Political violence has become a central part of political competition across much of Nigeria and it takes many formsfrom assassinations to armed clashes between gangs employed by rival politicians. This violence is most often carried out by gangs whose members are openly recruited and paid by politicians and party leaders to attack their sponsors rivals, intimidate members of the public, rig elections, and protect their patrons from similar attacks.
Alongside the gangs themselves, the individuals most responsible for the abuses they commit are politicians and party officialsfrom all partieswho sponsor and at times openly participate in acts of violence. The architects, sponsors, and perpetrators of this violence generally enjoy complete impunity because of both the powers of intimidation they wield and the tacit acceptance of their conduct by police and government officials.
A spokesman for Anambra State Governor Peter Obi told Human Rights Watch, If you are a member of the PDP and I belong to APGA [the All Progressives Grand Alliance opposition party] we see ourselves more or less like enemies. This is carried too far and results in thuggery, assassination and arson.30
Political violence is part and parcel of a broader epidemic of violence that has devastated the lives of tens of thousands of Nigerians since the countrys return to civilian rule in 1999.31 According to a forthcoming survey of media and other sources undertaken by Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, more than 11,000 Nigerians lost their lives in clashes along political, ethnic, religious, and other lines between the handover of power to the Obasanjo government and the end of 2006.32 Nigerias National Commission for Refugees has estimated that more than three million Nigerians were internally displaced by this strife.33
This devastation occurred in at least 481 separate incidents that varied considerably in character and scale.34 In the most notorious cases, outbreaks of ethnic or religious violence claimed hundreds of lives in just a few short daysHuman Rights Watch documented several of these large-scale clashes in detail.35 At the same time, smaller-scale clashes have been so frequent as to reflect a regular feature of Nigerias political landscape. All told, between May 1999 and December 2006 the survey recorded incidents of intercommunal and political violence at the staggering rate of one separate incident every five days.36
Since 1999 Nigeria has also seen hundreds of intercommunal clashes that were not overtly political in nature dividing Nigerians against one another along ethnic, religious, or other intercommunal lines.37 But in many of the worst cases it was widely believed that ethnic and religious violence resulted at least partly from the efforts of politicians and other elites to manipulate intercommunal tensions for their own political gain. President Obasanjo himself frequently advanced this belief during his tenure as president, stating on one occasion that many participants in ethnic and religious violence were in effect foot-soldiers to the designs and machinations of power seekers.38
Even non-political violence is fueled by the same patterns of impunity that fuel violence in the political arena.39 No one has been held to account for their role in orchestrating any of Nigerias bloodiest episodes of intercommunal violence despite strident government promises of investigation and prosecution. That pattern of impunity is even more pronounced in the case of smaller-scale clashes, which generally has not even triggered any serious attempt at discovering or prosecuting those responsible.40
The pervasive role of violence in Nigerian politics has a devastating human rights impact on ordinary Nigerians. As discussed above, thousands of Nigerians have been deprived of their very right to life or have been subjected to physical assaults because of the violent nature of political competition in Nigeria. But casualty estimates, considered alone, actually understate the scale of the human rights impact of political violence in Nigeria. Violence also discourages and prevents political participation and plays a central role in denying ordinary Nigerians a say in choosing their elected leaders.
At no point was the human rights impact of Nigerias violence epidemic so stark as during the countrys April 2007 elections. Human Rights Watch estimates that a minimum of 300 Nigerians were killed in violence linked to the 2007 elections; some credible estimates range considerably higher.41 That death toll was higher than the reported figures from the violent 2003 elections, which saw more than 100 Nigerians killed during the weeks surrounding the voting exercise alone.42 The violence that accompanied the 2007 polls was widespread and openly organized on such a scale as to lay bare deeper patterns of corruption and abuse in politics to an unusual degree.
The run-up to the elections saw political assassinations, bombings, and deadly clashes between rival gangsorganized by politicians and partiesthat claimed at least one hundred lives. Human Rights Watch documented the patterns of these killings during the pre-election period.43 European Union election observers subsequently estimated that some 200 people died in political violence during the two weeks surrounding the voting on April 14 and April 21.44 Many more were injured.
