Deadly election-related and communal violence in northern Nigeria following the April 2011 presidential voting left more than 800 people dead, Human Rights Watch said today. The victims were killed in three days of rioting in 12 northern states. Nigeria’s state and federal authorities should promptly investigate and prosecute those who orchestrated and carried out these crimes and address the root causes of recurring inter-communal violence.
The violence began with widespread protests by supporters of the main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim from the Congress for Progressive Change, following the re-election of incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger Delta in the south, who was the candidate for the ruling People’s Democratic Party. The protests degenerated into violent riots or sectarian killings in the northern states of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara. Relief officials estimate that more than 65,000 people have been displaced.
“The April elections were heralded as among the fairest in Nigeria’s history, but they also were among the bloodiest,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The newly elected authorities should quickly build on the democratic gains from the elections by bringing to justice those who orchestrated these horrific crimes and addressing the root causes of the violence.”
The presidential election divided the country along ethnic and religious lines. As election results trickled in on April 17, and it became clear that Buhari had lost, his supporters took to the streets of northern towns and cities to protest what they alleged to be the rigging of the results.
The protesters started burning tires, and the protests soon turned into riots. The rioting quickly degenerated into sectarian and ethnic bloodletting across the northern states. Muslim rioters targeted and killed Christians and members of ethnic groups from southern Nigeria, who were perceived to have supported the ruling party, burning their churches, shops, and homes. The rioters also attacked police stations and ruling party and electoral commission offices. In predominately Christian communities in Kaduna State, mobs of Christians retaliated by killing Muslims and burning their mosques and properties.
According to the Christian Association of Nigeria, the umbrella organization representing the majority of Christian churches in Nigeria, at least 170 Christians were killed in the post-election riots, hundreds more were injured, and thousands displaced. The organization also reported that more than 350 churches were burned or destroyed by the Muslim rioters across 10 northern states.
In the predominately Christian towns and villages of southern Kaduna State, including Zonkwa, Matsirga, and Kafanchan, sectarian clashes left more than 500 dead, according to Muslim and Christian leaders interviewed by Human Rights Watch. The vast majority of the victims in these areas were Muslim.
Human Rights Watch estimates that in northern Kaduna State, at least 180 people, and possibly more, were killed in the cities of Kaduna and Zaria and their surrounding suburbs. According to media reports and journalists interviewed by Human Rights Watch, dozens of people were also killed during riots in the other northern states.
A lecturer at a college on the outskirts of Zaria described an attack on the college: “When you see the mob, they were not in their senses,” he said. “The students ran away but the mob pursued them into the staff quarters and they had nowhere to go. The mob beat them to death and hit them with machetes. Four Christian students and a Christian lecturer were killed.”
Following the violence, a Human Rights Watch researcher drove through smoldering towns in the southern part of Katsina State, interviewed witnesses in the cities of Kaduna and Zaria in northern Kaduna State, and visited burned out villages in southern Kaduna State, including Zonkwa, Matsirga, and Kafanchan, that resembled war zones with entire neighborhoods razed to the ground.
Human Rights Watch conducted more than 55 interviews with witnesses and victims of the violence, Christian and Muslim clergy, traditional leaders, police officials, civil society leaders, and journalists. Researchers also conducted telephone interviews with witnesses of the violence in Bauchi, Gombe, Kano, and Zamfara states.
In many of the northern towns and cities, Christians found refuge in police stations and military barracks. In southern Kaduna State, Muslim women and children flocked to police stations for safety. The police successfully protected people in many cases, but they were largely ineffective at controlling the rioting and violence in other places, Human Rights Watch found. In several cases, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that it was often not until soldiers were deployed to affected areas that the violence was halted.
Both the police and the military were implicated in the excessive use of force and other serious abuses while responding to the rioting and sectarian violence. Human Rights Watch documented eight cases of alleged unlawful killing of unarmed residents by the police and soldiers in the cities of Zaria and Kaduna, and received credible reports of more than a dozen other incidents.
Human Rights Watch also received credible reports that the police and soldiers in Kaduna, Gombe, and Bauchi states systematically beat people rounded up during or after the riots. Many of the detainees charged at the Chief Magistrate’s Court in Kaduna city had fresh scars on their backs, journalists who attended the hearing told Human Rights Watch. In the town of Azare, in northern Bauchi State, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that detainees were severely beaten by soldiers and police. One of the detainees’ hands was reportedly broken, while another detainee was hospitalized as a result of the beatings.
