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Socialism Today 83 - May 2004

Nigeria’s uncivil rule

It is five years since the military promised a transition to democracy. But, as the recent rigged elections show, Nigeria is still firmly in the grip of self-serving regional elites. MANNY THAIN reports.

‘A MONUMENTAL SHAM, a complete farce’, was how activists summed up Nigeria’s local elections on 27 March. Well before any votes were cast, victory for the establishment parties in control of Nigeria’s federal states was assured.

Obstacles to registration were put in front of radical and working-class candidates, the vote massively rigged. Ballot boxes were reported destroyed or forcibly removed. In Oyo and Osun states, the radical National Conscience Party (NCP) mounted a legal challenge to the electoral rules. In both areas, the electoral commission ignored the court rulings and excluded NCP candidates. In Ekiti state, prospective candidates were offered 100,000-200,000 naira ($740-1,480) for not standing against the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of president Olusegun Obasanjo. Around 50 people were killed during the campaign. Even European Union observers said the poll was ‘seriously flawed’.

At a special meeting on 22 March, Lagos State NCP completely dissociated itself from the elections. It called for a boycott. The headline, ‘Empty booths, empty streets’, testified to its success. (The Guardian, Lagos, 29 March) The reasons were summed up by the comments of Ishola Aleshinloye, a 26-year-old teacher from Lagos: "The people are not happy that politicians are enriching themselves at their expense. Look at the state of our roads, schools and hospitals. There is nothing to show for their being in government. Sometimes I wonder if there is a government in this country". (Sunday Punch, Lagos, 28 March)

The election provides further proof of the relentless erosion of democratic rights since the military announced a ‘transition to civilian government’ in 1998. Africa’s most populous country, in fact, is moving in the opposite direction, as recent rumours of a military coup emphasise.

The political system is corrupt and unrepresentative. The parties operate as little more than electoral machines, designed to maintain the grip on power by the ruling capitalist elites of the dominant ethnic groups. The president’s re-election was also supported by the Yoruba-based Alliance for Democracy (AD) in the South-West, including Lagos. The All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP) backs the Hausa/Fulani elites in the North, the least industrially developed area. The All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) for the Ibo in the oil-rich South-East. These parties engage in no political debate whatsoever, and are bereft of any coherent critique, policies, or any form of internal democracy or accountability. Local authorities have been due to stand for re-election since April 2002. Instead, state governors hand-pick their cronies. These parasites then wage determined and dirty campaigns to grab as much wealth and power as they can.

The elite is not interested in developing the manufacturing or agricultural sectors of the economy. Its members fight over oil revenue. Forty-five percent of the country’s oil income net of production costs goes to Nigeria’s 36 state and 774 local governments. And the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that national oil revenues will exceed $100 billion (€81bn, £54bn) over the next five years. A criminal indictment of the capitalist system is that Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, is forced to import petroleum products, because of deliberate underinvestment in state oil refineries and rampant corruption.

For the bulk of the population, every day is a struggle for survival. Wages often go unpaid, and have not kept up with inflation, especially rising fuel costs. State sector jobs, which used to provide an outlet for young workers leaving university – and essential support for extended families – have been decimated, forcing masses of people into destitution. People scrape by, through part-time work or, increasingly, in the ‘informal economy’. Out of desperation, youth are driven into the arms of ethnic or religious leaders, or gangsters trying to consolidate their own fiefdoms. Drug abuse and prostitution are on the rise.

For a few short years during a marked increase in the price of oil on the world market (1975-80), the economy grew by 6-7% a year, and per capita income reached $1,000. But in the following decade, workers’ real income halved. By the mid-1990s, the annual average per capita income had slumped to around $280.

The next election, due in 2007, is set to be even worse. Fearing the development of strong political opposition, the Obasanjo government is planning to deregister parties like the NCP on the pretext of their ‘poor performance’ in previous (sham) elections.

