Case Study D: Gombe State

“We are ruled by gangsters. The major source of criminal activity in Gombe is the politicians and their militias. Two out of three places the governor goes, people are injured afterwards.”
—Member of Gombe Elder’s Forum [name withheld], Gombe, April 20, 2007321

Ahead of Nigeria’s 2003 polls, the PDP and to a lesser extent other parties in Nigeria’s north-eastern Gombe State “mobilized” large numbers of young men, ostensibly to “protect their votes” from attempts at rigging by rival parties.322 According to community leaders, civil society activists and other residents of the state interviewed by Human Rights Watch, those youths were used to help rig the PDP to victory that year by stealing and stuffing ballot boxes, chasing away voters and intimidating INEC officials. This was the origin of a continuing wave of violence that had, by the time of Nigeria’s 2007 polls, gotten entirely out of control. These organized gangs are now a constant feature of Gombe’s political scene. Beyond politics, they have been implicated in numerous acts of criminal activity and violence against ordinary Gombe residents.

Gombe’s “Kalare” Gangs

Gombe State, like the rest of Nigeria, is home to large numbers of unemployed young men who have little opportunity for legitimate employment or socio-economic advancement. As is also true across many other parts of Nigeria, in Gombe some of these youth have formed loosely organized criminal gangs and turned to violent crime to make a living. Residents of Gombe generally refer to the members of these gangs collectively as Kalare or “Kalare Boys.”323

In parallel with other situations discussed in this report, the Kalare boys have proven easy prey for politicians who offer them small amounts of money, drugs, alcohol, and weapons in exchange for engaging in acts of intimidation and assault or simply to accompany their campaigns in a demonstration of muscle. An activist who works to rehabilitate ex-Kalare youth who have turned away from violence and crime told Human Rights Watch that “they take drugs, they are out of their minds, but that is what government wants. [Politicians], g[o] to their temples [meeting places] and giv[e] them money, motorbikes, alcohol.”324

Since 2003 Gombe’s Kalare gangs have committed not only politically related crimes but also other forms of violent abuses with complete impunity. Law enforcement agencies have made no meaningful attempt to rein them in. As one senior civil servant put it: “they are an authority unto themselves, they do what they want in Gombe.”325 From politically motivated attacks in 2003, their activities have degenerated into assault, rape, harassment, and extortion of ordinary civilians alongside their continuing political role, most notably during the election period of 2007. Many Kalare youth are armed, most commonly with machetes, clubs and similar weaponry.

The Gombe Elders Forum, an association of respected former state and federal government ministers, doctors, religious figures, and civil servants, commissioned research by local doctors into the scale of the human rights impact of the Kalare on their state and published their findings in the national press.326 They allege that between December 2003 and April 2007, at least 115 people were killed and scores more injured as a result of Kalare violence in Gombe state. It is not clear how many of the dead were innocent bystanders as opposed to participants in fighting between rival gangs or political factions.327

Political Sponsorship of Kalare Gangs

Civil society, opposition and other sources in Gombe allege that prior to the elections of 2003, PDP officials in Gombe recruited unemployed young men, paid them and armed them to intimidate their opponents, chase away voters from polling stations and disrupt voting. They played a significant role in rigging the outcome to oust the incumbent All Peoples’ Party (APP) Governor Abubakar Hashidu and pave the way for the installation of Danjuma Goje of the PDP.

The Kalare gangs continued to engage in acts of intimidation of political opponents even after the 2003 elections. One former Commissioner in the State government who had left the PDP for an opposition party alleged that his farm was burned by Kalare boys in 2005. “Kalare came to my farm and burnt it,” he said. “They burnt orchards, livestock, crops. Two of my workers were beaten as well. One was lucky to escape with his life. Now, every time I go to the farm, I go armed.”328 In September 2006 two All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) governorship aspirants were attacked by political thugs. The youths attacked the convoy of the national secretary of the party, Senator Saidi Umar Kumo, destroying over 20 vehicles and injuring many of his followers.329

Prominent former politicians in Gombe told Human Rights Watch that many powerful figures within the Kalare gangs are in fact on Gombe’s state and local government payrolls.330 One former government official gave Human Rights Watch a list of Kalare leaders, many of whom, it was claimed, occupy senior positions within the state government, including as special advisors and personal assistants to the governor. Other activists, lawyers and civil servants in Gombe town confirmed the connection, adding that these leaders and their associations are well known in Gombe.331