During the 2007 elections pervasive violence discouraged many Nigerians from coming out to vote, and voter turnout was very low across the country.45 Prior to the elections Human Rights Watch interviewed many would-be voters who said that they intended to stay home rather than cast their votes. Several explained this by stating simply, I dont want to die.46 One retiree in the town of Oye Ekiti told Human Rights Watch that the elderly people are scared and so are the women. They can go a step further by instructing their children, please keep away from that polling boothI dont want you to die now.47
In a town in Oyo State, Human Rights Watch interviewed one opposition All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) supporter whose home was besieged by a large group of pro-PDP thugs she believed to be drunk one evening shortly before the elections. The youths threw bottles at her home, fired several shots with locally made weapons that left bullets lodged in the walls, and pounded on the windows and doors demanding that she let them in. Her neighbors said that after this incident many of them decided not to come out to vote.48
Many voters who did come out to vote faced precisely the sort of violence that led others to stay at home. Human Rights Watch witnessed gangs roaming the streets, attacking or intimidating voters, in all of the four states where it monitored the elections. In Katsina, Gombe and Rivers States, for example, groups of thugs launched attacks on polling stations throughout each state, chasing off voters and carting away ballot boxes and ballot papers. Similar scenes were reported across the country by election observers and others.49
In some cases voters, police officers, and electoral officials went to great lengths to try and protect the process from such violent assaults, but generally with little success. At one polling station in Mashi town in Katsina State, Human Rights Watch observed a queue of voters wait patiently in line even as police officers attempted to fight off a gang of young men armed with sticks less than 50 meters away. One of the men in line lamented to Human Rights Watch that the gang had come to unleash violence. They have come to steal our votes,50 but held his place in line along with most others. The thugs eventually made off with all of the ballot papers for the National Assembly elections during a successful assault on the polling booth.51
In the town of Iseyin in Oyo State, Human Rights Watch interviewed several supporters of the opposition Action Congress (AC) party who said they had been beaten up by bands of young men in the employ of the PDP when they tried to intervene to stop ballot-box stuffing near their homes. One man who tried to assist a friend who was being beaten by a gang was himself set upon and likewise abused. I had to run and they pursued me, he said. At one corner, one of them kicked my leg and I fell down. After I fell down they continued to kick me and slap me. He filed a police report that identified some of his attackers but the police took no action on the complaint.52
At one polling unit in Katsina town, Human Rights Watch interviewed voters who watched as a policeman was badly beaten with his own baton after he tried to fend off four young men who invaded the polling station and ultimately stole its ballot box.53 And one election observer in Gokana local government in Rivers State told Human Rights Watch that the Presiding Officer at her polling station was kidnapped by armed men when he refused to surrender the ballot box to them. They took the materials and then they put him in the boot [trunk] as well, she said. People were crying but they said, No, he talks to us like that, now we will show him pepper!54 She and some local residents ran alongside the car begging for the young mans release as he screamed in terror from inside the boot, but to no avail.55
Violence unleashed by politicians and their sponsors during elections and other periods of political contestation does not simply fade away once the political battles have been decided. In many cases violence fomented for the purpose of winning elections has taken on a life and logic of its own and continued to generate widespread human rights abuses over the long term. Several Nigerian states have been plagued by enduring violence after politicians either abandon or lose control over the gangs they initially employed. As former Oyo State Governor Victor Olunloyo put it: My attitude towards them [political thugs] is that they are like rabid dogs. They are prepared to bite their owner and their owners cannot be confident or sure of keeping them on a leash.56
In Gombe State, Human Rights Watch interviewed victims and local leaders desperate to find a way to end a reign of terror imposed by gangs employed by both the PDP and opposition parties alike since the 2003 elections. In the years after 2003 those gangs proved uncontrollable. They subjected local residents to abuses including armed robbery, extortion on the roads, rape, and murder. And in Rivers State, armed groups who openly acknowledge that they were sponsored by the PDP to rig the 2003 elections have since spiraled out of all control and have contributed to the spread of violence, insecurity, and human rights abuse across the entire oil-producing Niger Delta today. The situations in Gombe and Rivers States are discussed in detail as case studies below.
Political violence in Nigeria is most often carried out by gangs whose members are openly recruited, financed and sometimes armed by public officials, politicians and party officials or their representatives. These gangs, comprised primarily of unemployed young men are mobilized to attack their sponsors rivals, intimidate members of the public, rig elections and protect their patrons from similar attacks. Often, sponsors of political violence turn time and again to the same criminal gangs, violent campus-based cults and other sources to recruit agents of political violence. Those recruited are paid, often very little, and sometimes armed for the sole purpose of carrying out violent abuses on behalf of their political sponsors.
Nigerias notorious cult organizations are a particular variety of criminal gang that began as benign campus fraternities, the first of which emerged in 1952 when a group of University of Ibadan students, including future Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, organized a fraternity called the Pyrates Confraternity. They have since proliferated and evolved into violent gangs that often operate both on and off campus, with one foot each in the criminal and political spheres. Across much of Nigeria and especially in the south, cult gangs are the most widely feared criminal enterprises in the country. The power and prevalence of these groups has grown steadily over the decades and especially since 1999. Many groups maintain ties to powerful politicians, some of whom themselves have associations with cult organizations dating back to their days at university.57 This is so even though some Nigerian states have passed laws expressly outlawing many cult groups.