Fuelling the anger

THE GOVERNMENT’S ATTACKS on working-class living standards will intensify as it attempts to make the poorest sections of society pay for economic and social collapse. A raft of neo-liberal measures is being prepared. The main levers of the economy, natural and mineral wealth, and financial institutions are being privatised – as demanded by global capitalist institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

From the next academic year, universities and colleges will charge a minimum of 10,000 naira ($74) for a bed space. The current average is 2,000 naira. The regime is anticipating anger and resistance to this attack, and is threatening to take the fee directly out of college budgets.

Last December, another hike in petroleum products was announced, the third in less than six months. Working-class opposition was mobilised and 21 January set for a general strike movement. Fuel price rises have a devastating effect on the poorest people. A much higher proportion of their income goes on fuel for heating, lighting, cooking and transport. Literally overnight, millions of people found their impoverished living standards further reduced as the prices of all other goods rose as a direct result. Companies are using it as a pretext to cut jobs.

At the same time as the fuel tax rise was announced, Obasanjo requested $80 million for a new presidential jet. After the press revealed that the plane cost $48.9 million, a new request for $52.4 million was put in – still leaving $2.5 million for Obasanjo to play with.

The Labour Civil Society Coalition was set up by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC, trade union federation) to organise the campaign against the fuel hike. It includes activists from the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM, the CWI affiliate in Nigeria), NCP, trade unions, NGOs, community and youth groups, and planned to start the general strike and mass protest movement across the country from 9 October. However, NLC leaders suspended the action after politicians and oil barons agreed to drop the last increase. They did not keep their word.

At present, both the strike and the December fuel tax rise have been suspended pending a Federal High Court ruling, as the government seeks to have the protest action ruled illegal. There are real dangers for Nigeria’s labour movement. The legal system is tied in with the corrupt political life of the country. A ruling in favour of the government would raise the stakes for protest action against it, sanctioning the use of state repression, and requiring well-organised and resolute resistance, including physical self-defence.

In Nigeria today, some of the worst excesses of naked military rule have been curbed. Nonetheless, the so-called ‘civilian’ administration continues with ruthless, daily abuses of human rights, particularly against the working class and poor. Police continue to detain people without trial. Extra-judicial killings in the name of fighting crime or quelling ethnic or religious ‘riots’ have assumed frightening proportions. In the five ‘transition years’ following 15 years of military rule, around 10,000 people have been killed in communal and religious violence, and 800,000 internal refugees created.

Imperialist carve-up

NIGERIA’S CRONY CAPITALIST economy, dominated by imperialism and resting on corrupt elites, is too weak to meet the aspirations of the working masses. The result is that democratic rights are systematically denied and mass movements suppressed. Another destabilising factor is the bitter struggles between the different regional elites for control of the central state.

The main ethnic groups are the Hausa and Fulani in the North, who make up nearly one third of Nigeria’s population, Yoruba (around 20%) in the relatively economically developed South-West, and Ibo in the oil-rich South-East. There are 250 identified ethnic groups. But this does not begin to describe the complexities, as the ethnic groups are themselves subdivided. Around 45% of the people are Islamic. One in four is Protestant, one in ten Catholic, with just under 20% following indigenous belief systems.

This ethnic and religious mix was thrown together by British imperialism. Military conquest was consolidated in 1903, late by British empire standards. The country called Nigeria was created in 1914. As in many other colonies, a national consciousness was forged as the struggle against imperialist rule and for independence developed. The workers’ movement stood for unity across ethnic or religious divides.

Economic development, although distorted by imperialism and the elites, gave rise to a powerful working class, second only to South Africa on the continent. Cross-ethnic unity was shown in action. For example, in a twelve-day general strike starting on 1 June 1964, against delayed wage increases, which mobilised around a million workers.

After the second world war, British imperialism, faced with rising industrial militancy and a nationalist movement, ensured that the Hausa/Fulani elites ruled when flag independence was achieved in 1960. They still control the state machinery and oil revenues today. Ever since, tensions between the regional elites have periodically spilled over into violent conflict as battle is joined for Nigeria’s riches. Up to two million died in the civil war, 1967-70, when the Ibo Biafran Republic tried to split away.

