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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Nigeria: Amnesty Issue Brief

Nigeria: Amnesty Issue Brief
Date distributed (ymd): 980810
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: West Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains an issue brief from Amnesty International USA, summarizing the need for continued international pressure on the Nigerian military regime. It also contains a short introduction with links to other sources for current information. The next posting contains a press release from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), detailing the failure of the military regime to release imprisoned Ogoni activists.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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Nigeria's new military ruler Gen. Abdusalam Abubakar has initiated a new "transition" to civilian rule, to lead up to elections in April next year and a hand-over to civilians in May. While the transition has been cautiously welcomed by many Nigerian politicians and by leading Western powers, human rights and environmental activists in Nigeria and in exile, as well as most analysts, warn that there are many flaws in the record of the new regime to date. Gen. Abubakar has not yet released all political prisoners, abolished repressive legislation or established an open climate for political expression and competition. His inconsistency is accompanied by the continued presence in the military of strong forces opposed to any weakening of their power. Letting up on international pressure will increase the chances that this "transition" will repeat the flawed parallel plans of the past that left the military in charge.

For current information, APIC has found the following sources most consistently useful:

Africa News Service
Current news from the Pan African News Agency and other sources, as well as documents from non-governmental organizations

Chuck Odili's Nigeria Web
Comprehensive and current, access to Nigerian and international news sources, links to many other sites.

Shell-Nigeria-Action Listserv Archive
Frequent action-oriented documents from the Sierra Club and other groups

For additional sources and background see the Africa Policy Web Site

Amnesty International Issues Brief on Nigeria

July 1998

Nigeria at the Cross Roads:
The Role for the International Community

For more information on this statement contact Amnesty International, 304 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington DC 20003, tel: 202-544-0200, Ext. 234; fax: 202-546-7142. Amnesty International statements are distributed through the Amnesty International news service, available as a listserv (Amnesty-L). To subscribe to amnesty-L, send a message to <> with "subscribe amnesty-L" in the message body. More information from Amnesty International can be found at the organization's international Web site ( or U.S. Web site (


Following the death of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha on June 8 hopes that Nigeria was going to halt its descent in to political chaos were boosted by the actions of his successor Gen. Abdusalam Abubakar. Abubakar announced that it was his intention to fulfill the transition program back to civilian rule by the October deadline promised by Gen. Abacha and within days, leading political prisoners were released, mostly on medical grounds. Among those freed were former head of State Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Christine Anyanwu and roughly 60 others. Among those conspicuously absent from the list of proposed releases were the Ogoni 21 and Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the man widely acknowledged to have won the June 1993 elections. One month later Chief Abiola died while still in detention. The Ogoni 21 remain in jail.

On July 20 Gen. Abubakar unveiled his proposed transition plan. Elections will be held by April of next year and the military will step down by May. The Abacha transition process has been scrapped and all election results at the state and local level having been cancelled. All political prisoners are to be released and the Nigerian people are invited to form new parties and participate in shaping the planned transition process.

As Nigeria stands at a crossroads the Clinton administration and the international community must play a positive role in creating an environment in which all Nigerians can take part in deciding the country's future. The military junta must meet clear benchmarks of irreversible reform and not just merely make symbolic speeches. The Nigerian people have heard similar promises from Gen. Abacha and Gen. Abubakar's mentor, cousin and former head of state Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Benchmarks include the repeal of all repressive legislation, the immediate release of all political prisoners and the implementation of a genuine transition process back to accountable government which will be designed and managed by the Nigerian people, not the military.


Gen. Abacha's stranglehold on Nigeria ended suddenly on June 8, leaving behind a legacy of rampant human rights abuses and corruption and a country dangerously polarized by ethnic differences. Gen. Abubakar's announcement of his intention to fulfill the transition program and his subsequent release of leading prisoners of conscience, while welcome, do not begin to address the ongoing legacy of repression of military rule.