Cult groups in Nigeria today are numerous and include groups such as the Buccaneers, the Black Axe, the Greenlanders, the Klansmen Konfraternity, and the Supreme Vikings Confraternity (or Vikings) along with many others.58 These organizations sow terror among the student populations of many university campuses in Nigeria, forcibly recruiting new members and waging battles between one another that have included the assassination of rival cult members and the killing of innocent bystanders.59
Reliable statistics about the on-campus human toll of Nigerias cult violence epidemic do not exist, but former Minister of Education Obiageli Ezekwesili estimated that some 200 students and teachers lost their lives to cult-related violence between 1996 and 2005.60 Cult-related clashes on university campuses continue to occur regularly, especially in southern Nigeria.61 Cult groups have also been implicated in widespread other abuses including extortion, rape and violent assaults.62
The reach of many cults has spread far beyond university campuses, with many groups involved in drug trafficking, armed robbery, extortion, oil bunkering, and various forms of street crime.63 Alongside all of this, many politicians mobilize local cult members as the foot soldiers of political violence. Some politicians are themselves members of cult organizations.64
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 current and former members of cult groups and ordinary criminal gangs not associated with cult organizations who had been recruited by PDP politicians either during the 2003 elections or in the run-up to the 2007 polls in Oyo, Anambra and Rivers States. Many spoke candidly about being paid to target the political opponents of their sponsors or to attack and intimidate ordinary voters.
Many of the interviewed cult and gang members described their work in graphic terms. One former cult member told Human Rights Watch that his group was recruited by the PDP in Rivers State to prevent people from voting during the 2003 elections. My duty was to send you to hell,65 he said. Members of one Ibadan-based gang acknowledged having ties to Oyo State political godfather Lamidi Adedibu and said that they had been paid to carry out political assassinations.66 And just ahead of the 2007 elections, one member of the Buccaneers cult in Anambra State told Human Rights Watch matter-of-factly that, If there is a need to cause commotion during the election, they [local politicians] will call us.67
In some cases, cult and gang members claimed that they merely provided security for electoral campaigns, but described that work as involving violent clashes with members of communities along the campaign trail. Two members of the Vikings cult group in Anambra State, for example, told Human Rights Watch that during the PDP primaries in late 2006 they and many other Vikings members from the University of Nnamdi Azikwe campus in Awka had been recruited by PDP aspirants in several southeastern states to accompany them on the campaign trail:
A few of the cult and gang members interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they had been paid only to attend rallies in support of their patron candidates. But they admitted that they routinely attended such events armed and prepared to fight. One gang member in Ibadan told Human Rights Watch during the 2007 election campaign that I go to PDP rallies every day to get a little something. Its survival, its an investment to go to rallies we prepare with machetes, clubs and AK-47s. You never know what can happen.69
While cults and other criminal gangs are often at the front lines of political clashes in Nigeria, they do not by any means have a monopoly on the market for hired thugs. In some states, politicians have drawn upon the membership of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) for paid thugs. NURTW theoretically represents the collective interests of commercial drivers and other workers tied to the industry but some of its chapters have been largely converted into reservoirs of thugs for local politicians.
