Corruption, Godfatherism and the Funding of Political Violence 

Most of these politicians are linked to cult groups—they finance them, they maintain them, they sustain them. And all that is out of the use of government funds.”
—Academic and former Rivers State opposition candidate, Port Harcourt, August 15, 2007

Despite record-setting government revenues in recent years, corruption and mismanagement remain a major cause of Nigeria’s failure to make meaningful progress in improving the lot of ordinary Nigerians. These financial factors are closely entwined with the rampant political violence in Nigeria. Public revenues are not only stolen and misused, but often pay for the services and weapons behind the political violence. Because violence and corruption make political competition a very expensive endeavor in Nigeria, many politicians are far more accountable to powerful and violent political godfathers who sponsor them than they are to their constituents.

Corruption and Poverty in Nigeria

Corruption pervades all levels of government in Nigeria.86 In 2006 the head of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nuhu Ribadu, estimated that Nigeria lost some US$380 billion to corruption between independence in 1960 and the end of military rule in 1999.87 Nigeria’s corruption epidemic has continued since then. Exact figures are impossible to come by, but some western diplomats estimate that Nigeria lost a minimum average of $4 billion to $8 billion per year to corruption over the eight years of the Obasanjo administration.88 That figure would equal between 4.25% and 9.5% of Nigeria’s total GDP in 2006.To put those numbers in perspective, a loss of 9.5% of the United States’ GDP to corruption in 2006 would have translated into $1.25 trillion in stolen funds or $222 billion (GBP 108.6 billion89) in the case of the United Kingdom’s economy.90

Human Rights Watch has documented the human rights impact of systemic corruption and mismanagement in Rivers State—Nigeria’s largest oil producer and the wealthiest state in the nation.91 In Rivers the state and local governments have failed to make meaningful improvements in the state’s badly dilapidated primary health and education sectors in recent years despite per capita spending far in excess of many West African countries at the state level alone.92 Instead, an unprecedented influx of revenue into state and local government coffers has been squandered or stolen. At the same time, the rising financial stakes have helped push struggles over political office to become more violent.93 The 2007 elections in Rivers surpassed even the dismal nationwide norm in their brazen rigging by government officials.94

The situation in Rivers is by no means unique. While Nigeria’s government earned an estimated $223 billion during the eight years of the Obasanjo administration alone, between 50 and 90 million Nigerians live on less than one US dollar a day and per capita income stands at one-third the level it had reached in 1980. Nigeria also has some of the worst socio-economic indicators in the world.95 The link between violence and corruption that has become so vivid in Rivers State is now reflected throughout many parts of Nigeria.

Nigeria’s Political Godfathers

Not all aspirants to political office in Nigeria can raise on their own the substantial resources usually necessary to compete in the country’s violent and corrupt political system—especially if they do not enjoy control over public resources to begin with. As a result, in many parts of Nigeria, successful candidates are often those who are “sponsored” by wealthy and powerful individuals known in Nigerian parlance as political godfathers.96

These godfathers are not mere financiers of political campaigns. Rather they are individuals whose power stems not just from wealth but from their ability to deploy violence and corruption to manipulate national, state or local political systems in support of the politicians they sponsor. In return, they demand a substantial degree of control over the governments they help bring into being—not in order to shape government policy, but to exact direct financial “returns” in the form of government resources stolen by their protégés or lucrative government contracts awarded to them as further opportunities for graft. Godfathers also require their sponsored politicians to use government institutions to generate patronage for other protégés.

Former Oyo State governor Victor Olunloyo explained the relationship between politicians and their “godfathers” this way:

Money flows up and down…these honorable members [of the Oyo State House of Assembly], during the election period, they want the patronage of the puppeteer. Afterwards money will flow in the opposite direction—back from the puppet to the puppeteer.97

In some cases godfathers are themselves public officials, using their access to public funds to sponsor lower-level officials.98

Godfatherism is both a symptom and a cause of the violence and corruption that together permeate the political process in Nigeria. Public officials who owe their position to the efforts of a political godfather incur a debt that they are expected to repay without end throughout their tenure in office. Godfathers are only relevant because politicians are able to deploy violence and corruption with impunity to compete for office in contests that often effectively, and sometimes actually, exclude Nigeria’s voters altogether. But their activities also help to reinforce the central role of violence and corruption in politics by making it even more difficult to win elected office without resorting to the illegal tactics they represent. Nigeria’s godfatherism phenomenon is not unique to the ruling PDP, but as with many of the other abuses described in this report it is seen most often in the conduct of PDP officials as both a cause and a result of the party’s success in maintaining itself in power.

