SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 188 May 2015

Nigeria’s historic election

For the first time in Nigeria’s history, a ruling party has been defeated in an election. Now, former dictator, General Buhari, takes over a shattered economy – and a huge desire for change on the part of the workers and poor. This edited statement by the national executive of the DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST MOVEMENT (DSM – CWI in Nigeria) analyses the implications.

The 2015 presidential election was a major turning point for Nigeria. For the first time in its 55 years as an independent country, a ruling party – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), in power since the end of military rule in 1999 – was roundly defeated in an election. Although 14 political parties and candidates participated, the contest was essentially a two-horse race between the biggest elite parties, the PDP and the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC).

The winner was the APC’s General Muhammadu Buhari, former military ruler and a Muslim from the northwest of the country. This election was his fourth attempt. He won 15,424,921 votes (54%) to the PDP’s incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan’s 12,853,162. This is not a wide margin when compared with past elections, yet it represents a significant defeat for the PDP, which will also be in a minority in the next National Assembly as the APC won over 60 seats in the Senate and a majority in the House of Representatives. Despite this, the APC will lack the two-thirds majority needed for key decisions.

The result marks a shift of power from one section of the ruling class to another. For most of the Nigerians who partook in the elections, however, it was an opportunity to vote out a government that was much despised because of anti-poor policies, despite coming to power initially on a wave of relative popular support. But barely a year after his election, Jonathan’s surprise increase of fuel prices to N140 a litre from N65 was met with angry protests by millions in Nigeria’s largest ever general strike. Now, the threat of renewed austerity after the benefits of high oil prices had been stolen by the ruling elite, plus the government’s inability to tackle insecurity as represented by Boko Haram, only added to the anger. This was reflected at the polls.

And now, the working and toiling masses feel their power to punish any party of government. ‘If there is no change we will vote out the government in four years’ time’ has become a common refrain. For socialists and working-class activists, the lesson must not be lost. In the coming period, a genuine working-class party can emerge to bid for power and win. Of course, the chances are slim that a real party of change – a mass workers’ alternative that can threaten the interests of capitalism and the corrupt ruling elite – could win an election and the defeated ruling class party would peacefully concede defeat. Nonetheless, the confidence which the working masses and youth now have will be pivotal in building such a mass political alternative.

Demanding change

As the last results were announced in the evening of 31 March, there was spontaneous jubilation in places like Lagos, Ibadan and Osogbo in the southwest, and many parts of the north. Not since the 12 June 1993 election, which was annulled by the military regime of General Badamosi Babangida, has an election elicited such celebration. Certainly, none of the general elections since the return to civil rule 16 years ago had the same electrifying impact. Nevertheless, less than half of the registered voters (42.76%) voted. Tens of millions felt that the election offered no choice or was irrelevant to their lives.

The difference this time was a mix of economic and political factors. One is the complete failure of the PDP to deliver socio-economic dividends to working-class people. The working masses have endured worsening economic, social and living conditions in the midst of great oil wealth. Despite the pre-2014 economic growth fuelled by crude oil exports, greater inequality was the lot of the vast majority of the people, while government officials engaged in corruption and looting the treasury. According to the United States Department of Energy, Nigeria earned $424 billion from oil exports between 2010 and 2014. But there was nothing to show for this in terms of infrastructural development and better living conditions for most people.

The second significant factor is the economic crisis since mid-2014, as a result of the collapse of the global price of crude oil. Suddenly, Nigeria found itself unable to meet its basic obligations. About 18 state governments, including those governed by the APC, owe workers two to five months’ pay. Nigeria derives 70% of its revenue and 90% of foreign exchange from crude oil. According to the most recent update by the Central Bank of Nigeria, the foreign reserve fell by 4.9% to $29.79 billion in March. This has led to the freefall of the naira, which has lost about 20% of its value against the dollar threatening the operations of banks, manufacturers and importers.

Just after the election, the Economist magazine in London (4 April) wrote that "inflation, now at 8.4%… could reach 15% before the end of the year", and that falling oil income means "more budget cuts will be needed. Road-building and other construction may be frozen because there is no money to pay contractors". This has elicited worries among investors whose profitability is threatened and, of course, anger among the working masses whose living conditions have taken a further plunge. It was little surprise therefore that, apart from the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, the issue that dominated the campaign was the management of the economy as well as the corruption of the regime.

