Nigerian Politicians and Their Gunmen
March 7, 2021
By Simon Kolawole
Sadly, this story makes me laugh. A human rights activist shared with me an experience she had during a governorship election in one of the south-west states many years ago. She said she was in the state capital on election eve when she learnt that a renowned political thug (who is now being branded by sections of the media as a messiah) was in the government house preparing to unleash mayhem the next day. The activist panicked and requested to see the leader of the police team detailed from Abuja to oversee security for the election. She said she told the police chief “this guy in government house has killed people” during elections and that he must be caged by all means.
“You know how the police chief replied me?” she asked me, rhetorically. “He simply said: ‘God will catch him one day!’ I was rattled. I told him: ‘It’s like you didn’t hear me well, sir. I said this guy has killed over a hundred people in recent elections! He is here to kill!’ The police chief replied: ‘I heard you very well. You think the guy is in government house without a go-ahead from Abuja? You think those who sent me here didn’t know he is also here? You think they don’t know that he is here for this election as well? Please don’t put me in trouble. God will catch him one day.’ My brother, it was unbelievable.” I felt so dejected after the conversation, even though I was laughing on the surface.
In my article, ‘A Nation Surrounded by Gunmen’ (February 28, 2021), I lamented that the political authorities are making it difficult for the security agencies to tackle insecurity because of their coded messages. After reading the article, a retired police commissioner gave me a call. He emphasised just one thing from my article: “Nobody wants to be sacked.” By the time we ended our long conversation, I was totally downcast. I already had an idea of most of what he was telling me, but the details from his personal experience further weakened me. The long and short of our discussion is that Nigerian politicians need to come clean on much of the anarchy ruining the land.
Let me summarise what he said in just one paragraph: “There is a lot already being said about the corruption in the security agencies, the lack of equipment, the poor welfare, the human rights abuses and other issues. The one big thing that has not caught the attention of you journalists is the role of politicians in fuelling the insecurity. Most of these people we call Niger Delta militants, bandits, terrorists and armed robbers today were produced by politicians. When they had been used for elections and dumped thereafter, they took to full-time crime, deploying the arms that were given to them by the politicians. That is partly why we are here. And we are in serious trouble.”
He reminded me how militancy started in the Niger Delta: how a governor who wanted to be president started arming thugs to terrorise his political opponents; how he fell out with the first group of thugs after his re-election and raised another group to counter them; how the two groups started engaging in gun battles; how one of the groups was backed by the federal government and the leader of the other group was charged to court; and how different groups started coming up as the thugs realised the kind of power they could wield and how much of crude oil they could steal; and how they finally rebranded as campaigners for economic and social justice in the oil region.
“Simon,” he said. “I can take you through the list of the criminals giving police the toughest time across the country – from the north to the south. Most of them are products of politicians either jostling for power or trying to retain it. There is no state in Nigeria where politicians don’t have thugs whom they arm at election times. The only place today where we don’t have established political thugs and thug leaders is Abuja. And it is very easy to understand why: there is no governor or mayor in Abuja. The FCT minister is appointed by the president. If we establish a mayoralty in Abuja today, politicians jostling for the position will start breeding thugs. Abuja will not know peace again.”
He told me the origins of the “ECOMOG boys” in Borno state, many of whom obviously ended up in Boko Haram after the 2003 general election. He told me about the “Yandaba boys” in Kano state who were readily deployed as political thugs during elections. He came to the south-west and gave me a comprehensive list of the “union leaders” who have been perpetuating criminality, such as kidnapping and murder, without any consequences – because of the “big” politicians they are working for. Some of them are dead now. There was also the example of the late Terwase Akwaza (“Gana”) in Benue state who led the killing gangs for politicians and became uncontrollable.
After the call, I began to chew on the discussion. I concluded that there is definitely a link between our brand of politics and the rise in gun crimes in Nigeria. I do not suggest in any way that all crimes are linked to politics and politicians. True, right from the time Nigeria started managing its democracy after colonial rule, elections have always witnessed one form of violence or the other. But that does not tell the whole story of gun crime in Nigeria; after all, armed robbery started flourishing under military rule and there were cases of assassinations here and there as well. It will therefore be disingenuous to limit violent crimes to civil rule. There is no such evidence.
