Nigeria: A country in crisis

After a few days in Lagos I met Joseph, a socialist activist from Ghana, who, like me, had come to attend the conference of the Democratic Socialist Movement of Nigeria.

Peter Hadden reports on a visit to Nigeria last autumn, made to support the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) in their work. The DSM is the Nigerian section of the committee for a workers’ international.

A country in crisis

We met in the huge sprawl of working class districts and shanty towns that is Lagos West. Joseph had arrived the night before after a difficult overland journey through Togo and Benin and after enduring the inevitable harassment of the Nigerian border officials who had extorted most of his money in the customary bribes.

When he told me it was his first time in Nigeria, I asked what he thought of what he had seen of Lagos. He replied simply that he was "shocked". Ghana, like the rest of West Africa, is a country where grinding poverty is the norm. The minimum wage is $1 a day but many work for much less. 70% of the people are illiterate. Yet even African eyes adjusted and accustomed to these conditions were not prepared for the poverty, chaos and endemic corruption that are the essential characteristics of Africa’s largest city.

Joseph was referring to the dirt tracks that are more like river beds but which pass for roads and that, in minutes, can turn into lakes during the tropical downpours of the rainy season. He was referring to the electricity supply, or rather the lack of it. In Ghana the supply is intermittent but people get notice of the blackouts. In Lagos the only guarantee in the brief periods when the lights come on is that they will soon be off again.

Joseph might also have been referring to the sweaty traffic jams of a system most often at a standstill condemning those who have jobs to hours choking in the pollution of broken exhausts. People are jammed into buses or risk life and limb, riding the back of the Okada, the motor bikes that are the only form of transport many people can afford and which sometimes have whole families plus possessions precariously clinging on.

He might have been referring to the entangled fish nets of telephone wires that hang from poles along the sides of the roads ensuring that the terrestrial phone system, like everything else, does not work. About three million of the 120 million population have mobile phones and are forced to pay western prices for the only means of communication that does work.

Or to the police checkpoints that are set up like toll booths holding up drivers until they hand over a few Naira in bribes. The police, like the rest of society, are barely paid and are deliberately forced to live in brutalising conditions. Then they are sent out with their automatic weapons to extort their "wages" from the public.

I had a more direct experience of the conditions faced by the police, and of the ramshackle but brutal nature of the state, when I, along with a DSM member, was briefly arrested and escorted to a police station. Supposedly this was for a traffic violation, this in a city were there are few rules on the roads and even fewer that are obeyed.

Really it was because a white face in an area where there are no white people means the possibility of a bigger bribe. The car parking area in the mud yard had been furrowed into little hills and ravines by the rain. Inside all was dark, heavily armed police had to grope their way around their barracks because they had not been supplied with a generator and had to make do with the irregular state supply of electricity. We were interviewed in a long room with a bare table, a few prisoners and an armed guard hazily visible at one end. Eventually one officer brought in a half inch stump of a candle and did some paperwork under its flickering light.

These are the conditions in Lagos which, with the exception of the showpiece new captital, Abuja, is the most developed part of the country. For the mass of the population in the rural areas and in the north things are worse. There are no roads, no electricity and not even the crumbling outline of an infrastructure as exists in Lagos.

A society falling apart

This is not a society that is developing, more like a country that is unravelling and unravelling at speed. The process of decline has been accelerated by the neo-liberal, privatisation agenda, which has been enthusiastically embraced by the present "civilian" administration of former military dictator, Obasanjo. State services are being rolled back. There have been massive job losses in both the public and private sectors.

Per capita income, which was $1,000 in 1980, has dropped to around $250 today. 48% of the population lived below the poverty line in 1998, today this has risen to 70%. Less than 10 million of the population have access to health care. In Lagos West, as an example, there is one hospital for about 3 million people. 24 million people go hungry. 89 million live on less than one dollar a day. Life expectancy for men is currently 47, for women it is 52; a fact that is disturbingly obvious from the noticeable absence of old faces on the streets. Statistics such as these are the reason the World Bank now ranks Nigeria as the thirteenth poorest country in the world.