Arbitrary Detention

During the past five years hundreds and possibly thousands of Nigerians were arbitrarily detained, most of them never even having been brought to court. Over the last nine months, demonstrators and activists against Abacha's transition program were arrested. In May. the government announced that it had released 142 prisoners as part of a promise made in November 1997. However, most of those released were common-law prisoners who were either elderly, ill or had served their jail terms.

Gen. Abubakar's announcement of July 15 that some 362 prisoners (none of whom are political prisoners) would be released still leaves the question as to who is defining who are political prisoners, and whether these reflect a repudiation of the policies of Gen. Abacha or just political expediency. For example, those released by Gen. Abubakar were also freed primarily on medical grounds. Among those conspicuously absent from the list of those freed were the Ogoni 21 and Chief Abiola. When Chief Abiola died of a heart attack one month later while still in detention, the riots that erupted were based on the anger of Abiola supporters convinced of foul play, and outraged at pressure on Abiola to renounce his presidential mandate in return for being released.

Repression In Ogoniland

The Ogoni area of Rivers State remains under occupation by the Internal Security Task Force. Members of the Ogoni minority group continue to be detained at random, harassed and assaulted by security forces in an effort to silence protest and criticism of the government's policies in the region and environmental degradation. The health of the Ogoni 21, now nearing the third year of their "unofficial detention" is reportedly worsening. In early 1998, a Port Harcourt High court ruled that they should be released, however, no mention of their case has been made by the PRC.

Repressive Legislation

Over the 28 plus years it has been in power, the Nigerian military has created a complex web of military decrees focused on silencing dissent, guaranteeing immunity by crippling the courts and negating constitutional provisions protecting fundamental human rights. As long as any of these laws remain in effect, all Nigerians, including those recently released remain at risk. More importantly there cannot be a free and open process to develop a genuine transition process back to democratic rule. Such laws include:

The Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree, No. 7, 1993 Suspends fundamental rights provisions of 1979 Federal Constitution. Section 5 prohibits the courts from reviewing any decrees passed by the military government

The Government (Supremacy and Enforcement of Powers) Decree, No. 12, 1994 Removes the jurisdiction of the courts to investigate any actions undertaken by members of the government.

The State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree, No. 2, 1984 Allows for indefinite detention, renewable every six weeks, if the person appears to be a threat to the security of the state, or if it is believed that the person has contributed to the economic adversity of the nation.

Decree No. 11, 1994 amends Decree No. 2 and allows the Inspector General of Police and the Chief of General Staff to detain persons considered threats to the state for three months (as opposed to 6 weeks) before having to renew the detention order.

The Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree No. 4, 1984 Allows government officials to arrest or detain persons for what they perceives to be "false accusations," leaving the burden of proof on the defendants.

The Legal Practitioners Act (Amendment) Decree No. 21, 1983 Allowed the government to dismiss the leadership of the National Bar Association and to appoint a commission to oversee the administration of the Bar. Similar decrees were used to ban NUPENG and PENGASSAN.

The Treasonable Offenses Decree, No. 7 of 1993 Defines treasonable acts as anything capable of disrupting the general fabric of the country, or any part of it.

The Offensive Publications (Proscription) Decree, No. 35 of 1993 Provides for the proscription, seizure and confiscation of a publication likely to disturb the peace and public in Nigeria or disrupt, hinder, or prevent the progress and peaceful transition to civil rule.

Decree No 14 of 1994 Suspended the right of habeas corpus by amending the Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal Decree of 1987.


The US Congress should welcome the steps taken by Gen. Abubakar. However it must maintain pressure to ensure that the efforts of the Nigerian people. to restore the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights in Nigeria are not hijacked once again. Swift passage of H.R.3890 and S. 2102 will provide much needed assistance to Nigerian civil society which faces the task of rebuilding democratic institutions and the rule of law and reaffirm key benchmarks of reform.

[For more information, see the Sierra Club web site

July 1998

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), the educational affiliate of the Washington Office on Africa. APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups individuals.

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