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Politics intersects with violent criminal gangs in Nigerian polls

Politics intersects with violent criminal gangs in Nigerian polls
Many polling stations in the Nigerian election on 25 February 2023 were out in the open, preferred apparently for reasons of transparency though this led to problems of access management. (Photo: Greg Mills)

Drug distribution markets are key to the economic resilience of the Yandaba gangs, perpetrators of political violence surrounding the February and March 2023 elections in Kano, Nigeria.

Significant violence during the 2023 electoral process in Kano, Nigeria, underscores how violence — and the threat of violence — shape Nigeria’s elections, despite new legislation and increased security deployments.

The key actors behind this violence — the Yandaba, who carry out acts of violence on behalf of politicians during election periods — are also key players in Kano’s criminal markets. Between election cycles, the Yandaba draw revenue from drug trafficking to sustain themselves; profits from the domestic distribution of drugs are central to the Yandaba’s economic resilience.

To protect democratic processes from being subverted by violence, responses must address the Yandaba’s entrenched role in Kano’s politics by targeting their political sponsors and increasing the reputational cost to those who finance political violence.

***

On 25 February, Umar Ilya (not his real name) was among the first voters to arrive at the polling station in Dala in Kano Municipal, which has one of the largest voter populations in a state prone to electoral violence. Shortly after 9am, just minutes after the voter accreditation process had started, local political gangs known as Yandaba stormed the polling station, threatening to harm anyone who refused to leave.

No strangers to Yandaba violence, most voters stepped back, allowing the armed thugs to destroy ballot boxes and ballot papers. Ilya was among the few to resist.

“As we were protesting against the attack, the armed thugs charged at us and one of them injured me with a dagger. I was taken to hospital, where I remained until voting ended,” he said.

Ilya was one of many Nigerian citizens whose voting was determined by violent actors, with many commentators pointing to widespread irregularities during Nigeria’s 2023 gubernatorial and state assembly elections. The Yandaba’s resilience is in large part due to their ability to draw revenue from drug distribution, intertwining politics and crime in Kano.

politics gangs nigeria

Electoral officers collate votes at a polling station during the Nigerian general elections in the Ikeja district of Lagos on 25 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Akintunde Akinleye)

In the run-up to Nigeria’s competitive February presidential and national assembly elections, fears of electoral violence were high. The electoral process itself, which resulted in Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) being declared the winner by the Independent Electoral Commission, was marred by allegations of vote rigging, violence and intimidation, although unfolding events bucked expected trends in some regions.

The governorship and state legislature elections, which took place on 18 March, were even more violent, with criminal gangs openly attacking voters and electoral officials and disrupting voting in many polling units across the country, particularly in Lagos, Rivers and Kano states.

Kano is northern Nigeria’s most populous city and among the areas hardest hit by electoral violence since 1999. Events surrounding the 2023 elections in Kano illustrate how violence continues to deeply shape Nigeria’s elections, despite new electoral legislation and increased security deployments.

Furthermore, actual violent events are only a part of the picture. The mere threat (ie, a community’s perceived likelihood) of violence, a product of more than two decades of electoral cycles shaped by violence, has real effects. Though far more difficult to monitor and quantitatively assess, the pervasive sense of fear that characterises election periods insidiously affects electoral dynamics.

The high degree of violence in Kano, in contrast to certain other areas such as Plateau State, is likely to be at least in part due to the deep entrenchment of the Yandaba in Kano’s politics. Criminal markets, particularly the drug trafficking market, have been central to the Yandaba’s resilience, enabling the groups to survive periods of non-deployment and be ready to mete out violence at the behest of politicians during the next election cycle.

Evolution of gangs and electoral violence in Kano

The Yandaba gangs emerged in Kano in the 1970s as dominant political thugs, following the erosion of the influence of the Yanbanga, previously the main criminal players in the political landscape. Since 1999, Yandaba gangs have become increasingly entrenched in Kano’s political landscape, playing a crucial role in shaping the outcomes of elections through violence and intimidation.

Political actors have become increasingly reliant on the Yandaba, contributing to a considerable rise in violence in Kano State in the lead-up to and during election cycles. While the Yandaba are most visible during electoral cycles, their influence is not limited to these periods. As a reward for service, a number of Yandaba members have been appointed to government positions, where they represent gang interests.

politics gangs

The number of conflict events in Kano State, 2014–2023. Note: Observers in Kano State agreed that figures are likely to be a significant under-representation of political violence events. While these figures provide some insights into trends, they do not show a holistic picture. (Source: ACLED)

Illicit economies as an economic resilience mechanism for Yandaba gangs

During the period of military rule that followed the 1983 coup in Nigeria, the services of the Yandaba were no longer needed by the ousted politicians, which cut off the gangs’ principal source of finance. The 1986 structural adjustment programme compounded this by further narrowing employment opportunities, making many young people vulnerable to recruitment by criminal gangs.

The Yandaba sought alternative funding streams, and Kano’s growing drug market became a key source of income. Since the 1980s, the Yandaba have evolved from drug users to critical players in drug distribution, strategically positioning themselves as dealers of commonly abused drugs, including cannabis, diazepam and, from the early 2010s, tramadol.

Analyses of gangs and drugs in Kano have portrayed Yandaba gang members primarily as drug users, largely ignoring Yandaba’s systemic role in drug distribution. Whereas drug use is important for “identity formation and demonstration of toughness”, drug trafficking has arguably become the central source of financing for the Yandaba outside election periods, when their services are not required by political actors. The drug market therefore underpins the Yandaba’s economic resilience and consequent entrenchment into the political structures of Kano.