But Nigeria is not poor. Like the surrounding countries, including and perhaps especially Ghana, it is fertile and rich in resources. Oil is its key resource. Nigeria has between 24 and 31.5 billion barrels of proven reserves and currently produces over 2 million barrels per day. This accounts for 98% of its export revenues. It also has the tenth largest proven gas reserves in the world; some 300 trillion feet of gas has been discovered.

This wealth, properly utilised would be sufficient to transform the lives of the Nigerian people. Yet for the mass of Nigerians, who know only poverty and a daily struggle to subsist, the oil might as well be on Mars as in the Niger Delta. This is particularly so for minority nationalities like the Ogoni, Ijaw, Itsekiri and the many others who make up the population of the Delta.

Despite the lake of oil beneath its soil and off its shores, the Delta region is among the most deprived and its people among the most impoverished in the country. There are no proper roads. The area generates 80% of the country’s electricity yet 70% of its 3,000 communities do not even have the intermittent supply of Lagos, they have no supply at all. All that oil has meant for these people is pollution and environmental degradation.

As a BBC reporter put it in 2002, "The oil wealth that comes out of Cabinda represents more than $100,000 each year for each resident of the province. A psychological hunger is when your house has view of an oil rig, and you still battle to feed your family each day".

Oil multinationals

Nigeria is rich and the Delta is truly opulent in terms of its raw materials and natural resources. Yet there is not even a trickle down effect to relieve the poverty of the people because this wealth has been stolen. It has been and is being stolen by the oil companies in their systematic plunder of this part of Africa. Since independence it also has been and is being stolen, Mobutu style, by the corrupt elites who have ruled the country.

Anglo-Dutch Shell has been around in the Niger Delta since 1927 and they still account for 50% of the production of Nigerian crude. Since the discovery of large reserves in the 1950s, they have been joined in their plunder by ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, Haliburton, William Brothers, LitwinAgig, Total Fina, Elf Aquitane, Bamboil, Statoil, Dietsman Comerint and SASOL.

Although the Federal Government retains a majority 55% share in the joint venture companies the real power rests with the foreign companies who are the more powerful "partner". Paper agreements on targets for the employment of local workers are systematically ignored. The technical jobs go to foreign workers so that the skills needed to maintain and run the industry are kept outside the country, a hedge against any future threat of outright nationalisation.

The oil giants are a law onto themselves. They employ their own police and security organisations to suppress protests as well as to protect their installations.

Oil discoveries in the Gulf of Guinea and neighbouring countries mean this entire region has a growing strategic importance for Imperialism, especially given the turmoil in Iraq and the instability of the Saudi regime. By next year an estimated 20% of US oil imports are expected to be from Africa.

Apart from Nigeria, which already sends about half of its oil to the US, there have been discoveries in Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome and Chad. The biggest commercial investment in the whole of Africa is a $3.7 billion project by ExxonMobil to build a 1,000 kilometer underground pipeline from Chad, through Cameroon, to the coast. – it is as though Imperialism has plunged a giant syringe into the heart of the continent to extract its wealth.

Oil was the real reason for George Bush’s visit to several African countries, including Nigeria, last summer. The US already have a small military presence in the Gulf of Guinea with a base in Sao Tome but, with their troops becoming bogged down in Iraq and with the memories of their hasty exit from Somalia a decade ago, they would think twice about a direct military intervention in West Africa.

Rather they prefer, at this stage, to court the Nigerian regime and lean on it as a regional superpower to protect the interests of western capitalism in the area. Nigeria may have rotting economic and political foundations, its ill equipped, poorly paid soldiers in Liberia may have spent more time collecting bribes at road blocks and looting than on "peace keeping" duties, but relative to its neighbours it is a military and economic colossus and is the best vehicle available to Bush to protect the interests of his corporate backers.

The US has provided naval boats to the Nigerian navy to protect its coastal waters and, of course, the oil installations. It is prepared to put up money, and push for UN assistance, to help Nigeria send troops to "trouble spots", like Sierra Leone and Liberia. This is all done with a deliberate blind eye turned to the real nature of the Nigerian regime.


The ruling elite are ranked among the world’s "good guys" simply because they are prepared to defend western interests and act as a regional policeman. The corruption, the oppression, the suppression of democratic rights, is forgotten and Nigeria is counted as one of the world’s "democracies" or else as a nation "in transition" to democracy.

