Nigeria Pro-Democracy Movement Needs Support

Nigeria Pro-Democracy Movement Needs Support


Washington Office on Africa Action Alert

Despite a massive strike by oil workers last summer, continued protests by Nigerian pro-democracy groups, and international criticism, Nigeria's military rulers have refused to abide by the results of the June 1993 presidential election. Chief Moshood Abiola, who won 59% of the votes, is on trial for treason.

The military regime has continued to harass and imprison opponents. It has banned major independent newspapers, and has pressed on with its own new constitutional conference boycotted by the vast majority of opposition forces.

The United States, along with other major powers, has condemned the actions of the military regime, and U.S. military ties with Nigeria have been suspended. But Nigerian pro-democracy activists say stronger action is needed. Unless the regime comes under much stronger pressure from outside, there will be little chance of restoring democracy peacefully.

The crisis could easily escalate in unpredictable ways. The consequences--in Africas most populous country with a multitude of ethnic and religious cleavages--could be a disaster of monumental proportions for Nigeria and the entire continent.

The Nigerian Context

Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has alternated between short periods of intense civilian political competition and longer stretches under military rule. Military governments ruled from 1966 to 1979, and from 1984 to the present.

Under British rule, Nigeria was divided administratively into three geographical areas: the North, predominantly Muslim and Hausa-speaking; the Southeast, predominantly Christian and identified with the Igbo-speaking ethnic group; and the Southwest, also predominantly Christian and largely Yoruba-speaking.

Between 1967 and 1970, Nigeria fought a civil war over the secession of the eastern region, called Biafra. Despite intense ethnic polarization and perhaps as many as one million killed during the war, the winning federal government followed a policy of non-retribution. Subsequent division of Nigeria into smaller states produced larger representation for ethnic groups other than the big three.

While political competition often related to ethnic balancing, Nigeria's vigorous economic and political culture also produced many cross-cutting divisions and alliances, based on distinctions between civilian and military, between rich and poor, and a host of other factors. Private business, energetic and diverse communications media, labor unions, professional associations, a literary scene with world-renowned authors, religious bodies, and many other groups built solid foundations for democratic culture and a diverse civil society.

Military Regime's Abuses

In 1987 President Ibrahim Babangida, who came to power in a 1985 coup, officially began a program of transition to civilian rule. After many delays, it culminated in legislative elections in July 1992 and presidential elections in June 1993.

The electoral system imposed two political parties created by the military: the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Both parties chose wealthy Muslim businessmen to run for president. The NRC candidate was Bashir Tofa, from northern Nigeria; Chief Moshood Abiola, from the southwest, was the candidate for the SDP. Although both had been approved by the military, Abiola, a flamboyant media magnate and philanthropist, was seen as potentially more independent.

Abiola won majorities in 22 of Nigeria's 31 states. Even in the north, he won 43% of the vote, including majorities in 4 of the 11 northern states. Northern feudal leaders and sections of the military feared loss of their power. President Babangida refused to allow official announcement of the vote count and annulled the results, alleging that the candidates had been buying votes. He said a new election would be held at some future date, with both candidates barred from running again.

In the protests that followed, the army killed more than 150 demonstrators. Continued unrest led Babangida to resign in August 1993. He installed his own civilian caretaker, Ernest Shonekan, who was in turn deposed in November by General Sani Abacha, a high-ranking member of the previous military regime.

Since General Abacha took power, human rights abuses by the regime have increased, and have been met with escalating pro-democracy protests. The new regime removed previously elected national and state legislatures and civilian state governments and banned all political activity.

Shortly before the first anniversary of the June 12 election, Chief Abiola proclaimed himself president. He was promptly arrested and put on trial for treason. Hundreds of activists and opposition figures also have been arrested or harassed, and some have been mistreated in prison. Although some have been released after short periods of detention, most have not.

The military regime has also intensified repression of the Ogoni people in the oil-producing Niger delta area, who have been protesting for years against environmental destruction and loss of their lands. As many as 1,000 Ogonis were killed by the military in the second half of 1993. Prominent Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and other leaders of the Ogoni movement were arrested in May, and are still being held. They may be subject to the death penalty for involvement in communal clashes.

Broad-based Movement

The military has tried to portray the pro-democracy forces as simply ethnic compatriots and supporters of Abiola from the Yoruba-speaking southwest. But the campaign is in fact much wider, and includes Nigerians of all ethnic groups and religions. Most stress that their priority is support for the democratic process as such, not the political candidacy of one man.

The campaign thus includes not only political supporters of Chief Abiola, but also a range of human rights groups which have long been active in demanding electoral democracy and respect for civil rights. Although Abiola is a Muslim, both Catholic and Protestant church groups have made strong statements calling for the results of the June 1993 elections to be honored.

National organizations representing Nigeria's doctors, university teachers and staff, and students have all actively campaigned for the release of political prisoners and recognition of the election results.

Political opponents of the regime, including many elected officials whom the military had dismissed from their posts, came together in May this year in the National Democratic Coalition. The Campaign for Democracy, which spearheaded the demonstrations leading to Babangidas resignation last year, is the largest coalition of independent pro-democracy groups.