The third factor is the perception of Jonathan’s presidency as the most failed capitalist government since 1999. He was elected in 2011 with about 24 million votes. There were high expectations from the mass of the population that this, then little known, figure in the PDP political machinery, from a poor background who said he had no shoes to wear to school as a kid, would usher in social and economic development and progress. But, just as the Democratic Socialist Movement warned, the Jonathan presidency worked in favour of capitalism and the interests of imperialism. Its anti-poor policies of privatisation were a disaster for the working class and poor. So was his government’s pervasive corruption and failure in all areas of life, including in dealing with Boko Haram.

In January 2012, less than eight months into Jonathan’s presidency, a massive nationwide movement and general strike spontaneously erupted when the government hiked the pump price of fuel and ended the fuel subsidy. Against this background, new divisions opened up in the ruling class. There was a gale of defections from the PDP, and the main imperialist powers distanced themselves from the president.

Regardless of the character of Buhari and the APC, Jonathan’s and the PDP’s defeat is a welcome development. At the height of the protest movement in 2012, the masses had called for an end to the regime. It would have come about but for the pro-capitalist leaderships of the two trade union centres, the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress. They were alarmed at the radicalisation taking place and the developing pan-Nigerian revolutionary mood for change, and called off the strike without winning even the basic demand for a reversal of the fuel price, not to talk of the political demand for an end to the government. So, this election was not just a referendum on Jonathan’s presidency. In a way, it was also a referendum on the ineffective and class-collaborationist methods of the labour movement leadership. This political demand, issued since January 2012, has now been effected though the ballot box.

General Buhari

The fourth factor was the candidacy of General Muhammadu Buhari, a former dictator who ruled Nigeria from December 1983 until August 1985, when he was removed in a coup. His 20-month rule was characterised by attempts to curb corruption and waste but also attacks on democratic rights, repression, banning press freedom, strikes and demonstrations, the expulsion of migrant workers, and the sacking of workers for taking strike action. This was supplemented by a cocktail of policies which tried to curb spending through vicious budget cuts.

Interestingly, his regime broke ties with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when it demanded the devaluation of the naira by 60%, yet the measures Buhari imposed were as rigorous and vicious as those required by the IMF. One such anti-poor policy was the cancellation of subsidised food in the public universities, which drew mass opposition, especially by students. In 1984, the Lanre Arogundade-led leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students organised a nationwide boycott and mass protest to resist the attacks on education.

The 1983-85 Buhari-Idiagbon regime did go after high-profile treasury looters, speculators and money launderers, and prescribed the death sentence for armed robbers – applied retroactively in a complete violation of democratic rights. However, most of these measures failed because they did not address the real and fundamental source of corruption: capitalism itself.

The regime was widely despised for its vicious attacks on democratic rights and living conditions. Under the infamous ‘war against indiscipline’, launched in 1984 – meant to address an alleged lack of public morality and civic responsibility – civil servants who showed up late to work were humiliated and forced to do ‘frog jumps’ by soldiers. People were made to form neat queues at bus stops and soldiers horsewhipped anyone perceived to be unruly.

However, despite his infamous record, Buhari is largely seen by the poor of the north, and now by a substantial section of the working masses and urban youth in the south, as an ascetic, austere and incorruptible person who had the chance to amass wealth while in power but instead lived a modest life compared to the opulence of past rulers. The poor of the north also see Buhari as not being a member of the establishment, or what is called the Hausa/Fulani ruling oligarchy.

This perception, coupled with the absence of a credible working-class political alternative, created the popularity and enthusiasm his campaign elicited. Therefore, the election outcome is not so much an endorsement of Buhari and/or the APC. Rather, they are the beneficiaries of a burning, widespread desire to kick out an anti-poor government which had failed in all areas. If a genuine mass working people’s political party, campaigning for an anti-capitalist and socialist alternative, had participated in this election, Buhari/APC would not have become such a rallying point. People would have been able to see that a real alternative existed to the rot, corruption and backwardness represented by the ruling PDP, as well as the phoney change of the APC. Faced with the monster of a PDP returning for another four years, the working masses reasoned that Buhari represents a ‘lesser evil’ – or, as the Economist put it, "the least awful".

Ethnic and religious landmines

Unfortunately, Nigeria’s age-long ethnic and religious divides did not fail to play up in the elections, although they did not dominate as they have previously. But, as a result of the unresolved national question, this election again demonstrates that Nigeria’s neo-colonial capitalist ruling elite, whether the PDP or APC faction, are incapable of forming a truly pan-Nigeria national consensus without the ethnic and religious divides sticking out like a sore thumb. The voting pattern is where this can be verified.

