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January 15, 2014

Nigerian Candidates Fear Election Violence, 'Godfatherism' in 2015

by Heather Murdock

More than 800 people were killed in Kaduna, a city in northern Nigeria, in clashes after the 2011 elections.  As 2015 elections approach, some young politicians say they can break the cycle of violence by encouraging activism.  Others say they fear what they call “political godfatherism” will shut down the youth voice before it is heard. 

Violence and politics in Kaduna are closely related. 

Horns are blown at a political rally in Kaduna, a traditional battle cry before a tribal attack. 

But there are also speeches, issues and peaceful rallies, even with the horns, and some young candidates in northern Nigeria say they are determined to prevent bloodshed during the 2015 national elections.

Suleman Shuaibu Shinkafi, 39, a candidate for a local chairman seat in Kaduna, is hanging posters and hoping to woo the youth vote before his elders get in the election race.  He says it is the political establishment that causes election violence, not any particular party.

“We will no longer allow these gray-haired people to continue ruling us," he said. "They have already victimized us.  They have already disappointed us.  We have no confidence in any of them.  So we want to come out and play the politics too.”

He says the aftermath of past elections were so violent partially because young people were hired to be violent by political elites.  If younger people are involved in politics, he says, their votes will not be for sale and they will refuse to be hired as thugs.  

A ruling party youth leader, Saidu Gwambe, 35, says hiring young people during elections also angers the public and fuels the violence. 

“It is unfortunate really. We the youth of Nigeria, our leaders, they are using youth when the politics is taking place. Sometimes they put youth [as] agents or [as] political thugs,” said Gwambe.

But some analysts say thuggery will be hard to get rid of.  Mustapha Mohammed Ankaew says new, young political candidates do not have a chance because rich leaders will continue to pay off the poorest among them, a considerable portion of a society where more than half the population lives in dire poverty.

“Nigerians today, they are being corrupted by political elders and political leaders," he said. "So there is no way that someone that is newly recruited to politics to say he is going to win.”

Ankaew says the only way for the next round of elections to be safe, fair and successful in electing qualified candidates is to end “political godfatherism,” a system of corruption that he says is entrenched in Nigerian politics.

A “godfather” is a rich patron who backs a candidate either by funding their campaign or paying thugs to buy votes, steal votes or scare voters. 

In return, the godfather gets a cut of the considerable wealth the politician gains through corruption when he or she wins the race.

It is often said that no one without a godfather can win elections here, and as a result it is hard to find a politician that is not corrupt. 

But an opposition party member in northern Nigeria, Hafsat Babba, says it does not have to always be so. 

“That is why we are so undeveloped in Nigeria.  Most especially in the north because of this godfatherism," Babba said. "So the moment you feel you can come to the field, you can contest an election or you can perform very well I do not think you need any godfather to carry community, or even your state or even Nigeria.”

Young politicians say they have no godfathers, and that may kill their campaigns, or boost their popularity.  But they believe that if they can get their contemporaries excited about the elections, the godfathers will not be able to orchestrate violence or decide who wins.
 
Ibrahima Yakubu contributed to this report from Kaduna.