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Issue 39, June 1999

Nigeria - a democratic future begins?

    A 'semi-democratisation'
    Lifting the Lid
    The limits of reform
    Workers' unity or ethnic conflict

The inauguration of Nigeria's first elected president since the 31 December 1983 military coup, Olusegun Obasanjo, following his victory in February's presidential election, has been widely reported in the world's media as an important step towards the restoration of 'democracy'. JAMES LONG explains the reality.

THE 'TRANSITION' FROM military rule is also being hailed world-wide as a victory for the 'international community', a phrase which tries to give a 'democratic' or 'peaceful' cover to the world's domination by a handful of imperialist powers. These powers have now got what they wanted. However, Nigeria is still not genuinely democratic and its future is not certain. In 1993 imperialism, fearing movements from below, wanted the military to hand over power. But the then dictator General Babangida annulled the 12 June presidential election in order to prolong military rule. While this provoked a mass movement which forced Babangida to resign, within months his deputy, General Abacha, had seized full control and imposed an even more brutally repressive regime.

For a time imperialism was prepared to tolerate Abacha, hoping that he would eventually agree to step down. But when it became clear that Abacha was planning to become president of a 'civilian' regime, imperialism moved to replace him. The fear was that a renewed protest movement would develop which could put the country's future at risk.

Early last year these fears started to materialise. On 3 March 1998, widespread protests started against Abacha's plans, followed in April and May by a number of clashes in the major city of Ibadan. Then, 4 June saw the largest nation-wide protest since the 1994 oil workers' strike. Four days later Abacha mysteriously died and was replaced by General Abubakar. The following month, Abiola, the winner of the annulled 1993 election, also suddenly died. The Abubakar regime had kept him in detention because he refused to sign an undertaking giving up his claim to the presidency.

These two deaths cleared Abubakar's way to begin a controlled retreat, introducing limited reforms from above to prevent revolution from below and, at the same time, trying to put in place mechanisms to control the inevitable efforts by working people to use the newly regained democratic rights in struggle.

  Since independence, Nigeria has been ruled by the northern, Hausa-Fulani, section of the ruling elite. Although coming from the poorest areas of the country the British colonialists had left them in control of the military and administrative machines. This domination has resulted in growing national tensions which were particularly extenuated after June 1993 when General Babangida, from the north, annulled the election which the southern, Yoruba candidate, Abiola, had won.

By the end of last year the majority of the northern section of the elite understood, at least nominally, that they had to step back to prevent the country being possibly torn apart by an explosion from below. This meant allowing a Yoruba to become president, although they simultaneously increased the number of northerners in key administrative and military positions. Thus the two candidates, Obasanjo and Falae, were allowed to run for president in February. Both were Yorubas and had been in jail because of their limited opposition to Abacha. From the point of view of the Hausa-Fulani elite, however, both were safe: as military ruler from 1976-79, Obasanjo had bent the election rules to ensure that a northern candidate won the presidency, while Falae had served as Babangida's finance minister.

Both candidates offered prosperity to the masses, but gave no indication of how to achieve it. Obasanjo had 'Back to 1979' (the years of the oil boom) as his main slogan. This is impossible to achieve now. In 1980 oil sold at $40 a barrel, earning Nigeria $25bn export revenue, but oil prices have tumbled and Nigeria's 1998 exports were $9.3bn, a dramatic drop even before taking inflation into account.

Annual per capita income for Nigeria's estimated 120 million people has fallen from $1,000 in the early 1980s to $213 in 1998. Officially 60% of the population live in poverty. While for a time the severe drop in living standards had limited inflation, prices are now rising sharply again with annual inflation back over 16% and expected to reach 20% by the end of this year. By December 1998, Nigeria's limited manufacturing industry operating at 31% capacity, but much of this capacity is obsolete. In 1998 investment slumped by 66%, while the industrial workforce fell from 45,958 to 32,471.

Most investment is by foreign companies. Many local companies are collapsing as what sales possibilities exist are taken over by imports or multi-nationals, who see Nigeria as a major market if not a manufacturing base. A sign of this economic re-colonisation was the mid-February announcement by Nigeria's largest cigarette company, NTC, that it planned to stop local production in favour of importation. NTC's capacity utilisation has fallen from 60% in 1990 to 10% last year as its market share dropped from 65% to 8%.