Kalare Violence and the 2007 Elections in Gombe

During the 2007 election campaign and on the election days, Kalare thugs played a significant role committing violence and intimidation on behalf of all major political parties. One international election observer told Human Rights Watch, “They are all using Kalare…the other [opposition] parties need to protect themselves.”332 However, several credible reports, along with Human Rights Watch’s own observations, indicate that the clear majority of Kalare thugs active during the electoral period were working for the PDP. As even Abu Ma’azu, the PDP youth leader in Gombe state put it to Human Rights Watch, “thank God we have more boys than the opposition.”333 According to many activists and other sources, the PDP’s edge in terms of Kalare recruitment was due largely to the fact that the ruling party had more resources to spend on hiring them.334

The electoral period in Gombe was exceptionally violent: the Director of the Gombe Specialist Hospital confirmed to Human Rights Watch that his hospital alone treated 41 people for injuries sustained as a result of political violence during the ten days surrounding 2007’s general elections.335

The Run-Up to the 2007 Elections

In March 2007, DPP Gubernatorial candidate and former State Governor Abubakar Hashidu was arrested for inciting a public disturbance after his supporters allegedly rampaged through the streets of Gombe town, looting and burning buildings. When a magistrate judge ordered that Hashidu be remanded to prison, Kalare thugs disrupted the proceedings of the court and freed him from the dock, attacking and wounding the magistrate with machetes in the process.336 Hashidu walked free from the courtroom and was never re-arrested.

During March and April 2007, convoys of supporters of both the PDP and AC candidates were attacked by those believed to be Kalare gangs in the east of the state. On one occasion six cars were burnt and one child was killed in a clash at Deba.337

One woman, a broadcast journalist who was intending to run as a PDP candidate for the State House of Assembly, Balanga constituency in 2007, was threatened by Kalare youths in August 2006 after purchasing her nomination forms from the PDP party. She told Human Rights Watch that:

Kalare came to my house in Gombe town. Four of them were armed with machetes, and they asked me to withdraw my candidacy or face the consequences. They knocked at the door, I opened, they pushed me inside. They said I am not the governor’s candidate.338

After a further threatening phone call several days later, she decided not to enter the race.

Election Day Abuses

On Election Day, Kalare members played an integral role in the efforts of the PDP to rig the polls. According to a report by a local observer group, the Network for National Stability, Kalare members were seen snatching ballot boxes from polling stations to prevent voting in nine wards in Gombe state during the state polls. Local observers from the Network identified and named many of the individuals involved in intimidation and stealing of ballot boxes in their report on the elections.339 The ANPP reported to INEC and the police that voters had been chased away and ballot boxes snatched by Kalare gangs in every Local Government Area in the state.340

International observers told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed the same kinds of abuses as those reported by local monitors. IDASA political violence monitors in Gombe reported seeing an INEC official stopped by a Kalare roadblock and threatened. He and his car were doused in petrol but the match they tried to use went out, leaving the monitors time to intervene and get the man out. The boys then forced the IDASA monitors to signal their support for the PDP before they allowed them to drive off.341

Human Rights Watch witnessed Kalare thugs driving around with machetes in Balanga, Deba and Gombe towns. In the vote collation center in Gombe town, Human Rights Watch witnessed three thugs men wearing PDP campaign paraphernalia surrounding a lone INEC staff member who was trying to complete his results sheet for his polling station in the INEC office (already a violation of established procedure, as the sheets are supposed to be filled in and signed at the polling station). The three men, who had surrounded the official at his desk, shouted at him because he could not make the figures tally to include extra numbers that they wanted him to include. The handwritten sheet the INEC staff member held showed a majority for ANPP in one color ink. However, another figure adding over 200 votes had been added in red in the PDP column. This was the figure that finally made it into the official results form.

