Violence, death and injustice: A beginner’s guide to human rights in Nigeria

As Nigerians prepare to go to the polling stations to elect their President on March 28, we take a look at some of the main human rights issues facing people living in Africa’s most populous, oil-rich country.

How bad is the human rights situation in Nigeria?

Pretty shocking. Boko Haram’s bloody onslaught in north-east Nigeria and the military’s heavy-handed response has killed thousands of civilians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Women, men and children live in constant fear of murder and abduction by Boko Haram and of arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, torture and even execution at the hands of the military.

But it is not just the violence in the north-east of the country that is extremely worrying. The problems within Nigeria’s justice system, for example, are deeply entrenched.

68% of the 55,000 people held in Nigeria’s overcrowded prisons have been convicted but have been waiting, many for years, for their cases to conclude. Those who have been convicted often faced grossly unfair trials – with many having suffered torture and lacking access to a lawyer. More than a thousand people are currently languishing on death row, awaiting the day when the State decides to kill them. Ironically, those who commit human rights violations rarely face prosecution.

Poverty and inequality are also major issues, with millions of people lacking access to adequate housing, being forcibly evicted from their homes and even lacking drinking water.  

Around the Niger Delta, entire communities live at the mercy of unscrupulous oil companies who have polluted their land, devastating the environment that people depend on for food, water and livelihoods. Oil spills caused by both aging pipelines and illegal activity such as oil theft are notorious and endemic, but the companies do not clean up properly, if at all.

Aren’t Boko Haram responsible for most problems in Nigeria?

The armed group Boko Haram is responsible for much of the violence and death that has rocked large parts of Nigeria.

Since the group first began its campaign of violence after the police killed the group’s leader in an extrajudicial execution in 2009, they have lead a merciless campaign of killings and horror – with at least 350 raids and bombings between 2013 and 2014 killing at least 5,400 civilians.

But Boko Haram’s rise reflects the multiple problems faced by modern Nigeria – including poverty. The group is known to have recruited marginalized young men, sometimes by force.  

Once again, the lack of justice for crimes under international law and other serious violations and abuses of human rights is a major problem. Just as the government has failed to hold its own forces to account, it has prosecuted very few people suspected of being members or supporters of Boko Haram for crimes under international law and other serious abuses of human rights, such as torture.

What about the Chibok girls? What has happened to them?

The 276 schoolgirls kidnaped last April from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School are some of the victims of Boko Haram ruthless campaign against secular authority and institutions in Nigeria.

While some of the girls escaped from their captors, 219 are still missing.

In videos posted online, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau claimed the group had forced the girls into marriage but, so far, no one has been able to confirm what has happened to them.

Wouldn’t Nigeria’s problems be resolved with better laws?

The problem in Nigeria is not the lack of laws. Actually, since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria has signed up to a number of international treaties designed to protect people’s human rights. Even the country’s constitution guarantees people’s basic rights.

While Nigeria is yet to criminalize torture and has other important gaps in its laws, it is clear that one of the biggest problems the country faces is the failure to respect and enforce those laws that already exist. For example, despite constitutional guarantees, people are denied access to their lawyers and families while in military detention, the police do not charge or release suspects within constitutionally-mandated time limits and the government fails to enforce environmental regulations on oil companies.

What is the government doing to stop abuses against its own people?

The government claims they are trying to stop Boko Haram and make people in the country safe. They have also promised to end human rights violations by security forces and to make international human rights treaties part of national laws, including by criminalizing torture.  

In reality, however, the problem is that those responsible for human rights violations, including members of the military and police, are rarely held to account, sending the message that they can get away with it.

Despite an official stance by the authorities that human rights violations by the military and police in Nigeria happen because of a few “bad eggs”, evidence shows that the problems are systematic.

But what can they do to change things?

There are some steps authorities could, and should, take without delay. These include: initiating a thorough plan to reform the police force and the justice sector, imposing a moratorium on executions with a view to ultimately abolishing the death penalty and introducing a law to establish safeguards against forced evictions.

Improving the human rights situation in Nigeria requires political will. Some of the changes will need financial investment others just implementation and enforcement of existing legislation and regulations.  

Are you concerned about potential violence taking place around the elections?

Tensions in Nigeria are running high and, sadly, the country has a history of election-related violence. It is important that candidates, the government and the security forces respect human rights during the elections and beyond.

Leaders and candidates must refrain from inflammatory campaign rhetoric and the government and security forces must do all in their power to ensure the protection of civilians and the respect for human rights before, during and after the elections.

Do you have any hope that things will actually change after the elections? What would you like to see the new government doing?

We are urging the new government to put human rights at the top of its agenda in order to break Nigeria’s nationwide cycle of violence.

The new government must initiate independent, impartial and thorough investigations into allegations of crimes under international law, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed by members of Boko Haram and the Nigerian military. They should also take immediate measures to guarantee the safety, security and protection of civilians and their property in the communities affected by the ongoing violence.

Beyond the areas of conflict, the government must take robust measures to stamp out torture, including by criminalising it and bringing all those responsible for committing it to justice. Authorities must also halt all forced evictions and ensure people do not live under the constant threat of losing their homes.

Nigeria: Human rights by the numbers

  • 166,600,000: Number of people living in Nigeria (UN, 2012). Around half of the population is under 18.
  • 9 million: Number of orphan children, according to UNICEF.
  • 7.4: the percentage of infants that do not survive their first year.
  • 52/53: Live expectancy for men and women respectively (UN).
  • US$3,005.51: Gross Domestic Product (World Bank, 2013).
  • 70: Percentage the oil and gas sector represents of Nigeria’s government revenue.
  • One in three: Nigerians living in slums or informal settlements in poor overcrowded conditions with limited access to safe water and at constant threat of forced eviction.
  • 2 million: Number of people forcibly evicted from their homes since 2000. Many are still homeless.
  • 19 percent: Number of houses in rural areas with access to safe water.
  • 38,000: People in prison who have not been convicted of any offence, seven out of 10 of the total prison population.