Human rights in Nigeria

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Human rights in Nigeria are protected under the most current constitution of 1999. Nigeria has made serious improvements in human rights under this constitution though the American Human Rights Report of 2012 notes areas where significant improvement is needed, which include:[1] abuses by Boko Haram, killings by governmental forces, lack of social equality, and issues with freedom of speech. The Human Rights Watch's 2015 World Report states that intensified violence by Boko Haram, restrictions of LGBTIQQ rights, and government corruption continue to undermine the status of human rights in Nigeria.[2]

History since independence[edit]

In the period between its independence in 1960 to 1998, Nigeria had, in terms of heads of State, two elected, one appointed, one military successor and 7 [coups d'etat] powers. In 1979, they moved to a presidential system in order to properly instate the right of choosing who rules them with a new constitution. This constitution guarantees fundamental human rights that are constantly in violation.

There was a crusade for human rights in 1985 when General Ibrahim Babangida took power.[3] There were changes under the Babangida administration both for the positive as well as for the negative.

Although Nigeria has been active in signing and ratifying international human rights treaties, it has seen challenges when trying to implement these treaties domestically. Nigeria operates under a dualist system and cannot apply international treaties unless they are ratified by the legislative houses of Nigeria. Furthermore, the Nigerian constitution protects civil and political rights, but international treaties like the African Charter also expand protection to cultural, socioeconomic, and group rights. Because the Nigerian constitution is supreme law, the Supreme Court of Nigeria often resolves conflicts in favor of the Constitution, therefore restricting the expansion of potential human rights.[4]

Freedom of expression[edit]

When General Babangida took power in 1985 and repealed Decree N0. 4 of 1984, a law that made it criminal behavior to publish any material that was considered embarrassing or against the interests of the government,[5] there was renewed hope for freedom of expression both by the people and the media. Within the Babangida regime, political tolerance occurred for some time. However, this brief foray into human rights broke down when the regime began jailing its critics and firing employees who did not promote their views and ideals. This regime closed down more newspapers and banned more popular organizations than any other in Nigeria's post-colonial history.[5]

The press in Nigeria was often subject to scare tactics and intimidation. Journalists were subjected to "chats" with the State Security Service that involved threatening and possible imprisonment.[5] There were continually newspaper shutdowns. In 1990, The Republic, Newbreed, Lagos Daily News, The Punch, and various other newspapers were shutdown at some point by the federal government.[6]

Critics maintain that though measures of freedom of the press have improved, there is still room for improvement. Nigeria was described as "partly free" in the Freedom of the Press 2011 report published by the Freedom House (see yearly rankings in Freedom House ratings in Nigeria section).[7]

Government violations[edit]

Nigerian security forces are frequently alleged to carry out arbitrary arrests, torture, forced disappearances, assassinations and extrajudicial summary executions. These abuses typically occur within the context of the Nigerian government's security operations or are directed against political and religious organizations and individuals. Several instances of mass killings of political opponents and agitators by security forces have been reported. On 12-14 December 2015, the Nigerian Army carried out a massacre of 347 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in Zaria, Kaduna State and buried the bodies in mass graves.

Police force[edit]

In Nigeria, the Nigeria Police Force has been typically viewed as inefficient and corrupt. The Joint Task Force (JTF) has provided inadequate and violent response to the Boko Haram attacks. The JTF has been involved in killing suspects without fair trial as well as killing random members of communities suspected of supporting the Boko Haram.[8] This "heavy-handed" approach violates human rights with its lack of access to a fair trial and use of discriminatory techniques to determine perpetrators of violence.[8]

Within the regular Nigerian Police Force, there are high amounts of corruption and violations that include extortion and embezzlement. The police force takes advantage of the people by putting up roadblocks that require a fee to pass and taking money for no legal reason. Within the police force, there is no equal protection under the law.[9] The wealthy are able to buy the police for security as well as expecting the police to turn a blind eye to illegal activities they participate in.


