Lagos (AFP) - Nigeria's main political parties are charging eye-watering fees from election hopefuls, in a move condemned as undemocratic and a breeding ground for high-level cronyism and corruption.
Supporters of President Goodluck Jonathan pooled their resources to stump up the 22 million naira (132,000 dollars) to buy his nomination form from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) is asking for 27.5 million naira, forcing one prospective candidate, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, to take out a bank loan.
For governorship posts, the PDP is asking for 11 million naira while the APC wants 10 million naira -- all before anyone is even chosen to run at the elections next year.
Candidates for parliamentary elections are also having to pay huge sums of cash, far outstripping the fees charged elsewhere in West Africa.
Political and legal analysts say the exorbitant rates in Nigeria are illegal, discourage popular participation in the electoral process and consolidate power among the wealthy elite.
"The incredible amount of money charged by political parties for nomination forms only reflects the dangerous connection between politics and big business and the disconnect it fosters on the silent majority," said Eneruvie Enakoko, formerly of the Transition Monitoring Group of non-profit organisations promoting democratic values.
High fees for nomination force aspiring candidates without huge financial means to raise money from super-rich backers, who will then expect pay-back if they are voted in, he added.
"If the candidate eventually gets the nomination and wins the election, he feels indebted and obligated to that tiny percentage of the population and his loyalty will be to those people and not to the rest of the populace or the silent majority who have no voice," he told AFP.
"It is a dangerous and vicious cycle because the candidate after getting elected cannot afford to forget where he got the money to bankroll his election."
- 'Moneybags and godfathers' -
Under the military dictator Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993), two political parties were founded and funded by government, the National Republican Convention and Social Democratic Party.
But since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, the government has stopped direct funding of political parties, forcing them to look for other ways to raise money.
While the nexus of politicians, wealthy individuals and big business is not unique to Nigeria, the phenomenon makes it less likely that the country's catalogue of problems are tackled.
Nigeria may be Africa's biggest economy and leading oil producer but it ranks low on the global scale for social development indicators such as access to education and healthcare.
Some 61.2 percent of Nigerians were living on $1 a day or less in 2009-10, according to the last available government figures on living standards, released in 2012.
Nigeria is also blighted by endemic graft, particularly in the huge public sector, and was ranked 144th out of 177 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2013.
For Dapo Thomas, of Lagos State University, the exorbitant fees skew the political system, furthering a culture of patronage and keeping out poorer, but perhaps more qualified, administrators.
"It allows the moneybags and godfathers to dominate the political scene," he said.
"If somebody of Buhari's calibre could not afford 27.5 million naira without taking a loan from the bank, who else can afford it?"
- 'Unwholesome and undemocratic' -
Lagos lawyer Femi Falana said charging for nomination by both Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which oversees elections, and political parties was against the law.
Debo Adeniran, of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders pressure group, described charging as "unwholesome" and "undemocratic" but INEC maintained that it was powerless to act.
The electoral body cannot stop parties from collecting election fees, said INEC spokesman Kayode Idowu, but expressed concern about the trend.
"On no account should eligible Nigerians be denied the rights to participate in the electoral process. Not even money," he said.
The electoral body will continue to monitor the finances of the parties while it had also set limits on campaign spending, he added.
A presidential candidate cannot spend above one billion naira, a governorship hopeful 200 million naira, a politician running for the senate 40 million and 10 million for the lower House of Representatives.
Parties are also not allowed to seek external funding to safeguard "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation", said Idowu.
"All these measures are in place to ensure popular participation as well as preserve the integrity of the electoral system," he added.