General human rights situation since the presidential election of February 1999 including the release of prisoners and detainees; situation of the press; reforms to military and/or local police forces [NGA32618.E]

General Human Rights Situation

A variety of observers have stated that the general human rights situation in Nigeria has improved since the death of General Sani Abacha, although several have cautioned that much remains to be done.

On 16 March 1999 the United Nations human rights rapporteur, Soli Sorabjee, released a report that noted "that the general human rights situation had improved under Nigeria's military ruler, General Abdulsamai Abubakar" that he had released "hundreds of political prisoners," and that the rapporteur had been assured that Nigeria no longer had any political prisoners in detention (AFP 16 Mar. 1999). In April, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights ended the mandate of the special rapporteur, despite a "vigorous lobby" by Media Rights Agenda (MRA), an independent NGO promoting freedom of expression in Nigeria, and Article 19 (the International Centre Against Censorship) to extend the mandate (MRA May 1999a).

The Secretary of Justice Development and Peace Commission of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, a "human rights priest," in calling for the rehabilitation of Nigerian prisons told his parishioners "that the government still has a lot to do in the area of arresting human rights abuses by the agents of [the] military junta" (Post Express 29 Mar. 1999).

In May, Post Express described Abubakar's signing of Nigeria's new constitution as "a step further to demonstrate the sincerity of [his] administration about returning the country to civil rule" (7 May 1999). At the same time, the report acknowledged that reactions to the document could be applause or rejection (ibid.). Later reports from several sources contained criticisms of the adopted constitution and calls for its amendment or replacement (Nigeria News Network 5 July 1999a; ibid. 21 July 1999; Post Express 24 May 1999; ibid. 17 July 1999; ibid. 25 July 1999a).

Upon the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as President, the Commonwealth lifted sanctions and welcomed Nigeria back as a full member (Post Express 1 June 1999). The Commonwealth Secretary General stated "Nigeria is not only back fully in the Commonwealth, Nigeria's standing internationally at the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity and all other international organisations has been fully restored" (ibid.).

Shortly after his election, Obasanjo set up four panels "in his bid to redress the wrongs of the past," one of which is a Panel on Human Rights Abuses (Post Express 25 July 1999b). Various reactions to this panel were reported. Post Express reported that the Civil Rights Congress, a "Kaduna-based human rights organisation," and the Human Rights Monitor had commended the President for having set up the panel, while criticizing its mandate and members (9 June 1999). Post Express reported similar criticisms from such different sources as former Abacha minister Alhaji Wada Nas (21 June 1999) and prominent activist lawyer Chief Gani Fawehinmi [who is also leader of the Joint Action Committee of Nigeria (JACON)] (1 July 1999).

In an evaluation of Obasanjo's first few days in office as President, Africa Confidential stated:

The style of Obasanjo's return to power has impressed all but the most sceptical, whether Nigerians or outsiders. By attacking the corruption of his predecessor governments in front of foreign guests and by promising to introduce comprehensive anti-graft legislation within a fortnight, Obasanjo showed surprising muscle. Yet it remains unclear quite how he will be able to distance himself from some of the corrupt elements in his party machine which helped to bring him to power (11 June 1999).

On 4 August 1999, the American Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs told the House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on Africa that:

The United States is encouraged by President Obasanjo's first moves as Head of State. He has taken a prominent leadership role in the region, begun work to address corruption and past human rights abuses, to strengthen and consolidate civilian control of the military, and personally has urged the reconciliation of disparate elements of society (U.S. Department of State 4 Aug. 1999)

On the subject of building "viable democratic institutions and respect for human rights," she observed:

In this regard, Nigerian leaders must also continue their efforts to establish functioning democratic institutions and to respect human rights. Over the past year, Nigeria has established an independent electoral commission, permitted the formation of political parties, halted government interference with labor unions, and bolstered the judiciary by appointing new judges to the Supreme Court. Today, Nigeria has an elected civilian government at all levels: local, state, and national, and many of its institutions are modeled after those of the United States, including its National Assembly's Senate and House of Representatives. These civilian administrations are just beginning to function and to gain experience and confidence. Members already exhibit a serious commitment to establishing their constitutional roles. The House of Representatives, for example, successfully addressed its first serious crisis last month when the Speaker resigned because of allegations that he had falsified his credentials while running for office. The House quickly followed constitutional procedures and elected a successor. President Obasanjo, for his part, is respecting the independence of the legislative, judicial and executive branches.

