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Gangs threaten election peace in Nigeria’s key city

Congested streets lined with shops selling everything from plastic sandals to instant passport photos and hawkers shouting for customers above deafening car horns: the Oshodi market offers a snapshot of life in Nigeria's largest city.

hqdefaultCongested streets lined with shops selling everything from plastic sandals to instant passport photos and hawkers shouting for customers above deafening car horns: the Oshodi market offers a snapshot of life in Nigeria’s largest city.

Like other parts of Lagos, Oshodi has seen outbreaks of political violence in the run-up to March 28 general elections, much of it blamed on “Area Boys” — gangs of youths readily available for mercenary work.

The country’s human rights commission recorded 60 separate incidents of campaign-related unrest, including 58 deaths, nationwide in December and January.

The main opposition-controlled Rivers state, next door to President Goodluck Jonathan’s home state of Bayelsa in the southern oil-producing Delta region, has been a flashpoint.

But 11 of the incidents were in Lagos, where violence has persisted since the report was released last month.

The city — sub-Saharan Africa’s largest with an estimated 20 million people — has emerged as one of the “most worrying” hotspots and faces a “high risk of significant violence” during the polls, the commission says.

“All of us are… feeling seriously insecure with the election coming up,” Oshodi shop owner Matilda Marious told AFP.

– ‘Mayhem in Lagos’ –

Oshodi unfolds beneath an overpass that leads towards the airport district of Ikeja and the market is impossible to miss.

Dozens, if not hundreds of Lagos’s iconic yellow buses can typically be seen buzzing around Oshodi, making the area a commuter hub as well as a notorious one-stop shopping haven.

Two people were killed and more than 80 vehicles vandalised after “two factions of unemployed youths” clashed on January 22, with more than 50 police officers deployed to contain what the rights commission called election-related violence.

As Marious voiced her election fears on a Wednesday afternoon last month, a large part of the market a few hundred metres away was blocked off by a cluster of security vehicles.

The area was deserted and appeared burnt.

“Mayhem in Lagos” proclaimed the next day’s front-page headline in The Punch, a widely read daily, describing the violence as “a gang war” among groups called “Big London Boys”, “Railway” and “Under-bridge.”

It was impossible to establish if the day’s violence was directly linked to the polls but experts agree that the highly-charged environment created by the campaign has led to increased clashes among youths across the city.

– ‘Thuggish’ politics –

“Politics in Nigeria has always been thuggish, right from 1960,” the year of independence from Britain, said Adewale Maja-Pearce, a Lagos-based writer and Nigeria columnist for the International New York Times.

Maja-Pearce echoed other experts in arguing that the so-called Area Boy scourge is a merely a symptom of a larger national unemployment crisis, where young men with few opportunities view politicians as a meal ticket.

“There (are) too many young men hanging around, waiting for some action. All you have to do is go and meet them and pay them and they will do what you want,” Maja-Pearce said. “You can’t blame the youths… They want to eat.”

In recent weeks, so-called Area Boys have clashed at political rallies in the upmarket Lagos suburb of Lekki and on Lagos Island, the city’s historic but run-down banking district.

On January 30, a large rally addressed by opposition presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari was broken up by hordes of youths, some of whom were wielding pocket-size knives and were caught on video chasing people around the Teslim Balogun stadium in Lagos.

Maja-Pearce argued that for the aggressors in such cases, allegiance to Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) or Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is not a motivating factor.

Area Boys “don’t have anything approaching (party) ideology”, he said, underscoring that their services are typically available to any willing bidder.

– ‘Prayers’ for peace –

The rights commission said the relatively high levels of violence recorded before the polls was unusual for Nigeria, which has typically seen unrest after voting day, including in 2011 when more than 1,000 people were killed in two central states.

Concern is particularly high in Lagos because it is widely seen a swing-state, with the PDP facing its first serious electoral test since military rule ended in 1999.

Market leader Fausat Adebesin Molake, a Buhari supporter, said she knows that Nigeria, including Oshodi, is divided between the two candidates but urged both sides to remain calm when the result is announced.

“Everybody should take it easy,” she said.

She said she was comforted by a January visit from US Secretary of State John Kerry, who stressed the importance of organising a credible vote and a result respected by all camps.

“Kerry, from America, has talked to both sides,” Molake said. “We pray God is going to hear our prayers. There won’t be any fight.”