In fact the main business of the current "democratic" government, as with the military rulers who up to 1999 had been in power for all but ten of the post independence years, is corruption. The main Ministries at work in Abuja are the Ministries of Fraud, Extortion and Theft. The main role of those in charge is to loot their departments, transferring the money designated for roads, electricity, schools and hospitals into their foreign bank accounts.

Precise figures for corruption and theft are, by the nature of the subject, hard to come by. But the scale is colossal. Paul Collier of Oxford University has estimated that, by 1998, 70% of Nigerians’ private wealth – some $107 billion – was held outside the country. The "democrat" Obasanjo has been forgiving towards his former military colleagues. He has decreed that the hated former dictator Abacha should be allowed to keep $100 million of the money he looted. Babangida, another former military head of state, still holds onto his 50 room mansion in Niger state. And, for the elite now in charge under Obasanjo, "democracy" means a licence to carry on with the business of plunder as usual.

It is little wonder than nothing in Nigeria works. Take oil as an example. 400,000 barrels a day of what is produced is allocated for domestic consumption. Yet Nigeria, the sixth largest oil producer in the world, has to import its fuel. For most Nigerians petrol is only available on the black market, at hugely inflated prices.

The country did build four oil refineries but, through negligence and neglect, they don’t work. Much of the oil allocated for the home consumption ends up on the black market. Some is smuggled into neighbouring African states where it is refined and sold back to Nigeria.

Anyone trying to discover where the oil and the oil revenues have gone will have a difficult job unearthing the truth. One of the few modern skyscrapers on Lagos Island, the commercial heart of the city, is now a blackened burnt out shell. Until it suddenly went up in smoke this was the headquarters of the oil ministry. Offices, equipment, and, of course, records were consumed – perhaps just conveniently, or perhaps deliberately, in the flames.

The present corrupt and autocratic regime gives an elastic meaning to the term "democracy". It is true that, in a first for Nigeria, a civilian government has survived a full term, held an election and entered a second term. Despite this its democratic credentials are wafer thin.

Election rigging

The April 2003 General Election was anything but democratic. There was massive vote rigging. The 99.92% vote for Obasanjo in his own Ogun state, a score that would have put a smile on the lips of Stalin, gives an indication of how the poll was conducted.

In Lagos and Lagos state, members of the Democratic Socialist Movement, sister party of the Socialist Party here, stood as candidates for the National Conscience Party (NCP). The NCP is a radical populist party which stands against corruption and also against privatisation and the other aspects of the neo liberal political consensus. It has huge support among the working class, especially in Lagos. During the election about 6,000, mainly working class youth, were mobilised to work for its candidates.

No-one I spoke to was in any doubt that the NCP won several Senatorial seats in Lagos, among them the Lagos West seat where DSM member, Lanre Arogundade was the candidate. Most people were also convinced that the NCP had emerged as the first party in Lagos State as a whole.

Nothing of this was reflected in the declared result. The NCP have produced documentary evidence of the massive vote rigging. There is nothing too complicated about the method adopted. The sheets giving the real returns were simply replaced with new sheets which gave very different results. The NCP vote was just wiped away. Instead of winning a seat, Lanre was allotted a still significant 77,63 votes, 9.6% of the Lagos West total and came third.

This is "democracy", Obasanjo style. Obasanjo has made his views, and reservations about multi party democracy known: "What more parties have caused is more confusion…I believe that once we have a choice of one or two parties, particularly parties that do not have any ideological differences, that would be better for the country." These views were put into practice in the election by fraudulently removing the votes of parties like the NCP who broke the rules of "democracy" by daring to have "ideological differences".

Nigerian "democracy" means that the government dresses in civilian clothes but uses military methods. This government, headed by an ex- dictator, struts and swaggers like its military predecessors. All military regimes like to build monuments to themselves. So, perched on a hill near the heart of Lagos where it can break the skyline, is the National Theatre, built under the military and absurdly constructed in the shape of an army officers hat!

