Ahead of tomorrow's Democracy Day celebration, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday released a damning report on the 2019 general election which returned President Mohammadu Buhari to office, saying it was marred by widespread violence, resulting in the death of 629 people and ushering in an era of uncontrolled violence.
The group alleged that 4,000 have been killed since 2015 and 2019 elections, with 3,641 people dying from deadly clashes between herdsmen and farmers since 2015 and at least 262 people killed by bandits since the beginning of 2019 in Zamfara State alone.
The international human rights organisation said President Buhari should take concrete steps to address the spiraling political violence and ensure accountability for human rights abuses by soldiers and police as he begins his second term in office.
In its latest report on the 2019 election, HRW said most of the violence perpetrated by political thugs employed by politicians was aided by soldiers and policemen, noting that the Boko Haram insurgence, communal violence between nomadic herdsmen, banditry, kidnappings and killings in the North-western parts of the country increased dramatically.
The report said security agencies have failed to respond to threats to lives and property across the country.
"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," Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch, Anietie Ewang, said.
"He should put these issues at the front and centre of his second term agenda and urgently take concrete steps to improve respect for human rights."
"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", it said.
The reports stated that "in Rivers state, media reports of army troops' deployment to Port Harcourt, the state capital, ahead of the elections stirred concerns about the role the military would play during the elections.
"Human Rights Watch documented allegations of collusion between some security agents and suspected APC supporters to cart away ballot boxes and result sheets. Witnesses in polling places in Bonny, Abonnema, Isiokpo, and Okrika (in Rivers State) said that armed men chased voters and observers with weapons in the presence of military officials. In many cases, Human Rights Watch found military officials helped the criminal elements intimidate voters and cart away sensitive election materials.
To arrive at its conclusions, HRW said it interviewed 32 people, including voters, journalists, election observers, activists, and Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) 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.
On the involvement of security agencies, it said "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".
The international human rights group further noted that 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.
"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."
Human Rights Watch said political violence was more pronounced in Kano and Rivers State controlled by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
"Kano and Rivers states were probably the worst hit of the six states. They were identified by both local and international analysts ahead of the elections as holding great potential for electoral violence. Both are major political strongholds for the two leading political parties, Buhari's ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP). Abdullahi Ganduje of the APC won the 2019 election in Kano, and Nyesom Wike of the PDP won in Rivers state.
In Kano State, it said witnesses in Gama and Dala in Kano State reported that voting was not secret because voters had to cast their ballots in full view of election officials, security agents, and criminal elements.
"A 25-year-old man from Dala said that after he cast his vote for the PDP, a known APC supporter in their community grabbed him by his collar and punched him in the face, knocking him unconscious and knocking out four of his teeth.
The 44-year-old Gama voter said he saw a man slap a woman when she attempted to thumbprint her ballot for the PDP candidate.
"After seeing all this, any responsible person who loves himself will not go on to vote due to the magnitude of weapons and violence there," he said. "I left quickly without voting.
A 34-year-old voter from Dala said he narrowly escaped being stabbed at his polling place because he is a known PDP supporter. His shirt and underwear were ripped, and his thumb was badly cut as he tried to ward off an attacker who wielded a knife.