This report provides detailed accounts of human rights abuses fueled by the activities of two of Nigeria’s best-known political godfathers. The Oyo State case study below describes the power wielded by Chief Lamidi Adedibu. Adedibu, a dominant figure in the PDP in Oyo, has been instrumental in preventing free and fair elections and placing violence and corruption at the heart of politics in his state. The Anambra State case study discusses another of Nigeria’s iconic political godfathers, Chris Uba, who is a member of the PDP’s national Board of Trustees.

Corruption and the Funding of Political Violence

There is a direct relationship between corruption and political violence—many public officials use stolen public revenues to pay for political violence in support of their ambitions. As one Niger Delta academic who maintains that his 2003 Senate campaign was derailed by the violent efforts of the PDP to intimidate voters and rig the vote told Human Rights Watch, “Most of these politicians are linked to cult groups—they finance them, they maintain them, they sustain them. And all of this is out of the use of government funds.”99 In Gombe State, a leading lawyer and former minister in the federal government published allegations in the national press that the state government was funding the activities of “Kalare” thugs using public money.100

The Price of Violence

The money that is poured into mobilizing political violence in Nigeria is substantial, even if the amounts that filter down to low level thugs sometimes are not. As one civil society leader in Katsina State explained to Human Rights Watch, “They [local politicians] will just come and gather the youth to cause mayhem—not even for N5000 ($38), just N1000 or 500. To someone who is doing nothing, N50 (38 cents) can be something to him.”101 Or as one former cult member in Port Harcourt put it: “The youth have no money—if you show them the bag of money or the bag of guns, they will work for you.”102

The amounts paid to violent actors become less trivial higher up in the chain of command or for more important operations. One engineering graduate student in Anambra State told Human Rights Watch that he had been paid N25,000 ($190) by the campaign office of PDP gubernatorial candidate Andy Uba to help organize thugs that chased elected delegates away from polling areas on the day of the PDP gubernatorial primaries in late 2006. He said that he was bused to the voting centers along with at least two to three busloads full of other cult and gang members who received the same payment. As of then, N25,000 was more than three times the starting monthly wage of many civil servants in Anambra State.103 “We are contracted to do this,” the man said. “I earn money through my civil engineering and through politics. I get more money in politics.”104

The leader of an armed gang whose primary stronghold stretches across part of Port Harcourt told Human Rights Watch that in 2003 he and numerous other cult and gang leaders had been paid between N3 million and N10 million ($23,000 to $77,000) each to “disrupt the election in favor of our governor [Peter Odili]…[w]e stood at the election grounds so people would not come [to vote],” he said. “There was no election.”105 Similar payments were reportedly handed out during the 2007 elections in Rivers.106

The use and funding of political violence is by no means restricted to the PDP—the 2007 elections saw violent abuses committed on all sides. As one prominent lawyer in Oyo State put it: often rival politicians “are fishing from the same pond. They all make use of thugs.”107 A group of young men affiliated with the outlawed O’odua People Congress (OPC) told Human Rights Watch that they would work for anyone able to pay them to carry out acts of violence ahead of the 2007 elections.108 “We are not interested in your writing,” one of them told Human Rights Watch. “Your writing does not feed us. Bring money, bring guns, bring the logistics. It is war now and we want to see action.”109 But because the PDP controls the machinery of state in much of Nigeria, it is often better positioned to mobilize the resources necessary to fund political violence than other parties.

One former cult member in Port Harcourt, who had been involved in violence on behalf of the PDP during the 2003 elections, explained to Human Rights Watch that most armed groups in Rivers State prefer to work for the PDP even where alternative sponsors present themselves:

The PDP has ruled for eight years and so they have the money and they have the power…Other parties say, when we are in government you will enjoy money—but the PDP will pay you immediately, so people prefer this. What the PDP is, is guns and money.110

Other individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch also expressed skepticism about the rewards involved in working against the PDP. One police officer in Oyo State expressed contempt for what he saw as an effort by the opposition Action Congress to buy the sympathy of the police in the state. He said that one official allegedly linked to the party’s campaign efforts in the state gave cash to police commanders to be distributed throughout the force. “Every junior officer got N200,” he said. “I left the money with my boss; it’s not even enough for one beer!”111

False Promises

Many politicians lure unemployed young men into committing acts of political violence by making extravagant promises of employment or other forms of illegal government patronage that those officials are unlikely, and perhaps unable, to deliver. Members of one criminal gang in Oyo State who said they had performed contract killings and other acts of violence for the PDP in 2007 told Human Rights Watch that they expected to be awarded “contracts for security, construction and logging” after the 2007 elections. One of the gang members added, “There is one man [another gang member] I know in Ogun state, he got a logging concession, he gets nine million Naira per month.”112 And another member of the same gang expressed an even more unlikely expectation of the possible rewards for carrying out electoral violence:

The best thing you can get is a multiple entry visa to the UK. If a godfather promised you that, you would do anything. To get a visa you need to submit bank statements but the godfathers are multi-millionaires, they can do it for you…godfathers usually give out around 20 [visas] per campaign for the top cult members and loyalists.

