BICHI, 28 March 2007 (IRIN) - Outside the battered campaign headquarters of gubernatorial candidate Ahmad Garban in the village of Bichi, 20 km north of the state capital Kano, lie six cars plastered with election posters and with shattered windscreens. Yet oddly, politicians from both major parties say minor violence here a week ago is an omen that this year’s election will be peaceful.
Photo: Nicholas Reader/IRIN
|Supporters of gubernatorial candidate Garban show evidence of damage they said was caused by opposition campaigners
Sitting on the carpeted floor inside the gloomy concrete building and sipping a Coke, Bello Muazu, a senior official with the Garban campaign, says 6,000 supporters from the rival campaign came into town on 13 March armed with bows and arrows, machetes and clubs.
"The opposition candidate chose to come here, right outside our headquarters, to start his campaign," Muazu said, referring to Ibrahim Shekarau of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), which currently controls the governor’s office in Kano.
Garban is the candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The two parties will face off in elections for the governorship on 14 April, followed by presidential elections, scheduled for 21 April.
"Even before he got there, his supporters were throwing stones, then started fighting and then the violence spread into town," Muaza said, adding that eight bystanders were wounded, one seriously, and two policemen were hacked with machetes.
But for Muazu, it is what happened next that counts.
"We are using the philosophy of peaceful politics, there will be no retaliation," he said. "Now we see benefits because by not taking action against them for what they did, we are getting sympathy across the whole state, so it is not worth it for us to go after them."
By the standards of the almost annual violence that has ravaged Kano State and its capital, also called Kano, the third largest city in the country with 3.6 million people, this attitude - if followed through with restraint - is significant.
In the most recent major rioting in 2004, hundreds of people were killed in waves of sectarian violence, ostensibly in retribution for similar attacks Plateau State in central Nigeria.
The biggest city in northern Nigeria and a major commercial centre drawing business from all over the country, Kano has a large population of Christian southerners, mainly ethnic Igbos from with origins in the southeast, who dominate commerce, while the government is dominated by conservative Muslims who have implemented Sharia law in the state.
Kano also has large numbers of street children and unemployed young adults that people familiar with the previous violence say are easily formed into a small army of protestors.
Muazu, the politician with the PDP campaign, said: “Politicians use [the unemployed and street children] by giving them money to buy drugs or whatever, then sending them to fight against their opposition. This phenomenon isn’t really about Kano, it’s about self-centred politicians who use these social problems to get their own political ends,” he said.
Mohammed Bello, a representative of the incumbent governor, who does not deny that the party’s supporters were involved in violence in Bichi, agreed in an interview that times are changing in Kano State, and his said the ANPP campaign would not be using violence in these elections.
Bello said: "If we were really fighting, there wouldn’t be a house left standing," dismissing the violence in Bichi on 13 March as insignificant.
"And after that we would have moved on and destroyed all the other villages in that area. But that’s not what happened, because this governor is not someone who condones violence," he said, adding that since the Bichi campaign there have been scores of campaigners criss-crossing the state, but no more fighting.
Professor Abubakar Sadiq at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, in neighbouring Kaduna State, said he agrees the leaders are showing restraint and a more "responsible" attitude in this election, but disagreed that violence only bubbles up when it is directed by those at the top.
"There is a lot of passion in Kano,” he said. “It is the seat of militancy when it comes to politics, and people feel very strongly. These are highly mobilised people, and clashes between different parts of the political apparatus are normal.”
Over at the city market in the traffic clogged old-town heart of the city where the streets are permanently choked with hawkers barging their way through the clouds of choking blue motorbike exhaust fumes, many of the traders, mostly southern Christians, said they were not convinced.
"There are always riots here, people will use any opportunity to vandalise property, and it’s always us the traders who are seen as having products and money who get hit first," said Hygenus Waku, 34, from Lagos, who was visiting family in Kano. "This is the first place the mobs go to."
Stanley Okoye, 40, who sells stationary, said he is planning to take his family out of the city before the elections. "I don’t know what will happen. Violence can come up at any time from anywhere, and the riots are always because of politics, even if they say it is about religion. The political leaders use religion for their own interest," he said.
Geoffrey Chinwora, 44, also a market trader, also said he would be forking out to send all six of his close family members out of the state before the elections.
"We’re not sure if it’s safe or not," he said. "There could easily be anarchy, and when that happens no-one remembers his friends."