Once the form was filled in by the INEC officer, the Kalare members left the office and Human Rights Watch asked the officer about the discrepancy between the two colored inks. He said that the number in red reflected another ballot box that his colleagues had not considered. However, when pressed, he was unable to identify the colleagues in the room.342

Many of those who attempted to stand up for a free and fair election in Gombe suffered reprisals, meted out by alleged Kalare members, sometimes in the presence of the police. Abubakar Yunus, the ANPP Senatorial candidate for Gombe Central Senatorial District said that when he witnessed Kalare members stealing ballot boxes in Kumo town, he and his supporters surrounded the vehicle carrying the stolen materials and called the police. The police escorted the car to Kumo police station, but a senior police officer on duty then allowed PDP party agents to take the ballot papers away. Yunus told Human Rights Watch that when he protested, the PDP supporters beat and kicked him, “in full view of the police who did nothing, they simply watched.” He alleges that, among other Kalare thugs, his assailants included Ismail Muazu Hassan, the Gombe State commissioner of rural development.343

A 21-year-old student who accompanied his grandmother to vote in the gubernatorial election described to Human Rights Watch how he was assaulted when a group of Kalare members supporting the PDP candidate overheard him suggest that she vote for the opposition Democratic Peoples Party (DPP):

On Saturday at around 10am I went to vote on Haruna street with my grandmother. She asked me for advice on who to vote for. When I told her the DPP, the Kalare boys there started cutting me with their knives. They started beating me. The police came. They did not stop. The police just watched. I tried to run away. When I ran they started to stone me but they did not follow me.

The boy’s grandmother was unharmed. When he later went to report the incident to the police, they did not take any written report. An officer escorted the boy to the hospital and the police reportedly took no further action.344        

The results of Gombe’s elections were predictably one-sided. PDP candidate and incumbent Governor Muhammed Danjuma Goje was awarded more than 985,000 out of 1,083,862 votes reportedly cast (about 91 percent), according to INEC. His nearest competitor, Abubakar Hashidu of the DPP, won just 3.5 percent of the vote.345 Goje reportedly urged his disgruntled opponents to “understand that they cannot go against the will of God” and accept the results of the elections.346

The Elections and Non-Political Violent Crime: Rape, Murder and Robbery

The violence perpetrated by Kalare members has not been confined to election periods. Gombe state residents, caught between political violence and the epidemic of violent crime these political activities spawned, have been trapped in a state of persistent insecurity. “We are ruled by gangsters,” one member of the Gombe Elders Forum complained to Human Rights Watch. “The major source of criminal activity in Gombe is the politicians and their militias.”347

The Kalare boys are easily identifiable by their weapons—most often machetes—and their identities are known to many residents. Once procured in preparation for the polls, the machetes remain in the hands of the thugs and are used for other purposes. Unofficial road blocks created by these armed thugs are a common feature on Gombe’s roads. One civil society activist told Human Rights Watch that as often as once a week Kalare thugs rampage through his own neighborhood in Gombe town. “You see them in a group; they clear everything in their path,” he said. “If they come across a motorbike, they smash it, if they come across a car, they smash it, if they come across a shop, they smash it.”348 Another victim of Kalare depredations told Human Rights Watch how he was held up by youths brandishing machetes and robbed of his mobile phone at a roadblock they had set up. While robbing him they smashed the windscreen and stole his mobile phone.349 He added, “At times, they don’t find the target they want and then innocent civilians are the victims.”

This was the case in March 2007 when a young boy was caught in the middle of a fight between two Kalare factions near his secondary school and stabbed to death. It was not clear what they were fighting over. The boy had gone to school to collect results from a recent exam, but arrived to find the Kalare battling it out nearby. “Other people were running away but he didn’t,” said one eyewitness to the killing. “Because of that he was stabbed in the stomach and fell down in front of my house. After five to ten minutes the police came and took the body to the hospital.”350 Several other eyewitnesses confirmed the incident to Human Rights Watch.351

According to Gombe’s Federation of Muslim Women Association who treated and interviewed the victim, in the same month as the boy’s murder, a group of Kalare raped a girl of fourteen who was hawking food on the street after she asked them for the money they owed her for their food. Two Kalare youth put her on a motorbike between them and drove her to the outskirts of town where she was gang-raped by five men.352 A representative of the women’s organization that helped the victim after the incident told Human Rights Watch that “her dress was shredded and drenched in blood. She could not walk for several days afterwards.” The girl recognized some of the perpetrators and named them to police. According to the activists who followed the case, the accused, a known Kalare gang member, was arrested but then released on bail and has since disappeared.353

Several months after the polls, the Nigerian media reported that the price of machetes had fallen sharply throughout Gombe state. Market traders interviewed by local journalists attributed this to the end of a spike in demand for new machetes for use in election-related violence. One trader was quoted as complaining that, "Before the conduct of the general elections, I was selling a minimum of seven machetes daily but can hardly sell one a day now."354