Despite being the world's 12th biggest oil producer, Nigeria has been gripped by a severe fuel shortage for years and "distribution of what little fuel exists is still in the hands of soldiers and their friends" (Financial Times, 2 March 1999). The electricity supply is often non-existent, with long power cuts lasting days, weeks and even months in some areas. Each factory needs its own generator. In Lagos, the main city with seven million people which consumes 50% of the country's electricity, there are districts which have not had electricity for five months. To add insult to injury NEPA, the power company, announced a 100% price increase in February.

In this situation the Nigerian elite do not invest in production. The government's regular flow of oil income has provided the basis for enormous corruption. Wealth is, in fact, transferred out of the country. In June 1998 the London Times reported that, since the early 1970s, Nigerian leaders had amassed personal fortunes totalling $217bn in foreign banks. Officially during the 1990s net capital exports from Nigeria averaged $2.5bn a year. There was a massive enrichment of senior army officers, many becoming dollar millionaires.

An already bad economic situation has worsened. Nigeria's balance of payments has fallen from a surplus of $1.9bn in 1997 to a $3.1bn deficit in 1998 - equal to 14% of GDP. The IMF estimates that Nigeria's GDP could fall by up to 10% this year, with total exports down to $7.9bn.

One 'answer' being proposed by imperialism is privatisation, and using some of the proceeds to pay-off part of Nigeria's estimated $29bn external debt and fund some government programmes. But even in the Nigerian elite there is some opposition to this due to their fear of losing sources of looting as foreign capitalists buy up local assets on the cheap.

  top     A 'semi-democratisation'

THIS MEANS THAT the prospects for any stability are extremely poor, especially in the likely context of a continuing world economic slowdown and deflation pushing raw material prices even lower. This explains the very careful way in which this semi-democratisation has been put into effect and the attempts by both imperialism and the Nigerian ruling class to prepare for future storms.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, "Abubakar has rigorously controlled the election process, banning independent candidates. The military is also refusing to publish a new constitution that will govern the civilian administration until after the elections. Critics say the army wants to see who wins the elections before deciding on what powers the president should have" (23 February 1999). The regime effectively chose the three parties which were allowed to run.

The military have not given up what they see as their 'right to rule'. Even two weeks before the 29 May hand-over date they had still refused to abolish Decree Two, the 1984 military order which allows indefinite detention without trial. Some political prisoners remained in jail and others, released from prison, have not been legally cleared and/or permanently granted their freedom. A number of workers and students victimised for fighting the Abacha regime have still not been reinstated.

The extremely limited nature of the 'democratisation' was illustrated by the arrest on murder charges of Lanre Arogundade, the Lagos state chair of the Nigerian Union of Journalists and a well-known member of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM - the Nigerian section of the Committee for a Workers' International) in late April. This is part of a campaign to silence a very prominent opponent of military rule - the only 'evidence' being a petition drawn up by three pro-military opponents of Arogundade's in the NUJ. It is significant that the so-called reforming military regime was, at the beginning of March, arguing in the Supreme Court to uphold the Abacha dictatorship's 1994 banning of a daily newspaper.

Other controls on the press have continued. In early February the military seized all 80,000 copies of an edition of The News weekly, to stop the circulation of its lead story 'Abacha's Co-Looters, Aluko Reveals All'. The London Economist revealed the reason: that $800m in the hands of Abacha's family "has been distributed to the members of the Provisional Ruling Council, as their final pay-off before leaving office" (6 March 1999).

The constitution for the civilian regime had still not been published two weeks before the hand over. On 11 April, Abubakar told the BBC that 'of course the provisional ruling council is discussing the constitution to be promulgated. We're hoping towards the end of April this would be out'. Eventually on 5 May Abubakar signed the decree finalising the constitution. However, as the London Observer commented, it remained a 'secret constitution'.

February's presidential elections hardly involved the mass of the population. Indeed, it was money and rigging which decided the issue. Obasanjo spent $30m to win the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) nomination (Wall Street Journal, 23 February 1999). The London Economist commented that Obasanjo "has a formidable party machine, backed by Nigeria's new super-rich class: retired generals" (27 February 1999). The Lagos Guardian reported that Obasanjo's party had budgeted to spend 4bn Naira ($45m) in the ten days allowed for presidential campaigning, just exactly what on was left unclear. Bribery is the almost certain answer.

