Nigeria: A democratic future?

The recent Nigerian Presidential election was widely reported in the world’s media as an important step towards the restoration of "democracy" in that country, Africa’s largest with a population of around 120 million. The holding, in April, of the FIFA World Youth Soccer Championship in Nigeria and the planned installation of civilian rule on 29 May will both be the occasion for further rounds of propaganda about Nigeria’s "new start".

These developments are being hailed world-wide as a victory for the "international community", a phrase which really tries to give a "democratic" or "peaceful" cover to the world’s domination by a handful of imperialist powers. Certainly these powers have now got what they wanted, however Nigeria is still not genuinely democratic and the more serious commentators agree that its future is not certain.

Back in 1993 imperialism, fearing movements from below, had wanted the military to hand over power and retreat to the sidelines for a period. But the then dictator General Babangida annulled the June Presidential election in order to prolong military rule. While this annulment 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 also agree to eventually stepping down from power. But when it became clear that Abacha was planning to become President of a "civilian" regime, imperialism moved to replace him. Imperialism’s fear was that there would sooner or later be a renewed protest movement, a development which could put the country’s future at risk.

Early last year imperialism’s fears started to materialise. March 3 1998 saw widespread protests start against Abacha’s plans, followed in April and May by a number of clashes in the major city of Ibadan. Then June 4 saw the largest nation-wide protest since the 1994 oil workers strike. 4 days later Abacha mysteriously died and was replaced by the current military ruler, General Abubakar. This was followed, a month later, by the equally sudden death of Abiola, the winner of the annulled 1993 election, who the new Abubakar regime had kept in detention because of his refusal to sign a written undertaking giving up his claim to the Presidency.

These two deaths cleared the way for Abubakar 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.

Fundamentally 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 the northern General Babangida 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 that now they had to, at least nominally, step back in order to prevent the country being possibly torn apart by an explosion from below. This meant allowing a Yoruba to become President, something they agreed to while simultaneously increasing the number of northerners in key administrative positions in the Federal state and military machines.

Thus the two candidates, Obasanjo and Falae, allowed to run for President in February were both Yorubas and had been in jail because of their limited opposition to Abacha. However from the point of view of the Hausa-Fulani elite both were safe. At the end of his time as military ruler between 1976 and 1979 Obasanjo had bent the election rules to ensure that a northern candidate won the Presidency, while Falae had served as finance minister in Babangida’s military regime during the 1980s.

Both candidates offered prosperity to the masses, but gave no indication of how to achieve it. The winner Obasanjo had "Back to 1979", i.e. the years of the oil boom, as a main slogan. But this is simply impossible to achieve now. In 1980 oil sold at $40 a barrel and Nigeria’s oil exports were $25 billion, today however oil is about $10 a barrel and Nigeria’s 1998 exports were $9.3 billion, a dramatic drop even before taking inflation into account.

Annual per capita income for Nigeria’s estimated 120 million people has fallen from $1000 in the early 1980s to around $230 a year. 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 the annual inflation rate back over 16% and expected to reach 20% by the end of this year.

The little manufacturing industry there is in Nigeria was operating, in mid-1998, at 28% of capacity, but this does not take account of the fact that much of this capacity is obsolete. In the first half of 1998 investment fell by 50%.

Much of what investment takes place is by foreign companies. Many local companies are collapsing as what sales possibilities exist are increasingly taken over by imports or subsidiaries of multi-nationals, who still regard Nigeria as a major market if not 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% as imports have taken over.

Despite being the 12th biggest oil producer, Nigeria has been gripped by a severe fuel shortage for years now 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 of days, weeks and even months in some areas. Industry cannot produce without each factory having its own generator. In Lagos, the main city with 7 million people which consumes 50% of the country’s electricity, there are currently districts which have not had any electricity for 5 months. Even at the official launch of the World Youth Soccer Championship the military ruler, Abubakar’s, speech was blacked out by a power cut. While generators will ensure that TV pictures of the matches will leave the country by satellite, many Nigerians will not, despite the regime’s promises, be able to see the games because they have no power. To add insult to injury, in the midst of a worsening supply NEPA, the power company, announced a 100% price increase in February.

