WORLD REPORT 1999 - Nigeria

Human Rights Developments
The death of head of state Gen. Sani Abacha on June 8, 1998, brought to an abrupt end the discredited transition program that had apparently been designed for his self-succession as a civilian president, and brought the first hopes for several years of a genuinely elected government in Nigeria. New head of state Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar swiftly repealed the 1996 decrees bringing the Abacha program into existence and announced steps to hold fresh elections to install a civilian government at the end of May 1999. General Abubakar progressively released most civilian political prisoners, and announced that treason charges against some of those in exile (including Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka) would be withdrawn. However, decrees allowing detention without trial, suspending constitutional guarantees of human rights, and barring the courts from reviewing executive acts, remained in force. One month afterthe death of General Abacha, MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential elections, died in detention. Independent international pathologists who carried out a postmortem found no evidence of a cause of death other than heart disease, but his death was doubtless hastened by four years of incarceration without proper medical treatment.

Elections to state assemblies were held in December 1997, and to the national assembly in April 1998, under the Abacha transition program. Candidates were screened by the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON), by the State Security Service, and by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. Any candidate with connections to pro-democracy, human rights, or opposition groups was excluded. Turnout for the votes was very low. All five officially-sanctioned parties subsequently adopted General Abacha as their preferred presidential candidate for elections due in August, although by the time of his death Abacha had yet to declare his intentions formally.

Opposition figures who had refused to participate in Abacha’s transition responded more positively to the new program announced by General Abubakar, but concerns remained, including Abubakar’s endorsement of the draft constitution of 1995, prepared by a constitutional assembly that was not elected under free and fair conditions, and unpublished by General Abacha. Abubakar did then publish for discussion the constitution which was to come into effect when a civilian government took office. Human rights and pro-democracy activists also argued that any transition program under the control of the military could not lead to genuine elections, and that the new Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), despite its name, would necessarily remain subject to the military’s wishes. Accordingly, they called for a government of national unity to be established, including representatives from a range of groups opposed to military rule, to govern during the period leading to elections and to convene a “sovereign national conference” to draft a new constitution. Twenty-four political parties representing more mainstream politicians applied to the INEC to be registered.

A number of high-profile political prisoners were excluded from the releases ordered by General Abubakar during the weeks after he became head of state and remained in detention as of mid-October. They included military personnel convicted after unfair trials before military tribunals of involvement in alleged coup plots in 1990, 1995, and 1997, as well as civilians Niran Malaolu, a journalist convicted of involvement in the 1997 coup plot, and Turner Ogburu, convicted in connection with the 1990 coup plot and still in detention despite court orders for his release. Sheikh Ibrahim El Zak-Zaky, a radical Muslim leader, entered his third year in detention, charged with “publication of materials capable of undermining the security of the nation.” At least 163 bank executives remained in detention without charge under “failed bank” decrees passed by the Abacha government, although the government promised to review their cases. A number of close advisers of General Abacha were detained following his death, in connection with allegations of massive theft of government funds.

Decrees restricting freedom of expression remained in force, including the 1993 Offensive Publications (Proscription) and Newspapers decrees, although the new minister of information promised their review. The draft 1995 constitution included provision for a “mass media commission” to regulate the media, raising concerns over future restrictions on critical reporting. Prior to the death of General Abacha, journalists faced continual harassment from security forces, though the situation improved dramatically following his death. In August, a court ordered the federal government to pay 2.4 million (U.S.$28,235) compensation to Tell magazine in respect of 70,000 copies of the magazine seized in May 1993. However, a journalist was shot dead in a printer’s office in Enugu, eastern Nigeria, during the same month, by police who had come to arrest the printer. In August, the presidential task force on terrorism alleged that Bagauda Kaltho, a journalist missing since January 1996, had died in a bomb blast in Kaduna for which he was responsible. The publishers of News magazine, where Kaltho had worked, rejected this allegation, claiming that Kaltho might have died after being tortured in police custody.

Opposition rallies held before the death of General Abacha were routinely disrupted. Rallies held after Abacha’s death and in protest at the death of Chief Abiola were also broken up by police, with dozens of people arrested. Police warned prospective demonstrators that the Public Order Act requiring a police permit for assemblies was still in effect. In July, police also warned Muslim groups protesting the continued detention of El Zak-Zaky not to hold demonstrations; police shot dead five people taking part in demonstrations in support of El Zak-Zaky in Kaduna in September. In August, General Abubakar announced the repeal of decrees dissolving the national executives of unions in the oil sector and in universities and of the Nigerian Labour Congress, the union umbrella organization. Other decrees restricting the right to organize remained in force.

Nigerian citizens not actively involved in politics faced a consistent pattern of human rights violations both before and after the death of General Abacha. The security forces carried out summary executions and torture, and prison conditions remained life threatening. In July 1998 General Abubakar ordered the immediate release of prisoners held for extended periods on criminal charges without trial or held despite having completed the sentences handed down by the courts. Different state governments operated special task forces with names like “Operation Sweep” or “Operation Storm” that were among the most abusive units of the Nigerian security forces. Many of those arrested by these units were convicted of “armed robbery” before special tribunals which did not respect international standards; those found guilty were executed by firing squad without the right to appeal.