For instance, except in the southwest where both candidates had largely competitive votes, Jonathan and Buhari got decisive votes primarily from the regions they hail from. Buhari, a northern Muslim, got 1.9 million votes from the northern city of Kano, while Jonathan, a southern Christian, got 1.4 million votes from Rivers State. The turnout in the north and the south was way ahead of the turnout in the southwest. In the southwest, the working masses have at different times experienced governments of both PDP and APC with similar devastating consequences. Indeed, presently, four states of the region are governed by the APC. The exception to this was the reported cases of easterner, Niger Delta people and northerner residents in the southwest voting along ethnic lines.

One of them is Lagos, which has been under APC rule – under different names: AD, AC, ACN and now APC – for 16 years with little or nothing to show in terms of improvement in the lives of the mass of Lagosians. While claiming that it wants to transform it into a mega-city, the APC government in Lagos has carried out vicious attacks against the working masses. Motorcycle taxi (okada) riders have had their livelihoods taken away. Bus and taxi drivers are constantly harassed to pay all kinds of levies. Artisans, market men and women and shopkeepers are burdened by multiple taxes that ruin their small businesses. Doctors employed by the state and other categories of workers have gone on strike, and have been sacked for daring to do so.

Three years ago, the tuition fee was increased at Lagos State University from N25,000 ($125) to N350,000 ($1,750). It took a mass struggle by students and staff, with the involvement of the Education Rights Campaign and the Joint Action Front, for the government to back down. In other states, like Osun, similarly governed by the APC, workers are owed as much as five months’ salary.

All of this has created near indifference or a lack of enthusiasm for either the PDP or APC among the working masses in the southwest. This is reflected in the closeness of the votes in most south-western states, with just a few exceptions. The low turnout in Lagos, where just 1,495,975 people voted out of the 5,827,846 registered, showed the disillusionment with both parties, while no other force was seen as a credible alternative. Buhari won 792,460 votes and Jonathan 632,327 in Lagos. The next highest candidate gained just 4,453 votes.

Unlike 2011, the PDP lost many of the states they have often won in the north and south. Meanwhile, for the first time, Buhari got huge votes in the south, including winning the most votes in five out of the six south-western states. His ‘change’ mantra had an effect on voters across ethnic and religious divides. For instance, efforts by the ruling PDP during the campaign to scare Christian voters in the south by claiming that Buhari would Islamise Nigeria had little or no effect.

Buhari had huge votes in the ‘middle belt’ states, which have significant Christian populations, where he won in four of the six states. In these states, especially Benue, the electorate punished the PDP government which could not pay teachers’ salaries and where schools were shut down for several months between 2013 and 2014, when oil was still selling above $100 a barrel. Going into the election, Benue workers were owed six months’ pay.

Conversely, however, it was the huge votes Buhari got from his northern stronghold that swung the election his way. It is true that celebrations of the APC/Buhari victory took place in all parts of the country, including in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital in Jonathan’s home South-South region. Yet this merely masks the ethnic landmines already planted. Even if muted for now, partly because Jonathan conceded defeat in a phone call to Buhari while the votes were still being collated, ethnic disaffection will come to the surface at some point. This is because capitalism is an inherently unjust system which does not permit equal distribution of wealth but, instead, concentrates it in a few hands.

Only decisive action by the labour movement can lead united struggles of the working people. In the absence of such struggles discontent can take an ethnic or religious character. Rival factions within the ruling class can also try to exploit ethnic divisions. It was not accidental that in his outburst during the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) announcement of the results, the PDP’s national agent, ex-minister Godsdey Orubebe, accused the INEC chairman of being ‘tribalist’.

At some point, the people of the oil-producing Niger Delta in the south could again start to feel marginalised, despite the fact that the lot of most people in the region did not improve under Jonathan. Communities which have long suffered from exploitation and repression by oil multinationals lack access to electricity, roads and infrastructure. Many desperate youth have taken to the illegal refinery business just to survive.

Not so free and fair

Most observers reported that there were minimal irregularities, rigging and violence during this election. That did not stop 50 people from being killed during the balloting, according to the National Human Rights Commission. Four deaths, including that of a soldier, were recorded in election-related violence in Rivers State as well. This was in spite of 360,000 police officers being deployed in strategic areas, along with the army.