Also, as I pointed out in a previous article, we have watched Nigeria move from one level of insecurity to another since we gained independence in 1960, both under civil rule and military regimes. Nevertheless, politicians have played a substantial role in fuelling the degeneration since 1999. We cannot discuss the insecurity and ignore this fact. The nursery of thugs is always there, so the politicians tap into it and take it a step higher by arming them to win or retain power. They have little need for them after elections and the thugs now have to fend for themselves. The arms they carry and the political protection they enjoy make it easy for them. Politicians are key enablers.
I have always argued that politicians are undermining the security agencies. Give police the best personnel, equipment and funding if you like, but we will still be at the mercy of a kill-or-be-killed political culture that produces “youth leaders” and “union excos”. It is from among these youth leaders, motor park chairmen, road transport associations and street urchins that politicians empower gunmen to intimidate and eliminate their opponents. Killer weapons to equip the thugs are brought into the country either by land or sea and officials at the borders or ports are usually induced to look the other way. The guns become multi-purpose when election dusts settle.
There are questions I always like to ask for which I am yet to get answers. The Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) announces all the time that its officials have seized illegally imported “pump action rifles” – but why do we not hear about prosecution afterwards? How many people have been charged to court for illegal importation of arms? The cargoes were shipped with documentation, right? Is it that difficult to track the importers? Let me guess: the importers have connections to politicians. When a well-publicised crime in Nigeria ends up in nothing, be sure some people have pressed buttons somewhere and we will not hear about the matter again. This is Nigeria.
The retired police commissioner recounted instances of when political thugs would be rounded up on the eve of an election and his superiors would come under intense pressure to release them. “One day I looked at my boss and I almost shed tears. The pressure on him was just too much. They would be saying: So, it is true you want our party to lose? So it is true that you have collected money from our opponents? It is a tough job,” he said. The pressure does not stop there, certainly. It comes with name-dropping of higher political authorities and threats of sack for “betrayal” and “compromise”. Only the fittest of the fittest can remain firm under such circumstances.
While we continue to discuss the insecurity in Nigeria along the lines of weak security architecture, porous borders, poverty levels and unemployment rates, we must not lose sight of the ignoble role of our politicians. In a recent viral video, a man described as a “repentant bandit” said it was “government” that gave them guns. I understood that to mean a governor’s agents supplied the seed guns with which they started their banditry enterprise. I recall how some of the Offa robbers, who killed 33 people including 12 police officers in 2018, reportedly confessed that they were political thugs during the day. Even state government vehicles were allegedly found with them.
How can we overcome this? I wish I had the answer. Maybe if, or when, we have state police, it would limit the illegal arms linked to electioneering. Governors would be fully in charge of the police in their states. They would, thus, not need to arm thugs to intimidate and eliminate their opponents as it currently obtains. However, this may not stop their opponents from having their own thugs. While governors may be able to “legally” use force to frustrate and contain their opponents – in which case the arms in circulation will be “legal” – their opponents may raise the bar and increase the calibre of weapons for their own thugs. I honestly do not know how things will pan out.
But whatever we are doing to address the insecurity in the land, we must not lose sight of the factories that produce gunmen. Perhaps we need circuit breakers – or outliers. We need judges, police chiefs, governors and presidents who are ready to buck the trend, who are ready to do what is right no matter the cost, whose ultimate desire is to take Nigeria to the path of peace and progress. That is why I think our politicians also need to have an honest conversation with their consciences on the role they are playing in destabilising this society. They need introspection. If our politicians don’t change their ways, some things will never change in Nigeria. We reap what they sow.
AND TWO OTHER THINGS…
Yesterday, President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo publicly took the COVID-19 vaccine. That, to me, is a very important “do as I do” message to the Nigerian public. I like the optics. I am also impressed by the huge number of Nigerians who have registered to take the jab as the world urgently tries to reduce infections, overcome the pandemic and go back to normal. I know that the religious fanatics and conspiracy theorists – or “drama queens” like Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi state – will continue to resist the vaccine, but at least people now have a choice. We have lost too many loved ones to COVID for us not to bother about finding a solution. Progress.
Crude oil prices are projected to hit $75/barrel by September but I am not excited. Oil prices are being pushed up by OPEC+ output cuts – and that means we have to keep producing less than our capacity. With deregulation, high crude prices mean Nigerians will pay more for fuels, particularly petrol and diesel, and that can worsen things in a country where people are already battling very harsh economic realities. The landing cost of petrol today is above N200 per litre! I would prefer a steady crude price of $55/barrel, a steady production of 2.2m barrels per day, and steady petrol price of N175/litre. I am certainly not looking forward to $75/barrel at 1.2m barrels per day. Oily.