Nigeria also has made real progress in improving its human rights record by releasing political prisoners last year, including those accused of plotting against the Abacha regime. Although problems remain -including the continued existence of Decree Two, which permits indefinite detention without trial - Nigeria's new leaders have vastly improved citizens' treatment, a far cry from the past dictatorship days of vile and often violent oppression. In a very positive step, President Obasanjo has named a committee headed by a former Supreme Court judge to examine the human rights violations that took place during successive regimes since 1983. We hope Nigeria's leaders will continue this vital dialogue, including with elements of civil society and the opposition, in their efforts to reconcile the nation and establish the mechanisms essential for democratic consolidation (ibid.).

Also in early August, Nigeria's Power and Steel Minister commented that "what Nigeria has now is a civilian regime which is not the same as a democratic government" (Nigeria News Network 2 Aug. 1999). He asked Nigerians "to be more vigilant and insist on fostering of democratic ideals on the nation's polity" and said that "there are some people who may want to derail the march to democracy. Don't say because Obasanjo is doing well and go to sleep, there are still some unpatriotic and mischievous people who may want to put us back to the dark era" (ibid.).

Release of Prisoners and Detainees

There are reports of both the releases of political prisoners, including many of those detained by the Abacha regime, as well as recent arrests.

Africa Research Bulletin reported that Ibrahim El-Zak-Zaky (see NGA30709.E of 2 Dec. 1998) was released on 18 December 1998 after more than two years in detention and stated that "he was one of the last civilian political prisoners remaining in custody" (Dec. 1998, 13373). However, on 25 March 1999, the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) took issue with the Nigeria Attorney General's claim that no person remained in detention under Decree 2 (detention of persons) (Post Express 25 Mar. 1999; AI 31 Mar. 1999). The CDHR provided a list of 46 persons it said were still in detention, including 10 coup convicts and 27 bank chiefs (ibid.).

With respect to the detention of the bank chiefs, Post Express reported on 4 June 1999 that a "presidential directive" had been issued suspending the activities of the military tribunals investigating failed banks. The tribunals had been set up by Abacha through the Banks Decree No. 18 of 1994 (ibid.). As a consequence of the directive, those in detention "would be admitted to bail in liberal terms" and the cases would be transferred to the regular courts (ibid.).

On 10 June 1999, the decrees establishing the Failed Banks Tribunal, and a number of other tribunals, were repealed and the tribunal dissolved (NTA TV 10 June 1999; Post Express 11 June 1999) On 9 July 1999, Nigeria News Network reported that "22 of the 27 bank chiefs were ... granted bail by the Court of Appeal."

On 31 March 1999 Amnesty International released a report which stated that "on 4 and 23 March 1999 the Nigerian military government announced the release of most of its remaining political prisoners." However, it stated that there were at least three persons still under detention at that time: Lieutenant-Colonel Ibrahim Yakassai originally detained in relation to the alleged December 1997 coup plot (see NGA32311.E of 19 July 1999), as well as retired Trooper Innocent Ofem Anang and retired Lance Corporal Lucky Iviero who were originally arrested in relation to an alleged 1990 coup attempt (ibid.). For a list of the names of those persons released please consult the Amnesty International Report, Nigeria: Releases of Political Prisoners, available in Regional Documentation Centres.

NGA31455.E of 22 March 1999 reported a claim by a NADECO official that Dr. Frederick Fasehun had been arrested shortly after the presidential election in February. However, on 19 May 1999 Post Express identified him as being present, and speaking, at a Lagos pro-democracy rally.

Situation of the Press

Just prior to the February 1999 elections, The Irish Times stated that Nigeria was

Still widely considered the world's worst violator of press freedom behind nations such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Burma and Indonesia.

Although this ignominious record owes much to the previous oppressive military regime of Gen Sani Abacha, who died last June, reported incidents under the current military government continue to worry international agencies.

There have already been two raids on Nigerian publications this month. But the worst incident of intimidation in recent weeks has been the arrest of Lanre Arogundade, chairman of the Lagos State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists. Mr Lanre, who was arrested at his home earlier this month and was subsequently released, has been instrumental in demanding the release of journalists still in prison and refusing to accept the past and present military regimes have the right to control independent media (18 Feb. 1999).