The Obasanjo regime likewise has its prestige projects. A $330 million national stadium is under construction in Abuja. Shortly after coming to power in 1999 this government launched the Nigeriasati project, Nigeria’s own $94 million space programme. While I was there, the country’s first satellite was in final preparation for launching. Its purpose, apart from military uses, was supposedly for "disaster monitoring". Living in Nigeria there is no need to probe space to uncover disasters. I couldn’t help thinking that a cheaper option would be for the government to open its eyes to the terrestrial chaos surrounding them!

Military government in civilian clothes

In a country like Nigeria, where the majority of the population live at a subsistence level and where things are getting worse, not better, a stable and lasting democracy is impossible on a capitalist basis. Whether a government is made up of the military or of the right wing parties it can have no real roots or basis of support, other than its tribal roots, within society. It can only hold the country together and continue to rule by coercion.

In the first four years of the Obasanjo government the police killed over 4,000 people and the army many more. In October 2001 nineteen soldiers were killed in clashes in Benue State. The army responded by massacring 200 villagers. Obasanjo was later asked, in an interview for a Financial Times survey, whether this could be justified.

He replied: "You don’t expect me to fold my hands and do nothing because tomorrow neither soldiers nor policemen will go anywhere I send them. I sent soldiers. When you send soldiers they do not go there on a picnic."

Asked whether the soldiers, nonetheless, had over reacted, he elaborated: "action and reaction are not always equal and opposite. They are equal and opposite in physics. In human nature reaction is always more than action."

Military intervention is increasingly the only option open to the government as national tensions and conflicts erupt. Nigeria is a huge cauldron of at least 240 national and ethnic groups. It is no surprise that, under the conditions of the growing impoverishment of the mass of the population, bloody inter ethnic conflicts have intensified.

Of the 10,000 killed during the Obasanjo’s first term, the majority were killed in such clashes. The conflict between Christians and Muslims, sparked by the introduction of Sharia law in a number of northern states, has left thousands dead. There have been pogroms against people from minority tribes who have come to live in Lagos.

Most recently, there has been a state of near civil war in the oil producing Warri area of the western Delta. 400 were killed there in fighting between three local ethnic groups at the end of last summer.

Military strong arm tactics – the reflex response of the Federal State – are no answer. Intervention by the navy and army in Warri did not solve anything. Chevron and Shell were forced to evacuate the area and oil operations in the western Delta were reduced by 40%.

What is surprising is not that thousands are dying in bloody ethnic clashes, it is that Nigeria, originally an artificial creation of British Imperialism, has held together for the 44 years since independence. Although there are hundreds of national groups, three dominate; the Yoruba in the south west, the Igbo in the eastern region and the Hausa-Fulani in the north. There have been and are powerful secessionist movements, most notably the bloody Biafran civil war in the 1960s when the Igbo military elite in the eastern region tried to secede and prompted a conflict in which up to a million people died.

Still the country has held together, if only just. The military halter restraining and restricting the rights of the nationalities and minority groupings is a factor. So paradoxically is oil, both the source of much conflict, especially among the tribes in the Delta, but also a constraint on how far the moves of the main groups towards independence have gone.

The problem shared by those among the Yoruba, Hausa or Igbo who harbour ambitions for a separate state is that their traditional territory does not include the Delta region and the oil. Unless a move to secede also somehow became a war of conquest of the Delta, any breakaway state would be a state without oil. The Igbo territory is closest to the Delta, but, during the Biafran conflict, the minority groups there tended to side with the Federal Government because they did not want to place themselves under the heel of an Igbo state.

Nigeria is like a huge unstable mass, constantly quivering on the verge of an explosion that would tear it apart, but held together in an uneasy equilibrium by a balancing act between the elites of the three main nationalities. This can continue in the present chaotic form for some time, but on the basis of a deepening of the economic crisis, the equilibrium can break down.

A break up of the country on a capitalist basis would be a bloody affair. Serious moves by one major group to break away could trigger not one but a series of civil wars. The break up of Yugoslavia might be a political reference point but, given the desperate social conditions, the genocide in Rwanda would be closer to the scale of what might happen.

Capitalism represents horror without end. Nigeria is a vivid confirmation of this fact. But there is another more positive side. Apart from its role in harassing, extorting and repressing the people, there is, to all intents and purposes, no state in Nigeria. People are largely left to themselves to get access to basic necessities. If they want water they have to drill a well to the water table. If they want regular electricity they need to get a generator. And so on.

