ABUJA, Oct 9 (Reuters) Guns, machetes and looted public funds are the real instruments of power in Nigeria, where politicians backed by unelected ''godfathers'' use hired thugs to win office, Human Rights Watch said today.
Africa's most populous country returned to civilian rule in 1999 after three decades of almost continuous army dictatorship, but civilian governments have routinely abused basic human rights, the US-based group said in a report.
''In place of democratic competition, struggles for political office have often been waged violently in the streets by gangs of thugs recruited by politicians,'' the report said.
''Hundreds of Nigerians have lost their lives in the crossfire or as paid proxy fighters for the country's political leaders. At the same time, corruption and mismanagement have led to the waste of record-setting oil revenues,'' it said.
Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer, held elections for president, state governors and members of the federal and state parliaments in April.
European Union observers said violence and vote-rigging were so widespread that the polls were ''not credible''. The Human Rights Watch report called the elections ''a farce''.
Umaru Yar'Adua was declared winner of the presidential vote and took office in May, but his main rivals have challenged the result in court. Hundreds of other results are also in dispute.
Human Rights Watch said candidates intimidated voters or opponents using armed thugs recruited from a huge pool of unemployed youths or university gangs.
''We carried axes and machetes and chased away any voters that came near,'' a member of the Buccaneers gang in southeastern Anambra state was quoted as saying in the report. He was describing the ruling party's gubernatorial primary election.
GODFATHERS Anambra is among several states where violence has been stoked by self-styled ''godfathers'', unelected kingmakers who use a combination of personal influence, money and violence to ensure their preferred candidates win office.
In return, they demand substantial control over government decisions and a cut of the money looted from public coffers.
''It should be just like, you invest in a bank and then you have power to make some decisions because of your controlling shares,'' Anambra godfather Chris Uba was quoted as saying by Human Rights Watch.
The group obtained a copy of an agreement purportedly signed by Uba and the man he helped become governor in 2003. The document empowers Uba to ''avenge himself in the way and manner adjudged by him as fitting and adequate'' in case of disloyalty.
Uba and his protege fell out shortly after the 2003 election.
They both used thugs in their subsequent struggle for control of Anambra and dozens of people were killed during clashes and looting sprees.
Human Rights Watch said this type of violence had far-reaching consequences.
Leaders are unaccountable to the people because elections are meaningless and that contributes to corruption, while impunity for those responsible for violence denies justice to the victims and obstructs reform, the report said.
It also gave examples of politicians losing control over their hired thugs after elections, often because of broken promises. The gangs then take on a life of their own, engaging in extortion and turf wars, as they did in Rivers state in August where dozens were killed in street battles.
REUTERS SG PM1521