Nigeria | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Nigeria's civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5 because of increasing inter-religious and inter-ethnic clashes, and a bloody crackdown by the military.


Violence on several levels wracked Nigeria in 2001, claiming thousands of lives and bringing the military under its most intense scrutiny since the return of democratic rule three years ago. Crime and vigilantism soared, fighting between Christians and Muslims continued, and tension among many of the country's 250 ethnic groups escalated. Southwest Nigeria was hit by a spate of political killings, including the shooting death of the country's justice minister, Bola Ige, in his home in December. The murder appeared to be rooted in local politics, which bodes poorly for the holding of peaceful elections in 2003. Heading off potential election-related violence will be a key challenge for the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The military ruled Nigeria for all but ten years since independence from Britain in 1960 until 1999. Its generals and their backers argued that they were the only ones who could keep a lid on simmering tensions between Muslims and Christians on the one hand and the 122 million people who constitute the country's 250 ethnic groups on the other hand. The Hausa-Fulani from northern Nigeria dominated the military and the government from independence until Obasanjo, from the south, was elected. The north is largely Muslim while the south is mainly Christian.

Nigeria initially appeared to be emerging from several years of military rule under General Ibrahim Babangida in 1993, when presidential elections were held. Moshood Abiola, a Muslim Yoruba from the south, was widely considered the winner, but the military annulled the results. It continued to rule behind a puppet civilian administration until General Sani Abacha, a principal architect of previous coups, took power himself in November 1993. A predominantly military Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) was appointed, and all democratic structures were dissolved and political parties banned. Abiola was arrested in June 1994 after declaring himself Nigeria's rightful president. He died in detention, after suffering from lack of proper medical care, just five weeks after Abacha himself died suddenly in June 1998.

The departure of the two most significant figures on Nigeria's political landscape opened possibilities for democratic change. General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the army chief of staff, emerged as the consensus choice of the military's PRC as the country's next leader and promised to oversee a transition to real civilian rule in 1999. Fraud and irregularities marred the polls, especially the presidential election, but most observers agreed that the election of Obasanjo reflected the will of the majority of voters. Obasanjo is a former general who led a military regime in Nigeria from 1976 to 1979, and spent three years in prison under Abacha.

Although the military has returned to the barracks under the civilian administration, abuses are still committed with impunity. When the military was deployed to central Taraba state in September 2001 to quell violence between members of the Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups, 19 soldiers were abducted and killed. The army returned in force, torching settlements and killing more than 200 unarmed civilians. More northern states in 2001 introduced Sharia (Islamic law), which allows amputation, flogging, and decapitation as penalties. There were several clashes between Christians and Muslims during the year. The worst fighting left up to 1,000 people dead in the city of Jos.

The majority of Nigerians are engaged in small-scale agriculture, while most wealth is controlled by a small elite. Competition for resources often escalates into violence. Nigeria's agriculture and manufacturing sectors deteriorated considerably in the quest for oil, which accounts for more than 98 percent of Nigeria's export revenues and almost all foreign investment. Corruption has bled the country of billions of dollars in oil revenue. Economic reform is progressing slowly.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nigerians exercised the right to change their government for the first time in 16 years in 1999. Although the voting was free, it was not fair in many areas in both the presidential and legislative polls. Irregularities occurred at each stage of the electoral process. During the presidential nominating convention, large sums of money were offered by both political camps to delegates to vote against political opponents. International observers witnessed serious irregularities during the presidential election, including the local purchase of false ballots and fraudulent tally sheets. The production of "ghost votes" in some states amounted to as much as 70 or 80 percent of the total reported votes. Olusegun Obasanjo, of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), won the presidency, which carries a four-year term, with 63 percent of the vote compared with 37 percent for Samuel Oluyemi Falae of the Alliance for Democracy (AD). International observers confirmed the results and stated that, despite widespread fraud, Obasanjo's victory reflected the will of most voters.