The rights of women in Nigeria were routinely violated. The Penal Code explicitly stated that assaults committed by a man on his wife were not an offence, if permitted by customary law and if “grievous hurt” was not inflicted. Marital rape was not a crime. Child marriages remained common, especially in northern Nigeria, with consequent serious health effects for children subjected to early pregnancy or to intercourse prior to sexual maturity. Women were denied equal rights in the inheritance of property; however, a landmark ruling from eastern Nigeria in September 1997 upheld a woman’s right to inherit her husband’s estate. It was estimated that about 60 percent of Nigerian women were subjected to female genital cutting. Child labor, especially in domestic work, often completely unpaid, remained common.

In Ogoniland, home of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), of which Ken Saro-Wiwa was leaderbefore his execution in November 1995, severe repression continued during 1998 until the death of General Abacha. The Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, created in response to the “Ogoni crisis,” summarily executed several people suspected of sympathy for MOSOP during raids carried out following MOSOP demonstrations, killing at least one after General Abubakar became head of state, and others were detained without trial. From September General Abubakar took progressive steps to relax security measures. Twenty Ogonis, held since 1994 on charges of murder before a special tribunal in connection with the same events as those for which Saro-Wiwa and eight others were hanged, were released in early September, and other detainees some days later. At the end of the month it was announced that the Task Force had been withdrawn from the region.

Elsewhere in the oil producing areas of the Niger Delta, police and soldiers responded to any threat of protest against oil company activity with arbitrary arrests, beatings, and sometimes killings. In May, about two hundred youths occupied an offshore platform belonging to Chevron, and closed down production. Soldiers killed two and injured another in the course of reoccupying the platform; Chevron later admitted transporting these troops. In July 1998 eleven youths protesting the failure of Mobil to pay compensation for damage caused by a major spill which took place in January were reportedly shot dead by police. Numerous other less serious incidents took place, and seemed to escalate, during the year.

Defending Human Rights
Nigeria’s numerous and sophisticated human rights groups continued their activities of monitoring, advocacy, and education throughout the year, despite routine harassment by the authorities, especially before the death of General Abacha. Officers of the State Security Service (SSS) visited the offices of human rights and independent news organizations to intimidate staff, destroy property and confiscate publications; human rights activists and journalists writing critically about the government were detained on a number of occasions; others were prevented from traveling abroad to attend international gatherings at which Nigeria was to be discussed. Following Abacha’s death, most human rights advocates and journalists in detention were released, and respect for the right to monitor significantly improved, though some activists still encountered problems in attempting to travel outside the country.

The government-appointed National Human Rights Commission, created in 1996, held or attended a number of meetings to discuss human rights issues, some of them arranged by nongovernmental human rights groups such as the Constitutional Rights Project. The commission also recommended reforms to the new head of state, General Abubakar, including the repeal of repressive decrees such as those allowing detention without charge.

The Role of the International Community
The international community’s weak and indecisive response to Abacha’s plans for “transition” remained unchanged until his death. General Abubakar’s taking power, the release of political prisoners, and the fresh transition program were greeted with relief. Representatives of multilateral bodies and individual states lined up to meet with the new head of state, and all indications were that sanctions in place against the Abacha regime would be lifted sooner rather than later. Indeed, many of the measures announced by General Abubakar—such as cooperation on drug enforcement issues or steps to address air safety—seemed designed for an international rather than a domestic audience, aimed at Nigeria’s reintegration into international diplomatic circles.

The Commonwealth
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) met at the end of October 1997 and voted to continue Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth, imposed in 1995, and the mandate of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). CMAG met in March 1998 and issued a statement expressing its concern at human rights violations and calling for respect for the 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration, committing Commonwealth members to democratic governance. The Commonwealth secretary-general, Emeka Anyaoku, a Nigerian himself, visited Nigeria from June 28 to July 2, 1998, and met with new head of state General Abubakar. He was criticized by human rights groups for allegedly putting pressure on Chief Abiola to accept a conditional release from detention, but denied these charges. Meeting for the first time since Abacha’s death, on October 8 and 9, CMAG heard representations from Nigeria’s new foreign minister, Ignatius Olisemeka; recommended that member states begin to lift sanctions against Nigeria; and decided to assess progress in Nigeria following presidential elections at the end of February 1999, with a view to making recommendations regarding Nigeria’s full return to the Commonwealth.

Canada, consistently the most outspoken member of CMAG, took the first steps to restoring diplomatic links broken in 1996, when Secretary of State for Africa David Kilgour visited Nigeria in September and offered financial and technical assistance for the elections, as did other Commonwealth members and the Commonwealth Secretariat.

United Nations
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was one of the first leaders to meet with General Abubakar. Like Anyaoku, he was criticized for appearing to suggest that a conditional release for Chief Abiola would be acceptable. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson issued statements welcoming General Abubakar’s announcement of the release of political prisoners, and hoping that pledges of respect for human rights would soon turn to reality. The U.N. also offered technical assistance for the elections.

