Key to winning Nigerian election is violence

Muscle for hire is plentiful

trust in democracy falls

April 21, 2007|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria -- Forget election promises, advertising, televised debates, mud-slinging and pork-barreling. The first thing you need to win an election in Nigeria is plenty of guys with guns.

Nowhere are there more thugs-for-hire than in the Niger Delta, where resentment of the government is high and the stakes are higher - it's the site of the nation's oil reserves.

For the most violent intimidation operations, politicians call on "the boys in the creek," militants who roam the region's waterways with machine guns and AK-47s.

When a political operation calls for brains, they hire "the boys on the campus," armed university "cult" gangs with names such as Vikings, Ku Klux Konfraternity, Black Axe or Pirates.

"The boys in the street," jobless school dropouts, are used for run-of-the-mill terror and intimidation, such as beating up political opponents and their supporters.

"It's all about violence," said Jackie, who declined to give his surname but described himself as a former leader of the Buccaneers cult group. "The Nigerian election is not like an American election. If a politician wants to seek office, he needs to get some boys to work for him."

Jackie, a sociology graduate and engineer in the oil industry, described the violence in heroic terms.

"It's about fighting oppression in the system," he said, adding that people turned to violence when democracy failed them.

Presidential and parliamentary elections today see Nigeria's first transfer of power from one civilian administration to another, an important test of its democracy as President Olusegun Obasanjo steps down.

But the credibility of the vote is in doubt. Observers condemned the rigging and violence, most pronounced in the Delta, in last weekend's state-level elections.

Late yesterday, militants attacked state government buildings, police headquarters and an electoral office in Yenagoa, the capital of neighboring Bayelsa state. There were reports of heavy gunfire and explosions in the area. The state's governor, Goodluck Jonathan, is the ruling party's vice presidential candidate.

Analysts warn that rigged elections would undercut Nigeria's faltering steps to democracy, triggering more militancy and violence as people lose faith in elections.

The International Crisis Group warned in March that widespread popular rejection of election results could cause violence, the collapse of state authority and perhaps a return to military rule.

Jackie said politicians paid up to 10 million naira ($77,500) to cult groups for their services in elections. He pointed out that the Buccaneers were idealists arrayed against an oppressive regime, but he said other cult groups were more criminal and willing to work for the highest bidder.

"It has to be violent because this is the Nigerian situation," he said. "That's the way it is here."

The boys in the creek know a thing or two about violence. The armed militants hiding out in camps along the creeks snaking through the Delta grew powerful when politicians armed them to rig the 2003 election.

Now they are involved in large-scale oil theft, known as "bunkering," the importing of sophisticated weapons and, increasingly, kidnappings of foreign oil workers. Americans fetch a premium ransom.

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