Members of the bicameral national assembly are elected for four-year terms to 109 seats in the senate and 360 in the house of representatives. Obasanjo's PDP won 59 senate seats and 206 house seats. The All People's Party won 24 seats in the senate and 74 in the house, while the AD won 20 senate seats and 68 house seats. The Independent National Electoral Commission is working with several international organizations to help improve the voting process in 2003.

The judiciary is subject to political influence and is hampered by corruption and inefficiency. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem. The country's prisons are overcrowded, unhealthy, and life-threatening. The government has allowed international nongovernmental organizations to visit detention facilities, and some improvements have been made.

Respect for human rights has improved considerably under Obasanjo. The Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, which is modeled on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, began hearing about 150 cases in 2000, or those deemed the most serious, of some 11,000 complaints of alleged abuses spanning from the start of the Biafran war in 1966 through the regime of General Sani Abacha in the 1990s. Former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida and other previous military leaders ignored requests to appear before the rights panel in 2001.

Despite efforts to address past abuses, there are continuing reports of violations. Members of the security forces, including the police, anticrime units, vigilante groups, and the armed forces, committed serious violations. These included extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, and beatings. There were a growing number of vigilante groups across the country in 2001, filling the gap of the poorly funded police force and answering a need to address skyrocketing crime. Thirty-six suspected criminals were publicly executed by vigilantes in the southeastern city of Onitsha in May by a group known as the Bakassi Boys. Many vigilante groups have the support of local officials, raising fears that vigilantes might be used in the next elections to carry out intimidation campaigns against political opponents as has happened in the past.

Freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed, and the Obasanjo government respects these rights far more than the previous military administrations. Several private radio and television stations broadcast, and numerous print publications operate largely unhindered. However, criminal defamation laws are still used against journalists.

The editor of a weekly Lagos-based magazine, Glamour Trends, was arrested on charges of criminal defamation in June 2001. Armed police entered the offices of the magazine's publisher, Millennium Communications, and fired their guns to disperse employees before detaining Nnamdi Onyenua. He reportedly was arrested because of an article alleging that President Obasanjo receives huge monetary allowances for each overseas trip he makes.

The freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed and is usually respected in practice. The constitution prohibits ethnic discrimination and requires government offices to reflect the country's ethnic diversity. Obasanjo's government is both ethnically and religiously diverse; but societal discrimination is widely practiced, and clashes frequently erupt among the country's 250 ethnic groups. A number of armed youth groups have emerged to defend their ethnic and economic interests. A land dispute reportedly triggered deadly clashes between the Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups in central Nigeria in June 2001 that left at least 200 dead and forced 50,000 others to flee their homes. Nineteen soldiers were abducted and killed when they were deployed to the area. The military returned in September and killed some 200 unarmed civilians.

Ethnic minorities in the Delta region feel particularly discriminated against, mainly in terms of receiving a share of the country's oil wealth. There were several oil spills and acts of sabotage in 2001 that disrupted petroleum production. The taking of foreign oil workers as hostages continued, as well as clashes between ethnic groups and communities competing for resources.

Religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, but many sectors of society, including government officials, often discriminate against those of a religion different from their own. Religious violence has become increasingly common and often corresponds with regional and ethnic differences, and competition for resources. Harsh penalties, including caning and amputation, have been carried out for violations such as adultery and theft.

Nigerian women face societal discrimination, although educational opportunities have eroded a number of barriers over the years. Women play a vital role in the country's informal economy. Marital rape is not considered a crime, and women of some ethnic groups are denied equal rights to inherit property. About 60 percent of Nigerian women are subjected to female genital mutilation. Women's rights have suffered serious setbacks in many northern states governed by Sharia law. Child labor, marriages, and the trafficking of women for prostitution remain common. A 2001 draft bill establishes a national agency to deal with that problem as well as child labor. The government in 2001 ratified several International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on child labor.

The transitional government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar lifted decrees promulgated under Abacha that repressed labor rights, including the right to strike, and the country regained its position in the ILO. Nevertheless, there are several statutory restrictions on the right of association and on trade unions. Workers, except members of the armed forces and those considered essential employees, may join trade unions. About ten percent of the workforce is unionized.