Background Briefing

Political Violence

The run-up to Nigeria’s April elections has been violent, with campaigning in many areas beset by political killings, bombings and armed clashes between supporters of rival political factions. This violence forms part of a broader pattern of violence and abuse that is inherent in Nigeria’s largely unaccountable political system.

Nigeria’s epidemic of political violence has human rights implications beyond its immediate toll in human lives. As the U.N. Human Rights Committee has spelt out, fundamental to fair elections is that “voters should be able to form opinions independently, free of violence or threat of violence”.16 Violence, actual and threatened, restricts the ability of ordinary voters to participate in the forthcoming elections and will empower some politicians to subvert the electoral process before and during the April polls. This is precisely what happened in Nigeria’s 2003 elections, and yet the authorities have done little to prevent the emergence of similar abuses in 2007 or to deal with them effectively in places where they have occurred.17

The Scale of Political Violence

Nigeria’s last general elections took place during April and May 2003 and in those two months alone more than 100 people were killed in election-related violence with many more injured.18 Similar problems are again emerging in many areas. As early as December 2006 one international organization monitoring conflict in Nigeria warned that “The use of thugs by politicians and groups has not abated…Allegations and denials of politically-sponsored violence have been rife and people are concerned that the electoral process may be sliding towards a repeat of the 2003 experience.”19 The trend towards violence has since continued to build.

The Nigerian press has reported at least 70 incidents of election-related violence between November 2006 and the middle of March 2007 across 20 of Nigeria’s 36 states. These incidents carried a combined reported death toll of at least 70 people, with many more injured. 20 Those numbers may greatly underestimate the true scale of the problem; one international organization with a comprehensive conflict monitoring program in Nigeria recorded 280 reports of election-related deaths and more than 500 injuries over an eight-week period ending in mid-March.21 The Electoral Violence Education and Resolution Project (EVER) run by the Nigeria Alliance for Peaceful Elections and the international NGO IFES recorded 77 incidents of election-related violence across the country in one month alone: January 13 to February 13, 2007. Most of the incidents recorded by the EVER community monitors, such as destruction of campaign materials, did not involve any loss of life or injury but included numerous violent clashes between opposing camps and several apparent assassinations.22

There are many signs that the trend in many areas will be towards more frequent and severe episodes of bloodshed and intimidation in the weeks before, during, and immediately after the polls. Far from renouncing violence, many Nigerian politicians take the role of violence and intimidation in politics for granted and discuss it openly. One nationally prominent opposition politician, for example, told Human Rights Watch that during the campaign, “If my colleague in [name of district withheld] Senatorial District is having problems, I will send some boys to help him out. That’s the way it works here…If anyone tries to attack me, my boys will unleash terror.”23

Intra-Party Violence

Much of the violence that was reported between the end of 2006 and mid-March 2007 saw rival factions of various political parties pitted against one another; the vast majority of these cases involved violence within the ruling PDP. The Nigerian press and other sources reported at least 27 violent incidents that were directly linked to contests for the PDP nominations to state governorships and seats in the national and state assemblies. Much of that violence was related to controversy surrounding a broad range of alleged irregularities in the selection process.24  

Assassinations and Attempted Assassinations

Between November 1, 2006 and March 10, 2007, the Nigerian press and other sources reported at least four assassinations and seven attempted assassinations of Nigerian politicians, party officials and other individuals who were directly linked to various electoral campaigns. Seven of those ten incidents were connected to the PDP primaries or other intra-PDP rivalries.25 The Nigerian police have not identified anyone as being the sponsor of any of those attacks and have only carried out one investigation into the notorious intra-PDP violence at Akure on February 3, 2007.26           

The two most notorious murders related to the PDP primaries occurred in mid-2006, well in advance of the primaries. Two PDP gubernatorial aspirants—Funsho Williams in Lagos State and Ayo Daramola in Ekiti State—were murdered in July and August 2006 respectively. Arrests were made in the case of Daramola’s murder although the architects of his assassination have not been formally identified or prosecuted.27 Funsho Williams’ murder remains unsolved even though at one point the Nigerian police claimed to have 244 different “suspects” in custody.28

Attacks on Party Offices and Homes of Candidates

Between November 1, 2006 and March 10, 2007, at least seven attacks on campaign offices, party secretariats and homes of candidates were reported. All of these reported incidents were related to factional or electoral disputes within the ruling PDP. The majority occurred during a brief rash of such attacks in Delta and Bayelsa states in late 2006.29 In Asaba, the capital of Delta State, the homes of two candidates were bombed and the PDP secretariat set ablaze in three separate incidents.30 The PDP state headquarters in neighboring Bayelsa state was also reportedly attacked on two occasions.31

At the time of writing, the police had arrested individuals alleged to have been among the combatants in a handful of clashes but had not brought criminal charges against anyone alleged to have orchestrated or sponsored such violence. 