Dozens of smaller groups operate both inside Nigeria and among the large Nigerian expatriate population in the United States and Europe. While there are many organizational and political differences among them, there is virtually universal agreement on the demands that the military step down and that the election results be recognized.

On July 4, 1994, the National Union of Petroleum and Gas Workers (NUPENG) went out on strike, including among their key demands a hand-over of government to the civilian winner of the June 1993 election. Oil accounts for over 80% of Nigeria's export earnings, and the strike was extremely effective for two months. NUPENG's white-collar counterpart, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association, joined the strike, along with a number of unions associated with the national Nigerian Labor Congress.

The military eventually broke the strike, arresting key officials such as Frank Kokori, NUPENG's general secretary, and suspending the leadership of the two oil unions and the Nigerian Labor Congress. Most workers returned to their jobs, but discontent remains high.

In September government harassment of the press reached new levels when three leading newspapers, the Guardian, the Concord, and the Punch, were banned for six months, leaving over 1,500 media workers unemployed. All three had published critical news and opinion, and had been closed down on earlier occasions. But the new degree even mandated sealing of the premises, making it impossible to continue even minimal operations.

Weak International Response

Since the annulment of the June 1993 election, the United States has been critical of Nigeria's military regime. It has banned military aid, imposed visa limitations on regime officials, and restricted non-humanitarian aid to Nigeria. The United States thus has a better record than some European countries, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, which have even continued some arms sales to Nigeria.

In July, President Clinton sent Jesse Jackson as his special envoy to Nigeria to encourage concessions from the military. The visit did not meet with success, and Jackson said assertive, aggressive diplomacy was needed to prevent civil war.

But Washington has been hesitant to take stronger action. The current U.S. ambassador to Nigeria has not been visible in protesting detentions of political prisoners. Nor has the Clinton Administration put active pressure on its European allies to take additional measures against the military regime.

There is broad consensus among Nigerian pro-democracy groups on the need for stronger actions. These include higher-profile protests against human rights abuses, a firm international arms embargo, freezing the foreign assets of regime members, and finding some way to block the military's access to oil revenues.

Some members of the U.S. Congress have spoken up as well. In July a concurrent resolution urging support for democracy in Nigeria, introduced by Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) with 56 co-sponsors, passed the House. The bill did not mandate specific action, but many of the sponsors maintain a continuing concern with the situation in Nigeria.

Various nongovernmental groups have been active on the issue. They include human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the AFL-CIO's African-American Labor Center. Nigerians resident in this country have bombarded Administration officials with protest petitions.

Still, the Administration is not likely to act with urgency unless the issue takes on a higher public profile. Pro-democracy Nigerians inside and outside Nigeria are leading the way toward a democratic transition, but their efforts need much wider support from the international community and from Africa advocates in the United States.


1. Encourage members of Congress who have been active in supporting democracy in Nigeria to continue their efforts. Ask them to press for stronger U.S. actions, including:

* A more active role by the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria in support of political prisoners;

* Freezing overseas assets of Nigeria's military leaders;

* Channeling payments for Nigerian oil into an escrow account pending substantive moves towards democratization.

Direct your letters to these members of the Congressional Black Caucus who have taken the lead on this issue:

Rep. Donald Payne
417 Cannon Bldg.
Washington, DC 20515
Tel: (202) 225-3436  Fax: (202) 225-4160
Rep. William Jefferson
428 Cannon Bldg.
Washington, DC 20515
Tel: (202) 225-6636  Fax: (202) 225-1239
Send copies of your letter to:
Sen. Paul Simon, Chair
Senate African Affairs Subcommittee
SD-446 Dirksen Bldg.
Washington, DC 20510
Tel: (202) 224-4651  Fax: (202) 224-2223
Rep. Harry Johnston, Chair
House Africa Subcommittee
709 ONeill Bldg.
Washington, DC 20515
Tel: (202) 226-7807  Fax: (202) 225-8791
Mr. Anthony Lake
National Security Advisor
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Tel: (202) 456-2256  Fax: (202) 456-2883
2. Learn more about the crisis. Contact:
Human Rights Watch/Africa
1522 K St. NW, #910
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: (202) 371-6592  Fax: (202) 371-0124
for their latest report on Nigeria. You also may wish to get in touch with one of the many local pro-democracy groups of Nigerians in the United States. There is no one central office, but local contact information should be available from:

Nigerian Democratic Movement
P.O. Box 91291
Washington, DC 20090
Tel: (202) 291-7015 or (301) 989-0016

This material is made available by the Washington
Office on Africa (WOA)and the Africa Policy Information
Center (APIC).  WOA is a not-for-profit church and
trade union and civil-right group supported organization
that works with Congress on Africa-related legislation.
APIC is WOA's educational affiliate.
For more information:
Washington Office on Africa
110 Maryland Ave. NE, #112
Washington, DC 20002.
Phone: 202-546-7961.
Fax: 202-546-1545.

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 28 Oct 1994 06:24:41 -0700
From: The Washington Office on Africa 
Subject: Nigeria Pro-Democracy Movement Needs Support

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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