Nigeria | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2003

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Political violence escalated in Nigeria in the run-up to presidential and legislative elections scheduled for 2003, raising fears that the country will struggle to have its first peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another. Municipal elections were postponed indefinitely in August 2002, after having been rescheduled from May, ostensibly to allow for further preparations. A voter registration exercise held in September was disastrous. The federal government faced international criticism about harsh sentences handed down by Sharia (Islamic law) courts in the north of the country. Intercommunal violence continued in 2002, and clashes between Christians and Muslims in the northern city of Kaduna claimed more than 200 lives in November following controversy over the Miss World Pageant. Security forces continued to commit abuses with impunity, although the government moved to disband a notorious southern vigilante group.

The military ruled Nigeria for all but 10 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, and between the country's 250 ethnic groups. The Hausa-Fulani from northern Nigeria dominated the military and the government from independence until Olusegun 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. However, Obasanjo, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) choice, won the presidential poll. A former general who led a military regime in Nigeria from 1976 to 1979, Obasanjo had spent three years in prison under Abacha.

Opinion on Obasanjo in 2002 was divided along ethnic lines. Many northern, Hausa-speaking Muslims, who had shown electoral support for him, believe he has failed to live up to expectations and do not want him to stand for reelection in 2003. On the other hand, many in the southwest who did not support him in 1999 now see opposition against him as an affront to the Yoruba people.

The International Court of Justice at the Hague in 2002 delivered a verdict in favor of Cameroon in its long-running dispute with Nigeria over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula. Nigeria balked at the ruling and was to meet Cameroonian president Paul Biya to discuss the matter further. Nigeria and Cameroon have clashed militarily over Bakassi in the past, and it is unlikely that Nigeria will let go of the region without some concessions.

The majority of Nigerians are engaged in small-scale agriculture, while most wealth is controlled by a small elite. Nigeria's agricultural and manufacturing sectors deteriorated considerably in the pursuit of 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. 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 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 4-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.

There were several problems with the September 2002 voter registration exercise. Despite a massive turnout, there was a widespread scarcity of registration materials, which was attributed to the hoarding of forms. There were also numerous cases of double, multiple, and underage registration. Many people, however, were never able to register at all.

Casting a shadow over the next elections was a wave of political assassinations in 2002. Among those killed were Barnabas Igwe, the chairman of the Onitsha branch of the National Bar Association, and his wife. Igwe was a vocal critic of the Onitsha local government. Human rights groups fear that the violence will escalate as the elections draw nearer.

The judiciary is subject to political influence and is hampered by corruption and inefficiency. Many trials in Islamic courts in several northern states have been characterized by absence of due process. Defendants do not always have legal representation; they are often ill-informed about procedures and about their rights. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem. The country's prisons are overcrowded, unhealthful and life threatening. Nevertheless, the government has allowed international nongovernmental organizations to visit detention facilities, and some improvements have been made.

The Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, which is modeled on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wrapped up its work in 2002 after receiving evidence from more than 2,000 witnesses. The commission heard complaints of alleged abuses spanning from the start of the Biafran war in 1966 through the regime of General Sani Abacha in the 1990s. The commission said some of the victims were eligible for compensation.

Despite efforts to address past abuses, there are continuing reports of violations. Members of the security forces, as well as vigilante groups, committed serious violations in 2002. These included extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, torture, and beatings. A local human rights group, the Center for Law Enforcement Education in Nigeria, reported in October that Nigerian customs had seized more than 2,000 copies of a report, done in collaboration with the Geneva-based World Organization Against Torture, detailing massacres and other abuses by the state. In addition, the group said, three people who contributed to the report had been harassed by the State Security Services.

Vigilante groups were created to fill the gap in the poorly funded police force and to answer the need to address skyrocketing crime. Many of the groups have the support of local officials, which raises fears that vigilantes might be used in the next elections to carry out intimidation campaigns against political opponents as has happened in the past. New York-based Human Rights Watch welcomed the government's efforts in 2002 to crack down on one of the most notorious vigilante groups, the Bakassi Boys, but urged longer-lasting reforms of the police force.

Freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed, and the Obasanjo government respects these rights in practice. Several private radio and television stations broadcast. The government in February 2002 granted television broadcast licenses to five new television companies and 16 private radio stations. Numerous print publications operate largely unhindered. However, criminal defamation laws are still used against journalists. Islamic law imposes severe penalties for alleged press offenses. Foreign journalists have reported efforts by some officials to bribe them with cash.

The freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed and is usually respected in practice. The constitution prohibits ethnic discrimination and requires governmental 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. Nigerian human rights groups said in 2002 that intercommunal violence had claimed up to 10,000 lives across the country since 1999.

Ethnic minorities in the Delta region feel particularly discriminated against, mainly in terms of receiving a share of the country's oil wealth. Oil spills and acts of sabotage frequently disrupt petroleum production. The taking of foreign oil workers as hostages continued in 2002, as did clashes between ethnic groups and communities competing for resources. Up to 100 women occupied an oil installation for nine days in 2002. Human Rights Watch said there was still widespread deployment of security forces in the Delta region. Although more money is flowing to the region, ordinary people see few benefits from the funds.

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. Religion-based violence has become increasingly common and often corresponds with regional and ethnic differences, as well as competition for resources. Caning and amputation have been carried out for violations such as adultery and theft. The government pledged in 2002 that it would not allow the sentence of death by stoning, imposed by an Islamic court on a 31-year-old Muslim woman to be carried out. Clashes between Muslims and Christians in the northern city of Kaduna in November 2002 were sparked by an article in ThisDay newspaper that said the Prophet Mohammed would have liked to marry a Miss World contestant. The pageant, which was getting under way in the capital, Abuja, was quickly moved to London after violence broke out. Six contestants had already pulled out of the pageant to protest the death by stoning sentence of the 31-year-old Nigerian woman. The journalist who wrote the ThisDay article fled the country after her life was threatened. The Obasanjo administration called for the reform of Islamic law in the 12 states that have adopted it. The states so far have refused to do so. By October, three men and two women were facing sentences of death by stoning in the north. In January 2002, for the first time since Sharia was extended to cover criminal cases, a man was sentenced to death and executed.

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.

Child labor, forced marriages, and the trafficking of women for prostitution remain common, although efforts are under way to combat the practice. Although Nigeria signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, it has not established a law making the convention's provisions enforceable in its courts.

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. The right to bargain collectively is guaranteed. About 10 percent of the workforce is unionized. Unions held a two-day general strike against increases in fuel prices in January 2002 that shut down most of the country's major cities. A court declared the strike called by the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC), which groups the country's 29 main trade unions, illegal on the grounds that appropriate legal procedures were not followed. The NLC president was arrested twice in connection with the strike.