Clashes Between Armed Supporters of Rival Political Factions

According to the Nigerian media, at least 17 factional clashes have been reported in ten different states between supporters or thugs armed by opposing political factions. The majority of these arose out of controversies surrounding the PDP primaries.32

In Oyo State, for example, clashes between factions loyal to PDP Governor Rashidi Ladoja and his estranged political “godfather” Lamidi Adedibu have led to violence on multiple occasions.33 Both sides have drawn their armed support from Oyo State’s notoriously violent chapter of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). Human Rights Watch interviewed several union members who had been shot and wounded during fighting between the Union’s rival factions during the first week of February 2007.34

On February 3, heavily armed NURTW factions loyal to Governor Ladoja and Adedibu’s current political protégé, Deputy Governor Christopher Alao-Akala, attacked one another when Akala was awarded the PDP gubernatorial nomination at a ceremony held in the Ondo State town of Akure. At least four people were killed.35 Several men alleged to have participated in the fighting were arrested but no one has been charged in connection with organizing the violence or arming the groups who participated in it. The head of the pro-Adedibu faction of NURTW has been charged with terrorism by a federal court in Abuja but at the time of writing was not being held in custody and it was not clear whether his trial would move forward.36

Emerging Patterns of Violence Related to the General Election Campaigns

Many observers have expressed concern that the pattern of violence seen within the ruling PDP before, during and after the primary process is an indication of things to come on and around election day. As an official with one western election monitoring group put it, “[w]e worry that what we saw in the primaries was the canary in the coal mine…it could get a lot worse when the elections get closer.”37

Many politicians have actively recruited and armed gangs of youth in preparation for the elections. In some cases they have purchased imported weaponry including automatic rifles for their proxy militias; others rely on locally-manufactured firearms originating predominantly from southeastern Nigeria.38 Arms imported for the use of political thugs in the run-up to Nigeria’s 2003 elections have continued to fuel violence and insecurity in the intervening years, especially in the volatile Niger Delta region.39

In Anambra State, according to numerous witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, including some gang members themselves, the campaign of PDP gubernatorial candidate Andy Uba has paid large sums of money to “mobilize” and arm a youth militia in the service of the campaign, primarily members of the Black Axe cult group.40 During one week in March, seven people were killed in a series of tit-for-tat assassinations between members of the Black Axe employed by the Uba campaign and youth adhering to rival cult groups.41 While representatives of Uba’s campaign denied this, well placed police and government sources unanimously confirmed these facts.42

Leading members of one of the cult groups involved in the fighting, the Vikings, told Human Rights Watch that the violence was the result of their exclusion from the largesse associated with the Uba campaign’s efforts to “mobilize” the Black Axe.  They described this as unfair and said that they were demanding that their members be employed by Uba’s campaign organization as well. They threatened an escalation of violence should their exclusion continue and also threatened to offer their services to opposition campaigns as a last resort. One Viking member told Human Rights Watch that, “This killing is bad. It is youths that are dying…but now it is for us to decide whether it goes on or whether it stops.”43

The efforts made by politicians in Anambra to mobilize violence as part of their campaigns are not unique. More than ten people were killed and 18 wounded in clashes between rival cult gangs in Port Harcourt towards the beginning of March; local observers ascribed the violence to the competing efforts of various cult groups to position themselves to negotiate with local politicians ahead of the elections.44

Clashes between factions in support of rival parties have taken place and demonstrate the uses for which youth “mobilization” is intended. On March 10 in Abeokuta, Ogun State 15 people were reportedly injured in clashes between armed PDP and ANPP factions. The state commissioner of police issued a statement ascribing the responsibility for the violence to youth “operating under the aegis of a politician.”45 On March 18, the murder of a prominent local PDP youth leader sparked clashes between AC and PDP supporters that reportedly left at least ten people dead and many others injured across ten different villages in Benue State.46

