Nigeria: Turning the Page or More of the Same?

June 3, 2015

NigeriaReportby Adotei Akwei and Bridget Duru

March 28, 2015 was a huge turning point for Nigeria. For the first time in the country’s history, the incumbent did not win the presidential election. General Muhammadu Buhari, the man who defeated President Goodluck Jonathan, was sworn in on May 29.

The largely peaceful political transition set an important benchmark for the rest of the continent’s democratic aspirations and of course it has also triggered hopes in Nigeria that the country is embarking on a new chapter and a political, economic and diplomatic renaissance.

The hoped-for renaissance could not come sooner. As reinforced by the absolutely shocking Amnesty International report released today, which alleges the Nigerian government bears responsibility for the deaths of more than 8,000 people since 2011, the human rights challenges confronting the new Nigerian government are urgent, serious and many.

It will take more than hope for the incoming Buhari administration to face down these challenges. It will require political will from Nigeria’s leadership as well as strategic support from the international community.

Here are some of the most pressing human rights issues the Buhari administration will need to tackle:

Ending the Boko Haram insurgency and addressing its consequences: President-elect Buhari must do everything in his power, to end the Boko Haram insurgency while upholding international and regional human rights standards. Simply eliminating the threat of violence by military means will not effectively reinforce the rule of law, respect for human rights or the legitimacy of the Federal government or even state institutions. The healing that is needed in the northern states will require transparent accountability for those who are guilty and justice and humanitarian support for those who are not as well as for those who survived the conflict.

The Nigerian security forces under the Jonathan administration had a record that was blemished with doing too little in terms of protecting civilians from Boko Haram raids and doing too much as both the military and police engaged in brutal acts of torture with impunity. Amnesty International released evidence that the Nigerian authorities had advance warning before some of the most publicized raids by Boko Haram and yet did nothing to bolster protection or even evacuate civilians to more secure locations.

At the same time the country’s judicial system was never been brought to bear, leaving a stunning legacy of no alleged member of Boko Haram ever having been brought to trial and being convicted under the Jonathan administration. Thousands of men in the North East were detained under suspicion of supporting Boko Haram, yet most of these people have not yet had fair trial years later. An estimated 68% of the people in throughout Nigeria’s prisons have not yet been tried. In the northern states most impacted by the Boko Haram insurgency, hundreds of men and boys have been killed in what are in effect death camps and for which there has been no independent investigation accountability.

When General Buhari previously ruled Nigeria from 1984 to 1985 after seizing power in a military coup, he put laws in place that allowed indefinite internment of prisoners, without trial. Buhari has promised to stop Boko Haram within months after he takes office, but he must not violate human rights in the process. This level of accountability must also apply to the military task force comprising of troops from Chad and Cameroon that have been engaging Boko Haram.

Tied to this is the need for the highest possible leadership to help the well over 1 million internally displaced people as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency. A robust humanitarian recovery plan will be needed that not only provides immediate needs but also helps rebuild livelihoods.

One of the most difficult issues facing General Buhari could also be his greatest opportunity: ensuring that those who were captured by Boko Haram, especially girls and women who are survivors of rape, have proper access to health care and counseling services and long term support to be fully reintegrated into society will be critical in reestablishing the credibility of the federal government but that is only a start: General Buhari must also lead the country in overcoming the endemic and systemic discrimination against Nigerian women and girls. This challenge predates Boko Haram and will continue to hold back millions of Nigerian women and girls long after this insurgency is quelled.

Perhaps most importantly, President- elect Buhari must also clean house, and address the critical failings within the Nigerian military and police. Nigerian security forces accused of committing torture and other human rights violations must be held accountable in transparent processes that meet international standards and restore the confidence of the people in the north (and the entire country) in the military and the police.

Images taken from a video of a 'screening' operation by the Nigerian military and Civilian Joint Task Force on 23 July 2013 in Bama town, Nigeria. More than 300 men were passed in front of a hidden informant. Up to 35 men were arrested on suspicion of being Boko Haram members.
Images taken from a video of a ‘screening’ operation by the Nigerian military and Civilian Joint Task Force on 23 July 2013 in Bama town, Nigeria. More than 300 men were passed in front of a hidden informant. Up to 35 men were arrested on suspicion of being Boko Haram members.

During his rule as a military head of state General Buhari also launched a “War Against Indiscipline” that was distinguished by the detention of persons without trial and severe limitations on freedom of expression and press, leading to the arrest journalists and other acts of intimidation.

President-elect Buhari will have to back up his claims of being committed to democracy and the rule of law with action. Nigeria is a part to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment but it has not passed legislation to ensure that all acts of torture are offenses under Nigeria’s criminal law, incorporating at least the main elements of the UN Torture Convention.

If President elect Buhari is serious about rebuilding the Nigerian security forces as a professional and respected body, than he will have to personally lead the effort to show that business as usual is no longer acceptable and no one is above the law.

President elect Buhari has made significant promises during his elections and since winning the highest office in Nigeria and has outlined goals that would put the rule of law and protection of human rights in Nigeria close to the heart of his administration’s agenda.

He will need help delivering on these promises so it is incumbent on the international community to hold the new president accountable to those promises and to support those initiatives. US Secretary of State John Kerry and other leaders from the international community attended the inauguration of a new Nigerian President. Now we are calling on US authorities to make sure the new Nigerian president takes action to put an end to the abuses that have left tens of thousands of people dead, injured, displaced and deprived of their human rights.

The Nigerian people deserve no less.