ABUJA (Reuters) – The latest violence linked to next year’s elections in Nigeria has killed at least 15 people in two southern states, local leaders and police said on Monday.
Gangs sponsored by two rival politicians from the town of Bodo in oil-producing Rivers state have been attacking each other with AK-47 rifles, machetes, axes and broken bottles over the past few days, a local community leader told Reuters.
“These are factional clashes between two cult groups who have the blessing of two Bodo politicians who have ambitions for 2007,” said the leader, who did not wish to be named for fear or reprisals. In Nigeria, the word cult means gang.
“Seven of them have been murdered. The residents are hiding in their houses in terror,” he added.
In a different part of Rivers, fighting between rival gangs from the Emohua and Ogbakiri communities killed six people, according to a senior police source who said a power struggle between local figures angling for office in 2007 was a factor.
In the town of Nnewi in southeastern Anambra state, two policemen were killed in a raid on their station by dozens of attackers in military camouflage gear and bullet-proof vests, armed with automatic weapons, a civil society activist said.
The attackers torched the police station, released prisoners from its cells, burned several vehicles and stole others.
“This is part of the activities of the political cabal in Anambra that does not believe in seeking the popular vote but uses criminals to intimidate the people,” said Emeka Umeagbalasi, head of the local Civil Liberties Organization.
Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 after three decades of almost continuous military dictatorship, and the 2007 polls should mark the first time one elected government hands over to another through the ballot box.
However, violence remains a feature of political life. The use of paid thugs to intimidate opponents or voters is a common tactic by politicians in many of Nigeria’s 36 states, while political assassinations have also occurred.
Rivers and Anambra are among states that have seen an increase in violence as the 2007 elections near.
In Rivers, in the Niger Delta, two politicians and one relative of the state governor have had their houses bombed.
The delta has also experienced a wave of militant attacks on oil facilities that have killed an unknown number of people and shut down a quarter of Nigerian crude production since February.
Violence in the delta, rooted in poverty and corruption, has been a problem for years. But activists say power struggles ahead of the 2007 elections have further inflamed the situation.
In Anambra, political violence has erupted sporadically since 2004, when the state governor fell out with his main sponsor. The two armed rival militias as the governor fought back against his ex-sponsor’s efforts to oust him.
Earlier this year, a court ruled the 2003 elections were rigged and forced the governor to step down in favor of an opposition candidate. Â
But powerful figures from the ruling party are determined to recapture Anambra next year and the presence of numerous armed gangs in the state has created an explosive situation.