Attacks against Voters and Poll Workers

There have already been examples of violent intimidation of poll workers in by-elections, reinforcing fears that violence and intimidation against poll workers and voters will escalate on and around election day. In November 2006 thugs supporting one candidate for the PDP nomination in one of Lagos state’s senate seats reportedly attacked supporters of a rival candidate in Epe, Lagos State, “beating several [nearly] to the point of death.”47 In a by-election in Osun State in February 2007 an ANPP polling agent was reportedly killed by thugs who invaded the polling station where he was located before carting off ballot boxes and other materials. In another polling station nearby during the same by-election, two poll workers were reportedly “stripped naked and beaten into a coma” in a similar attack.48 One member of the Buccaneers cult group in Anambra State told Human Rights Watch that he and other youths had been paid by the campaign of eventual PDP Gubernatorial nominee Andy Uba to hijack voting during the primaries. “Other PDP delegates simply walked away when they saw us coming,” he said. “We chased away any voters who came nearby while we were voting…If there is a need to cause commotion during the elections they will call us.”49

Root Causes Left Unaddressed: Sponsorship and Impunity

While frequent, political violence in Nigeria does not generally occur spontaneously and is not an intractable problem. More often than not political violence is paid for, used as a tool by prominent Nigerians to bolster their own political positions. This fact is accepted at the highest levels of government and within Nigeria’s security agencies. President Obasanjo has denounced this basic reality of Nigerian politics on multiple occasions, in one case referring to the combatants in Nigeria’s myriad episodes of intercommunal violence as “foot-soldiers to the designs and machinations of power-seekers.”50 In March, Obasanjo told a rally in Oyo State that God would “scatter the homes” of those responsible for electoral violence.51

Despite such rhetoric, the government has done little to address the primary root cause of political violence: the impunity enjoyed by political leaders who orchestrate it. Nigeria’s electoral act includes provisions that specifically criminalize any action to disrupt the electoral process through violence, including through the use of hired gangs or other proxies. These provisions are arguably not strict enough, but in practice this has been a moot point as they have not been enforced at all.52

Police Inaction

The primary responsibility for protecting Nigerians from election-related violence, and for punishing those who foment such clashes, lies with Nigeria’s Federal Police Force. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Inspector General of Police (IGP) Sunday Ehindero acknowledged this responsibility and told Human Rights Watch that the police would “not have any sacred cow when we do our investigation” into instances of election-related violence. He also promised that “you will see in a few days we will have arrested some very prominent members of society.”53 As of the time of writing, however, the police have not made any arrests or announced any criminal investigations into the links between politicians and political violence anywhere in Nigeria.

It is not clear that the police as an institution acknowledges the seriousness of the problem of political violence, let alone the fact that it has failed to effectively investigate cases. In late February, Ehindero told Human Rights Watch that he was aware of only one instance of election-related violence that had occurred anywhere in Nigeria in 2007, even though police officials in several states had claimed to be investigating numerous other incidents and the press had reported over 50 cases by that date.54

The leadership of Nigeria’s police force also does not appear to be alive to the need to avert reprisals against ordinary voters on and around election day. Numerous Nigerian civil society groups are concerned that communities whose members are organizing themselves as part of a nationwide “mandate protection” effort could be especially vulnerable; the role of those community members will be to publicly question and challenge any perceived attempt to hijack the voting in their communities.55 However, asked how the police would ensure that such reprisals did not occur, Ehindero said only that he found the concept of mandate protection work to be “unnecessary” because there would be no threats to voters’ rights in the first place.56

Part of the explanation for the failures of the police force in this regard is that police personnel generally lack the capacity to carry out serious criminal investigations. Police officers in Nigeria are underpaid, poorly equipped, and badly trained. As the head of one Nigerian organization that tracks the progress of reform in the police force put it:

There is a clear and severe lack of capacity for criminal investigation in the Nigerian police force whether the issue has political overtones or not. The police do not have the capacity to move forward with a case unless they were there when the crime happened. If you say you saw someone hanging around at the time of an armed robbery, the police will go get that person and torture him. Otherwise, they suspect no one.57

Real issues of capacity aside, however, the police force’s commitment to enforcing the law by holding the sponsors of political violence to account seems equivocal at best. For example, Human Rights Watch presented the inspector general with numerous accounts that the PDP gubernatorial campaign in Anambra State was arming Black Axe members to intimidate its opponents in advance of the elections. Asked how the police would respond to the situation, Ehindero replied that “the problem in Anambra is more or less one of politics, not one of law and order” and that therefore the police had no role to play.58 

More serious still are indications that police officials are under political pressure to refrain from pursuing prominent members of the ruling PDP who may be involved in fomenting violence. The commissioner of police in one particularly volatile Nigerian state told Human Rights Watch that he would be unlikely to carry out any criminal investigation implicating prominent members of the PDP “because I would not want to be kicked out [of the police force] or transferred or forcibly retired.”59

16 See Human Rights Committee, General Comment 25 (57), Adopted by the Committee at its 1510th meeting, July 12, 1996, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.7, para. 19.