The oil boom of the 1970s helped strengthen Nigerian national identity, while oil also provided the raw material for the inter and intra-ethnic conflict. Years of economic decline and ethnic persecution have further undermined national consciousness. The failure of national workers’ movements to secure major improvements in living standards has added to this.

In the 1980s and 1990s, economic collapse and social instability threatened the break-up of the country. Imperialism wanted a transition to nominal democracy in an attempt to cool the situation down – a case of handing down some reforms from above to try and prevent revolution from below. Major-General Ibrahim Babangida pledged a transition to civilian rule. The process was tightly controlled. Only two military-sponsored political parties were permitted to exist. Brutal repression continued. Eleven union leaders were jailed for life by a military tribunal after the October 1988 Electricity Staff Union strike.

The first half of 1993 was dominated by a five-month university lecturers’ strike, which forced concessions from the regime. The long-awaited presidential election went ahead on 12 June 1993. By 14 June, half the results were in and showed a large majority for the Muslim Yoruba press magnate, Moshood Abiola. Using the courts, Babangida annulled the election. The second half of the year saw mass, semi-insurrectionary protest against the regime. In Lagos alone, 170 people were killed.

The mass uprisings forced the Babangida junta to quit. However, it had time to appoint its own successor, the Interim National Government (ING), a semi-civilian front for continued military rule under General Sani Abacha. His ambitious plan was to succeed himself – by changing out of his uniform and into civilian clothes – confident he would win an ‘election’, especially one he organised and supervised.

In November, the ING introduced a sevenfold increase in the price of fuel, provoking another wave of strikes and protests. The generals used this upheaval to scare the ruling class and its international backers into accepting another military dictatorship, to ‘restore peace and stability’. Abacha closed down the ING and resumed open military rule. NLC leaders called off the strike action when the military brought the cost of a litre of petrol down from seven naira to 3.25. This was still an increase of over 300%.

Role of the working class

A MOVEMENT LAUNCHED by Ogoni people for political autonomy and against the environmental destruction wrought by oil multinationals like Shell received international attention. Angry youth set up barricades. In its early stages, they had the passive support of rank-and-file soldiers, even in the police, before soldiers were ordered to shoot on sight. Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People were executed by the state on 10 November 1995.

Although a rich man from the Yoruba elite, the regime had made Abiola a symbol of opposition. He was imprisoned, remaining in gaol until his death in 1998. Outside the Hausa/Fulani areas, military rule became more and more seen as oppression by another nationality, resulting in growing support for separatism.

However, trying to explain mass impoverishment and ecological destruction as a solely ethnic problem is too restrictive. It cuts across attempts to build workers’ unity and helps the military and ruling class to maintain control over society. Clearly, there are dominant ethnic groups in Nigeria, and discrimination and repression is carried out on those grounds, and must be fought against. But it is the capitalist elites of the major ethnic groups who are on the make, enriching themselves at the expense of the working class and poor of all the ethnic groups. Therefore, a working-class based, socialist alternative has to be found, one which is implacably opposed to the subjection of any ethnic group(s), which grants full rights for minorities, and stands for the right of people to practice religion freely.

In July 1994, the country erupted again with mass stay-at-homes and strikes, spearheaded by oil workers, demanding an end to military rule and the implementation of the June 1993 election result. In October 1994, the NCP was formed, the only open political party to be set up during military dictatorship in Nigeria, and in defiance of martial law. It brought together human rights and worker activists (including the forerunner of DSM), and was led by Gani Fawehinmi, a well-respected lawyer, known for his principled anti-corruption, pro-democracy stance. In the absence of a trade union based workers’ party, the emergence of the NCP represents a significant step towards an independent Pan-Nigerian working people’s political party. It declared a commitment to abolish poverty and to fight for social and public services.

Imperialism, Nigerian capitalists and increasing numbers of the military tops feared that Abacha’s aim to remain in power, even behind cosmetic ‘civilian rule’, could provoke mass action. There had been widespread protests on 3 March 1998 after Abacha announced he would stand in the presidential elections. Then, it was announced that Abacha was the only nominated candidate. There was a mass boycott of the national assembly elections held on 25 April. Turnout figures were kept secret, but were below 10%. A wider mobilisation was planned for 12 June. The timing of Abacha’s death, 8 June, was convenient for imperialism.

