Nigeria: Private Armies That Don't Stay Bought

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September 23, 2007: The political violence, by gangs of thugs employed by politicians as their private armies, is growing. The problem is that the gangs are often separate, from the politicians that employ them, operations. The gangs have goals that often conflict with what the politicians want.

Since democracy was restored in 1999, there have been hundreds of murders by these gangs, including over 30 politicians. The gangs are a product of the pervasive corruption. These gunmen are not full time employees of politicians, but members of local criminal organizations that receive cash, and intervention with the police and courts as needed by local politicians, in return for applying force to prevent political opponents from getting elected. Politicians use "their" gangsters for all manner of dirty work. The widespread corruption makes it very difficult to dismantle this system. Meanwhile, the use of thugs can sometimes backfire. For example, the newly elected governor of Oyo state refused to implement a pay raise, approved by his predecessor, for the 34,000 state employees. So the state employees have been out on strike for a month, and the governor has fired them, but has not started hiring replacements. The new governor was elected in a tainted election, and is believed stealing so much money from the government that, as he says, there is not enough to pay the raises. The governor is tempted to try using his private army to break the strike, but the state employees have their own gunmen. The pay raise itself was a bit of political theater. The head of the state employees union is himself a politician, and the pay raise (50-100 percent for most employees, and up to 300 percent of the top ones) itself was meant to torment the national ruling party that has been fixing elections with growing frequency. Opposition politicians have managed to convince those 34,000 state employees to stay off the job for a month now, and the situation could get very violent before it gets resolved. These jobs are a big deal, because the economy is such a mess, and there is much underemployment, even though the official unemployment rate is about six percent. The lowest paying government jobs (before the raise) pay about $800 a month, while the top jobs are over $15,000 a month.

Meanwhile, Jomo Gbomo, the head of the Niger Delta tribal separatist group MEND, was arrested in Angola earlier this month. Gbomo was traveling on a false passport and attempting to negotiate a large purchase of weapons. Gbomo had entered Angola from South Africa, were he had met with other Nigerian gang leaders and at least one convicted (for corruption) Nigerian politician. They were discussing gang business, apparently trying to settle a dispute over payment for an earlier shipment of smuggled arms. MEND, and the other Niger Delta gangs, are well armed, largely because of the millions of dollars the gangs make each year from stealing oil from pipelines. The government is trying to extradite Gbomo back for trial, but that may not be possible. Gbomo has access to lots of cash for bribes, and officials in Angola and South Africa are vulnerable to that.

 

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