  Falae ran for the APP/AD alliance, a completely opportunist last-minute bloc between former Abacha supporters in the APP and former Abacha opponents in the AD. Falae himself was the finance minister who introduced the IMF-inspired Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of austerity in 1986. He stressed his support for the 'free market' and, in an election-day TV interview, the only policy he mentioned was privatisation. In fact, in all the 'transition' elections there were no manifestos or real programmes, just vague promises. For the first time in Nigeria all candidates fundamentally agreed on the same economic programme. Furthermore, a BBC correspondent commented that 'many of those championing the cause of democracy have happily served in corrupt military regimes'.

The genuine voting, in so far as it took place, was on ethnic lines. The Yoruba-dominated south-west voted massively against Obasanjo, who was seen as a front man for the Hausa-Fulani elite, while in the rest of the country Obasanjo won. There was massive election fraud by both parties which hid the relatively low turnout. The PDP let the AD rig in the south-west, confident that it could rig more in the rest of the country. Significantly, there neither celebrations or protests at the result, unlike after the last civilian-run elections in 1983.

An indication of the scale of the rigging was that, according to the official returns, the highest turnout was in two of Nigeria's more backward regions, the North/Central and South/South zones, where Obasanjo's won his highest percentages. In one area in Abuja, the Federal capital, 46 voters were accredited as going to the polling station, yet the declared result was Obasanjo 1,371 and Falae 65! Falae briefly challenged the result in court, claiming that in Niger State, 871,000 votes were returned despite only 754,000 people being on the electoral register. However, under imperialist pressure, he did not pursue his case.

After the election the main imperialist powers started pressurising both Obasanjo and Falae to work together. Visits by Jesse Jackson and British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, urged 'an inclusive government'. This attempt to bring together all the main bourgeois currents had two purposes. Firstly, to limit opposition to the IMF's austerity policies. Secondly, to bring together Obasanjo, who has the confidence of the Hausa-Fulani elite, and Falae, who is more directly pro-imperialist.

  top     Lifting the lid

BUT WHILE NIGERIA'S basic power structure has not been changed by this 'transition programme', there is a broad perception that the military are finally leaving office. There is an overwhelming popular desire to see the military go. The easing of repression in the last nine months has already led to a freer atmosphere and encouraged a revival of struggle. The installation of a civilian regime will remove many elements of fear, at least initially, and provide opportunities for the workers' and youth movements to further revive.

This has already encouraged important developments within the workers' movement. Last September the military government increased the federal workers' minimum wage from 1,500 to 5,200 Naira ($15 to $52) a month and this sparked off movements in Nigeria's 36 states and Abuja to be paid the same.

This movement was from below, the national union leaders did nothing. Even Nigeria's most militant national union leader, Kokori, the oil workers' leader jailed for nearly four years under Abacha, said that there should be no strikes before the hand-over date in order not to give the military an opportunity to remain in power.

Initially, the military tried repression to stop the movement. In October they sacked Ayodele Akele, leader of 80,000 Lagos state workers, at the start of the struggle for wage parity because of his membership of the DSM. This attempt failed to stop the movement, and in December Lagos state agreed the 5,200 Naira minimum, although Akele remained sacked. Strikes also took place towards the end of last year in Akwa Ibom, Borno, Delta, Osun, Oyo and Rivers states, often with workers winning their demands. In some states - like Ekiti and Ogun - the demands were won without strike action.

In January, faced with the dramatic fall in international oil prices, the military regime cut the federal minimum wage from 5,200 to 3,000 Naira ($30). Again due to the national union leaders there were no protests against this, despite domestic oil prices almost doubling.

Rank-and-file pressure for strike action in the different states continued to grow because even the 3,000 Naira level still meant a more than 100% wage increase for many workers. Linked to this were calls for the re-instatement of victimised trade unionists - from the 24,000 workers sacked by Kaduna state when they went on strike in 1997, Ayodele Akele, and the leaders of the Enugu state 'workers' parliament', sacked by the state's military chief for 'anti-government activities' during a strike in January.

