There’s a voyeuristic side of me that can’t stop reading human rights reports. When I have a little downtime, I’ll scour through old tales of Serbian and Croatian crimes against humanity. Or, I’ll catch up on Charles Taylor’s use of amulets to tell his boy soldiers they’re impervious to bullets. Old narratives from Apartheid-era South Africa, anyone?
The best human rights reporting opens a window to world few people know. That’s a good thing. A talented human rights investigator will give readers plenty of illicit knowledge, dirty little secrets from the underbelly of despotic regime. To me, human rights reporting underscores my twin beliefs that most power is corrupt and there’s some really sick bastards out there.
Yet reading the press reports of Human Rights Watch’s new report on the 2007 elections in Nigeria failed to stir anything but a yawn. Politics in Nigeria are dysfunctional? It’s like someone told me, at 39, that my insurance company isn’t looking out for what is best for me.
Every report has to start somewhere, but “Criminal Politics: Violence, ‘Godfathers’ and Corruption in Nigeria” takes us down the path we’ve all heard before. “Nigeria is mired in a crisis of governance,” the report’s summary begins. “Eight years since the end of military rule, the country’s longest-ever stretch of uninterrupted civilian government, the conduct of many public officials and government institutions is so pervasively marked by violence and corruption as to more resemble criminal activity than democratic governance.”
The authors go on to list Nigeria’s problems. And I quote:
- Systemic violence openly fomented by politicians and other political elites that undermines the rights of Nigerians to freely choose their leaders and enjoy basic security;
- The corruption that both fuels and rewards Nigeria’s violent brand of politics at the expense of the general populace; and
- The impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these abuses that both denies justice to its victims and obstructs reform.
Election violence? Corruption? Impunity? Ordinary Africans will argue those words apply to nearly half the countries on the continent. Maybe more. Would anyone have batted an eye if Human Rights Watch wrote a similar report condemning the faux elections of Zimbabwe or Libya or Egypt? No. That’s the important point. The fact that Nigeria is at least an ornamental democracy is a slap in the face to this West African nation.
Let’s get something straight. In Africa, Nigeria is a codeword for a seriously unwell country. Even the most casual reader of newspapers knows a few head-shaking anecdotes from Africa’s most populous country: the wicked email scams; the violent fight against polio vaccines; the impromptu roadblocks manned by 14-year-olds with Kalashnikovs; the corrupt oil industry that’s bleeding the rest of the country like a back full of leeches.
In Africa a dysfunctional political arena doesn’t necessarily translate into any further suffering for the rank and file. I know this doesn’t jibe with the often frowning analysis from World Bank officials, democracy consultants to USAID and foreign correspondents of major metropolitan dailies. Most Africans have adapted a healthy skepticism regarding the role of politics in their countries. That’s because the state of politics in most countries is not pretty or well organized or even fair. When things seem to hit rock bottom, life often continues apace. Take this from Kwame Anthony Appiah, writing on Ghana’s political crisis of the 1970s in his book In My Father’s House:
“For a Hobbesian, I suppose, the withdrawal of the Ghanaian state, in the face of its incapacity to raise the income to carry out its tasks, should have led to disaster. Yet, despite the extent to which the government was not in control, Ghanaian life was not a brutish war of all against all. Life went on. Not only did people not “get away with murder,” even though the police would usually not have been in a position to do anything about it if they did, but people made deals, bought and sold goods, owned houses, married, raised families.”
I think Human Rights Watch understands this dilemma. (Because they’ve seen so much political dysfunction, they comprehend it very well.) What they may argue is this time, the Nigerian government stepped over the line. The 2007 Nigerian elections did not merely constitute a state retreating from the public sphere. Rather it created an atmosphere where a very sick group of people ran rampant over a nation and killed 300 people in the process. The level of political violence, corruption and impunity reached a never-before seen scale, it went so low that it shocked not only election monitors (who called it the worst they’ve ever seen) but even Nigerians. And there’s something to be said for that.
So, what was the problem? I quote again:
“Many political figures openly recruit and arm criminal gangs to unleash terror upon their opponents and ordinary members of the public.”
- In Gombe State, for example, politicians openly recruited violent cult gangs to intimidate their opponents and rig the voting on Election Day. Encouraged by the prevailing climate of impunity, these gangs unleashed a wave of violence on local communities that included murder, rape, arson and other crimes.
- In Rivers State, criminal gangs hired to rig Nigeria’s 2003 elections have since become a law unto themselves, spreading violence and insecurity throughout the restive Niger Delta. Scores of civilians have either been killed or injured during clashes involving those gangs since the 2007 elections alone.
- No one has been held to account for sponsoring these gangs.
Here’s the part that gained so much press in the U.S. (Quoting again from the report)
- In some states, powerful and violent political “godfathers” have gained control over politicians who are dependent on those sponsors to provide protection and fight their street battles. In return, the godfathers have captured government institutions to serve their own interests.
- In Oyo State, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) godfather Lamidi Adedibu recruited gangs that sowed terror on the streets of Ibadan and other cities while fighting to preserve Adedibu’s power and influence in the state.
- In Anambra State, a godfather whose political power may now be on the wane has nonetheless so far gone unpunished for his role in fomenting violence and corruption.
What may have begun as a ho-hum report finishes as a thoroughly researched, well reasoned and admittedly angry look into the state of Nigerian politics. The report contains enough grisly details for sickos like me who think he’s heard it all before. There’s also enough ammunition for those who know – and love – Africa to find a way out of this mess. But there’s also a chilling reminder: Our government looks to Nigeria for oil because politics appear to be a lot less messy near the Gulf of Guinea than the Persian Gulf. How are we not going to make the same mistake twice?