Nigeria has the label of having one of the world's highest levels of corruption. This is especially seen within the public sector including stealing public funds and accepting bribes[10] It is estimated that between 1999 and 2007, Nigeria has lost around $4–8 billion yearly due to corruption.[11]

Politicians often siphon public funds to further their political careers and also pay gangs to aid them in rigging elections. The elections since the end of military rule occurring in 1999, 2003, and 2007 were bloody affairs and were openly rigged.[11] In 2007, ballot boxes were visibly stuffed by paid gangs and in some cases, electoral results were simply made up.[12] Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 300 were killed due to the 2007 elections and that is considered to be a conservative estimate as cited from a Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Derrick Marco, Nigeria country director in March 2007. These measures of violence and intimidation discouraged the general public from voting. Those who did come out were subject to attacks by gangs.[11]

The current Fourth Republic of Nigeria has strengthened its laws against corruption and established the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in the early 2000s. However, due to the previous institutionalization of corruption, the battle against corruption is ongoing. These anti-corruption institutions have been attempting to combat the issue but they have not been very heavy handed in terms of punishment.[9] Former Edo State governor Lucky Igbinedion pleaded guilty to embezzling 2.9 billion Naira (about $24.2 million). However, he had a plea bargain with the EFCC and was fined 3.5 million Naira ($29,167) and did not serve any jail time.[13] Often, many high-level politicians remain uninvestigated and only lower-level officials are arrested.[2]

Boko Haram[edit]

Boko Haram is an Islamist terrorist group that focuses its attacks on government officials, Christians, and fellow Muslims who speak out against their actions or are thought to aid the government, known as "traitor Muslims". Attacks are primarily focused in northeast Nigeria.[8] They cite corruption committed by the national government as well as increased Western influence as the primary reason for their often violent actions. This group engaging in jihad was banded in 2000 by the spiritual leader Mohammed Yusuf.

In July 2009, there were five days of extreme violence from Boko Haram as well as with the governmental response. From 26 to 31 July, the group killed 37 Christian men and burned 29 churches. After a brief hiatus in claimed incidents, the group resurfaced in the summer of 2011 with church attacks.

In October 2013, Amnesty International recommended that the Nigerian government investigate the deaths of more than 950 suspected Boko Haram members that died under military custody in the first six months of the year.[14]

In 2014, Boko Haram drew international attention from its 14 April kidnapping of approximately 230 female students from a secondary school in the northern town of Chibok, Nigeria. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claims the girls have converted to Islam and has threatened to sell them as wives or slaves to Boko Haram members at a price of $12.50 each.[15] Boko Haram has also attacked schools in Yobe State and forced hundreds of young men to join their forces, killing those who refused. Persistent violence in northeast Nigeria in 2014 has caused the deaths of over 2,500 civilians and the displacement of more than 700,000.[2]

From 3 to 7 January 2015, Boko Haram militants seized and razed the towns of Baga and Doron-Baga and reportedly killed at least 150 people in the Baga Massacre.[16]

Boko Haram kills civilians, abducts women and girls, forcefully conscripted boys and men, and even destroyed homes and schools.[17]

Social rights and equality[edit]

LGBT rights[edit]

In May 2013, Nigeria's House of Representatives voted to pass the Same-Sex Marriage Bill, which prohibits gay marriage and public displays of affection between same-sex couples and allots fourteen years in prison to those engaged in same-sex relationships. This bill also allows punishment for those knowingly associating with those identifying as members of the LGBT community or aiding these individuals in becoming married or pursuing that lifestyle. The punishment for abetting gay marriage is 5 years imprisonment. Furthermore, the bill criminalizes any association with gay identity and the promotion of lesbian and gay rights, such as gathering privately with gay people.[18] The Same-Sex Marriage Bill was ratified by President Goodluck Jonathan in January 2014 and has received much condemnation from the West for its restriction of the freedoms of expression and assembly for the LGBT community in Nigeria.[2]

Peter Tatchell has stated that the Same-Sex Marriage Bill is "the most comprehensively homophobic legislation ever proposed in any country in the world."[18] Shawn Gaylord, Advocacy Counsel of Human Rights First, has said that the Same-Sex Marriage Bill "sets a dangerous precedence for persecution and violence against minorities" not only in Nigeria, but throughout Africa as a whole.[19]


Women in Nigeria face various versions of human rights violations despite the provisions granted unto them in the 1999 Constitution.[20] Regardless of the opportunity provided to take up unconstitutionality to higher courts in Nigeria, women do not often utilize this option and as such, there continues to be many violations occurring.