From February to mid-April hospital doctors were on strike. Public workers in Anambra struck in February, while those in Adamawa, Cross Rivers, Ekiti, Katsina and Imo states took action in March. Plateau state union leaders, after a three-week strike, agreed to accept only 1,620 Naira a month, and in Ekiti 2,250 was agreed. But these low wages were no guarantee of jobs - in Osun the military said they would fire 7,000 of the state's 22,800 public workforce to pay the 1,300 Naira monthly wage and in Kano state 1,000 workers were sacked within days of the national deal. In Lagos primary school teachers started an indefinite strike for 3,000 Naira at the end of February, which led to a national teachers' strike starting on 19 April.

  Fears that this sudden movement would strengthen radical elements in the trade unions led to the regime's decision to lift Abacha's suspension of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC - trade union federation) and let Adams Oshiomhole become its president in mid-February.

Despite his reputation as a 'radical', Oshiomhole defended his opposition to organising any protest against Abacha's November 1993 coup in an interview with the Lagos Guardian (21 November 1993). Later he served on the 'Vision 2010 Committee' which the Abacha regime organised. More recently Oshiomhole has been strongly supported by the pro-capitalist German Social Democrat's Friedrich Ebert Foundation (which opened an office in Nigeria in the mid-1990s) and the Blairite leadership of the British public-sector union, UNISON.

Oshiomhole's tactics are a combination of radical phrases and rotten compromises. On 8 March, Oshiomhole published plans for national strike action starting on 15 March if the federal minimum wage was not increased from 3,000 Naira to 3,660 a month. In mid-February he had pressurised the ten public-sector unions to drop plans for a strike. Faced with a developing movement from below, Oshiomhole moved from the top in an attempt to gain control of the situation. At the same time he hoped that he could enhance his image.

Oshiomhole can be radical in his speeches. On the minimum wage he says even the federal government's original 5,200 Naira a month level last September was too little. In an open letter to Abubakar, Oshiomhole argued that even the Abacha appointed 'Vision 2010 Committee' said that a worker with a family needed 13,500 Naira ($150) month to live above the poverty line. But then Oshiomhole goes on to say, "trade union leaders had demonstrated a lot of courage in accepting to accommodate a cut-back in a wage which had been offered" (Lagos Guardian 4 March 1999). So in effect Oshiomhole, in what he called a 'magnanimous gesture', was demanding a wage level which he himself said was only a quarter of the amount needed.

This was the reason why, after attempting to use a national strike call to bolster his 'radical' image, Oshiomhole agreed a last-minute deal and called an end to the strikes. This deal gave federal workers a minimum 3,500 Naira a month, with most state and local government workers getting 3,000 Naira a month. While workers did not turn down this wage rise, a determined struggle could have secured the higher wage rates already agreed last year, let alone the 13,500 Naira Oshiomhole himself says is necessary not to live in poverty.

  top     The limits of reform

IN TIMES OF economic crisis every gain comes under immediate attack. The combination of Nigeria's severe economic crisis and Oshiomhole's reluctance to struggle led the military in a majority of Nigeria's states to refuse to honour this settlement. Workers were enraged, struggles began, and in mid-April Oshiomhole was forced to call indefinite strikes in 28 of the 36 states. Suddenly Oshiomhole spoke radically again. He even organised the removal of the NLC leadership in Edo state after they made a local compromise deal and called off the strike. In most states the strikes were solid. By mid-May strikes in 20 states had won payment of the nationally-agreed deal. The example of the state workers also encouraged other workers, like in Delta Steel and on the railways, to fight for unpaid wages.

This experience shows the potential strength of the workers' movement, the limited character of any gains which workers make so long as the capitalist system remains, and the severe pressures which will be placed on workers' leaders trying to make compromises.

