Nigeria: Do-or-Die Politics

A young boy sitting in the emergency room after being attacked during post-election fighting in Kaduna. Image by Bénédicte Kurzen. Nigeria, 2011.

Young men detained in Kaduna. Image by Bénédicte Kurzen. Nigeria, 2011.

Austin John arrived at the entrance to the morgue at St. Gerard's Hospital in the early afternoon, taking advantage of a four-hour break in the curfew to venture out to search for his brother Simeon.

“My brother went to work on Monday morning. Since then, he hasn't come back. I went to the police station. He wasn't there,” he said.

A morgue attendant led Austin and a friend to a concrete block structure nearby. St. Gerard's new morgue facility had quickly filled up when police and health workers began dumping the victims of three days of violence on their doorstep. So they started using the old morgue, a rundown building without coolers or air-conditioning.

Minutes later Austin stumbled out into the bright sunlight, retching. His brother wasn't there.

“It's tough with my family,” he said after a few minutes. “It's really bad. Thinking about my mother, I don't want to go back home.”

A day after the post-election riots ended, the scale of the violence was beginning to become apparent. Sixty thousand had fled their homes, according to the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria. Over 3,000 people had been arrested. And so far, 260 people had been killed across the north, though gathering statistics was complicated by the fact that Muslims, in accordance with their traditions, had already buried many of their dead.

“Kaduna is the worst,” Shehu Sani, the rights group's president told me. “There were live bullets coming from helicopters. So far 23 people have been killed by helicopters and many were injured. They were shot in their compounds, not on the street. This includes women and children.”

In another morgue across town, when cooled chambers were full with 20 bodies, the overflow spilled onto the floor. A tangled heap of burned remains lay directly on the concrete. I ventured a guess at how many I was looking at.

“Twenty?” I asked.

“More,” the morgue attendant replied.

Nigerians call it “do-or-die politics,” the bloody brand of electioneering that has plagued the country since decades of military rule ended in 1999. The country's economy depends on its oil and gas wealth for nearly 40 percent of its GDP and around 80 percent of government revenue. Office holders are accorded exorbitant salaries (senators earn $1 million a year plus perks) and have access to the billions in oil money channeled into an opaque fund for redistribution to federal, state and local authorities. The World Bank estimates that 80 percent of all oil wealth finds its way into the pockets of just one percent of the population. So for an elite few, politics can be incredibly lucrative.

For the other 99 percent, Nigeria has lowered the bar. For the 2004 Nigeria Living Standards Survey, government officials decreased the poverty line to an annual income roughly equivalent to $200, significantly below an internationally-accepted standard for developing countries of $1 per day. Even by this low calculation, over half the population was living in poverty. And in the north, where industry has by and large disappeared since independence, that figure was 72 percent.

When elections roll around, it is the poor who are manipulated by those seeking office. And they are the ones who take the risks.

This year's presidential election—despite the congratulations from international observers that the process was vastly improved—was no different. Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent from the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), relied on support in the mainly Christian south. His challenger from the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Muhammadu Buhari, cultivated militant supporters in the Muslim north.

Both candidates promised an end to Nigeria's grinding poverty. And in both camps, those who supported them were convinced their side was on a certain path to victory. When it became clear that Jonathan had won, Buhari cried foul.

Muslim neighborhoods across the north exploded. First PDP supporters, then Christians in general, were targeted. Then Christians hit the streets in violent reprisal attacks.

Stuck in his home during the curfew, Imam Muhammed Ahsafa, who works with a Christian pastor to mediate between sectarian militants, was angry.

“At the start it was political. CPC youth went after PDP. But the parties are aligned along ethnic lines. Then it becomes ethnic and religious. These foot soldiers are not fighting because of PDP or CPC. It's because they feel they have been betrayed,” he said, adding a message for the country's politicians:

“The blood of these people will be on your hands, because you have made them slaves.”

As we left his home and rounded a corner, our driver hit the brakes. A charred corpse blocked the road. Graffiti, written in chalk around the body read, in a mixture of English and the local Hausa language: “No more PDP. Only CPC.”