“The Nigerian authorities should promptly investigate these credible reports of unlawful killings and other abuses by members of the security forces,” Dufka said. “The use of violence by rioters, mobs, and state actors alike needs to be stopped.”
On May 11, President Jonathan appointed a new 22-member panel to investigate the causes and extent of the election violence.
The police spokesperson in Kaduna State told Human Rights Watch that more than 500 people have been arrested and charged following the recent post-election violence. But police and state prosecutors in the past have rarely followed through with criminal investigations and effective prosecutions.
In the town of Kafanchan, one of the Christian leaders lamented to Human Rights Watch that past commissions of inquiry have failed to bring the culprits to book.
“There have been commissions of inquiries set up in the past, but I don’t know what they did; that is why we are really skeptical,” he said. “I want to believe that if they had done justice, maybe a repeat of this wouldn’t have come. This time justice should be done.”
For more evidence, background, and testimony please continue below.
Improved Elections but a New Cycle of Violence
Nigeria held three rounds of elections – legislative on April 9, presidential on April 16, and gubernatorial on April 26. Human Rights Watch researchers monitored the human rights dimension of the elections, including freedom of assembly, expression, and association, during each round – Bauchi and Benue states during the legislative elections, Katsina and Oyo states for the presidential round, and Akwa Ibom and Kaduna states for the gubernatorial voting.
The Independent National Electoral Commission, under its new chairman, Attahiru Jega, significantly improved the conduct of the elections, creating a new voters’ register, improving transparency in reporting results, and publicly pledging to hold accountable those who broke the rules. Elections were held in most areas of the country in a largely peaceful atmosphere, with fewer reported incidents of violence or blatant police abuses than in previous years.
Despite the improvements, though, there were still incidents of violence, hijacking of ballot boxes by party thugs, and reports of police misconduct, particularly in southeast Nigeria and the volatile Niger Delta region.
Violence linked to the party primaries and campaigns, and on the days of the elections, has left at least 165 people dead since November 2010. One of the leading gubernatorial candidates in Borno State was assassinated in January 2011, bombings in four states – Bayelsa, Borno, Kaduna, and Niger – left dozens dead, and clashes between opposing party supporters or attacks by party thugs during the campaigns killed dozens of others.
The elections were also marred by allegations of vote buying, ballot-box stuffing, and inflation of results, most noticeably in southeastern Nigeria – Jonathan’s stronghold – where official results in the presidential election in some rural areas recorded close to 100 percent voter turnout.
A History of Election Violence
Between independence in 1960 and 1999, Nigeria produced only two elected governments – both later overthrown in military coups. Nigeria’s military ruled the country for nearly 30 of its first 40 years of independence. However, in 1999, Nigeria made a transition to civilian rule. The 1999 elections, which brought a retired general, Olusegun Obasanjo, to power, were blighted by such widespread fraud that observers from the Carter Center concluded that “it is not possible for us to make an accurate judgment about the outcome of the presidential election.”
Federal and state elections in 2003 were again marred by fraud as well as serious incidents of violence that left at least 100 people dead and many others injured. Human Rights Watch found that members and supporters of the ruling party were responsible for the majority of abuses, though opposition parties also engaged in political violence. Most deaths occurred when opposing bands of armed gangs fought each other in an effort to control an area and displace supporters of the opposing party. Human Rights Watch documented how ruling party politicians in the oil-rich Niger Delta mobilized and funded armed groups to help rig elections. That led to a sustained increase in violence and criminality in the region.
Despite the abysmal record of the 1999 and 2003 elections, the government did not correct the problems in the next elections. Observers from the European Union described the 2007 elections, which brought Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim from northern Nigeria, to power, as among the worst they had witnessed anywhere in the world. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 300 people were killed in violence linked to the 2007 elections.
Corrupt politicians, in many cases backed by mafia-like “godfathers,” openly mobilized gangs of thugs to terrorize ordinary citizens and political opponents and to stuff or steal ballot boxes. The police were often present during such incidents but frequently turned a blind eye or, at times, participated in abuses. In other locations elections simply did not take place, yet the electoral commission reported ruling-party victories with high voter turnout.
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