For a while Oshiomhole was very radical. At the 1 May celebration - the first for five years - he attacked the three registered political parties saying that 'if we go by the classical definition of political parties, it is arguable if what we have on the ground can be called political parties… We (the unions) are completely non-affiliated, this does not mean that we are apolitical… (if there is no viable opposition) the burden of opposition will fall on the civil society, including trade unions'. On 11 May, Oshiomhole went further saying that 'workers and their union leaders must expand their frontiers of activities beyond their industries so as not to let what is happening in the larger society to affect them directly… We can win all the collective agreements in the world, and all the wage bargains but, if Nigeria remains misruled, mismanaged and the economy bastardised, the quality of life will remain poor… you will find that the best collective agreement in the world will not deliver out of poverty'. He pointed out how the recent Naira devaluation had reduced the new minimum wage from being the equivalent of $33 a month to $30 in a few weeks.

But when it came to concrete solutions, Oshiomhole completely ignored the radical conclusions that the NLC reached in 1986, namely that Nigeria needed a 'workers party' to introduce 'socialism' (see Socialism Today, issue 31). But then on 13 May Oshiomhole announced that 'we will not make new demands for wages on the new government in 1999. We will co-operate with the new administration to enable them to stabilise'. In effect, Oshiomhole has accepted that workers' living standards will fall this year. Until workers' anger makes him change his tune - for a while! Oshiomhole will attempt to continue his role of a brakeman trying to restrain workers, which is why the military facilitated his becoming NLC president. He also does not oppose the IMF's demands for privatisation. Oshiomhole merely asks that the 'plight of workers' is taken into account by reserving "some percentage of the shares in companies listed for privatisation" (Lagos Guardian, 20 March 1999) so that the workers can become 'stakeholders'. It is no accident that Oshiomhole used Tony Blair's 'stakeholder' slogan. He, too, has dropped even mentioning socialism and sees no alternative to capitalism. However, as events put him to the test, Oshiomhole's occasional radicalism will be increasingly seen as hollow.

Notwithstanding the movement among state and other workers it is possible that the restoration of civilian rule could see a relative lull for a time. The military are so hated that the relief that they have given up power could allow the Obasanjo government a period of grace, with the population watching to see what it does. But struggles will develop as workers and students use their democratic rights to fight in the face of a continuing economic and social crisis. The timetable though is hard to predict.

  The London Financial Times commented that, "In the first quarter of this year alone, the fiscal deficit grew to Naira 60bn, twice the deficit forecasted in the budget for the entire year. This and a precipitous drop in the foreign reserves from $7bn to less than $4bn during the same period fuelled speculation among Nigerians that at best, the generals were plundering their way back to the barracks: at worst by depleting scarce funds at this time, some members of the military government were actively sabotaging prospects of political stability under civilian rule… The fear is that… Obasanjo's government could quickly fall foul of the population". (7 May 1999)

These developments will bring the probability of renewed repression. Despite the propaganda about Obasanjo being a 'democratic general', his earlier 1975 to 1979 period of rule was marked by state suppression of the left within the trade unions, with leading activists being banned from union activity, and bloody repression of student protests. Obasanjo even stationed a soldier in every secondary school to take charge of discipline!

At the same time, he took limited swipes at imperialism by nationalising British Petroleum in 1977 and supporting the Stalinist MPLA in the Angolan civil war. This is why the Western powers are not certain about whether Obasanjo is prepared to fully carry out the policies they are demanding. In the days runing up to his inauguration, Obasanjo rejected the idea of introducing a new structural adjustment programme. While economic pressures are likely to force the civilian regime into making cuts, this may not happen smooothly. This was one of the reasons why the IMF tried to secure an agreement with the military before they left power.

Obasanjo's attempt to have an 'independent' role was explained during a post-election visit to Paris. He said that "government and business are partners, everyone has its role. I believe the market is a dominant factor, but the market in Nigeria is still very weak. Of course, we will privatise, but I will not rush. There can be no rigid rules about this. Some (companies) will be rehabilitated, others will be entirely privatised". (Lagos Guardian, 19 March 1999)

This position is not simply a result of the Nigerian elite's desire to keep its hands in the tills of the nationalised industries. It also reflects a limited opposition by the Nigerian ruling class to the dictates of the major imperialist nations. On the same day that Obasanjo spoke in Paris, an IMF delegation visiting Nigeria were told by Vice-Admiral Akhigbe, currently the country deputy's ruler, that Nigeria's problems are the result of "the socio-economic infrastructure put in place by the colonial masters, and the level of manpower development on the eve of independence. If we reflect on these circumstances, we will begin to see that the problems of African economies today were, by and large, contributed by the international community – particularly the developed countries, international financial institutions and the multinational corporations". He went on to say that he supported privatisation, but rejected the idea that the causes of Nigeria's crisis were only internal.

