HE BESPECTACLED young woman from Kano, northern Nigeria’s largest city, laughs shyly before she speaks. But scars above her eyebrow and on her forearm hint at a dark past. As a member of a Yandaba gang—politically linked hoodlums who terrorise the city—she would get high before brawling with rival parties’ gangs or, during elections, grabbing ballot boxes from polling stations.
Most of Nigeria’s 36 states, which elect their governors and state legislators on March 9th, have some equivalent to the Yandaba. These straddle the boundary between party cadres and criminal gangs. They embody the rottenness of state politics in Nigeria. Governors run their states like personal fiefs, amassing fortunes and grooming protégés once they have hit the two-term limit. Although outsiders often pay little attention to them, many in Nigeria fear the upcoming state elections could be bloodier than the presidential poll, in which at least 39 people died (it was won by the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari). Since states are in charge of budgets for education and health, their elections are also more important.
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When it gained independence from Britain in 1960 Nigeria was divided into three regions. These were later split into four regions before being sliced up into 12 states in 1967 as the government tried to prevent the secession of one of the regions, Biafra. It was brought to heel in a bloody civil war. In the years since then the country has been further diced into 36 states, several of which are failing. In Borno, in the north-east, jihadists control much of the countryside. In Zamfara, in the north-west, bandits have gone on a kidnapping spree.
Governance is often abysmal. At the end of 2017, according to BudgIT, an NGO, only two states generated more than half of their revenue internally, instead of relying on federal handouts. Debt exceeded annual revenue in 31 states. Kano’s governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, was filmed last year pocketing stacks of hundred-dollar bills. (He says the video is fake.) His predecessor, Rabiu Kwankwaso, spent $200m building three “mega-cities”, one of which he named after himself. Their expensive bungalows are empty aside from the occasional squatter. Before him came Ibrahim Shekarau, who thought polio vaccines were a Western plot to make women infertile.
Checks on governors’ power are feeble. Although each state has its own legislative assembly and electoral commission for local polls, Maliki Kuliya, who served as Mr Kwankwaso’s justice commissioner, says that these are “just appendages of the executive”. As a result, political parties usually matter less than the politicians who constantly switch between them. Mr Kwankwaso, for instance, looms large over Kano’s politics. He has amassed followers, called the Kwankwasiyya, who wander the streets sporting his distinctive red cap. Not to be outdone, Mr Ganduje—a former Kwankwasiyya who fell out with his mentor—has strived to build up his own personality cult, the Gandujiyya. The two groups rely on Yandaba gangs to swell their ranks and provide muscle.
The election pits Mr Ganduje against Mr Kwankwaso’s son-in-law. Both sets of supporters have been busy, holding frequent political rallies. Kano’s residents live in fear of such events, during which the gangs go on rampages, attacking each other and snatching purses and phones from passers-by. “Politicians ask for your votes while their followers steal from you,” sighs Michael Sodipo, who runs an NGO that helps young people leave the gangs behind.
“If we had something else to do, we wouldn’t have done this,” reflects another ex-Yandaba. “But we didn’t know where our next meal would come from.” His friend says the politicians treat them as disposable. Both have spent time in prison, arrested by the same politicians who used to give them drugs and cash. “When I got out,” he adds, “I burned my red cap.”