The Yandaba have diversified across drug supply chains over the years, supplying cannabis and Rohypnol since the 1980s, and codeine and tramadol as well as other pharmaceuticals since the initial years of the 2000s.

While the Yandaba are central to distribution, feeding Kano’s significant consumption market, they are not key players in the transit trade of drugs moving through Kano from southern maritime entry points to northern regions of Nigeria, or across the border to Niger and onwards to Mali and Libya.

Law enforcement actors have repeatedly tracked a surge in the supply of drugs to Kano in the run-up to electoral cycles. Drugs are key during mobilisation and are usually supplied before the gang members are deployed during electoral periods.

A gang leader explained that his gang of about 70 members consume codeine, tramadol and cannabis worth N500,000 ($1,086) before carrying out an operation. “That is why during politicking, there is a lot of influx of these substances, and that is also when we make a lot of arrests and seizures,” revealed a drug law enforcement officer.

The Yandaba’s funding streams operate in cycles. In the lead-up to elections, their primary source of income comes from political actors. However, it is their involvement in illicit economies, most notably the illicit trade in drugs and pharmaceuticals, that sustains the Yandaba outside of election periods when politicians no longer need their services. This enables the gangs to survive and be ready to operate during the next political cycle.

The Yandaba’s central role in Kano’s political processes intrinsically binds political and criminal interests, baking criminal agendas into political decision-making, as politicians are bound to repay services commissioned during electoral cycles.

Political violence in Kano’s 2023 elections

The Yandaba carry out different types of electoral violence, including physical attacks on political opponents and their supporters or electoral officials; theft of voting materials, such as ballot boxes and papers for vote rigging; the outright destruction of voting materials; and other means of directly disrupting voting processes. The Yandaba also prevent supporters of political opponents from voting through threats and intimidation.

Yandaba gangs choose the type of violence to deploy strategically, depending on the end goal. For example, the destruction of voting materials and intimidation of voters are deployed in areas where a political opponent is popular and is likely to emerge victorious.

In the run-up to the 2023 elections in Kano, the ruling APC and its main challenger, the New Nigeria People’s Party, traded accusations of plots to use the Yandaba to disrupt the polls. The parties accused each other of recruiting thugs from outside the state and some neighbouring countries. State police warned of a similar plot. These warnings, together with open calls to violence by some political party members, fostered an atmosphere of fear in the state.

Fears crystallised on 25 February, the day of the presidential elections. In line with previous electoral trends, violence reached new heights on the day of the governorship elections on 18 March. Voters were chased away from polling units, and ballot papers and boxes were destroyed in various parts of Kano state, including Dala, Filin Chiranchi, Kabuga, Kankarofi and Gawuna. In Layin Maiunguwa, an inner-city location of the Dala local government area, police used tear gas to disperse a violent Yandaba gang that was attacking and injuring voters.

Overall, Kano residents pointed to violence playing a significant role in the 2023 electoral process, correlating with data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). There have been shifts in the kinds of violence perpetrated: while the theft of ballot boxes and ballot papers has been a central element of Yandaba electoral violence since 1999, in the 2023 elections, violence was directed at intimidating and attacking voters and electoral officials and destroying voting materials.

This shift was in part due to the introduction of a new electronic voting system, known as the Bimodal Voter Registration System, which made ballot box theft redundant. In contrast to previous elections, Yandaba members also distributed food, clothing and other items at polling stations to curry favour with voters, playing a more complex role in influencing outcomes.

politics gangs nigeria

Criminal gangs and election-related violence in Kano state, Nigeria.

Political violence events as the tip of the iceberg

In Kano, and more broadly across Nigerian states that have suffered repeated cycles of electoral violence, fear of gang violence around elections has become deeply entrenched.

This fear shapes residents’ voting decisions and means that many potential voters do not come out to vote, with important implications for electoral outcomes. Consequently, Yandaba gangs do not necessarily need to engage in direct acts of violence to influence election outcomes, and the metrics of violent incidents in Kano and beyond are likely to underrepresent the importance of the threat of political violence in determining democratic processes.

An elderly mother who had voted in most of Nigeria’s previous elections since the 1980s did not vote in the 2023 elections, noting: “I was afraid of violence, so I didn’t go out or allow my daughters to go and vote. Even while I remained at home, I kept praying that nobody should fight.”

While recent measures against electoral violence in Nigeria, particularly the new electoral legislation and increase in security deployments, have reduced incidents of ballot box theft, they have not resulted in an overall reduction in violence.

Crucially, the new measures do not address the fear that many years of electoral violence have instilled, which keeps people from coming out to vote for their preferred candidates.

Neither do these measures tackle the financial sponsors of the Yandaba and other perpetrators of political violence. To effectively protect democratic processes from being subverted through violence, response strategies must recognise and address the entrenchment of the Yandaba in Kano’s politics, targeting their political sponsors and enhancing the reputational cost of financing political violence.

Supporting investigations — by state financial investigative units and journalists alike — to track and publicise the political financing of the Yandaba would be an important step towards achieving this. DM

This article appears in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s quarterly Observatory of Illicit Economies in West Africa (WEA-Obs) Risk Bulletin. The GI-TOC is a global network with more than 600 network experts around the world. The Global Initiative provides a platform to promote greater debate and innovative approaches as the building blocks to an inclusive global strategy against organised crime. If you would like to subscribe to the risk bulletin and receive updates from the WEA-Obs, please sign up here.

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