In this situation the Nigerian elite do not invest in production in Nigeria. 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 $217 bn in foreign banks. Officially during the 1990s net capital exports from Nigeria averaged $2.5 bn a year. During years of military rule there was a massive enrichment of senior army officers, many becoming dollar millionaires.

But an already bad economic situation has worsened as, between 1997 and 1998 alone, oil earnings fell from $14.9 bn to $9.3 bn. The immediate result was that Nigeria’s balance of payments fell from a surplus of $1.9 bn to a deficit of $3.1 bn, equal to 14% of GDP. Now the IMF is estimating that Nigeria’s real GDP could fall by up to 10% this year, with total exports down to $7.9 bn.

One "answer" which is being proposed by imperialism is privatisation, with the idea of using some of the proceeds to paid off some of Nigeria’s estimated $29 billion external debt and fund some government programmes. But even in the Nigerian elite there is some opposition to this due to their fears of losing sources of looting as foreign capitalists buy up local assets on the cheap.

This situation 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). In fact in the end the military effectively chose the three parties which were allowed to run in the recent elections.

The military have, in reality, not permanently given up what they see as their "right" to rule the country when they choose to. They still have refused to abolish Decree 2, the 1984 military order which allows indefinite detention without trial. Some political prisoners remain in jail and others, already released from prison, have not yet legally been cleared and/or permanently granted their freedom. A number of workers and students who were victimised for fighting the Abacha regime have still not been reinstated.

Significantly this so-called reforming military regime was, at the beginning of March, arguing in the Supreme Court to get the judges to legally justify and uphold the Abacha dictatorship’s 1994 banning of a daily newspaper.

Other controls on the press have been continued. In early February military seized all 80,000 copies of an edition of "The News" weekly in order to stop the circulation of its lead story "Abacha’s Co-Looters, Aluko Reveals All". The London Economist later revealed the reason, the $800 million discovered 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).

In mid-March there was still no Constitution for the civilian regime due to take over on 29 May. The military have declared that they alone will decide what is in the Constitution and despite repeated promises that it will be published "this week", it has not yet been seen. Sometimes the excuses for this delay are ludicrous. The deputy military ruler, Vice-Admiral Akhigbe, even said on 5 March that it had not yet been published because "a clean copy was being awaited"!

In the 10 days of campaigning the Presidential candidates were allowed the mass of the population were hardly involved in the process.

Indeed it was money and rigging which decided the whole issue. The eventual winner Obasanjo, according to the 23 February Wall Street Journal, spent $30 million just to win the Peoples Democratic Party’s nomination. He started by giving $1.5 million to help its campaign in last year’s local elections. No-one asked where a retired general who complained that his farm was bankrupt , could find that sort of money. 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 spent 4 billion Naira ($45 million) in the 10 days allowed for Presidential campaigning, just exactly what on was left unclear. Bribery is the almost certain answer.

Falae, the other candidate ran for the APP/AD alliance, a completely opportunist last minute bloc between the former Abacha supporters in the APP and the former Abacha opponents in the AD. Falae himself was the finance minister introduced the IMF inspired Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) austerity plan in 1986. Throughout his campaign 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 elections in this "transition" there were no manifestos or real programmes, just vague promises. For the first time in Nigeria all candidates in an election 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 that it actually took place, was on ethnic lines. In the Presidential poll 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. Throughout the whole country there was mass rigging 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. It is very significant that there have neither been celebrations or protests at the result, both of which occurred 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 voter turnouts were in two of Nigeria’s more backward regions, the North/Central and South/South zones, and these zones gave Obasanjo’s his highest percentage votes. In one area in Abuja, the Federal capital, 46 individual voters were accredited as going to the local polling station, but the declared result was Obasanjo 1,371 and Falae 65 votes! Falae is now challenging the result in a court case, giving examples of rigging such as Niger State where, he claims, 871,000 votes were returned despite only 754,000 people being on the electoral register.