Women who are involved in the informal economy can often enjoy some degree of autonomy, but men are often in control of land and credit, from a societal perspective. Depending on their connections with important men, educated women may enjoy a higher social status. Education has provided many women with access to wage labor, which is usually outside of the direct control of men, but women are often still restrained by social expectations and boundaries. Even when they have employment opportunities, tradition in Nigerian society dictates that a career be secondary to a woman's primary role in the family as a mother or housewife.[21] Nigerian women face particular problems and injustices once they become widows. The women are subject to cultural pressures that are inconsistent with human rights. In the widowhood practice, culture demands that when a man of significance within the community dies, his widow must act in a certain way as documented by Akpo Offiong Bassey in her studies of the Cross River State.[22] In some cultures; the woman must initially go into seclusion. They are also forced to neglect their bodies; they are not allowed to shave, shower, or change their clothing. They have to rub cow dung and palm oil on their bodies and must also sleep on the floor. Widows are also expected to wear black, the color of mourning, for two years to properly show their loss and respect for their late husband.[23] These practices widely vary in severity and methods, based on the individual cultural backdrop. However, there has been a major decline of such practices in recent years.

Apart from mourning, the widow has immediate concerns involving living situations and property to deal with. In most cases, the eldest son and not the widow inherits the entire property.[23] Women are culturally viewed as property and can be inherited like the rest of a husband's estate. Whether or not the widow can continue to reside on the property is dependent on her relationship with her eldest son or, if there are no sons, the eldest male relative of her husband. There have also been instances where the woman must return to her premarital home after refunding the bride price.[22] The lack of sufficient property right makes these women dependent on men while single, married, or widowed.

Though the Nigerian Supreme Court has yet to formally deal with this issue, in the 2007 Nnanyelugo v. Nnanyelugo case, two brothers attempted to get the land of their deceased brother under the case that a widow has no business with the property. The ruling stated that they would no longer allow the males to take advantage of the vulnerable position of the widows and young children.[23] There are other cases in which courts have ruled to implement the equality guaranteed underneath the constitution.

Because of the patrilineal nature of Nigerian cultures, it is often seen as justifiable to have another wife to ensure that there will be a male heir to carry the lineage of the family. In custody decisions, women's opinions are often ignored, and decisions are usually made in men's favor.[21]

Child labor and child marriage[edit]

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 31% of Nigerian children (around 14,000,000 children) aged 5 to 14 years old are working children who engage in forced labor in various sectors.[24] According to the Department's List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, instances of child labor have been observed in the agricultural sector where children participate in the production of cocoa, cassava, and sand, and in the mining industry where they mine, quarry, and crush gravel and granite.

Nigeria is characterized by many small farms that largely depend on family labor in the operations of the farm. In Nigeria, most child labor is found in the informal agricultural sector. Instead of attending school, more than 50% of children living in the rural areas of Nigeria spend more than 20 hours a week working, which is considered the point at which a child's education becomes significantly affected.[25]

Early marriage is prevalent in Nigeria, especially amongst Muslims in the north, due to the belief that early marriage prevents promiscuity. However, the major cause of early marriage has been attributed to poverty by Tim Braimah.[26]

Many girls are married off by the time they are 15, and some girls are married as early as age 9. Girls are extremely susceptible to disease and domestic violence and are restricted access to education due to the early age at which they give birth and begin caring for their children.[27]

One popular source of legislation that was first brought forward in 1991 and became national law in 2003 is the Child Rights Act. Among other factors to protect children from abuses and discrimination, Section 21 and 23 of the act made it illegal to marry off a child below the age of 18. If a husband consummates a marriage with a child, it is considered rape.[28]

The Child Rights Act competes with sharia law in some states as well as with customs and cultural expectations in different regions. The Child Rights Act has not been enacted in 13 of Nigeria's 36 states where other cultural and religious factors are largely influencing the laws that are enacted.[29] Even in states with laws prohibiting child marriage, these laws have been ineffective since there remain many cases of child marriage.[27]

