The actions of Nigerian street gangs known as “Area Boys” have ratcheted up tensions in the West African nation ahead of its March 28 general elections, particularly in Lagos, its most populous city, Agence France-Presse reports. The street gangs, which target political rallies at the behest of whoever is willing to pay the most money, have contributed to a rash of “election-related violence” that caused 60 violent altercations and 58 deaths from December to January, according to Nigeria’s human rights commission.
The “Area Boys” rarely pay allegiance to either incumbent Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party or opponent and former military governor Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress Party. “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,” said Adewale Maja-Pearce, a writer in Lagos, according to AFP. “You can’t blame the youths … They want to eat.”
The effort to combat Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group responsible for the deaths and kidnappings of thousands of Nigerians in recent years, remains the central issue in this month’s general election, as both Jonathan and Buhari attempt to convince the masses they are the better choice to ensure Nigeria’s security.
The PDP has won every Nigerian presidential election since 1998, when military rule came to an end. But this month’s election is expected to be highly competitive. The vote was initially scheduled to occur on Feb. 14, but was postponed until March 28 over concerns that Boko Haram would target civilian voters and to allow government officials to distribute more voter identification cards to eligible citizens, according to AFP. Critics rejected the notion of security concerns and accused Jonathan of postponing the election in a desperate bid to maintain power, according to the Guardian.
Nigerian elections have erupted in violence before. More than 1,000 people were killed in rioting after voting in 2011. But Nigeria’s human rights commission said it’s rare for violence to occur before elections take place.