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report on 25 February 1999 which stated that Abubakar "has failed to take steps to ensure that the repressive laws used to criminalize independent media are repealed." According to the report:

During the run-up to the Feb. 27 elections, journalists have once again become targets of the government, said Kerina [CPJ spokesperson]. Earlier this month, police raided the printing plant that produces The News, seizing 80,000 copies of the magazine and arresting three people. The confiscated edition carried an article titled "Abacha's Co-Looters, Aluko Reveals All."

"While Abubakar has made some improvements in the climate for journalists, we are deeply concerned that violations of press freedom continue during this sensitive period of transition to representative democracy in Nigeria," said Kerina. "We have not seen the new regime act to remove the legal weapons that still intimidate Nigerian journalists in their daily work."

Kerina called upon Abubakar to repeal "all decrees and laws that have been used to punish scores of journalists," including the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No. 2 of 1984, which authorizes indefinite, incommunicado detention of any citizen; the Offensive Publications (Proscription) Decree No. 35 of 1993, which allows the state to seize any publication that offends the government; and the Treason and Treasonable Offenses Decree No. 29 of 1993, which granted a special military court authority to impose life sentences on journalists accused of reporting an alleged plot against the Abacha regime (IFEX).

There have been more recent criticisms from the media in respect to the government's treatment of it. MRA issued a press release stating that it has filed suit asking the Federal High Court in Lagos to "declare the Nigerian Press Council (Amendment) Decree No. 60 of 1999 unconstitutional, null and void and restrain the Federal Government from implementing it" (n.d.). According to the MRA, the decree was "promulgated by the military government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar on May 26, 1999" and contained provisions for the registration of media sources, as well as "a range of penal and pecuniary sanctions which are designed to undermine the independence of the news media" (ibid.).

The May 1999 issue of Media Rights Monitor, the newsletter of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), carries a number of reports of the arrest, and assault by soldiers, of various Nigerian journalists in April 1999 (May 1999b). Reports of the arrest of both journalists and trade unionists are carried in a June 1999 publication by Article 19, A Mountain Still to Climb, available in Regional Documentation Centres.

However, in commenting on the resignation of the Speaker of Nigeria's House of Representatives, following allegations of wrongdoing published by The News, the editor of Nigeria News Network commented that the incident may have demonstrated that government officials are subject to the rule of law in Nigeria (23 July 1999).

In August, Nigeria News Network reported that the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) was suing the government over

the alleged assault and unlawful arrest of the Deputy News Editor, The Punch, Mr. Wale Adeoye and Ganiat, wife of a Lagos-based journalist, Mr. Wale Adedayo. ... Adeoye, who is also chairman of the Journalists for Democratic Rights (JODER), claimed he was detained overnight on June 25 at Ogudu Police Station after being "severely beaten by policemen and members of the Rapid Response Squad (RRS)" (11 Aug. 1999a).

Reforms to the Military

There have been a number of reports of Obasanjo's attention to changing Nigeria's military. Shortly after his election, Africa Confidential stated that he "wants to reprofessionalise the forces, put them firmly under constitutional control and with effective new training and welfare programmes" (5 Mar. 1999, 1). The report goes on to say that "how far the military will be purged and probed will ... be hammered out between Obasanjo, his retired general friends and his civilian advisors. Many expect him to employ a surgical strike rather than a gradualist approach" (ibid., 2).

Jane's Defence Weekly reported on 7 April 1999 that

Nigerian military leaders attended a two-day workshop last week aimed at re-orienting the armed forces and police to their constitutional role within democracy. ... All three service chiefs; general officers commanding; flag officers commanding; air officers commanding; members of the provisional ruling council and police commissioners attended the workshop in Abuja. It is the latest in a series of programmes drawn up by the armed forces to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.

In June 1999 President Obasanjo "retired" a large number of military officers who had previously held "political" appointments (New African July/Aug. 1999, 25; Post Express 13 June 1999). By 13 June 1999 the number of officers released, in what was described as a "purge," was 145, with speculation that more would follow (ibid.). Tempo described the move as "unprecedented" and that "the retirement of 53 extremely wealthy political officers from the army was particularly testy. The exercise occasioned rumbles in the barracks and a coup scare at the seat of power in Abuja" (7 July 1999).