Immediately after the election the main imperialist powers started pressurising both Obasanjo and Falae to agree to work together. There were visits by Jesse Jackson and British Foreign Secretary Cook urging "an inclusive government". this attempt to bring together all the main bourgeois currents has two purposes. Firstly it aims to try to limit opposition to the austerity policies which the IMF is proposing. Secondly it is to bring together Obasanjo, who has the confidence of the Hausa-Fulani elite, and Falae, who is more directly pro-imperialist than Obasanjo.

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 absolutely overwhelming popular desire to see military go now. The undoubted easing of repression in 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 in its first period, and provide opportunities for the workers and youth movement to further revive.

Already this has encouraged important developments within the workers movement. Last September the military government suddenly increased the Federal workers’ minimum wage from 1,500 to 5,200 Naira ($17 to $59) a month and this sparked off movements among workers in Nigeria’s 36 States and Abuja (the Federal capital) 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 4 years under Abacha, said that there should be no strikes before the 29 May handover date in order not to give the military opportunity to remain in power.

Initially last year the military tried repression to stop the movement. In October they fired Ayodele Akele, leader of 80,000 Lagos State workers, because of his membership of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM – Nigerian section of the CWI) just at the start of a struggle to win the same wages as the Federal workers. But this failed to stop the movement, finally in December Lagos State agreed to the 5,200 Naira minimum although Akele still 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 cases like Ekiti and Ogun States the demands were won without strike action.

But then faced with the dramatic fall in international oil prices the military regime in January cut back the Federal minimum wage from 5,200 to 3,000 Naira ($34). Again due to the national union leaders there were no protests against this, despite the almost simultaneous 127% rise in domestic oil prices in late December, which were later slightly reduced in mid-January.

However rank and file pressure for strike action in the different States continued to grow because even the 3,000 level still meant a over 100% wage increase for many State workers.

Linked to this were the calls for the re-instatement of victimised trade unionists ranging from the 24,000 workers sacked by Kaduna State when they went on strike in 1997, the Lagos State workers’ leader Ayodele Akele and the leaders of the Enugu State "Workers’ Parliament", sacked by the State’s military chief for "anti-government activities" during a January strike for the 3,000 Naira minimum.

In February hospital doctors were on strike. State public workers in Anambra went on strike in February, while those in Ekiti started striking on 1 March. In Adamawa, Cross Rivers, Katsina and Imo States strikes began on 8 March. Plateau State union leaders, after a three week strike, did agree in early March to accept only 1,620 Naira a month and in Ekiti 2,250 was agreed. But even these low wages give no guarantee of jobs, in Osun the military are planning to fire 7,000 out of the State’s 22,800 public workforce in order to be able to pay even a 1,300 Naira monthly wage and in Kano State already 1,000 workers have been sacked within days of the national deal.

In Lagos primary school teachers also struck for 3,000 Naira at the end of February, while in Kwara State primary and secondary school teachers began a strike on 8 March

Fears that this sudden movement from below would strengthen radical elements, like Akele in Lagos State, in the trade unions led to the military regime’s sudden decision to lift Abacha’s suspension of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC – trade union federation) and let Adams Oshiomhole to become its President in mid-February.

Despite a past reputation as a "radical" Oshiomhole had defended, in an 21 November 1993 interview with Lagos Guardian, his opposition to the organisation of any protest against Abacha’s 17 November 1993 coup. Later he served on "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 leadership of the British public sector union UNISON.

Oshiomhole’s tactics are a combination of radical phrases with a willingness to agree to out and out rotten compromises. On 8 March, Oshiomhole suddenly 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 and all State and Abuja workers given either 3,660 or 3,000 a month depending where they lived. While in mid-February he had pressurised the 10 public sector unions to drop plans for a strike a few weeks later, 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 ($ 153) 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 the name of 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 at the last minute a deal and called for an end to the strikes in the different States. This deal gave Federal workers a minimum 3,500 Naira a month, with State and local government workers getting 3,000 Naira a month. While workers will 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. An example of how militancy can gain results were the press reports, within days of the deal being made, that the Lagos State workers, who had been led in struggle by the DSM, would possibly actually receive the same higher pay as their Federal colleagues.

