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Nigerians Challenge State on Abuses

Police killings, arbitrary arrests, and censorship hamper move to civilian rule, activists say

NIGERIA'S transition from military dictatorship to civilian rule still includes arrests of outspoken critics, press censorship, and police torture and murder, human rights groups charge.

But Nigerian journalists, lawyers, and students are fighting back with a growing assertiveness that human rights leaders say will hold the next civilian government in check.

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Nigerians are "reawakening" to their rights, says Adesuyi Olateru-Olagbegi, general secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association. People are tired of the military's arbitrary rule and failure to improve the economy, he says. "They've had enough."

Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who seized power in a 1985 coup, pledges to step down in January after the election in December of a civilian president. He has overseen a detailed transition program, involving the creation of the only two legal political parties and a series of elections for local, state, and national offices.

But according to Nigerian and international human rights groups, and the United States State Department's human rights report on Nigeria for 1991, the Babangida regime regularly tortures suspects in police custody, arbitrarily detains citizens, and tries to silence its most vocal critics, including journalists and human rights leaders.

"The Babangida government remains the worst violator of human rights in our history," says Clement Nwankwo, executive director of a private Nigerian human rights organization, Constitutional Rights Project.

Investigative journalist Abdul Oroh concurs. While being sought by Nigerian police, he told the Monitor that "this regime has executed more Nigerians than other regimes combined. He has closed more newspapers."

Mr. Oroh, assistant editor of the the African Guardian, an independent weekly magazine, says he was questioned by security officials after writing a story in the June 29 edition about the February assassination of a local Nigerian official whose political enemies allegedly are linked to a high-ranking national official.

In May, seven Nigerian human rights leaders were arrested after protests and riots in Lagos over fuel shortages and deteriorating economic conditions. But the arrests have not slowed their criticism of the government.

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"On the contrary, [the arrests] made a lot of people more aware of their rights," says Beko Ransome-Kuti, chairman of the Campaign for Democracy, a coalition of Nigerian human rights groups formed in November. He and the other six arrested were freed June 29, pending trial. "It's giving people a lot more confidence they can take on the government when the chips are down."

This confidence will provide the basis for pressure on the new civilian government to observe human rights, Dr. Ransome-Kuti says. But such pressure may have its limits. "If you go too hard at [the new government], the military will use it as an excuse to come back."

Above his desk is a repaired panel in the ceiling where some of the 200 police who stormed his house May 19 broke through after he refused to open the door.

While blaming foreign journalists for not presenting events in context, Nigerian Minister of Information Sam Oyovbaire refused to explain the government crackdowns. He only said of the transition program: "The moment you start a process of opening up, you run the danger of being pushed over or snapping back."

There are outward signs of new democratic freedoms under President Babangida's regime, such as a wide range of independent publications. But when these news media get too close to sensitive issues, such as high-level corruption, the government temporarily shuts them down.

Many people die in custody of the national police, says Osaze Lanre Ehonwa, acting national secretary of the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organization, a private group based in Lagos. "There's a lot of killing in police custody. The police ... shoot them," he says. And "an average of 10 prisoners die very day," mostly due to preventable illnesses, he adds.

In a May 23 report on Nigeria's police, Michael Posner, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, wrote: "The Nigerian security and police forces have become a law unto themselves - torturing, killing, and arbitrarily arresting citizens." The report cited several examples of alleged murders by the police.

But as one Nigerian official told the Monitor: "All over the world, they accuse police. There may be some occasional police abuses in Nigeria."

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