Drug distribution markets are key to the economic resilience of the Yandaba, perpetrators of significant political violence surrounding the 2023 elections in Kano, Nigeria.

On 25 February, Umar Ilya (not his real name) was among the first voters to arrive at the polling station in the Dala area in Kano Municipal, which has one of the largest voter populations in a state prone to electoral violence. Shortly after 9 a.m., just minutes after the voter accreditation process had started, local political gangs known as Yandaba stormed the polling station, threatening to harm anyone who refused to leave. No strangers to Yandaba violence, most voters stepped back, allowing the armed thugs to destroy ballot boxes and ballot papers. Ilya was among the few to resist. ‘As we were protesting against the attack, the armed thugs charged at us and one of them injured me with a dagger. I was taken to hospital, where I remained until voting ended,’ he said.1 Ilya was one of many Nigerian citizens whose voting was determined by violent actors, with many commentators pointing to widespread irregularities during Nigeria’s 2023 gubernatorial and state assembly elections. The Yandaba’s resilience over time is in large part due to their ability to draw revenue from drug distribution, intertwining politics and crime in Kano.

In the run up to Nigeria’s competitive February presidential and national assembly elections, fears of electoral violence were high. The electoral process itself, which resulted in Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) being declared winner by the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), was marred by allegations of vote rigging, violence and intimidation, although unfolding events bucked expected trends in some regions. The governorship and state legislature elections, which took place on 18 March, were even more violent, with criminal gangs openly attacking voters and electoral officials and disrupting voting in many polling units across the country, particularly in Lagos, Rivers and Kano states.

Kano is northern Nigeria’s most populous city and among the areas hardest hit by electoral violence since 1999.2 Events surrounding the 2023 elections in Kano illustrate how violence continues to deeply shape Nigeria’s elections, despite new electoral legislation and increased security deployments. Furthermore, actual violent events are only a part of the picture. The mere threat (i.e., a community’s perceived likelihood) of violence, a product of more than two decades of electoral cycles shaped by violence, has real effects. Though far more difficult to monitor and quantitatively assess, the pervasive sense of fear that characterizes election periods insidiously affects electoral dynamics.

The high degree of violence in Kano, in contrast to certain other areas such as Plateau State, is likely to be at least in part due to the deep entrenchment of Yandaba in Kano’s politics. Criminal markets, particularly the drug trafficking market, have been central to the Yandaba’s resilience, enabling the groups to survive periods of non-deployment, and be ready to mete out violence at the behest of politicians during the next election cycle.

Evolution of gangs and electoral violence in Kano

The Yandaba gangs emerged in Kano in the 1970s as dominant political thugs, following the erosion of influence of the Yanbanga, previously the main criminal players in the political landscape.3 Since 1999, Yandaba gangs have become increasingly entrenched in Kano’s political landscape, playing a crucial role in shaping the outcomes of elections through violence and intimidation.4

Political actors have become increasingly reliant on the Yandaba, contributing to a considerable rise in violence in Kano State in the lead up to and during election cycles.5 While the Yandaba are most visible during electoral cycles, their influence is not limited to these periods. As a reward for service, a number of Yandaba members have been appointed to government positions, where they represent gang interests.

Number of conflict events in Kano State, 2014–2023.

Figure 1 Number of conflict events in Kano State, 2014–2023.

Note: Observers in Kano State agreed that figures are likely to be a significant under-representation of political violence events. While these figures provide some insights into trends, they do not show a holistic picture.
Source: Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED)

Illicit economies as an economic resilience mechanism for Yandaba gangs

During the period of military rule that followed the 1983 coup in Nigeria, the services of Yandaba were no longer needed by the ousted politicians, which cut off the gangs’ principal source of finance. The 1986 structural adjustment programme compounded this by further narrowing employment opportunities, making many young people vulnerable to recruitment by criminal gangs.6

The Yandaba sought alternative funding streams, and Kano’s growing drug market became a key source of income. Since the 1980s, the Yandaba have evolved from drug users to critical players in drug distribution, strategically positioning themselves as dealers of commonly abused drugs, including cannabis, diazepam and, from the early 2010s, tramadol.7

Analyses of gangs and drugs in Kano have portrayed Yandaba gang members primarily as drug users, largely ignoring the Yandaba’s systemic role in drug distribution.8 Whereas drug use is important for ‘identity formation and demonstration of toughness’,9 drug trafficking has arguably become the central source of financing for Yandaba outside election periods, when their services are not required by political actors. The drug market therefore underpins Yandaba’s economic resilience, and consequent entrenchment into the political structures of Kano.