17 For a discussion of the extent and impact of election-related violence in the 2003 elections, see Human Rights Watch, Nigeria’s 2003 Elections: The Unacknowledged Violence, June 2004,  See also “Final Report on the National Assembly, Presidential, Gubernatorial and State Houses of Assembly Elections,” European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM), (accessed March 12, 2007), pp. 28-29.

18 Human Rights Watch, The Unacknowledged Violence, p. 1. The EU Election Observation Mission recorded a total of 105 deaths in pre-election violence.  EUEOM, “Final Report on the National Assembly, Presidential, Gubernatorial and State Houses of Assembly Elections,” p. 28.

19 Idasa, Conflict Tracking Dossier: Towards the 2007 Elections, A Quarterly Review (Abuja: Idasa, December 2006), p. 27.

20 These figures as well as those below are drawn from a survey of major Nigerian newspapers during the indicated months that was carried out by Human Rights Watch combined with work published by Idasa and independent investigations carried out by Human Rights Watch in Lagos, Oyo, Anambra and Delta states in February 2007.

21 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Derrick Marco, Nigeria country director, Idasa, March 21, 2007.

22 Nigeria Alliance for Peaceful Elections and IFES, Electoral Violence Education and Resolution Project, Report No. 1 January 13 – February 13, 2007, Abuja, March 2007.

23 Human Rights Watch interview, Nigeria, [place and date withheld] February 2007.

24 See above, footnote 16. Several primary candidates in Anambra State, for example, alleged in interviews with Human Rights Watch that they had paid bribes of several million Naira (one million Naira is equivalent to US$7750 at an exchange rate of N129 = US$ 1) to PDP state chairman Tony Nwoye in return for nominations to contest for statewide office but had then been denied the nominations; many were demanding that their money be returned to them. Human Rights Watch interviews, Awka, February 2007. In many constituencies throughout Nigeria, losing candidates alleged that the list of delegates elected at the community level to vote on nominations was altered to favor particular candidates. In other areas it was alleged that voting did not take place at all, or that the results of voting were simply disregarded by the party in granting nominations to losing candidates. For example, see “PDP Ward Congresses: Exercise Mired in Controversies,” This Day, November 14, 2006.

25  See above, footnote 16. Along with attempted assassinations of PDP members reported in Enugu, Ekiti, Ebonyi, Bayelsa and Delta States, successful killings of PDP officials were reported in Benue and Delta States. In addition the brother of a suspected leader of one group of thugs in a PDP factional dispute was murdered in Oyo State in March. 

26 Human Rights Watch interview with Inspector General of Police Sunday Ehindero, Abuja, February 20, 2007.

27 There is widespread speculation that Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State was behind Daramola’s assassination, and one of Fayose’s aides was charged in connection with the killing. The governor was subsequently impeached on allegations of corruption. Ekiti State is currently under military rule due to a state of emergency imposed by the federal government after the impeachment and Governor Fayose has reportedly fled Nigeria. See “Missing Governor Speaks,” BBC News Online, October 18, 2006, (accessed March 12, 2007).

28 By early December 2006 the number of “suspects” in custody had reportedly declined to 35. Amnesty International, “Nigeria: Joint Statement on Ending Political Violence and Human Rights Abuses as Elections Approach,” AI Index: AFR 44/002/2007, January 22, 2007,

29 See above, footnote 16.

30 The second candidate whose house was allegedly bombed was later accused of arranging the attack herself, perhaps to deflect attention from the previous day’s attack on the home of a rival for the PDP nomination for the federal House of Representatives. Human Rights Watch interview with police spokesperson, Asaba, February 16, 2007.  See also Austin Ogwuda, “Bomb: Female Ex-Commissioner Arrested,” The Vanguard, December 2, 2006.

31 See above, footnote 16. See also “Security Beefed Up at PDP Office in Bayelsa,” Daily Champion, November 29, 2006 and Femi Folaranmi, “Bayelsa Gov’s Campaign Office Bombed,” The Sun, December 7, 2006.

32 See above, footnote 16. Clashes were reported in Oyo, Bayelsa, Edo, Akwa/Ibom, Lagos, Rivers, Niger, Delta, Borno, Ondo, Bauchi and Ogun states.