He laughed and added, “That is why you get the worst Nigerians in London!” 113

The failure of politicians to deliver on such extravagant promises—all of which would be entirely illegal in and of themselves even were they honored—has had lasting consequences. In Rivers State, for example, state government officials armed and mobilized criminal gangs to rig the 2003 election in favor of the PDP.114 Many of those groups feel that they were subsequently “dumped” when the officials they helped rig into office failed to honor promises of government jobs and other forms of patronage. This has led to a breakdown in relations between armed cult groups and their former sponsors. Many of those former political thugs have put the arms and experience they acquired rigging the 2003 elections to use in more generalized forms of violent crime. This has given rise to a long and ongoing wave of uncontrolled criminal violence in the state. The situation in Rivers is discussed in more detail below.

Box 2: Direct State Sponsorship of Thugs in Katsina

In at least one Nigerian state, Katsina, the state government paid money directly to gangs of youth who were accused of carrying out widespread political violence in return for those payments. Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua served as Governor of Katsina State for eight years until being elected president in April 2007. According to former state government officials, civil society activists and PDP Youth members, his administration used state government money to maintain several thousand “PDP Youth” on a regular monthly stipend of N5000 ($38). One former state government official told Human Rights Watch that this PDP youth organization was essentially a perversion of an initiative to empower unemployed youth in the state:

Before 2003 the idea was brought at a Government House meeting to establish television viewing centers in all of the wards. Some of us vehemently opposed this on the basis that this was not an acceptable legacy to bequeath on the youth. [We] suggested computer training centers. The idea was accepted but [later] this thing suddenly became, “Let’s give them a N5000 allowance.” [These youth] have since become a reservoir of thugs.115

The same official told Human Rights Watch that the stipends were normally paid out of the state government’s security vote.116 The security vote is a budget line that is meant to act as a source of discretionary spending that the executive arms of government can use to respond quickly and effectively to threats to peace and security in their jurisdictions. However the use of those funds is notoriously opaque; there is generally no requirement that governors or local government chairpersons account for their use of those funds. In many cases security vote money has been used by state and local governments to foment violence and co-opt political opponents or has been lost to graft and patronage.117

The PDP youth organization had chapters in local governments throughout the state and its members had no formal obligation to perform any kind of service in exchange for their stipends.118

During the 2007 elections, opposition supporters complained that PDP youth members were used as political thugs throughout the state, intimidating opposition supporters and voters. On election day itself Action Congress and ANPP supporters pointed to the PDP youth in several local governments as having been involved in widespread attacks on polling stations that saw many ballot boxes stolen by gangs of PDP supporters.119

Human Rights Watch interviewed two members of the PDP youth organization in Katsina town. Both acknowledged that they were paid N5000 per month and said that this money came to their superiors in the organization from Government House. They also said that some of their members had received other forms of patronage from government. “If we have a building they want to complete or want to buy a motorcycle…the government helps us.”120

The two said that in return for the stipends they were expected to “go out for rallies, go out for campaigns, to follow the politicians.”121 They denied being used to attack or intimidate members of the opposition, saying that during the elections they were deployed as party agents to polling units throughout the city. However they did acknowledge that they had been involved in several violent clashes with ANPP supporters in the run-up to the elections. In one instance, they fought with supporters of ANPP presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari at a rally in Katsina town two days before the 2007 gubernatorial elections. “When Buhari came in for his campaign, he came in with thugs who had been smoking hard drugs,” one of PDP youth members claimed. “They wanted to force people to raise their right hand for Buhari, so we had to react to the situation.”122 By contrast, press accounts of the clash reported that the fighting began when a group of PDP thugs arrived at a Buhari campaign event and began harassing people.123

86 The World Bank and the non-governmental organization Transparency International generally define corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain.” The World Bank notes that this definition includes situations when “public officials accept, solicit, or extort bribes; and when private actors offer bribes to subvert or circumvent public policies for competitive advantage and profit.” Corruption can also occur in the absence of bribes. For example, the World Bank considers patronage or nepotism by government officials, theft of state assets, or the illegal diversion of state revenues as corruption. The World Bank, Helping Countries Combat Corruption: The Role of the World Bank (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 1997), p.8; and Transparency International, “Frequently Asked Questions About the Corruption Perceptions Index: 2002,” press release, August 28, 2002.

87 “Nigeria Leaders ‘Stole’ $380 Billion,” BBC News Online, October 20, 2006, (accessed July 12, 2007).

88 Human Rights Watch interviews with diplomatic officials, Abuja, April 2007; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with western diplomatic official, June 18, 2007. That estimate includes money lost to corruption from the budgets of Nigeria’s federal, state and local governments along with money stolen or otherwise diverted from parastatal companies including the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Ibid.