Yandaba have diversified across drug supply chains over the years, supplying cannabis and Rohypnol since the 1980s, and codeine and tramadol as well as other pharmaceuticals since the initial years of the 2000s.10 While Yandaba are central to distribution feeding Kano’s significant local consumption market, they are not key players in the transit trade of drugs moving through Kano from southern maritime entry points to northern regions of Nigeria, or across the border to Niger and onwards to Mali and Libya.11

Law enforcement actors have repeatedly tracked a surge in supply of drugs to Kano in the run up to electoral cycles. Drugs are key during mobilization and are usually supplied before the gang members are deployed during electoral periods. A gang leader explained that his gang of about 70 members consume codeine, tramadol and cannabis worth N500 000 before carrying out an operation.12 ‘That is why during politicking, there is a lot of influx of these substances, and that is also when we make a lot of arrests and seizures,’ revealed a drug law enforcement officer.13

The Yandaba’s funding streams operate in cycles. In the lead-up to elections, their primary source of income comes from political actors. However, it is their involvement in illicit economies, most notably the illicit trade in drugs and pharmaceuticals, that sustains the Yandaba outside of election periods when politicians no longer need their services. This enables the gangs to survive and be ready to operate during the next political cycle. The Yandaba’s central role in Kano’s political processes intrinsically binds political and criminal interests, baking criminal agendas into political decision making, as politicians are bound to repay services commissioned during electoral cycles.

Political violence in Kano’s 2023 elections

Yandaba carry out different types of electoral violence, including physical attacks on political opponents and their supporters or electoral officials; theft of voting materials, such as ballot boxes and papers, for vote rigging; the outright destruction of voting materials; and other means of directly disrupting voting processes. Yandaba also prevent supporters of political opponents from voting through threats and intimidation.

Yandaba gangs choose the type of violence to deploy strategically depending on the end goal. For example, the destruction of voting materials and intimidation of voters are deployed in areas where a political opponent is popular and is likely to emerge victorious.

In the run up to the 2023 elections in Kano, the ruling APC and its main challenger, the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP), traded accusations of plots to use Yandaba to disrupt the polls. The parties accused each other of recruiting thugs from outside the state and some neighbouring countries.14 State police command warned of a similar plot.15 These warnings, together with open calls to violence by some political party members, fostered an atmosphere of fear in the state.16

Fears crystallized on 25 February, the day of presidential elections. In line with previous electoral trends, violence reached new heights on the day of the governorship elections on 18 March. Voters were chased away from polling units, and ballot papers and boxes destroyed in various parts of Kano state, including in Dala, Filin Chiranchi, Kabuga, Kankarofi and Gawuna. In Layin Maiunguwa, an inner-city location of Dala local government area (LGA), police used tear gas to disperse a violent Yandaba gang that was attacking and injuring voters.17

Overall, Kano residents pointed to violence playing a significant role in the 2023 electoral process, correlating with ACLED data. There have been shifts in the kinds of violence perpetrated: while the theft of ballot boxes and ballot papers has been a central element of Yandaba electoral violence since 1999, in the 2023 elections, violence was directed at intimidating and attacking voters and electoral officials and destroying voting materials. This shift was in part due to the introduction of a new electronic voting system, known as the Bimodal Voter Registration System, which made ballot box theft redundant. In contrast to previous elections, Yandaba members also distributed food, clothing and other items at polling stations to curry favour with voters, playing a more complex role in influencing outcomes.18

Political violence events as the tip of the iceberg

In Kano, and more broadly across Nigerian states that have suffered repeated cycles of electoral violence, fear of gang violence around elections has become deeply entrenched.19 This fear shapes residents’ voting decisions and means that many potential voters do not come out to vote, with important implications for electoral outcomes. Consequently, Yandaba gangs do not necessarily need to engage in direct acts of violence to influence election outcomes, and the metrics of violent incidents in Kano and beyond are likely to under-represent the importance of the threat of political violence in determining democratic processes. An elderly mother who had voted in most of Nigeria’s previous elections since the 1980s did not vote in the 2023 elections, noting: ‘I was afraid of violence, so I didn’t go out or allow my daughters to go and vote […]. Even while I remained at home, I kept praying that nobody should fight.’20

Voters queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Kano during Nigeria’s presidential and general election, February 2023.

Voters queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Kano during Nigeria’s presidential and general election, February 2023.

Photo: Kola Sulaimon/AFP via Getty Images

While recent measures against electoral violence in Nigeria, particularly the new electoral legislation and increase in security deployments, have reduced incidents of ballot box theft, they have not resulted in an overall reduction in violence.