Ethnic minorities[edit]

Minority ethnic groups have been fighting for equal rights since Nigeria's independence in 1960.[30] Many of the tensions between ethnic groups arise from Nigeria's federal system,[31] and many minorities view the governmental structure as skewed in favor of the three major ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani in the North, the Yoruba in the West, and the Igbo in the east. They believe that the federation is not inclusive of minorities, which leads to marginalized ethnic groups.[30]

Since Nigeria's independence, minorities have joined together to demand the formation of new states, increasing the number of states from 12 in 1967 to the current number of 36, in the attempts to reduce the regional power of dominant ethnic groups. However, this only led to the further marginalization of smaller ethnic minorities by more powerful ethnic minorities within the state. Also, the limited presence of power-sharing mechanisms means that the national leadership of Nigeria has remained in the power of the majority ethnic groups.[30]

Religious minorities[edit]

According to its constitution, Nigeria is a secular country.[32] The Constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion and guarantees the right to freedom of religion. Nigeria has a population roughly split in half, between Christians predominantly in the South and Muslims in the North, and with a minority population of traditional religion worshippers.[33][32] Despite the clear provisions in the Constitution,[34] Nigerian public holidays honor Christian and Muslim feast days, but not holidays of any other religion. The government subsidizes only Christian and Muslim pilgrimages and allows Christian and Muslim religious education in schools.[34]

Since January 2000, several Northern states have institutionalized a version of Sharia law. This enactment of Sharia law has caused controversy over its violation of fundamental rights, such as the right for minorities in those states to practice their religion, the right to life, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.[32]

Historically, the Nigerian Constitution has allowed Sharia courts jurisdiction over certain cases, but their jurisdiction is limited to matters of Islamic personal or family law. Several state governments in the North have extended Sharia law to criminal offenses, thereby violating the Constitution's prohibition of an official religion. These states have relied on a constitutional provision that allows the Sharia Court to exercise other jurisdiction given to it by the state in introducing Sharia penal codes. The imposition of Sharia law in certain states in Nigeria infringes on the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Muslims who would prefer to be judged under the Constitution are not able to do so, and non-Muslims are denied the right to practice their religions freely.[32]

The severe penalties given to lesser offenses under Sharia penal laws have raised concern about their violation of rights that are protected by international human rights treaties. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Nigeria is a party, allows the death penalty if it is carried out in a way that causes the least suffering and only in the cases of serious crimes that intentionally cause lethal consequences. Under Sharia law, adultery is punished by death by stoning, which violates both conditions set forth by the ICCPR.[32]

In southern Nigeria, especially in areas with Christian majorities, many rights are denied to Muslims as well as other religious minorities. Some educational institutions have banned the use of the hijab, which violates the right of Muslim women to practice their religion. Some state governments in the South have also denied many requests for land grants to build mosques or Islamic schools.[34]

Throughout Nigeria, religious minorities are systematically restricted from building places of worship and schools through the denial of land grants. Members of minority religious groups are often attacked during riots and religious conflicts.[34]

International perspective[edit]

According to the U.S. Department of State,

The most serious human rights problems during ... [2011] were the abuses committed by the militant sect known as Boko Haram, which was responsible for killings, bombings, and other attacks throughout the country, resulting in numerous deaths, injuries, and the widespread destruction of property; abuses committed by the security services with impunity, including killings, beatings, arbitrary detention, and destruction of property; and societal violence, including ethnic, regional, and religious violence. Other serious human rights problems included sporadic abridgement of citizens' right to change their government, due to some election fraud and other irregularities; politically motivated and extrajudicial killings by security forces, including summary executions; security force torture, rape, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners, detainees, and criminal suspects; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; prolonged pretrial detention; denial of fair public trial; executive influence on the judiciary and judicial corruption; infringements on citizens' privacy rights; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and movement; official corruption; violence and discrimination against women; child abuse; female genital mutilation ...; the killing of children suspected of witchcraft; child sexual exploitation; ethnic, regional, and religious discrimination; trafficking in persons for the purpose of prostitution and forced labor; discrimination against persons with disabilities; discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; vigilante killings; forced and bonded labor; and child labor.[35]

Twelve northern states have adopted some form of Shari'a into their criminal statutes: Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara. The Shari'a criminal laws apply to those who voluntarily consent to the jurisdiction of the Shari'a courts and to all Muslims.[36] It provides harsh sentences for, among other crimes, alcohol consumption, infidelity, same-sex sexual activity, and theft, including amputation, lashing, stoning, and long prison terms.