The European Union Election Observation Mission observed other glitches, including the late opening of polling sites, failing biometric voter verification, some violent incidents, and re-polling on Sunday. According to the Transition Monitoring Group, the votes from Rivers State and some South-South states appeared to have been significantly inflated during collation. Protesters in their thousands laid siege on INEC to demand that elections be re-conducted in the state, and a local INEC office was torched. There were also allegations of underage voting and inflated voting figures in Buhari’s northern stronghold.

Another significant feature was the enormous amount of money spent by both the PDP and APC. The PDP, being the party in power at federal level, had an almost inexhaustible source of funding. During the six-week postponement of the election (14 February to 28 March), the PDP spent billions of naira on campaign adverts, rallies, meetings with interest groups, jingles and hate documentaries. The APC was not far behind, dipping its hands into billions of naira from the coffers of the states under its control. This partly explains why many states, notably Osun, were behind by as much as five months in the payment of salaries.

From the onset, the PDP and APC had determined the election to be a money contest between rival wings of the ruling elite, with the working masses acting, unfortunately, as cheering spectators. Buhari, despite his anti-corruption and ‘change’ mantra, picked up the APC presidential nomination form for N27.5 million ($137,500), while incumbent president Jonathan paid N22 million ($110,000) for the PDP’s form.

This is another reason why the masses’ illusions in Buhari’s presidency will come to naught. He who pays the piper dictates the tune. Buhari could not have run such an expensive campaign, which saw him traverse the length and breadth of the country in private jets, without substantial investment by many crooks and treasury looters who abound in the opposition APC. These elements will demand to be paid back with juicy contracts and favourable government policies. Despite purported good intentions, monies meant to fund education, health and social services will find their way into the pockets and bank accounts of party backers who will waste no time in extracting their share once the new government is sworn in.

Prospects for working-class people

The working and poor masses, especially those with the most illusions in Buhari, are entering a new period where these illusions will be subjected to the most severe tests. Government revenues have plummeted on account of the drastic fall in crude oil prices. Inflation is rising. The unfolding economic situation will constrain the government and force it to abandon many of its promises at a time when working people will be expecting ‘change’. Buhari’s government will be one of crisis.

It will be a capitalist government devoted to making the rich richer at the expense of the poor majority, through policies like privatisation and commercialisation, and so-called public-private partnership. Forged two years ago from the merger of some opposition parties and defectors from the ruling PDP, the APC subscribes to the same policies of privatisation and deregulation.

The Guardian (2 April) reported the excitement in the markets at the announcement of Buhari’s victory. The market capitalisation of the Nigerian Stock Exchange soared by 8.5%, equal to N906 billion ($4.53bn). A stockbroker described it as a "restoration of investors’ confidence". The naira gained strength against other major currencies, to stem its recent slide. Tunde Adanri, managing director of Highcap Securities Limited, summed up the mood when he said he hopes the new regime will sustain investors’ enthusiasm by implementing "market oriented economic policies".

This means that, beyond some initial, temporary concessions to appease the masses’ expectations, the pro-capitalist economic policies that defined past governments (privatisation, deregulation, underfunding education, tuition fee hikes) will be the hallmark of the new administration. The condition of mass poverty in the midst of plenty, the lot of Nigeria since inception, will continue indefinitely.

The government will attempt to impose austerity while, possibly, taking some high-profile action against a few of the most corrupt. But, against a background of falling oil prices, austerity will be the main course of action. It will lead to job losses, economic depression and worsening living standards. Corroborating this, the Financial Times, London (31 March), said: "Having taken power at a similarly bleak period in the 1980s, General Buhari has a record of imposing austerity". However, the working masses and youth, whose power sent the Jonathan/PDP government packing, will not be sitting idle while their living conditions are attacked. Buhari’s presidency might see an explosion of mass struggle. Protests and strikes could be on the agenda sooner rather than later

Struggles can unfold which, if decisively carried out, can win some concessions, although these will only be temporary. What is needed is a movement which fights for a complete break with the capitalist system. As disappointment in the Buhari government spreads, and the scales begin to fall from the masses’ eyes, there will be a frantic search for an alternative. But if the labour movement and socialists are again not prepared with an alternative mass workers’ party there is the danger that disillusioned sections will put their faith in some other party or member of the capitalist ruling elite. We have seen power change hands between PDP and APC many times over with little or no improvement in the lot of the masses.

The best way to avoid such a situation is for the labour movement, socialists and activists to begin the important work of building a mass working-class political alternative. The Democratic Socialist Movement and the Socialist Party of Nigeria repeat our calls for the labour movement hurriedly to convene a summit of trade unions, socialists and civil societies where the question of building an alternative working-class political party can be posed.

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page