Police Inaction and Abuse

The widespread impunity enjoyed by Kalare gangmembers compounds the problems of political violence and violent crime in Gombe. It emboldens the gangs and encourages a greater scale of lawlessness the longer their conduct goes unpunished. Civil society leaders, human rights activists and other sources widely accused the police of turning a blind eye to the abuses of Kalare thugs, especially those working on behalf of the PDP. During the elections, one police officer complained confidentially to Human Rights Watch: “Politics is making our life very difficult. PDP supporters are not arrested, or if they are, [police officials] han[d] them over to the governor.”355

Several sources alleged to Human Rights Watch that PDP youth leader Abu Maazu extorts regular payments from the eleven local government chairmen in the state for “protection” services provided by Kalare, who are also members of his PDP youth organization. One senior lawyer who had interviewed the local government chairmen put these payments at N500,000 [US$4000] per month for each local government, and there are 11 local governments in the state.356 Other activists and the Gombe Elders Forum alleged the same.357 In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Maazu denied any such arrangement, claiming that, “individual politicians contribute to the youth wing of the party on an individual basis.”358 The police allegedly took no action to investigate these allegations and Gombe’s Commissioner of Police would not comment on the matter to Human Rights Watch.

Several civil society sources described instances where police officers themselves were working on behalf of the PDP, violating the law as well as the principle of electoral neutrality. For example, on gubernatorial Election Day in Tal, a town in Bildiri district, IDASA monitors told Human Rights Watch what transpired when police in the company of PDP officials tried to remove ballot boxes from a polling station before people had finished voting:

The crowds tried to stop them [police and PDP officials] taking the boxes away. The police fired into the air to disperse the crowds. One of the bullets went into a house and killed a child, a girl. The residents chased the PDP officials out of the town and set fire to the police station. Two PDP members were injured with machetes and were committed to the Federal Medical Centre in Gombe town.359

Prior to the April 2007 elections, the police in Gombe detained dozens of opposition supporters, mostly Action Congress members, in the run-up to the elections. Many activists and community leaders complained to Human Rights Watch about the number of political detainees being kept in Gombe prison ahead of the elections. Even the Emir, the traditional ruler of Gombe, a government sympathizer, expressed concern about politically-motivated detentions. In an interview with Human Rights Watch he said, “These are not robbers who have committed any crime. The approach of the police is not humane, they are simply grabbing people and throwing them into jail…The police should help the public, not terrorize them.”360 One opposition lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he was representing over 200 cases of opposition party members who had been unlawfully detained without trial in the months preceding the elections.361

On April 20, 2007, the night before the presidential elections, Human Rights Watch interviewed ten opposition supporters being held in one cell in Gombe police headquarters. Their police guards acknowledged that they had been detained for purely political reasons. “They should be released,” one of the policeman said. “They should be free, they are human beings like you; they have human rights.”362 The police officers and the prisoners claimed that there were many more detainees being held in separate cells in the Criminal Investigation Department. The head of Gombe’s Criminal Investigation Department told Human Rights Watch there were no political detainees in CID custody, but refused to allow access to the CID cells, stating: “If I say we don’t have such people here, then we don’t have.”363

A few minutes earlier, international election observers had been told by the Commissioner of Police that there were no political detainees on the premises, in CID custody or otherwise.364

On the day of the presidential poll, Human Rights Watch spoke to a government official of the federal government’s National Orientation Agency in one local government area. He confirmed that opposition party officials had been arrested in his area to allow for rigging by the ruling party and INEC:

Do you understand our tricks here? All of the opposition leaders here have been arrested so there is no one to lead the protest…There were 10 arrested here this morning, the police said they were troublemakers.365

Fourteen detainees, members of the Action Congress Party, were arrested on April 14, the day of the gubernatorial polls, and then moved to the central police station in Abuja almost immediately. According to lawyers representing them, at least twelve remained in custody as of July 2007.366

321 Human Rights Watch interview, Gombe, April 20, 2007.

322 Human Rights Watch interviews with opposition party members, journalists, NGO activists, doctors, and lawyers in Gombe, April 2007.

323 While boys as young as fourteen are involved in Kalare, most are over 18 years of age. However common practice in Nigeria is to refer to young men, particularly those unemployed, as boys.

324 Activist [name withheld], Interview with Human Rights Watch, April 20, 2007.

325 Senior Civil Servant in Gombe State Government, [name withheld], interview with Human Rights Watch, Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

326 See Leadership, February 7, 2007, data also on file with Human Rights Watch.

327 The report also claimed that between December 2003 and December 2006, the bodies of 60 people killed by Kalare violence were brought to Gombe Specialist Hospital. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, the Director of the Specialist Hospital disputed that figure but declined to provide an alternative estimate. Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. James Maadi, Medical Director, Gombe Specialist Hospital, April 24, 2007.