It is an open question whether he was assassinated by fellow officers who feared that his attempt to stay in power would provoke revolution. His successor, Abubakar, had close links with the US military and was viewed as a more reliable tool of Western imperialism. Abiola, still a potential thorn in the side of the military, died in detention of ‘natural causes’ on 7 July.

Abubakar presided over a very gradual, carefully controlled ‘liberalisation’ of the regime: the slow release of political prisoners, the selective unbanning of some trade unions, the granting of limited democratic rights. Even so, elections promised for 1 October 1998 were postponed until 31 May 1999, the date today’s ‘civilian rule’ began.

The general strikes of June 2000 and June/July 2003, which were particularly widespread, have shown that through mass working-class action it is possible to unite the diverse ethnic and religious groups around a common goal. In these instances, behind the NLC banner in opposition to fuel price hikes. Although organised workers are a minority in Nigeria, they have a decisive economic and social weight far in excess of their number. This is because of the key role that they play as the producers of the goods which provide society’s wealth, and the fact that their living and working conditions compel them to organise collectively.

Labour Party

THE SUDDEN ANNOUNCEMENT in February 2004 that trade union leaders were setting up a Labour Party could mark a significant development. Its development into a genuine workers’ party partly depends on the approach of the union leaders, and on whether they view it merely as a spoiling tactic against the NCP. A well-organised and principled Labour Party based on mass working-class action, however, could rapidly become a decisive political factor in Nigeria. To achieve that it would need to provide a voice for the many oppressed sections of society: workers, peasants, small traders, market women, students, urban and rural poor, even the rank-and-file of the armed forces and police.

It would have to refuse any offer to enter coalition governments with the capitalist parties. Cross-class collaboration such as this gives the impression that it is possible to have a mutually beneficial alliance between capitalist exploiters and the exploited working people. It invariably ends with the workers’ organisations being used to hold back the struggle, and shouldering the blame for anti-working class policies.

Sylvester Ejiofor, Labour Party national chairman, denounced the ruling parties for lacking the "appropriate ideological tools and political will to address the roots of the country’s present quagmire". This, he said, explains their neo-liberal onslaught (The Guardian, Lagos, 29 February). In comparison to most political parties in Nigeria today, this represents a radical departure. However, Ejiofor also said: "For the avoidance of doubt, as social democrats, our party is not doctrinally hostile to the market, nor is our party opposed to private entrepreneurship".

Yet any form of capitalism will leave workers, the poor and oppressed, at the mercy of multi-national corporations, their political backers in rich-nation governments and their international agencies, such as the World Bank. Nigeria, like all neo-colonial countries, has never been permitted to independently develop its economy. It was harnessed to the requirements of the British empire, and imperialism continued to dominate after flag independence. And the corrupt gangsters in the state machine just bleed the country dry in their own short-term self-interest.

For the wealth of this potentially rich country to benefit the majority of its peoples, the ruling elites have to be driven from power, and imperialism’s stranglehold broken. Working class unity is required to make that possible. A workers’ and poor peasants’ government, able to democratically plan resources in the interests of the vast majority, could lay down the socialist foundations for the harmonious development of the different ethnic groups.

A voluntary socialist federation of Nigeria would be a beacon to all the oppressed in Africa and throughout the neo-colonial world. An international appeal for workers’ solidarity could see the eventual creation of an African socialist federation. For the first time, this would enable the continent’s resources to be used to benefit the vast majority of African people.


Nigeria’s Crisis: Time for System Change – includes chapters on the 2003 elections, the civil rule years, the national question, a working-class alternative, the fuel price hike, and lessons of the general strike. (76 pages, £3)

Socialist Democracy – the newspaper of the Democratic Socialist Movement

Both available from CWI, PO Box 3688, London E11 1YE

Contact DSM:


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