By Estelle Shirbon
IBADAN, Nigeria, April 2 (Reuters) - It’s cash handout time at the house of Nigerian politician Lamidi Adedibu and the car park outside is packed with people eager to get their share.
When Adedibu emerges, the men prostrate themselves, the women kneel, drummers accelerate the beat and a praise singer extolling him through a megaphone raises his pitch.
The elderly Adedibu, who will play a decisive role in this month’s elections in his southwestern state of Oyo, is flanked by assistants holding plastic bags full of cash.
He sits down, a servant fanning him, and proceeds to distribute bank notes to the crowd for two hours.
The sharing of cash is a common strategy by Nigerian politicians, especially in the run-up to elections. For Nigerians disillusioned by decades of corruption and a dearth of basic public services, it is an opportunity to get something concrete from their politicians, even if it’s just small change.
Adedibu gives at least 600 naira ($5) per person.
"I’m a man of the people," he said, smiling, during an interview with Reuters just after his twice-weekly handout. He said his fortune came from family businesses.
In Oyo, a populous state he dominates despite holding no official post, Adedibu is known by many names: the strongman, the chief, the generalissimo, or, most commonly, the godfather.
"I have served many of our leaders and I expect them to serve me also," Adedibu said.
"I am here with the consent of the people," he said.
How does he know? "They obey me."
DEMOCRACY ONLY IN NAME
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and biggest exporter of crude oil, returned to democracy in 1999 after three decades of almost continuous army rule.
Polls on April 21 are expected to mark the first transition from one elected president to another. Up for grabs on April 14 are 36 powerful state governors’ seats, including in Oyo.
But civil society activists say Nigeria is a democracy only in name because widespread vote rigging and violence in the last elections, in 2003, delivered a crop of leaders with no real mandate. They fear the coming polls may be similarly tainted.
In the past five months, Nigerian media have reported more than 70 incidents of election-related violence leading to more than 70 deaths. Officials have not confirmed these figures.
Typically, politicians pay and arm thugs to impose their will on voters or opponents. Rival bands often clash on the fringes of electoral rallies.
"How can you expect the voters to make a free choice when the godfather arms unemployed youths with guns and cutlasses to intimidate them?" said Mashood Erubami, a democracy campaigner based in Ibadan, the Oyo state capital.
Other states also have godfathers — powerful unelected figures who use a combination of patronage and the threat of violence to ensure success for their chosen candidates. They expect rewards once their proteges are in office.
In the last elections, Adedibu sponsored Rashidi Ladoja, who became governor of Oyo state. But the two men fell out shortly after Ladoja took office.
"Ladoja is an ingrate. He wanted to wipe out my political hegemony. But I have been in the game since 1951 and by the will of God I will always be at the forefront," said Adedibu.
Ladoja had a different version of events.
"Adedibu was greedy. He said I did not allow him access to the treasury. He wanted to nominate 13 out of 15 state commissioners. He wanted his cronies on the boards of state-owned companies," he told Reuters.
The feud culminated in the impeachment of Ladoja by the Oyo state house of assembly in January 2006, orchestrated by Adedibu. But the Supreme Court ruled in December that the move was illegal and Ladoja resumed office.
Not for long though. Ladoja was prevented from standing for a new term as governor on April 14, while Adedibu has thrown his full weight behind another candidate.
Local media have reported that the godfather has revived an association with a transporters’ union leader known as "Tokyo" which can easily mobilise hundreds of minibus drivers for shows of force at rallies and, on occasion, fights with opponents.
Adedibu denies any involvement in political thuggery. But in the market places of Ibadan, traders shut up shop and lock themselves in for safety when "Adedibu’s boys" are in the area.
"Adedibu is a thug. He uses these boys to terrorise us," said a trader who gave his name as Salawu, lowering his voice at his bean stall in the popular Bodija market.