UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
[This IRIN report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
LAGOS, 11 January 2000 (IRIN) - Human rights and pro-democracy groups in Nigeria say the performance of the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo is a marked improvement on that of the previous military regimes but more needs to be done.
"The oppressive environment is no longer there," Clement Nwankwo, Executive Director of Constitutional Rights Project (CRP) told IRIN: "It is something you feel but cannot quantify."
"People generally feel more secure, particularly with the reduced military presence on the streets," Mofia Akobo, chairman of the Southern Minorities Movement, told IRIN. (The movement represents ethnic groups in Niger Delta states.)
The arraignment in court of those accused of committing rights abuses under past regimes, such as Mohammed Abacha, son of late military ruler General Sani Abacha, and Ishaya Bamaiyi, Abacha's former army chief of staff, is another step in the right direction, analysts say.
Mohammed Abacha is accused of the murder of Kudirat Abiola, wife of late presidential candidate Moshood Abiola, while Bamaiyi is accused of plotting to murder a former minister of internal affairs.
"Trials like this teach everyone a lesson," Nimi Walson-Jack, Director of the Centre for Responsive Politics in Port Harcourt, told IRIN. "Even the majority of the police are now trying to do their job. Now you know that you don't just obey orders. The orders must conform to what the law says."
"Police are now more respectful of the rights of citizens," Nwankwo told IRIN. "There is no longer a culture of impunity."
Nwankwo said the setting up of a Human Rights Investigation Commission, headed by respected retired Supreme Court Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, was a positive step but he expressed concern that it was "still in the organisational stage".
The commission can summon witnesses to attend its hearings, and recommend that people be tried for their crimes, although the question of political amnesty has not yet been resolved. Its period of remit begins with the government of General Buhari in 1984 and ends in May 1999, when the civilian government came into power.
Obasanjo's pro-active stance against corruption receives high marks from pro-democracy and human rights groups. An anti-corruption bill passed by the House of Representatives on 17 December sets a penalty of seven years imprisonment for officials found guilty of corruption. It is backed by a new commission with powers of investigation.
Obasanjo has also sought to recover billions of dollars of public money stolen by past military regimes and which may have been transferred illegally to accounts in Europe and the United States.
But analysts argue that more transparency in governance and greater enforcement of existing laws, as opposed to more legislation, are needed to curtail corruption. Some progress has reportedly been made in this regard. Government contracts now have to be advertised publicly and government officials are under greater pressure to account for their actions.
"For once ministers in Nigeria are not being flamboyant. You can even check their records," Walson-Jack told IRIN. "Before ministers used to flout their ill-gotten wealth. Now they are just doing their job.
"We know that there is no money in the economy," he added "but we also know that the President has not stolen it. That counts in his favour."
Others, such as Beko Ransome-Kuti, chairman of the Campaign for Democracy, argue that this is not the whole picture. "(Former military leader Ibrahim) Babangida is still around, free and happy," Ransome-Kuti told IRIN "and there are people being found with money which should not be with them who have not been prosecuted."
Similar sentiments were expressed by prominent human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi after the Crime Reporters Association of Nigeria presented him in December with an award for services to humanity. Fawehinmi said if Obasanjo did not put Babangida on trial the present regime's anti-corruption drive would be seen as a "wild goose chase."
Walson-Jack argues that the relatively smooth relationship between the legislature and the executive is also a positive sign.
"The National Assembly is a group of people who think that they have all the powers in the world," he said. "Some want to defend the status quo, some think they know what democracy is all about and so they are bound to clash with the Executive. The fact that they have got on so well is a credit."
There is a high level of freedom of expression in Nigeria today and no newspaper has been banned, according to Walson-Jack, who told IRIN: "I would not be talking to you if Abacha were still in power."
But some feel that the government's capacity to implement reforms is hindered by what they see as its connections with past military regimes. "The government cannot act decisively in reorganising the military, sanitising the judiciary, overhauling the police," Akobo told IRIN. "There are people who have crudely invested in politics who want to recover their investment."
Other analysts say people's expectations are too high and that it is unrealistic to expect a new democracy like the one in Nigeria to shake off the legacy of military rule overnight.
"Even the average Nigerian on the street still acts as though we are still a military state and so it is not surprising that the leadership does the same," Walson-Jack told IRIN.
Human rights abuses still occur, according to Oliver Onwubunta, Information Officer for the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt.
"People are still being picked up and detained by the police without being charged and without going to court," Onwubunta told IRIN, citing as an example the editor of an Ogoni newspaper who, he said, was picked up and detained for one month.
The most significant blot on the civilian government's record, according to human rights organisations, occurred when the army, deployed to Odi to catch the killers of 12 policemen murdered in November, ended up destroying much of the town and allegedly killing some of its residents.
A group of some 35 Nigerian human rights groups, known as the Odi Coalition against Genocide, has condemned the destruction in Odi and called for an international war crimes tribunal to be created to try those responsible for the atrocities which, they allege, took place there.
On the other hand, the government said that sending the military to Odi was unavoidable in the circumstances. "The deployment of troops to Odi was an inevitable step taken under very serious constraints on the part of the federal government," presidential spokesman Doyin Okupe told reporters on 29 November.
He added that they were there to catch a "dangerous band of psychopathic mercenaries".
On 16 December Vice President Atiku Abubakar said a specialised police unit had been established to contain crises in the Niger Delta. He added that the police would be better equipped, trained and enlarged to enforce order in trouble spots.
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