In Ekiti State, Human Rights Watch interviewed a group of NURTW members days ahead of the 2007 elections. They acknowledged that they had been hired by a PDP politician from their community to attack and chase away would-be voters in order to stuff ballot boxes and rig the 2003 elections but said they would not do so again in 2007. We need to show people that we are not thugs, one of them told Human Rights Watch. We are not ready to do it. But there is a likelihood that they [politicians] will approach us. It is left for us not to accept their offer.70 But in Oyo State, NURTW members have been at the forefront of a bloody and protracted period of election-related violence that continued well-past the closing of the polls. The central role of NURTW in political violence in Oyo is discussed in the Oyo State case study below. 71
In some cases the link between government officials and their hired thugs is formalized to some degree. In Katsina for instance, the state government under current president Umaru YarAdua maintained several thousand PDP Youth on a monthly stipend that was paid with state government money. Credible sources maintain that many of those youth were allegedly involved in violence linked to the 2007 elections.72 The links between the state government and the PDP youth organization in Katsina are discussed in greater depth below.73
In some cases members of the police have themselves been implicated in acts of political violence. One states commissioner of police acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that [t]here are even policemen and soldiers who can be used by people in power to do what thugs would normally do.74 One man from Oyo State, for example, told Human Rights Watch that at a voting collation center on election day in April, a PDP candidate accompanied by several mobile police officers arrived on the scene, fired into the air to scare off INEC officials and civilian bystanders, and then ordered the police officers to beat those who had not run away. I fell down, he said, and the MOPOL [mobile police] met me on the ground and started beating me with their gun butts. He was taken to the hospital and at the time of his interview with Human Rights Watch days later, his legs were bandaged and bruised. My leg was not broken but the pain was so much I thought it was broken, he said.75
Many Nigerian politicians see violenceboth as an offensive weapon and as a component of personal securityas a necessary part of any political campaign. As the traditional ruler of Awka town in Anambra State put it in an interview with Human Rights Watch, Here [in Anambra] elections are connected to how much money you have put into your ability to intimidate others.76
Some politicians argue that they must maintain some capacity to unleash violence as a measure of self-defense. Senator Ben Obiwho ran as the opposition Action Congress Vice-Presidential candidate in the 2007 electionsexplained to Human Rights Watch during an interview at his home in Awka during the campaign that:
In practice the line between self-defense and violent aggression is blurred at best. Senator Obi, for example, told Human Rights Watch that during an unsuccessful attempt to strip him of the Senate seat to which he was elected in 2003, he told one of the alleged architects of the move against him that If you come to Awka you will not leave here alive. Because I will not hold my boys back. They would skin him alive.78
In other cases politicians explain their use of political violence by pointing out the ineffectual or partisan response of law-enforcement agencies to violence that targets them. In January 2007, for example, a group of thugs linked to a powerful Oyo state godfather figures attacked and nearly killed former Senator Lekan Balogun on the steps of the Oyo State House of Assembly.79 One month later, he complained to Human Rights Watch that the police had held no one to account even though he could identify his assailants and said that:
The situation in Oyo State is discussed in detail as a case study in a later section of this report.
29 Human Rights Watch interview with former cult member, Port Harcourt, April 12, 2007.
30 Human Rights Watch interview with Mike Udah, Press Secretary to Governor Peter Obi, Awka, February 14, 2007.
31 For a brief overview of Nigerias post-independence political history and the events leading up to the end of military rule in 1999, see above, Historical Overview: Dictatorship and Rigged Elections.
32 Peter Lewis and Chris Albin-Lackey, Democracy and Violence in Nigeria (working title); forthcoming.
33 Violence Left 3 Million Bereft in Past 7 Years, Nigeria Reports, Reuters, March 14, 2006.
35 See Human Rights Watch, Nigeria - Revenge in the Name of Religion: The Cycle of Violence in Plateau and Kano States, vol. 17, no. 8(A), May 2005, http://hrw.org/reports/2005/nigeria0505; Human Rights Watch, Nigerias 2003 Elections: The Unacknowledged Violence; Human Rights Watch, NigeriaThe Warri Crisis: Fuelling Violence, vol. 15, no. 18(A), December 2003, http://hrw.org/reports/2003/nigeria1103; Human Rights Watch, The Miss World Riots: Continued Impunity for Killings in Kaduna, vol. 15, no. 13(A), July 2003, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/nigeria0703; and Human Rights Watch, NigeriaJos: A City Torn Apart, vol. 13, no. 9(A), December 2001, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/nigeria.
36 Lewis and Albin-Lackey, Democracy And Violence in Nigeria.
38 President blames unrest in Nigeria on power-seekers, mind-set, Agence France-Presse, January 25, 2002.
39 See below, Entrenching Impunity: Federal Government Complicity in Human Rights Abuse.
40 See below, Entrenching Impunity: Federal Government Complicity in Human Rights Abuse.
41 IDASA, an international organization that ran a comprehensive electoral violence monitoring program across Nigeria before and during the April elections, had recorded reports of more than 280 reports of election-related deaths by mid-March 2007, with more than a month to go before the elections took place. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Derrick Marco, Nigeria country director, IDASA, March 21, 2007.
42 Human Rights Watch, The Unacknowledged Violence.
43 Human Rights Watch, Election or Selection? Human Rights Abuse and Threats to Free and Fair Elections in Nigeria, April 2007, pp. 11-18, http://hrw.org/backgrounder/africa/nigeria0407.
44 European Union Election Observation Mission, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, April 23, 2007, http://www.eueom-ng.org (accessed July 12, 2007).