89 Calculated at an exchange rate of 1USD = GBP .4895.

90 According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2006 the GDP of the United States stood at $13.21 trillion, while that of the United Kingdom was estimated at $2.346 trillion. Available online at (accessed August 4, 2007).

91 Human Rights Watch, Nigeria—“Chop Fine”: The Human Rights Impact of Local Government Corruption and Mismanagement in Rivers State, Nigeria, vol. 19, no. 2(A), January 2007,

92 Ibid.

93 Ibid. See also Human Rights Watch, The Unacknowledged Violence; Human Rights Watch, Nigeria—Rivers and Blood: Guns, Oil and Power in Nigeria’s Rivers State, February 2005,

94See Human Rights Watch, “Nigeria: Polls Marred by Violence, Fraud”; Stakeholder Democracy Network, “Further Rigging: Election Observation Report, Akwa Ibom, Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers States,” pp. 14-20 and 34-40.

95 See Jean Herskovitz, “Nigeria’s Rigged Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007; Human Rights Watch, Chop Fine, pp. 40-43. Nigeria has the world’s second-highest number of maternal deaths each year after India; one in five Nigerian children die before the age of five, many from easily preventable diseases. Ibid. Between 50 and 90 million Nigerians are believed to live in absolute poverty. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) estimates that 90 million Nigerians live in absolute poverty. DFID, “Nigeria Country Assistance Plan, 2004-2008,” (accessed November 6, 2006). The World Bank has put the figure at 37 percent of Nigeria’s population. World Bank, “Nigeria Country Brief,” updated April 2006. Nigeria is ranked 159th out of 177 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Current rankings across all countries with data can be found online at (accessed November 28, 2006).

96 See, e.g., Jibrin Ibrahim, “The Rise of Nigeria’s Political Godfathers,” BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, November 10, 2003, (accessed July 12, 2007).

97 Human Rights Watch interview with Victor Olunloyo, Ibadan, February 8, 2007.

98 To cite one relatively minor example, in Rivers State it was widely believed that the chairman of Etche local government was rigged into office with the backing of a Commissioner in the State government at the time. Opponents of the chairman alleged that he made regular payments to that Commissioner out of local government coffers. Human Rights Watch, Chop Fine, pp. 64-75.

99 Human Rights Watch interview with Ben Naanen, University of Port Harcourt, April 16, 2007. During the 2003 elections Naanen’s wife was forced at gunpoint to vote for his PDP opponent. Ibid.

100 Mohammed Ibrahim Hassan and Gombe Unity Forum “Open Letter to the President and Head of EFCC on Financial Crimes in Gombe State”, Leadership, October 1, 2006. The use of Yan Kalare gangs by politicians in Gombe is discussed in the Gombe State case study below.

101 Human Rights Watch interview with civil society activist, Funtua, Katsina State, April 20, 2007.

102 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, April 12, 2007.

103 Starting civil servant salaries in Anambra were reportedly pegged at N7000 in 2007.

104 Human Rights Watch interview with cult member, Awka, February 14, 2007.

105 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, April 12, 2007.

106 See below, Rivers State case study.

107 Human Rights Watch interview, Ibadan, February 9, 2007.

108 The OPC is a violent Yoruba self-determination group responsible for widespread human rights abuses in the past. See Human Rights Watch, Nigeria— The O’odua People’s Congress: Fighting Violence with Violence, vol. 15, no. 4(A), February 2003,

109 Human Rights Watch interview, Ibadan, April 8, 2007.

110 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, April 12, 2007.

111 Human Rights Watch interview with police sergeant, Ibadan, April 6, 2007.

112 Human Rights Watch interview, Ibadan, April 6, 2007.

113 Human Rights Watch interview, Ibadan, April 6, 2007.

114 See below, Rivers State case study. See also Human Rights Watch, Rivers and Blood pp. 4-6.

115 Human Rights Watch interview, Katsina, April 19, 2007.

116 Ibid.

117 For a detailed explanation of security votes and their links to corruption, see Human Rights Watch, Chop Fine pp. 32-33.

118 Human Rights Watch interviews with PDP Youth members, Katsina, April 23, 2007.

119 See “Nigeria: Presidential Election Marred by Fraud, Violence,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 25, 2007,

120 Human Rights Watch interviews with PDP Youth members, Katsina, April 23, 2007.

121 Ibid.

122 Ibid.

123 See Mu’iyawa Idris, “Police Cordon off Katsina Venue of Buhari Rally,” Daily Triumph, April 12, 2007,, reporting that, “trouble started when a campaign vehicle of PDP arrived at the campaign revenue of Gen. Buhari and some PDP thugs came out from the vehicle and started harassing people.” Ibid.