(Abuja) – The Nigeria elections in 2019 that brought President Muhammadu Buhari back into office for a second term were marred by political violence, some of it by soldiers and police officers, Human Rights Watch said. Buhari should take concrete steps to address the widespread political violence, and to ensure accountability for human rights abuses by soldiers and police as he begins his second term.
The election period included persistent attacks by factions of the insurgent group Boko Haram in the northeast; increased communal violence between nomadic herdsmen and farmers spreading southward from north-central states; and a dramatic uptick in banditry, kidnapping, and killings in the northwestern states of Kaduna, Katsina, and Zamfara. Security forces have failed to respond effectively to threats to people’s lives and security.
“The lack of meaningful progress in addressing the prevalent political violence, as well as lack of accountability for rights abuses, marked Buhari’s first term in office,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “He should put these issues at the front and center of his second term agenda and urgently take concrete steps to improve respect for human rights.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 people, including voters, journalists, election observers, activists, and Independent National Electoral Commission officials in Rivers and Kano states, and documented 11 deaths specifically related to violent interference in the election process during the February 23 presidential election and subsequent state elections.
The national and state elections in February, March, and April 2019 contributed to the general insecurity across the country. The politically related violence reported in many states was in contrast to the relatively peaceful 2015 elections that brought Buhari into his first term in office. According to a report by SBM Intelligence, which monitors sociopolitical and economic developments in Nigeria, 626 people were killed during the 2019 election cycle, starting with campaigns in 2018.
Kano state, in northwestern Nigeria, has the highest number of registered voters in the country. Rivers state, in the Niger Delta, receives the largest share of crude-oil-based national revenue, representing significant electoral value to any political party. The history of elections in both states is replete with violence by state security agencies and criminal elements. Human Rights Watch focused its research on both states in view of projections and reports of violence during the 2019 elections. Despite police claims of increased security measures to ensure peaceful voting, there seems to have been little or no police response to reports of threats and acts of violence by hired political thugs and soldiers against voters and election officials, Human Rights Watch found.
Voters and election officials said that policemen either fled or stood idly by, fueling allegations of complicity, as perpetrators stole election materials, disrupted voting, and harassed voters. Witnesses said that the police also shot live rounds of ammunition and used teargas to disperse people protesting voting disruptions.
Witnesses said that after a soldier was killed in the town of Abonnema, in Rivers state, on election day, soldiers shot at residents, killing an unknown number of people. They also carried out sweeping arrests and arbitrarily detained several people. “The soldiers were on a rampage, shooting at anyone around,” said a 37-year-old man who witnessed the episode. “As I made my way to flee, I saw people dive into the river, many with gunshot wounds. The next day I saw three dead bodies riddled with bullets floating in the water… I heard many more bodies were later recovered from that river.”
The army said in a statement that on election day, unidentified people attacked soldiers, killing one, and that the soldiers killed six of the attackers in response.
On March 15, the spokesperson for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Festus Okoye, accused soldiers of intimidation and unlawful arrest of election officials in the state. The Nigerian Army on the same day announced the creation of a committee to investigate allegations of misconduct against its personnel during the elections. The committee was given two weeks to produce its findings, but it has not published its report.
Banditry and the recurring cycles of deadly violence between herdsmen and farmers appear to have taken the lives of thousands. According to civil society reports, over 3,641 people have died from deadly clashes between herdsmen and farmers since 2015 and at least 262 people have been killed by bandits since the beginning of 2019 in Zamfara State alone. The government deployed 1,000 military troops to the state in response, but few of those responsible for the violence have been arrested or held to account.
The northeast conflict with Boko Haram and its splinter groups also remains one of Buhari’s pressing challenges. Although Boko Haram’s territorial control has shrunk to small pockets of villages around Lake Chad as a result of sustained government military action since 2015, the group continues to carry out attacks against civilian and military targets in the region and in neighboring Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.
In recent months, renewed fighting between Nigerian government forces and a faction of Boko Haram, known as Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), has led to secondary displacement of civilians.
Security forces have been implicated in serious abuses, including arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention without trial, torture, extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence against women and girls in camps for displaced people. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 27,000 civilians have died and about 1.8 million people have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict in 2009.
Authorities have also failed to address impunity for killings by security forces elsewhere in the country. The authorities have yet to publish the report of the Presidential Judicial Panel set up in August 2017 to investigate the military’s compliance with human rights obligations, allegations of war crimes, and other abuses by the military.
“Nigerian voters have entrusted Buhari with another opportunity to address the nation’s serious human rights problems, including political violence,” Ewang said. “He should start by reforming the security forces to ensure strict compliance with human rights standards, and prompt investigation and prosecution of those credibly implicated in abuses.”