33 The term “godfather” in Nigerian politics refers to the phenomenon of wealthy and powerful individuals who do not hold public office but mobilize corruption and violence to subvert and control the political process by installing their protégés into office. The dispute between Ladoja and Adedibu/Akala has turned violent on at least five separate occasions since the end of 2006, claiming at least eight lives in total. Human Rights Watch interviews, Ibadan, February 2007.

34 Human Rights Watch interviews, Ibadan, February 7, 2007.

35 Human Rights Watch interviews with NURTW officials, Deputy Governor Christopher Alao-Akala and Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu, Ibadan, February 2007. See also Akin Oyedele, “Akure Rally Stampede: Ladoja Sues for Calm,” The Punch, February 5, 2007.

36 Human Rights Watch interviews with Sunday Ehindero, inspector general of police, Abuja, February 21, 2007. See also Ise Oluwa-Ige, “Abuja Court Hands Off Tokyo’s Case,” The Vanguard, March 1, 2007.

37 Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, December 11, 2006.

38 Human Rights Watch interviews with cult members from Vikings and Bucanneers groups, Awka, February 14 and February 16, 2007; confidential report commissioned by UK government on arms trafficking in Nigeria, May 2006, on file with Human Rights Watch.

39 In Rivers State in 2003, the efforts of politicians to arm their militias left the state awash in weaponry that has since contributed to the state of pervasive insecurity that affects the entire Niger Delta. See Human Rights Watch, “Rivers and Blood; Guns, Oil and Power in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Rivers State,” February 2005,

40 Human Rights Watch interviews, Awka, February 12-16, 2007.

41 Human Rights Watch interviews with cult members [names withheld], Awka, February 13 and 15, 2007.

42 Human Rights Watch interviews with Anthony Nwabuona, PDP deputy state chaiman, Anambra State, February 14 and Human Rights Watch interviews with police, state government and civil society officials, Awka, February 2007.

43 Human Rights Watch interview, Awka, February 15, 2007.

44 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Rivers State civil society activists, March 12, 2007. See also “Killings Mount Before Poll,” Reuters, March 7, 2007.

45 See Jayeola Andrews, “15 Injured as PDP, ANPP Supporters Clash,” This Day, March 11, 2007.

46 Simeon Nwakaudu and Auwal Ahmed, “Political Clashes Claim 10 Lives, 30 Houses in Benue,” Guardian, March 20, 2007.

47 See Idowu Olaide And Chioma Ikeagwuani, “Fear Grips Residents as Violence Rocks Epe,” The Vanguard, December 2, 2006.

48 See “One Killed in Osun Bye-Election,” The Punch, February 4, 2007.

49 Human Rights Watch interview, Awka, February 14, 2007.

50 “President blames unrest in Nigeria on power-seekers, mind-set,” Agence France-Presse, January 25, 2002.

51 Akin Oyedele, “Obasanjo Curses Perpetrators of Political Thuggery,” The Punch, March 9, 2007.

52 Section 138 of Nigeria’s Electoral Act criminalizes a broad range of activities related to the use of violence directly or through proxies to disrupt the conduct of elections. Those offenses are punishable by up to three years in prison or a N100,000 (US$800) fine. While a steep sum to the ordinary members of youth militias, the fine would provide scant deterrent to wealthy public officials even if the law were being enforced.

53 Human Rights Watch interview with Inspector General of Police Sunday Ehindero, Abuja, February 20, 2007.

54 Ibid. The one incident Ehindero was aware of was a bloody clash that had claimed at least four lives at a PDP rally in Akure in early Feburary and which the IGP had witnessed firsthand. See also footnote 16 above, press reports catalogued by Human Rights Watch, November 1 – March 16, 2007.

55 “Mandate protection” is defined by the civil society groups coordinating the effort to protect the votes of citizens as an attempt to mobilize a nationwide social movement to protect legitimate votes and to prevent ballot boxes being stuffed or stolen. Some of the groups involved are Global Rights, Civil Liberties Organization and the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).

56 Ibid.

57 Human Rights Watch interview with Innocent Chukwuma, director, CLEEN and chairman, Transitional Monitoring Group, Lagos, February 6, 2007. The practice of torture is widespread in Nigeria’s police force. See Human Rights Watch, “Rest in Pieces: Police Torture and Deaths in Custody in Nigeria,” July 2005.

58 Human Rights Watch interview with Inspector General of Police Sunday Ehindero, Abuja, February 21, 2007.

59 Human Rights Watch interview, February 2007.