Nigeria | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Nigeria received a downward trend arrow due to increased threats and attacks against the media, efforts by the government to restrict the power of labor unions, and greater violence in the Delta region.


Opposition to the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo grew in 2004 with protests and strikes against the government's elimination of fuel subsidies. Violence escalated in the Niger Delta with the increasing prominence of heavily armed ethnic militia. Religious violence claimed hundreds of lives, and a radical, armed Islamist group emerged in the North. Press freedom suffered a setback with numerous attacks on members of the media during the year.

The military has ruled Nigeria for all but 15 years since independence from Britain in 1960. Generals and their backers argued that they were the only ones who could keep a lid on simmering tensions among the country's 250 ethnic groups, as well as between religious communities - 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 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 a 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 PRC's consensus choice to be the country's next leader, and he promised to oversee a transition to civilian rule in 1999. However, Obasanjo - a former general who had led a military regime in Nigeria from 1976 to 1979 and had spent three years in prison under Abacha - won the presidential poll in February. In legislative elections held that year, Obasanjo's People's Democratic Party (PDP) won the most seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Nigeria made its first peaceful transition from one democratically elected government to another in April 2003, when Obasanjo was reelected for a second term. Anticipated widespread unrest during the elections did not materialize, although there was violence leading up to the polls, which were marred by irregularities. Obasanjo faced 19 opposition candidates. However, the race ultimately was between the southern Christian Obasanjo and former general Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim and member of the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP). Obasanjo won the presidency with 62 percent of the vote compared with 32 percent for Buhari. Buhari filed a petition on behalf of some 20 opposition parties to nullify the election results.

In the April legislative poll, Obasanjo's PDP won 52 Senate seats and 170 House seats. The ANPP captured 25 seats in the Senate and 81 in the House, while the Alliance for Democracy won 5 Senate seats and 30 House seats. Smaller parties secured the remainder of seats.

Local and international observers witnessed serious irregularities during the 2003 elections. The Transition Monitoring Group, a coalition of Nigerian civic organizations, deployed some 10,000 monitors who reported ballot-box stuffing, multiple voting, falsification of results, and voter intimidation. They maintained that fraud and intimidation were particularly prevalent in the southeast of the country and in the Niger Delta.

In the weeks leading up to local elections in 2004, there were several apparently politically motivated assassinations. In some states, the prospect of local elections also reignited ongoing interethnic conflict. The largest number of deaths occurred during clashes between political thugs, according to human rights groups.

Opposition to Obasanjo's government swelled in 2004 with protests and strikes aimed at reversing the elimination of fuel subsidies - a measure that the government says is necessary for economic reform. Nigeria, a major oil-producing country, has for decades provided costly subsidies for domestic fuels. Strikes in October, led by the umbrella Nigeria Labor Congress, shut down major cities for several days. In an apparent attempt to reduce the power of organized labor, Obasanjo in April presented a bill to the National Assembly that aimed to curb the power of unions.

Violence escalated in the Niger Delta in 2004 with the increasing prominence of an ethnic militia. The Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, led by Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, had threatened to kill foreign oil workers in September, sending world oil prices soaring to record highs. The group claims to be fighting for political autonomy and a bigger slice of oil revenues for the Ijaw ethnic group, the largest in the Delta region. Clashes between the Ijaws and their rivals, the Itsekiris, have claimed hundreds of lives in the Delta.

Religious clashes continued in 2004. In the town of Yelwa, in central Plateau state, more than 600 people were killed in May after armed members of the predominantly Christian Tarok ethnic group attacked members of the mainly Muslim Fulani ethnic group, apparently in reprisal for earlier attacks against Taroks. Taroks and Fulanis have been engaged in a prolonged conflict over land use as well as political and economic control. Obasanjo imposed a state of emergency in the region and suspended the civilian governor. A small, armed Islamic group emerged in northeastern Nigeria during the year and attacked police stations and police patrols.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nigerians can change their government democratically. International observers noted irregularities during the 2003 presidential vote that reelected Olusegun Obasanjo, including ballot-box stuffing and alteration of results. Obasanjo's PDP also dominated the year's legislative elections. 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. At least 30 parties participated in the April 2003 National Assembly elections, and 19 parties had candidates in the presidential elections.

The constitution requires government offices to reflect the country's ethnic diversity. The Hausa-Fulani from northern Nigeria generally dominated the military and the government from independence until Obasanjo was elected in 1999. Obasanjo's government is both ethnically and religiously diverse.