Some Christian pastors in Nigeria were reported in 2009 of being involved in the torturing and killing of children accused of witchcraft.[37] In the decade ending in 2009, over 1,000 children were murdered as "witches".[37] Those pastors, in an effort to distinguish themselves from the competition, were accused of decrying witchcraft in an effort to establish their "credientials".[37]

Human rights organizations and bodies[edit]

Constitutional Rights Project - founded in 1990 to promote rule of law in Nigeria.

Nigerian Center for Human Rights and Development - founded in 1995 to promote democracy and enforcement of rights.

Human Rights Monitor - founded in 1992 to promote human rights.

Institute for Dispute Resolution - founded in 1999 to promote peaceful conflict resolution.

Human Rights Law Services (Hurilaws) - established in 2007.

Youths For Human Rights Protection And Transparency Initiative

Freedom House ratings[edit]

The following chart shows Nigeria's ratings since 1972 in the Freedom in the World reports, published annually by Freedom House. A rating of 1 is "most free" and 7 is "least free".[38]

International treaties[edit]

Nigeria's stances on international human rights treaties are as follows:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Human Rights Practices for 2012. 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d "World Report 2015: Nigeria". Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch.
  3. ^ McCarthy-Arnolds,Eileen. "Africa, Human Rights, and the Global System: The Political Economy of Human Rights in a Changing World". 30 December 1993
  4. ^ Egede, Edwin (2007). "Bringing Human Rights Home: An Examination of the Domestication of Human Rights Treaties in Nigeria". Journal of African Law. 51 (2): 249–284.
  5. ^ a b c MCathy-Arnolds, Penna, and Sobrepena (1994). "Africa, Human Rights, and the Global System".
  6. ^ Africa Watch. "Academic Freedom".
  7. ^ "2011 Human Rights Reports: Nigeria". Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State. 24 May 2012.
  8. ^ a b c Human Rights Watch. "Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria". 2012."
  9. ^ a b Human Rights Watch. "Everyone's in on the Game- Corruption and Human Rights Abuses by the Nigerian Police Force". August 2010
  10. ^ "Everyone's in on the Game- Corruption and Human Rights Abuses by the Nigerian Police Force".
  11. ^ a b c Human Rights Watch. "Criminal Politics". October 2007
  12. ^ Human Rights Watch. "Nigeria: Polls Marred by Violence, Fraud". 17 April 2007.
  13. ^ Ahemba, Tume. "Convicted Nigerian ex-governor to pay $25,750 fine". Reuters. 19 December 2008.
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  17. ^ "Nigeria Human Rights Watch".
  18. ^ a b Tatchell, Peter (19 January 2006). "Nigeria - Vicious New Anti-Gay Law: World's Most Sweeping, Draconian Homophobic Legislation".
  19. ^ "Nigeria passes law banning homosexuality". The Telegraph. 14 January 2014. Retrieved 15 November 2015.
  20. ^ Kuteyi, O.S. "The Rights of Nigerian Under the Laws: Real or Myth". Gender Issues and National Development.
  21. ^ a b Okeke, Phil (2000). "Reconfiguring Tradition: Women's Rights and Social Status in Contemporary Nigeria". Africa Today.
  22. ^ a b Ako-Nai, Ronke. "Gender and Power Relations in Nigeria". Lexington Books. 2012
  23. ^ a b c "Gender and Power Relations in Nigeria"
  24. ^ Nigeria, 2013 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor
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  37. ^ a b c "Church Burns 'witchcraft' children", The Telegraph, reported by Katharine Houreld, 20 October 2009
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External links[edit]