President Obasanjo appointed Lt-General Theophilus Danjuma as his Defence Minister (Nigeria News Network 5 July 1999b). Africa Confidential described him as a "power behind Obasanjo's throne" and noted that he was "an increasingly acerbic critic of military rule" and that he had actively protested the annulment of Abiola's apparent election victory in 1993 (11 June 1999). He is also described by AFP as "well respected in the military and... key to the president's plan to reform the military" (20 Aug. 1999). In August 1999 he announced government plans to decrease the size of the armed forces from 80,000 members to 50,000 (ibid.; Nigeria News Network 20 Aug. 1999).

Reforms to the Police

In a May report on the new constitution Post Express noted that both the armed forces and the police would remain under presidential control and stated that "the retention of the police force under the federal exclusive list is expected to face serious challenge [since] in the past republic, the police had been deployed to settle political scores by the federal authority" (7 May 1999).

In a 3 May 1999 Post Express article concerning the government's refusal at the time to follow a court order to release those bankers detained under Decree 18, the Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association "frowned at the Nigeria Police Forces' (NFA) attitudes towards suspects detained in the police custody, he added that police allegedly torture on suspect, apparently, to force out the facts from them was 'wrongful and abuse of one's rights'."

There have also been several other media reports concerning Nigeria's police. Nigeria News Network reported on 14 July 1999 that police authorities were planning to increase the force's size by 10,000 members. On 16 July 1999, the same source reported that the Police Affairs Minister had "promised to give Nigerians a people-oriented police force" (ibid.). The Minister was reported to have said that officers would be trained to be "more effective and friendly to those it served" (ibid). Also reported was a government decision to take down road blocks in Nigeria and that the Minister agreed with this and said it "would never be revisited" (ibid.). In August, the Inspector-General of Police was reported as "stress[ing] the need for discipline, honesty and accountability by the officers and men of the police" at a biannual week-long police officer educational conference (ibid. 11 Aug. 1999b).

On 13 August 1999, Nigeria News Network reported that 60 police chiefs from all 36 state commands of the Criminal Intelligence Bureaux (CIB) - "the secretive arm of the Police Force directly controlled by the Inspector-General of Police" - had begun a "refresher course" that included "an assortment of intelligence work and cloak-and-dagger operations against organised crime and restive ethnic communities." Following the course for police chiefs, another will be held for those who are next in command (ibid.).

On 3 September 1999, Nigeria News Network reported that President Obasanjo had sent to the National Assembly a bill that would create a Police Service Commission in line with the provisions of the constitution. According to the Presidential Liaison Officer, "The commission ... will have the responsibility of appointing and assigning police officers except the Inspector-General (IG). The body will discipline erring police officers. [He] expressed the hope that the bill will be given prompt consideration as soon as the Senate returns from its planned recess" (ibid.).

For information on violence in the Delta region, please see the HRW publication Nigeria: Crackdown in the Delta Region, which is available in Regional Documentation Centres (May 1999). Please also refer to NGA32638.E of 20 August 1999 for information on the return to Nigeria of opponents of the former military regime.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Africa Confidential. [London]. 11 June 1999. Vol. 40, No. 12. "Nigeria: All Hail to the Chief."

_____. 5 March 1999. Vol. 40, No.5. "Nigeria: Soldier Go, Soldier Come."

Africa Research Bulletin: Political, Social and Cultural Series [Oxford]. December 1998. Vol. 35, No. 12. "Nigeria: Leading Islamist Freed."

Agence France Presse (AFP). 20 August 1999. "Nigerian Defence Minister 'On Vacation' in London, Says Wife." (NEXIS)

_____. 16 March 1999. "UN Urges Nigeria to Repeal Repressive Decrees." (NEXIS)

Amnesty International. 31 March 1999. "Nigeria: Releases of Political Prisoners - Questions Remain About Past Human Rights Violations." (AI Index: AFR 44/01/99)

Article 19 (International Centre Against Censorship). June 1999. A Mountain Still to Climb. London: International Centre Against Censorship.

International Freedom of Exchange (IFEX) [Toronto]. 25 February 1999. "Nigerian Journalists Recount Prison Ordeals in CPJ Report." (Africa News/NEXIS)

The Irish Times [Dublin]. 18 February 1999. Quentin Fottrell. "Elected Exception to the General's Rule Can Still Lock Up Journalists in Nigeria..." (NEXIS)

Jane's Defence Weekly. 7 April 1999. Segun Adeyemi. "Nigerian Leaders Discuss Democratic Military Reform." (NEXIS)

Media Rights Agenda (MRA). n.d. "MRA Press Release." [Accessed 25 Aug. 1999]

Media Rights Monitor [n.p.]. May 1999a. "UN Commission Ends Mandate of Rapporteur on Nigeria." [Accessed 25 Aug. 1999]

_____. May 1999b. "Attacks on The Press." [Accessed 25 Aug. 1999]

New African [London]. July/August 1999. No. 376. Pini Jason. "Here I Am, O Lord, Send Me."