In the future Oshiomhole will attempt to continue to play the role of a brakeman trying to restrain workers, while sometimes making radical gestures. This is why the military facilitated his becoming NLC President. The latest example is that he is not opposing the IMF’s demands for privatisation. Instead Oshiomhole is merely asking that the "plight of workers" is taken into account by reserving for workers "some percentage of the shares in companies listed for privatisation" (Lagos Guardian, 20 March 1999) so that they can become "stakeholders" (Lagos Post Express, 22 March 1999). It is no accident that Oshiomhole used Tony Blair’s "stakeholder" slogan, like Blair he has dropped even verbally mentioning socialism and sees no alternative to capitalism.

However notwithstanding the movement among State workers there is the possibility that the restoration of civilian rule will see a period of relative lull for a time. The military are so hated that the relief that they have given up power could allow the Obasanjo government to be given a period of grace, with the population watching to see what it actually does.

But struggles will develop as workers and students start to use their democratic rights to fight for their demands in the face of a continuing economic and social crisis.

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 a state suppression of the left within the trade unions, with leading activists being banned by law from union activity, and bloody repression of student protests in 1978. Obasanjo even stationed a soldier in every single secondary school to take charge of discipline! At the same time he was prepared to take limited swipes at imperialism by nationalising British Petroleum in 1977 and supporting the stalinist MPLA in the Angolan civil war. This is why even today the Western powers are not certain about whether Obasanjo is prepared to fully carry out the policies they are demanding. It is also one of the reasons why the IMF is working now to secure an agreement with the military before they are due to hand over power on 29 May.

Obasanjo explained during a post-election visit to Paris 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 Africa economies today were, by and large, contributed by the international community — particularly the developed countries, international financial institutions and the multinational corporations". Akhigbe 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, at the end of the day they will unite in defence of the capitalist system which is the basis of their power and wealth.

Nigeria’s future is really in the hands of the workers movement. Unless the workers movement can become again the focal point of struggle against continuing decay and disintegration of Nigerian society then 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, in past months, 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 recently grown rapidly particularly amongst the youth and the very 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 attacked, seized the armouries and then completely destroyed two police stations, provoking a bloody revenge by the police. OPC members and alleged OPC supporters have been shot down by the police and over 600 OPC members 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 (DSM – Nigerian section of the CWI) assumes key importance. Its key role in the recent Lagos State workers struggle, its position in other trade unions and in the student movement are an indication of the influence it is beginning to have, something which has also been reflected in the state victimisation of some DSM members.

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 Ife seized 9 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 certain continuation of massive corruption, the possibility of the country’s break and, by no means least, mass struggles will all act to pose the possibility of a new military take-over.

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).

But even a "junior officers" coup would not provide an permanent answer to Nigeria’s counties. The 1980s saw similar events take place in Ghana and Liberia, but rapidly the once, seemingly "radical" leaders like Rawlings and Doe made their peace with imperialism and were 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 under-development and lay the basis for the planned use of its real natural wealth in the interests of the majority.

Towards this aim the Democratic Socialist Movement will be increasing its campaigning around the following programme:

  • A higher minimum wage, a living wage for all civilian and military workers
  • Release of all remaining political prisoners. Reinstatement and compensation of all victimised workers and students.
  • Dissolving of all agencies of repression, like the State Security Service, and open publication of all security files.
  • A programme of public works to provide regular electricity and water, housing and a health service which can actually treat the sick.
  • No to privatisation. Cancellation of Nigeria’s foreign debt.
  • Free education for all and university grants.
  • Democratically appointed enquiry into the wealth of all members of the military and civilian elite, confiscation of all wealth acquired by corruption etc.
  • For a multi-party democracy with no controls on election candidates. No to the "Generals’ Constitution", for a democratically elected Sovereign National Conference, representing the working class and poor peasant majority of Nigeria, to decide Nigeria’s future.
  • Support for the right of nations to complete self-determination.
  • For the creation of a genuine mass Working People’s Party and for it to adopt socialist policies based upon the public ownership of Nigeria’s vast resources and wealth under the democratic control and management of the working people.
  • A workers’ and poor peasants government based on a socialist programme.
  • A Socialist Nigeria, as part of a Socialist Federation of Africa as a step towards a Socialist World.
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