Corruption has bled the country of billions of dollars in oil revenue. The government has taken steps to improve transparency and reduce corruption, including reforming procedures for contract procurements and bidding. Nigeria was ranked 144 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of speech and expression is constitutionally guaranteed and respected irregularly in practice. Several private radio and television stations broadcast throughout the country, and numerous print publications operate largely unhindered. However, criminal defamation laws are still used against journalists. Sharia (Islamic law) in 12 northern states imposes severe penalties for alleged press offenses. Local authorities regularly target journalists who criticize them, and the media in northern Nigeria were most at risk. The government does not impede Internet access.

Press freedom suffered a setback in 2004 with numerous attacks on members of the media. RSF said that 7 journalists were detained, 15 were physically attacked by security forces, and at least 3 were publicly threatened, in one case by a governor, in 2004. More than 20 other journalists have been placed under surveillance, expelled, subjected to extortion, summoned to a police station, heavily fined, suspended from work, or subjected to other forms of harassment, RSF said. Authorities banned local radio and television from relaying foreign news broadcasts live. One foreign journalist was expelled. Many of these incidents reflect the widespread security problems in Nigeria and the increasing power of state governors to influence activities within their states.

Religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, but many, including government officials, often discriminate against those of a religion different from their own. Religious violence, often reflecting regional and ethnic differences and accompanying competition for resources, has become increasingly common. In January, authorities in Plateau state banned the Council of Ulama, or the Muslim Council of Elders, on grounds that the group preaches religious hatred and intolerance. At least 2,500 people fled Plateau in February following two weeks of violence between Christians and Muslims that left scores dead. The government admitted that three years of sectarian violence in Plateau have exacted a high toll in lives lost and people displaced. Academic freedom is guaranteed and honored in practice.

Freedom of assembly and association are generally respected in practice. Police in May fired tear gas to disperse an antigovernment demonstration in Lagos and briefly arrested dozens of protesters. New York - based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in May said police deployed to quell violence between Muslims and Christians in the northern city of Kano used excessive force and may have committed dozens of unlawful killings in the name of restoring law and order. They reported that police fired into a crowd, killing around 40 people and wounding numerous others. In past incidents, none of the security forces have been brought to justice for unlawful or extrajudicial killings.

Despite several statutory restrictions on the rights of trade unions, workers, except members of the armed forces and those considered essential employees, may join trade unions, and the right to bargain collectively is guaranteed. About 10 percent of the workforce is unionized. Oil unions in 2004 repeatedly brought the country to a standstill through general strikes against a hike in fuel prices, which the government argues is necessary to eliminate domestic fuel subsidies. In April, Obasanjo sought to amend the 1990 Trade Act by outlawing strikes in the aviation, health, and education sectors. Strikes in other sectors were to be limited strictly to wage disputes and could be called only by unions representing workers in the activities concerned. The Senate in September passed a modified version of the labor bill, but it amended the no-strike clause so that the clause applies only to those working in essential services. The bill was pending approval by the House of Representatives.

The judiciary is subject to political influence and is hampered by corruption and inefficiency. The National Judicial Council has dismissed at least 20 judges in the past five years for accepting bribes and making improper judgments, some of which were perceived to be in favor of the ruling party or the government. Defendants do not always have legal representation and are often ill-informed about procedures and their rights. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem. In the northern states where Sharia law is in effect, flogging and amputation have been carried out for violations such as adultery and theft. The country's prisons are overcrowded, unhealthy, and life-threatening. Nevertheless, the government has allowed international organizations to visit detention facilities, and some improvements have been made.

HRW said in September that Islamic law courts in the North had failed to respect due process rights; the result was harsh and discriminatory sentences. The report said that northern state governors have used Islamic law as a political tool while condoning serious abuses. Women have been especially affected in cases of adultery or extramarital sex, where standards of evidence differ for men and for women, and pregnancy is considered sufficient evidence to convict a woman.

Although the constitution prohibits ethnic discrimination, societal discrimination is widely practiced, and clashes frequently erupt among the country's many ethnic groups. A number of armed youth groups have emerged to defend their ethnic and economic interests. Ethnic minorities in the oil-rich Niger Delta feel particularly discriminated against, primarily with regard to receiving a share of the country's oil wealth. London-based Amnesty International in September said fighting in Port Harcourt had killed up to 500 people in a month because of clashes between armed gangs. An ambush on an oil company boat in April killed seven people, including two Americans.

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. Women of some ethnic groups are denied equal rights to inherit property, and marital rape is not considered a crime. About 60 percent of Nigerian women are subjected to female genital mutilation. Women's rights have suffered serious setbacks in the northern states governed under Sharia.