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Nigerian Court Battle Tests Power of 'Godfathers' - 2004-01-16


A court battle in Nigeria over a state governor's term in office is testing the power of so-called godfathers - mostly wealthy benefactors - in local politics.

Several thousand supporters of Anambra state Governor Chris Ngige chant as they guard his offices in the southern city Awka for fear that police, who abducted the governor once, will try again.

This happened in July when police kidnapped the governor from his office and held him at gunpoint for several hours in a hotel room. They said he was refusing to step down even though he had signed a letter of resignation.

But Mr. Ngige, who was able to flee his police captors, said he had been forced to sign the letter on orders of a wealthy businessman who backed his election campaign, Chris Uba.

Mr. Uba is one of Nigeria's godfathers, a bunch of usually wealthy businessmen who bankroll politicians' election campaigns in return for lucrative government contracts.

Mr. Uba boasts he is the greatest godfather of them all in Nigeria because he has funded the campaign of every elected official in Anambra and they all now work for him.

This no longer includes the governor, though, who has been refusing to hand out state contracts and government positions to allies of Mr. Uba.

A human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi says that because of this, Mr. Uba, to whom he refers as a gentleman, is determined to remove Mr. Ngige from office and that he has the backing of the federal government to do so.

"The governor was abducted by people who said that they put him in office by rigging the election in his favor and one of those people is a very close associate of [Nigeria's President] General Olusegun Obasanjo because the gentleman helped Obasanjo to get some of the votes in Anambra state so General Obasanjo, the president, is supporting the enemies of the governor," he said. "And so when the abduction took place in July we expected that the president should swing into action and instruct the Attorney General to arraign these people for treason because it was most treasonable to abduct the governor of a state and create a situation that was lawless. That was not done."

Aides to the president deny he has played any role in the affairs of Anambra state, while Mr. Uba has remained silent.

But now, the controversy has erupted once again with a court in the neighboring state of Enugu ruling Mr. Ngige is illegally occupying his post.

The court case was filed by a suspended Anambra lawmaker, Nelson Achukwu, who says he was severely beaten at a political rally in Enugu last year by security forces working for Mr. Ngige.

"I was beaten to a point of [near] death," said Nelson Achukwu. "So I wanted the court to determine whether he's entitled after having resigned to be using government machinery to be terrorizing me."

But supporters of Mr. Ngige accuse the lawmaker of fabricating his own assault to justify the case. After the ruling against him earlier this month, Mr. Ngige disappeared for a few days, before reappearing with thousands of supporters in tow to resume work at the governor's house.

This week, a regional appeal's court issued an interim order preventing police from arresting the governor, so the battle between the dissident governor and his godfather remains undecided.

All protagonists in this tangle of political corruption are members of the People's Democratic Party, which is in control of the central government as well as in Anambra state.

The national chairman of the party Audu Ogbe says he has faith Nigeria's court system.

"The matter is in the hands of the court and we cannot comment on court matters," he said. "And we believe that in the last analysis they will put the interests of the nation at heart."

To add spice to this political drama, the former policeman responsible for the governor's abduction in July died on Tuesday. His family says it was because of stress, but some supporters of the embattled governor say the policeman might have been assassinated by one of Nigeria's godfathers.

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