The Abacha government did not allow the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Nigeria, Soli Sorabjee, entry to Nigeria. His 1998 reports were therefore based on information gathered outside the country. The report to the Commission on Human Rights concluded that “widespread violation of human rights occurs in Nigeria,” that “the Nigerian legal system does not currently provide effective protection of human rights,” and that “the rule of law does not prevail in Nigeria,” as well as detailinga range of specific abuses. The commission voted to continue his mandate for a further year. In September, it was announced that the special rapporteur would be allowed access to the country.

In April, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights considered Nigeria’s first report on its implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and, regretting its poor quality, noted numerous grave violations. The committee stated that the restoration of democracy and the rule of law were prerequisites for the implementation of the covenant, and called for the Nigerian government to address a range of abuses, including violations of labor rights, violence and discrimination against women and children, arbitrary evictions, and discrimination against minorities. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women considered Nigeria’s second and third reports to it in July, covering the period 1987 to 1994. The committee noted abuses relating to cultural stereotypes, violence against women, low levels of education among women, and the lack of a legal and constitutional framework to strengthen implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

In March 1998, the Governing Body of the International Labor Organization (ILO) voted to establish a commission of inquiry into violations of ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association and other abuses of labor rights in Nigeria, its strongest expression of disapproval. The work of the commission of inquiry was suspended when the new government released detained union leaders and repealed several decrees restricting union activity. In its place, a “direct contacts mission” visited Nigeria from August 17 to 21, 1998.

European Union and its Member States
Sanctions imposed by the European Union (E.U.) following the November 1995 executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other human rights activists, renewable on a six-monthly basis, remained in force during 1998. However, in November 1997, the General Affairs Council, pushed in particular by France and Germany, voted to relax existing visa restrictions to allow the Nigerian soccer team to play in the 1998 World Cup in France and to allow exemptions to visa restrictions on members of the regime on humanitarian grounds. France and Germany both used these exemptions to allow Nigerian ministers to enter their countries.

Prior to General Abacha’s death, the E.U. presidency issued a statement describing the transition program as a “failure.” After General Abubakar became head of state, Minister of State Tony Lloyd visited Nigeria on behalf of the British presidency of the E.U. and met with Abubakar and others. The E.U. welcomed the release of political prisoners and the new transition program, and announced that it would allow high-level visits by Nigerian officials on a case-by-case basis, to promote political dialogue, though visa restrictions would remain in place for the time being. France called for existing sanctions to be lifted at an early date. Other European countries, including the U.K., also took a softer line, welcoming the reforms and indicating that all sanctions except the arms embargo might be lifted when reviewed in November. British Airways flights to Lagos resumed at the end of July, after being suspended for over one year.

United States
The Clinton administration’s position on Nigeria, prior to General Abacha’s death, continued to seem confused and directionless. In March 1998, in advance of President Clinton’s trip to Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice stated that “electoral victory by any military candidate in the forthcoming presidential election in Nigeria would be unacceptable.” In South Africa, however, Clinton himself stated only that “if Abacha stands, we hope he will stand as a civilian.” The U.S. later joined other states and multilateral bodies in welcoming the changes brought by General Abubakar, and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering led a delegation to Abuja (in whose presence MKO Abiola collapsed from a heart attack). In September, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Franklin Kramer traveled to Nigeria for talks on military cooperation.

The section on Nigeria in the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 was thorough and accurate, existing measures to press Nigeria to respect human rights remained in place, and the U.S. issued a number of statements condemning military rule and human rights violations. For the fifth time, Nigeria was denied counter-narcotics certification under Section 481 of the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA), thus requiring the U.S. to vote against Nigeria in six multilateral development banks and to refuse all FAA and Arms Control Export Act assistance to Nigeria. Direct flights to Nigeria remained banned due to safety concerns. In May 1998, companion bills were introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate to set benchmarks before existing sanctions could be lifted.

An initiative to introduce legislation in the Maryland state legislature in March 1998, echoing resolutions adopted by several U.S. cities and counties forbidding municipal authorities from purchasing products from Nigeria or from companies that do business in Nigeria, was defeated: Deputy Assistant Secretary David Marchick gave testimony on behalf of the Clinton administration opposing the bill. U.S.-based oil companies, including Mobil, Chevron, Texaco, and others, invested in lobbying campaigns against unilateral sanctions by U.S. government institutions, through the Corporate Council on Africa, a coalition of U.S. corporations known as USA Engage, and bilaterally.

Organization of African Unity (OAU) and its Member States
African countries remained in general reluctant to condemn Nigeria’s human rights record and Abacha’s transition program. Following his death, African leaders rushed, like world leaders in general, to meet with General Abubakar. Salim Ahmed Salim, secretary-general of the OAU, led a six-person delegation to Abuja in July, and expressed confidence in Abubakar’s transition program. South African deputy president Thabo Mbeki traveled to Nigeria in July, and Abubakar returned the visit in August,addressing the South African parliament during his visit, as well as attending the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Durban in September. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, an organ of the OAU, once again failed, at its March session in Banjul, to adopt decisions on a number of cases relating to Nigeria, including applications from human rights organizations filed in relation to the trial and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his co-defendants.