anything.”379

On the day of Nigeria’s fraudulent state elections, one Port Harcourt-based activist told Human Rights Watch:

In the midst of all the lies and corruption going on here many people still have some hope in the international community. So they must speak out about these elections…A lot of people are waiting to see what the international community will say about all of this; it is important to us.380

Unfortunately, while the response of key foreign allies to the failed polls was more robust than in 2003 it remained muted and devoid of real consequence. The United States issued a terse statement expressing “regret” at the “seriously flawed”381 polls, but has not followed this up with any further public criticism or specific demands for reform or accountability. Washington’s inaction has been mirrored by the conduct of European governments. The EU’s own election observation mission described the polls as “not credible” and issued a scathing report, but individual European governments did not echo that forthright criticism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Yar’Adua to the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany on 6-8 June 2007—just a week after his inauguration—where he was received without any public word of criticism or concern.

The key contribution of Western governments was to field election observer teams that universally issued well documented and scathing reports on the polls. But some governments seemed reluctant to accept the conclusions of their own observers. Election observers with the EU Election Observation Mission told Human Rights Watch that the first reaction to their reports in Brussels was displeasure at their harsh conclusions and mild pressure that they be watered down.382

Nigeria's African partners were even less critical. Neither the AU nor ECOWAS made any public statements of concern in the run-up to the 2007 polls. Their comments after the rigged elections made no mention of the violence, corruption and disenfranchisement that characterized the new government's path to power. The ECOWAS observer team described Nigeria’s violent and fraudulent state elections as “relatively fair and peaceful.”383 After the Presidential elections, President Mbeki of South Africa was the first foreign head of state to publicly congratulate Yar'Adua on his victory.

The international willingness to embrace the results of what has been widely described as the most fraudulent election in Nigerian history shocked many Nigerians and international observers alike. One professor at the University of Port Harcourt described the uncritical reaction from Nigeria’s foreign partners after the first round of voting as “very sad,” adding that, “[i]t gives room for some kind of despondency.”384 An official with an international observer mission told Human Rights Watch after the polls that, “I never thought the international community could be so duped—duped willingly.”385

International Engagement with the Yar’Adua Government

The international community’s largely uncritical acceptance of the openly rigged 2007 polls leaves its members in a weaker position than they might have been in dealing with the Yar’Adua government. Since Western demands for reform ahead of the April polls proved hollow, many Nigerian officials may see little reason to take future demands seriously. Nonetheless, there remains ample room for constructive use of international pressure to bring about reform. President Yar’Adua himself has acknowledged that “we have to face a very serious challenge both internationally and locally, as regards the outcome of the general election.”386

Making that “challenge” a reality for the Nigerian government is crucial for the credibility of the stated goal of Western governments to promote democracy on the continent. Without a coherent response to such a flagrant flaunting of the democratic rights of Nigerians, Western human rights policy towards Africa is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

There are several steps that could be taken to signal a change in attitude towards issues of human rights and democratization in Nigeria. From now, the country’s foreign partners should set several indispensable, yet reasonable benchmarks necessary to improve the chances for free and fair elections in 2011. They should follow-up by articulating clear and meaningful policy consequences that will follow if Nigeria fails to adhere to these benchmarks for progress. The first of these benchmarks should include urgent action to reconstitute INEC into a more transparent, inclusive and genuinely independent body. Nigeria’s partners could also go some way towards making amends for their timid response to the 2007 polls by urging a public inquiry into abuses committed in connection with those polls and serious investigations into future cases of corruption and abuse.

Nigeria’s foreign partners should also insist on the passage and robust implementation of basic reforms such as Nigeria’s long-delayed Freedom of Information Bill; enhanced independence for the EFCC; and reform of Nigeria’s corrupt, abusive and overly politicized police force. Nigeria’s government should be pressed to end the impunity that continues to surround flagrant acts of corruption and human rights abuse attributed to state governors and other high-ranking officials, and foreign countries should make it harder for corrupt officials to hide the proceeds of corruption in bank accounts abroad. More straightforward but equally important, Nigeria’s foreign partners should speak out forcefully on serious human rights abuses where they do occur.

Such initiatives could signal the beginning of a break with business as usual in relations with Nigeria, help generate momentum for change, and lend moral support to the efforts of Nigerians working to transform their country. But to date there has been no clear sign that the relationships between Nigeria’s new government and its foreign partners will be anything other than business as usual. US Undersecretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer publicly warned Congress against doing anything to “isolate”387 Nigeria in response to the elections, but in fact US policy has remained firmly fixed at the opposite extreme. In this Washington mirrors the stance adopted by Nigeria’s other key foreign partners in Africa and Europe.

373 See for example, “Final Report on the National Assembly, Presidential, Gubernatorial and State Houses of Assembly Elections,” European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM), (accessed March 12, 2007), p. 28.

374 Statement on Nigerian Elections by the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House, May 2, 2003. African governments and the AU offered no criticism of the elections.

375 Human Rights Watch interviews with UK diplomatic officials, Abuja, August 2006 and February 26, 2007.


377 Human Rights Watch interview with international election monitoring team leader [name withheld], Abuja, February 20, 2007.

378 Human Rights Watch interview with Western diplomat [name withheld], Abuja, February 20, 2007.

379 Human Rights Watch interview with Head of Western diplomatic mission, [name withheld], Abuja, February 21, 2007.

380 Human Rights Watch interview with Damka Pueba, Port Harcourt, April 14, 2007.

381 “Nigeria’s Elections,” United States Department of State Press Statement, April 27, 2007, (accessed July 16, 2007).

382 Human Rights Watch interview with EU observer missions staff, April 25 and 27, 2007.

383 “ECOWAS: Nigerian Polls Relatively Free,” Agence France-Presse, April 16, 2007.

384 Human Rights Watch interview with Ben Naanen, Port Harcourt, April 16, 2007.

385 Human Rights Watch interview, May 14, 2007.

386 “PDP Launches Fresh Move to Pacify Opposition’ by Umaru Henry and Paul Odenyi,” The Guardian June 26, 2007.

387 Ike Nnamadi, “US urged to withhold election assistance,” Daily Sun, June 26, 2007.