Yet somehow or other people get by as best they can. The one positive in Nigeria is the pulsating energy and ingenuity of its people. If a way is to be found out of the disaster that imperialism and native capitalism have created in this country it is only the oppressed masses, led by the working class, who can provide it.

Trade union movement

Despite the job losses there is a powerful working class and a still strong trade union movement. The National Labour Congress, the union co-ordinating body, reports a union membership figure of around four million. Although only 10% of the workforce, this is still an achievement given the social conditions and the lack of infrastructure which makes any kind of organisation difficult.

When the organised working class move into action they draw the unorganised and all other oppressed layers behind them. This, and the capacity of the working class to struggle, has been shown repeatedly in the resistance to the neo-liberal attacks of this government.

There have been strikes in most sectors of the economy. Last year university lecturers were on strike for almost seven months and some have come out again this academic year. During my visit there was a bitter and violent dispute with oil workers taking on the foreign corporations over the demand that indigenous labour be employed.

Most significantly there have been three general strikes in a three year period, culminating in the biggest, most solid and successful strike which took place opposing a hike in fuel prices on the eve of Bush’s visit last July. The strike was solid across the country. Factories and offices shut. Transport ground to a halt. Shops closed, even the market traders and countless street vendors gave support. It united working and oppressed people from all the nationalities and ethnic groups, demonstrating the unique ability of the working class to cut across and potentially resolve the otherwise insoluble national problem.

Since then, the government has reneged on promises over fuel prices and the NLC leadership have had to respond to the angry pressure from below and announce two further general strikes, one in October last year, the most recent in January of this year. Both were called off by the NLC leaders at the last moment. They cancelled the October strike for a promise of concessions that did not come. The more recent strike was called off after the government gave a very partial concession on fuel taxes, but with the main issue, the soaring price of fuel, unresolved.

Workers have shown their ability to struggle despite all the obstacles. What they need is a more determined, fighting leadership. They also need a political organisation that can offer an alternative to the right wing policies, not just of Obasanjo, but of all his main rivals.

Democratic Socialist Movement

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) is fighting for a socialist Nigeria, as the only way out of the present economic and social nightmare. In Nigeria the struggle for water, for electricity, for sanitation, for enough to eat is a struggle for socialism. The only way these things can be provided is if the wealth of this country is taken out of the hands of the thieves, domestic and foreign, and placed in the hands of the people. If utilities, resources, major industries and banks were publicly owned and democratically run by the working class it is easy to see how dramatic improvements in social conditions and living standards could very quickly be delivered.

The DSM has been able to build significant support for the idea of a socialist alternative. Its roots in the trade unions, workplaces and communities were even recognised by the NLC leadership who, in dividing Lagos into four organising areas in preparation for the general strike called for last October, placed DSM members in charge of two of these areas.

DSM members are also in the leadership of the National Conscience Party in Lagos, a very important position given the base this party has among the working class and the youth. All this work was reflected in the DSM Conference which I attended. Around 120 delegates and visitors attended, a significant achievement given the difficulties of travel and communication. There were workers, youth, people from different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds and, importantly in a country where women are doubly oppressed, a number of working class women.

Apart from the Conference, I was able to travel and see the work of the DSM on the ground. One public meeting I spoke at – held in the Ajegunle district, one of the most impoverished shanty areas of Lagos – was unforgettable.

The meeting was held outdoors at a street corner just off one of the almost impassable dirt roads that run through the heart of this bustling area. On one side there was waste ground where houses recently destroyed in inter ethnic clashes had not been rebuilt. Strung between two wooden shacks that served as shops was a wire and single light bulb. People on motorbikes, bare footed kids, women carrying food and water passed up and down.

Yet more than 40 people from the district listened in rapt attention to the speakers and the discussion that followed. The meeting was held on the eve of the bin charges battle in Dublin and when I mentioned this campaign there was an immediate and spontaneous round of applause. The idea that workers in the "privileged" West were prepared to struggle was inspirational to this audience. The fact that people in one of the poorest areas of Lagos, most of whose energy has to be taken up with the struggle to survive, are thirsting for socialist ideas should be even more inspiring to working class and young people here.

From Socialist Review, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland.

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April 2004