Nigeria: Time to end contempt for human rights

November 5, 1996

Nigeria: Time to end contempt for human rights

Time to end contempt for human rights

6 November 1996
AI INDEX: AFR 44/14/96

The present military government in Nigeria has a record of open contempt for human rights. A year ago it executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other supporters of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People after grossly unfair trials, prompting widespread international condemnation. As the first anniversary of their execution draws near, little has changed. The government continues to violate the human rights of its critics, including opposition politicians, journalists, human rights activists and members of the Ogoni ethnic group. The authorities continue to resort to arbitrary detention of prisoners of conscience, ignoring court orders whenever it suits them; political prisoners continue to face the prospect of unfair trials by special tribunals which have the power to impose the death sentence; detainees continue to be denied access to lawyers, families and essential medical treatment; there are continuing allegations of extrajudicial executions by Nigerian law enforcement officials. On 4 June 1996, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, senior wife of Chief Moshood Abiola, the man who won the aborted presidential election in June 1993, was murdered in Lagos in circumstances that have led many to fear that her assassination may have been carried out by government agents acting with or without the knowledge of the central authorities. The government has failed to initiate an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into the killing.

The outlook for human rights in Nigeria leaves many observers with a depressing sense of déja vu. Are Nigerians destined forever to suffer governments which have little regard for the rule of law and which fail to introduce safeguards to ensure respect for human rights? Is the international community prepared indefinitely to tolerate such a situation in a country which is crucial to the future stability of the wider West Africa region? Surely the time has come to break with the past by ending contempt for human rights in Nigeria.

The present military government has announced that it will hand over power to a civilian government by the end of October 1998. Without the urgent establishment of respect for human rights in Nigeria, the transition to civilian rule should be viewed with deep scepticism by the international community. Partial and piece-meal measures of human rights reform and the release of a small number of prisoners of conscience after prolonged periods of arbitrary detention, such as those announced by the Nigerian authorities following the visit of a United Nations mission to Nigeria in April 1996, are not enough. What is required is the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience and the urgent implementation of a comprehensive and far-reaching program of human rights reform. For its part, the international community, including transnational companies with significant investments in Nigeria, has a continuing responsibility to do all it can to ensure that respect for human rights is established in Nigeria. To discharge that responsibility, governments should agree common and specific human rights measures which the Nigerian authorities should implement without delay. Transnational companies should affirm their support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and show through concrete actions in Nigeria that they accept that they have a responsibility under the declaration to uphold human rights.

This report begins with an audit of the human rights record of the present Nigerian government. It demonstrates how the government has failed to meet its international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, both of which Nigeria has ratified. Also cited is the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Nigeria has signed but not yet ratified.