Crucially, the new measures do not address the fear that many years of electoral violence have instilled, which keeps people from coming out to vote for their preferred candidates. Neither do these measures tackle the financial sponsors of the Yandaba and other perpetrators of political violence. To effectively protect democratic processes from being subverted through violence, response strategies must recognize and address the entrenchment of Yandaba in Kano’s politics, targeting their political sponsors and enhancing the reputational cost of financing political violence. Supporting investigations – by state financial investigative units and journalists alike – to track and publicize political financing of Yandaba would be an important step towards achieving this.


  1. Interview with a victim of electoral violence, Kano, March­–April 2023. 

  2. Oboh Eromonsele Samuel, Flashpoints to watch ahead of 2023 elections, Daily Trust, 19 December 2022, https://dailytrust.com/potential-flashpoints-to-watch-ahead-of-2023-elections/Potential

  3. Usman Da’u Aliyu, Behaviour problem: The case of ‘Yandaba in Kano, Nigeria, Sokoto Educational Review, 15, 2 (2014), 69–80. 

  4. Interview with a former member of a Yanbanga gang, Kano, 26 December 2022. 

  5. Interview with a political party official, 24 December 2022; see also ACLED, https://acleddata.com

  6. Yunusa Zakari Ya’u, The youth, economic crisis and identity transformation: The case of the Yandaba in Kano, in Attahiru Jega (ed), Identity Transformation and Identity Politics under Structural Adjustment in Nigeria, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet (Uppsala) and the Centre for Research and Documentation (Kano), 2000, pp 161–180. 

  7. Interview with a former member of a Yanbanga gang, Kano, 26 December 2022; Interview with a journalist, radio anchor and coordinator of an anti-Yandaba awareness programme, Kano, 13 December 2022. 

  8. Tajudeen Suleiman, In Kano, politicians, thuggery fuel addiction, Sahara Reporters, 12 February 2019, https://saharareporters.com/2019/02/04/kano-politicians-thuggery-fuel-addiction; Abeeb Olufemi Salaam, Street life involvement and substance abuse among ‘Yandaba’ in Kano, Nigeria, African Journal of Drug and Alcohol Studies, 10, 2 (2011), 119–129. 

  9. Cannabis is typically the drug of choice. Abeeb Olufemi Salaam, Street life involvement and substance abuse among ‘Yandaba’ in Kano, Nigeria, African Journal of Drug and Alcohol Studies, 10, 2 (2011), 119–129. 

  10. Although cocaine and heroin are known to be consumed by some leaders of the Yandaba, there is no evidence that Yandaba are involved in their distribution. Interviews with Yandaba gang members, November 2022. 

  11. Interview with an National Drug Law Enforcement Agency officer, Kano, 28 November 2023. 

  12. Interview with a Yandaba leader, Kano, 21 November 2022. 

  13. Interview with an National Drug Law Enforcement Agency officer, Kano, 28 November 2023. 

  14. Abubakar Ahmadu Maishanu, Elections: Tension in Kano as police, political parties allege importation of foreign thugs, Premium Times, 7 March 2023, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/top-news/586664-election-tension-in-kano-as-police-political-parties-allege-importation-of-foreign-thugs.html

  15. They did not specify the responsible parties or politicians. Ifeoluwa Akinola, Guber election: Police warn of election violence plots in Kano, Tribune Online, 6 March 2023, https://tribuneonlineng.com/guber-election-police-warns-of-election-violence-plots-in-kano

  16. Segun Adewole, DSS arrest 2 for inciting violence in Kano, Punch, 16 March 2023, https://punchng.com/dss-arrests-two-for-inciting-violence-in-kano

  17. Interviews with residents, law enforcement and civil society, Kano, 18 March 2023. 

  18. Openly engaging in voter inducement can be grounds for opponents to challenge the outcome of the polls in the courts, as such practice is considered electoral fraud in Nigeria, and the Yandaba therefore resisted attempts to record these activities. As a result, a journalist working with a local radio station was attacked by a group of Yandaba who accused him of filming them handing out food items to voters. Abdulmumin Murtala, NUJ condemns attack on journalist covering elections in Kano, Vanguard, 21 March 2023, https://www.vanguardngr.com/2023/03/nuj-condemns-attack-on-journalist-covering-election-in-kano

  19. Interviews with members of civil society, voters and journalists, Kano, March 2023. 

  20. Interview with a voter, Kano, April 2023.