True words! But it would be entirely utopian to look to the Nigerian elite to fundamentally challenge imperialism's domination of the world. While they can have conflicts of interests, ultimately they will unite in defence of the capitalist system which is the basis of their power and wealth.

  top     Workers unity or ethnic conflict

NIGERIA'S FUTURE IS really in the hands of the workers' movement. As we argued in Socialism Today (September 1998), unless the workers' movement can again become the focal point of struggle against the disintegration of Nigerian society, the country will tend towards a break-up via a series of brutal ethnic conflicts.

Already 'normal' bourgeois politics is mainly viewed in terms of nationality, a process re-enforced by the absence of any workers' party. Throughout the country there are increasing national struggles. Since the mid-1990s armed clashes have been taking place, sometimes between different nationalities or tribes, sometimes with the state forces. In the South/South, Niger delta region, the revolt of the Ijaw youth, both against the state and against the Itsekiris has cut Nigeria's oil production by up to 25%.

In the south-west, particularly in Lagos, the OPC (Oodua Peoples Congress), a Yoruba nationalist movement, has grown rapidly especially amongst the youth and the poorest sections of society. There have been many bitter clashes between the most militant OPC elements and the police. After the presidential elections OPC supporters in Lagos seized the armouries and then completely destroyed two police stations, provoking a bloody revenge by the police. OPC members and alleged supporters have been shot and over 600 arrested.

The rebuilding of the workers' movement, which is linked to its adoption of a fighting socialist programme, is the way in which the workers, youth and poor of the different nationalities can be brought together in a common struggle against their oppressors.

Unfortunately, sections of the old left have become nationalists. Some former radical leaders of the northern-based, nominally socialist, PRP have joined forces with the northern elite against the demands of other nationalities; while some southern socialists, like Ola-Oni, have become, in effect, 'left' Yoruba nationalists, only issuing calls for action to 'the Yoruba people'. In this situation the campaigning activity of the Democratic Socialist Movement assumes key importance. Its leading role in the recent Lagos state workers' struggle, and its position in other trade unions and in the student movement are an indication of the influence it is beginning to have, something which is also reflected in the state victimisation of some DSM members like Lanre Arogundade, Ayodele Akele and the students expelled from Ile-Ife University after protesting against Ken Saro-Wiwa's execution in 1995.

There is growing tension throughout Nigerian society, often reflected in localised, violent clashes over small issues. A polarisation is taking place between rich and poor, but also between different nationalities. Within the universities well armed 'cults', often supported by the authorities, attack radical students. In early March the DSM-led OAU Students Union in Ile-Ife seized nine members of the 'Black Axe Confraternity' who were armed with a sub-machine gun, a MK47, a pistol and various knives and axes, and demanded that they be expelled from the university.

In these circumstances, the perspectives for the civilian regime are not rosy. Disappointment with its inevitable failure to deliver any meaningful improvement in life, the continuation of massive corruption, the possibility of the country's break-up, and mass struggles, will all act to pose the possibility of a new military take-over. But a new military coup would also exacerbate the already severe national tensions in Nigeria and would not necessarily prevent the country breaking up. Despite General Abubakar's assertions that he 'saw no danger of a further military take-over' the London Economist pointed out that "The soldiers foresee not just a loss of power but also a loss of income. They, especially the younger ones, may yet attempt another coup if they come to feel their prospects for enrichment have disappeared". (27 February 1999) However, "another threat could come from junior officers, inspired by idealism rather than money, who want to purge the country of corruption by a violent revolutionary coup". (6 March 1999)

A 'junior officers' coup would not provide a permanent answer to Nigeria's problems. The 1980s saw similar events take place in Ghana and Liberia, but rapidly the once 'radical' leaders, like Rawlings and Doe, made their peace with imperialism and became comfortable as the new ruling elite. Only the building of a mass socialist movement can provide the force with which Nigeria could break the chains of imperialism and underdevelopment and lay the basis for the planned use of its natural wealth in the interests of the majority.

14 May 1999

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