Nigeria News Network. 3 September 1999. "Obasanjo Sends Police Commission Bill to National Assembly."

_____. 20 August 1999. "Akinyemi Cautions on Military Downsizing."

_____. 13 August 1999. "60 Police Chiefs Begin Course."

_____.11 August 1999a. "MRA Sues Police Over Journalist's Arrest."

_____.11 August 1999b. "Smith Stresses Essence of Education for Police."

_____. 2 August 1999. "Obasanjo is Laying Foundation for Democracy, Says Ige."

_____. 23 July 1999. " Comment: 'The News Magazine Moves Nigeria Into New Era."

_____. 21 July 1999. "Uwais Urges Caution on Constitutional Amendment."

_____. 16 July 1999. "Jemibewon to Overhaul Police Force."

_____. 14 July 1999. "Police to Recruit 10,000."

_____. 9 July 1999. "Appeal Court Grants Bail to 22 Bank Chiefs."

_____. 5 July 1999a. "Conference Declares Constitution Unamendable."

_____. 5 July 1999b. "Danjuma, Ige Exempted From Signing Resignation Letters."

NTA TV [Lagos, in English]. 10 June 1999. "Nigeria: decree Dissolves Tribunals, Repeals Legislation of Previous Government." (BBC Monitoring 10 June 1999/NEXIS)

Post Express [Lagos]. 25 July 1999a. "The Unfairness to the Judiciary." [Accessed 24 Aug. 1999]

_____. 25 July 1999b. "Platform: Human Rights Violations 1966-1999." [Accessed 24 Aug. 1999]

_____. 17 July 1999. Mfon Ekefre. "FG Urged to Review Constitution." [Accessed 24 Aug. 1999]

_____. 1 July 1999. Frank Alabi. "Gani Faults Obasanjo's Anti-Corruption Crusade, Other Actions." [Accessed 17 Aug. 1999]

_____. 21 June 1999. John Alechenu. "Wada Nas Faults Composition of Human Rights Panel." [Accessed 17 Aug. 1999]

_____. 13 June 1999. Philip Nwosu. "ADCs, Military Assistants, CSOs to Ex-Governors to Be Retired." [Accessed 26 Aug. 1999]

_____. 11 June 1999. "FG Repeals Failed Banks Decree, Others." [Accessed 24 Aug. 1999]

_____. 9 June 1999. John Alechenu. "Organisation Faults Panel on Human Rights Abuses." [Accessed 17 Aug. 1999]

_____. 4 June 1999. Frank Alabi. "Failed Banks Tribunals Scrapped; Cases Transferred to Courts." [Accessed 19 Aug. 1999]

_____. 1 June 1999. "Nigeria Fully Back to Commonwealth, Others; Receives Papal Blessing." [Accessed 19 Aug. 1999]

_____. 24 May 1999. "AD Chieftan Calls for Rejection of 1999 Constitution." [Accessed 24 Aug. 1999]

_____. 19 May 1999. Tony Iyare. "A People's Advocate Wields the Cudgels." [Accessed 25 Aug. 1999]

_____. 7 May 1999. Adeniyi Ojebisi. "Behold the Long-Awaited Constitution." [Accessed 17 Aug. 1999]

_____. 3 May 1999. Lukkey Abawuru. "NBA Criticises Govt Over Continued Detention of Failed Bank Chiefs." [Accessed 19 Aug. 1999]

_____. 29 March 1999. "Cleric Asks Incoming Govt to Rehabilitate Prisons." [Accessed 17 Aug. 1999]

_____. 25 March 1999. Ikechukwu Eze. 25 March 1999. "CDHR Faults Attorney General's Claim." [Accessed 17 Aug. 1999]

Tempo [Lagos]. 7 July 1999. Seyi Oduyela. "Nigeria: The Anxiety Over Malu." (Africa News/NEXIS)

U.S. Department of State. 4 August 1999. "Nigeria; State Department's Jeter Discusses U.S.-Nigeria Relations." (Africa News/NEXIS)