328 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Garba, former Permanent Secretary, Gombe State Government, Gombe town, April 24, 2007.

329 IDASA, Conflict Tracking Dossier, Issue 4, December 2006.

330 Human Rights Watch interview, April 23, 2007.

331 Human Rights Watch interviews with former government official, civil society activists and opposition politicians, Gombe, April 2007. In several other interviews with anti-kalare activists and opposition officials, Human Rights Watch was provided with names of persons on the government payroll, allegedly involved in directing Kalare activity.

332 Human Rights Watch interview with activist [name withheld], Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

333 Human Rights Watch interview with Abu Maazu, PDP Youth Chairman, Gombe town, April 22, 2007.

334 Ibid

335 Dr. James Maadi, Medical Director, Gombe Specialist Hospital, Interview with Human Rights Watch, April 24, 2007.

336 See, eg, Segun Owofadeji, “Politicians Attack Magistrate, Free Suspect,” This Day, March 21, 2007.

337 Human Rights Watch interview with District Police Officer, Talasee, Balanga Local Government, April 21, 2004.

338 Human Rights Watch interview, Gombe town, April 24, 2007.

339 Network for National Stability, “Observation Report of Gombe State 2007” April 16, 2007, on file with Human Rights Watch.

340 Letters to INEC National Chairman, Maurice Iwu, from ANPP Gombe State Secretariat, Gombe, April 14th and 16th 2007, copies on file with Human Rights Watch.

341 Human Rights Watch interview with IDASA monitor [name withheld], Gombe town, April 22, 2007.

342 Human Rights Watch interview with INEC polling clerk, Gombe Local government office, April 21, 2007.

343 Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmed Abubakar Yunus, ANPP Senatorial candidate, Gombe central, Gombe town, April 23, 2007 and confirmed by Elders Forum, Election Report, Human Rights Watch interview with Suleiman Kumo, April 24, 2007.

344 Human Rights Watch interview with victim [name withheld], Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

345 38,030 votes, according to Vanguard: Jimoh Babatunde, “Street Fighting and Mayhem Precede Elections in Gombe,” VG, May 4, 2007.

346 Ibid.

347 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld] Gombe Town, April 20, 2007.

348 Human Rights Watch interview with activist [name withheld], Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

349 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

350 Human Rights Watch interview with activist [name withheld], Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

351 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Garba, former Permanent Secretary, Gombe State Government, Gombe town, April 24, 2007 and Human Rights Watch interview with eyewitness [name withheld], Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

352 Human Rights Watch interview with official from the Federation of Muslim Women Association, Gombe, April 24, 2007 and a doctor from Gombe Specialist Hospital [name withheld], Gombe, April 25, 2007.

353 Human Rights Watch interview with official from the Federation of Muslim Women Association, Gombe, April 24, 2007.

354 “Price of Machetes Drops in Nigeria After Elections,” Reuters, July 2, 2007.

355 Human Rights Watch interview with police officer [name withheld], Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

356 Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammed Ibrahim Hussein, Gombe town, April 23, 2007.

357 Human Rights Watch interview with activist [name withheld], Gombe town, April 20, 2007 and Suleiman Humo, Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

358 Human Rights Watch interview with Abu Maazu, PDP Youth Leader, Gombe town, April 22, 2007.

359 Human Rights Watch interview with IDASA monitor [name withheld], Gombe town, April 22, 2007.

360 Human Rights Watch interview with the Emir of Gombe, Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

361 Human Rights Watch interview with Yusuf Mailouma, Barrister, Mailouma and Co., Gombe town, April 20, 2007.

362 Human Rights Watch interview with prisoners [names on file with HRW] and with Unnamed Police Officer, Gombe police station, April 20, 2007.

363 Human Rights Watch interview with Assistant Commissioner of Police, Salisu A.Fagge, Head of CID, Gombe State, April 20, 2007.

364 Human Rights Watch interview with international election observers [names withheld], Gombe police station, April 20, 2007.

365 Human Rights Watch interview with member of National Orientation Agency official, [name withheld], Deba, April 21, 2007.

366 Human Rights Watch interview with Zac Sofa, Barrister, by phone, Abuja, May 17, 2007.