Nigeria's 'Godfathers' Denounced in Report

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 9 -- Human Rights Watch warned Tuesday that wealthy and violent political "godfathers" have hijacked Nigeria's eight-year-old democracy while enjoying almost total impunity for their misdeeds.

The New York-based group's 123-page report portrays the country's widely condemned national elections in April as symptomatic of a system in which political players compete mainly through the use of gangs of heavily armed youths, who rape, kill and intimidate opponents. The winners of these battles then use the Nigerian government's vast oil wealth to entrench their power.

"In violent and brazenly rigged polls, government officials have denied millions of Nigerians any real voice in selecting their political leaders," the report says. "In place of democratic competition, struggles for political office have often been waged violently in the streets by gangs of thugs recruited by politicians to help them seize control of power."

More than 300 people died during the April elections, the report says, and many observers witnessed ballot boxes being stuffed or simply stolen. Surveys of Nigerian voters have found that confidence in democracy has plummeted since military rule ended in 1999.

Human Rights Watch said the government of President Umaru Yar'Adua, who won power in April, needs to follow through on promises to investigate crimes committed during those elections while also setting a more ethical tone.

Yar'Adua's predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, was internationally celebrated when he was first elected in 1999, but his eight years in power were marred by rising lawlessness, violence and electoral abuses. Obasanjo often vowed to root out corruption but was increasingly dogged by his own financial scandals in his final years in office.

The report points to some signs that Yar'Adua is seeking to break with the past, but it details how, as governor of Katsina state, he put several thousand young thugs on the government payroll to enforce the will of the ruling party. It also reports numerous cases throughout Nigeria in which politically powerful men -- called "godfathers" by Nigerians -- have used patronage and easily available weapons to control state governments.

The report calls for the government to take several steps, including ending impunity for state governors, reforming the national electoral commission and launching sweeping investigations of alleged crimes. It also says that foreign governments should deny visas to Nigerians facing credible allegations of corruption. Multiple-entry visas to Britain are so coveted by Nigerians, the report says, that they are doled out to key supporters during elections.

"It wouldn't take much on the part of the Yar'Adua government to begin to set a new tone," said Chris Albin-Lackey, a Human Rights Watch researcher, speaking from Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.

Calls to Nigerian government spokesman Segun Adeniyi were not answered Tuesday.

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