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Human Rights

Nigeria was party to several international human rights treaties, including the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967) and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1953) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1977), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966) and the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1981), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1981). Nigeria also ratified the Slavery Convention of 1926, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery of 1956, and the 1949 Geneva Conventions Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War and the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. However, it had not signed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966); the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966); or the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The government's human rights record was mixed and generally worse during military rule, when decrees were exempt from legal challenge. Until the late 1970s, when military rulers deprived many citizens of their rights through detention without trial, physical assault, torture, harassment, and intimidation, the issue of human rights was not a major concern. It had been taken for granted that having a bill of rights guaranteed human rights. Thus, the independence (1960), republican (1963), Second Republic (1979), and Third Republic (1989) constitutions had elaborate sections on fundamental human rights. The fact that Nigeria did not become a one-party state as most other African states did immediately after independence forestalled the emergence of repressive measures, such as the preventive detention acts prevalent in Africa.

By the early 1970s, however, the days of "innocence" in relation to human rights were over. As Major General Yakubu Gowon's popularity declined, especially after he reneged on his promise to hand over power to civilians in 1976, criticisms of him and his cohorts increased. He reacted by detaining these critics for indefinite periods. This trend of abuse of the rights of regime opponents continued under the Muhammad/Obasanjo government and, after the creation of the Nigerian Security Organisation (NSO) in 1976, human rights violations became frequent. The return of constitutional government in the Second Republic (1979-83) reduced the violations, although the human rights record was poor because of the increasing powers of the police force and the NSO and the constant harassment of political opponents.

Under the Buhari regime military security was the criteria for judicial action, often in the form of military tribunals. The government not only gave the NSO greater powers but also promulgated decrees that directly violated human rights. The most notable were State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree Number 2 of 1984, which empowered the chief of staff at Supreme Headquarters to detain anyone suspected of being a security risk indefinitely without trial (detention was for three months initially, and then renewable), and Decree Number 4, which made the publication of any material considered embarrassing to any government official a punishable offense. Under Decree Number 2, many people considered "enemies" of the government were detained in NSO cells and allegedly tortured. Second Republic government officials, whom the Buhari regime held collectively responsible for the economic mess, were detained without trial or were tried by special military tribunals. At these tribunals, the accused was assumed guilty until proved innocent rather than innocent until proved guilty. Journalists and media organizations were regularly harassed by security agents; organized interest groups whose members dared to criticize the government openly or engage in demonstrations or strikes were proscribed.

The most active human rights group in Nigeria in 1990, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), founded by a group of young lawyers led by Olisa Agbakobe, emerged during the Buhari days. Before its emergence, human rights groups included the local branches of Amnesty International, far less effective than the parent organization, and the Nigeria Council for National Awareness, founded after the assassination of Murtala Muhammad to protect a just and humane society. Several other organizations criticized the government's violations of civil rights and urged remedial measures. These groups included NANS, the NBA, the NLC, and the Nigeria Union of Journalists. In 1988 another human rights organization, the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, was founded by Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, the radical deputy chairman of the NMA detained under the Buhari government.

When Babangida toppled Buhari in August 1985, one of his main arguments was the need to restore civil liberties. The new regime prided itself on being a defender of human rights, and many of Babangida's initial acts justified his human rights posture. He scrapped the NSO, threw open its cells and replaced it with the State Security Service (SSS) and other agencies; he released most of the politicians detained without trial and drastically reduced the jail terms of those already convicted; he appointed Bola Ajibola, the NBA president noted for his human rights advocacy, as minister of justice and attorney general; he scrapped Decree Number 4 and reduced the punishment for drug traffickers from public execution to jail terms; he annulled the proscription of "radical" groups such as the NMA and NANS; and he persisted with plans to restore civilian rule by 1992.

In other ways, however, human rights remained substantially circumscribed in 1990. Decree Number 2 remained in place, and numerous citizens had been incarcerated under it, although the allowable period of detention without charge was reduced from six months to six weeks in January 1990. With the aid of this and other decrees that restricted freedom, usually promulgated retrospectively, such radical and outspoken critics of the government as Gani Fawehinmi, Tai Solarin, and Balarabe Musa were regularly detained. Despite having annulled Decree Number 4, the government had several brushes with media organizations. In 1988 Newswatch was proscribed for six months, and journalists, academics, and civil rights activists continued to be harassed by state security agents. Although the notorious NSO was dissolved in 1986, the new security establishment in 1990 continued to act arbitrarily and with impunity. The government proscribed radical interest groups like NANS and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, the central body of all university professors and lecturers. Several innocent citizens were subjected to physical assault without government reparations.

Data as of June 1991

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