45 Official government figures indicated nationwide voter turnout of over 50 percent, but all credible international and domestic observers found such figures implausible. Diplomatic officials and election observers interviewed by Human Rights Watch estimated turnout at no higher than 20 percent across most of the country on the day of the presidential election. Human Rights Watch interviews, Abuja, April 2007. See also National Democratic Institute, Statement of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) International Election Observer Delegation to Nigerias April 21 Presidential and National Assembly Elections, April 23, 2007, http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/2151_ng_election_statement_042307.pdf.
46 Human Rights Watch interviews, Lagos and Port Harcourt, April 2007.
47 Human Rights Watch interview, Oye Ekiti, April 7, 2007.
48 Human Rights Watch interviews, Iseyin, April 27, 2007.
49 See above, Historical Background and Context.
50 Human Rights Watch interview, Mashi, April 21, 2007.
51 See Nigeria: Presidential Election Marred by Fraud, Violence, Human Rights Watch news release, April 25, 2007, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/04/24/nigeri15763.htm.
52 Human Rights Watch interview, Iseyin, Oyo State, April 27, 2007.
53 Human Rights Watch interview, Katsina, April 19, 2007.
54 Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, April 24, 2007.
55 Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, April 24, 2007 .
56 Human Rights Watch interview with Victor Olunloyo, former governor of Oyo State, Ibadan, February 8, 2007.
57 See, e.g., Nigeria: Focus on the Menace of Student Cults, IRIN, August 1, 2002, http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=33251 (accessed July 12, 2007). For a discussion of Wole Soyinkas reaction to the cult phenomenon in Nigeria, see A Dream Perverted, The Guardian, June 29, 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1516717,00.html (accessed July 12, 2007).
58 The Rivers State Government passed a law in 2004 banning 100 different cult organizations by name, but many Rivers politicians are themselves widely alleged to be members of cult groups. See below, Rivers State Case Study.
59 In one notorious 2002 incident, cult members stormed an examination hall at the University of Nsukka and opened fire on students who were sitting their exams, killing seventeen people. The clash was widely believed to have been carried out by members of the Vikings cult seeking to eliminate members of the rival Black Axe. See Nigerian Student Cult Kills 17, BBC News Online, June 19, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/africa/2054608.stm (accessed July 12, 2007).
60 Nigeria: Focus on the Menace of Student Cults.
61 See, e.g., Demola Akinyemi, One Dies as Rival Cultists Clash in Illorin, The Vanguard, June 11, 2007; Campus Gang Beheads Student; Attacks Another, This Day, September 9, 2006.
63 Human Rights Watch interviews with current and former cult members, Port Harcourt, Ibadan and Awka, February and April 2007; Human Rights Watch interviews with civil society activists involved in anti-cult activities, Port Harcourt and Abuja, August 2006 and April 2007. Oil bunkering refers to the practice of stealing crude oil directly from pipelines and loading it onto barges or larger vessels for illegal transport onto the international market.
64 See below Rivers State Case Study.
65 Human Rights Watch interview with former cult members, Port Harcourt, April 12, 2007.
66 Human Rights Watch interview with GAG gang member, Ibadan, April 6, 2007.
67 Human Rights Watch interview with member of Buccaneers cult group, Awka, February 14, 2007.
68 Human Rights Watch interview with members of Vikings cult group (names withheld), Awka, February 15, 2007.
69 Human Rights Watch interview with GAG gang member, Ibadan, April 6, 2007.
70 Human Rights Watch interview with NURTW members, Oye Ekiti, April 7, 2007.
71 See below, Oyo State Case Study.
72 Human Rights Watch interviews with civil society organizations, opposition politicians and PDP Youth Members, Katsina, April 2007.
73 See below, Direct State Sponsorship of Thugs in Katsina.
74 Human Rights Watch interview with Commissioner of Police [state and name withheld], February 2007.
75 Human Rights Watch interview, Iseyin, Oyo State, April 27, 2007.
76 Human Rights Watch interview with Gibson N. Nwosu, Eze Ozu of Awka, Awka, February 13, 2007.
77 Human Rights Watch interview with Senator Ben Obi, Awka, February 12, 2007.
79 See below, Oyo State Case Study.
80 Human Rights Watch interview with Lekan Balogun, Ibadan, February 9, 2007.
81 Human Rights Watch interview with Kayode Fayemi, Ado Ekiti, April 6, 2007.
82 Human Rights Watch interview with Tope Longe, Ado Ekiti, April 6, 2007.
83 Human Rights Watch interview, Ado Ekiti, April 7, 2007.
84 Human Rights Watch interview with journalist, Nigeria, April 2007.
85 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with domestic election observers who had been stationed in Ekiti, July 2007.