Nigeria: April election campaigns met with mass indifference

Corruption, gun fights and economic regression

Successive weekends in April will see Nigeria go to the polls for a new president to replace the current President, Olusegun Obasanjo, a new Senate, a House of Representatives, 36 State Governors and 36 State assemblies. The campaign is fast and furious. The nomination process saw gun battles between members of the same political parties. Losing contenders switched parties to get onto ballot papers. Candidates were disqualified on different pretexts.

Just weeks before the first round of presidential voting, on 21 April, it is still not certain who the main candidates will be or if voting will go ahead, as planned. Outgoing president Obasanjo is backing Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, outgoing Katsina State governor and one-time ‘left’. Obasanjo moved might and mane to block the current vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, winning the nomination of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and is now trying to use corruption charges to stop him standing for the opposition Action Congress (AC). There is a legal challenge to Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, running for a second time for the main opposition party, the northern-based, All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP).

All of these parties support the capitalist system. Although Buhari is running as an ‘anti-corruption’ candidate, he is remembered by many activists for vicious repression of trade unions and students during his 1984/5 military dictatorship.

However, there is a striking contrast between the battles of the candidates and the attitude of most Nigerians. The mass of Nigerians view the contest with indifference, not because they do not care about the future, but because these elections, generally, offer them nothing.

Eight years of civilian rule have not fundamentally changed the lives of most Nigerians, apart from ending the most brutal aspects of military rule. To many people, the only real change in 8 years is the widespread introduction of mobile phones. Repression continues. A US State Department’s 2006 report stated Nigerian, “government officials at all levels continued to commit serious abuses… the most significant human rights problems included the abridgement of citizens’ rights to change their government”.

Between 1999 and 2004, an estimated 10,000 Nigerians died, and one million became internal refugees, due to communal clashes and state repression. In Plateau State, over 200,000 fled fighting between February and March 2004.

The Bush administration is concerned about Nigeria because it views West Africa as a new important source of oil in the face of the deepening crisis in the Middle East. Pro-capitalist strategists agree Nigeria is facing potential disaster. Last year, the World Bank listed Nigeria as a “fragile state”. Imperialism fears the destabilising effect of turmoil in Nigeria, which could spread throughout the region and hit oil supplies. So far, the military has not shown signs of taking control again, mainly out of fear that a new coup could lead to the country’s break-up.

Resources-rich Nigeria stagnates

Potentially one of Africa’s richest countries, Nigeria is failing to move forward. In the 50 years since it began exporting oil, Nigerian governments received $400 billion in oil revenue. But where has this wealth gone?

Last year, the World Bank reported 1% of Nigeria’s population received 80% of its annual oil revenue. In 2006, oil income was $36 billion, and its population around 140 million. Therefore, the richest 1,400,000 received nearly $29 billion, an average of $20,700 each, while nearly 139 million people shared just over $7 billion, a $50 average.

However, it is not simply a question of unequal shares. The Nigerian elite generally take the money and runs. Given the imperialist domination of the world economy, they do not even try to be capitalists; rather, they are increasingly looters and speculators. At best, Nigerian industry is stagnant. According to Nigeria’s Central Bank, last year’s industrial capacity utilisation was 25%, and production is falling.

The vast majority of Nigerians gained nothing from the surge in oil prices, unlike the late 1970s and very early 1980s when an oil boom at least led to a temporary improvement in life for many. This oil boom is accompanied by surging inflation, and cutbacks in education and health services. Symbolically, during the election campaign, two of the main presidential candidates, Yar’Adua, and Atiku, were both rushed to Europe for medical treatment when they fell ill. The elite will do all that they can to avoid having to go to a Nigerian hospital.

This is the background to the brutal election struggles. For the elite and would-be elite, elections are an opportunity to secure a position in the state machine and to get rich quick through looting. This is why candidates spend huge amounts on money; often paying people to vote, hoping to ‘profit’ from their ‘investment’. If they are not elected, they, without scruples, decamp to the winning parties or turn to more ‘normal’ criminal activities!

Often voting has little to do with who is declared the winner. An international analysis of Nigerian elections in 2003 estimated “results in a third of the states were rigged and in another third were dubious… as many as ten million voters’ cards had been fraudulently issued”.

Obasanjo, when standing for re-election in 2003, formally won 99.92% in Ogun, his home state. Officially, he won 1,365,367 votes, but, on the same day, his party’s candidate for Ogun State governor got only 747,296 votes. This difference was explained by peoples’ ‘enthusiasm’ to re-elect Obasanjo!

Class alternative can enthuse

The Nigerian working masses and poor can be enthused when they see a real alternative. Between 2000 and November 2004 there were seven general strikes and mass movements against Obasanjo’s policies. These struggles were huge, mobilising the majority behind the trade unions and labour movement. They showed the potential power that could change the country. But the union leaders held back. Repeatedly, struggles were called off, citing minor or non-existent ‘concessions’.

Worsening conditions led to a growing mood for ‘regime and system change’, which became widespread in the mobilisation for a general strike scheduled for November 2004. This terrified the trade union leaders and they called the strike off a few hours before it was due to start. Because of Nigeria’s poor communications, news was slow to get out and the country came to a halt on 16 November, but then workers returned to work. This demoralised the movement, leading to activity dropping off, as millions of Nigerians sought ‘individual solutions’ to the crises facing them and their families. In some areas, especially the oil producing Niger Delta, this boosted separatist forces, with conditions close to civil war developing in these places.

Nevertheless, there is still potential for a movement against the elite. The Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI, Nigeria) has long campaigned for the labour movement to form its own independent political alterative, which would struggle for the working masses’ demands and to change society. This was a theme in the address the DSM was asked to make to February’s conference of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), the largest trade union centre. (See the DSM website: But the union leaders backed away from this step.

A few years ago, the NLC launched a ‘Labour Party’ but it did not really begin to develop until late last year. Then the NLC’s outgoing president, Adams Oshiomhole, announced he would stand as Labour candidate for the Edo State governorship. The DSM called on Oshiomhole to run for the presidency on a workers’ programme and backed his campaign in Edo. However, Oshiomhole later said he would stand as the Action Congress (AC) candidate, which is a big step back, as the AC is one of Nigeria’s three big capitalist parties. Nonetheless, in Edo many workers and poor are enthusiastic about Oshiomhole’s candidature and he has adopted a radical call for a “peoples’ government” and for mass mobilisation against rigging.

The same cannot be said of Labour Party candidates in other parts of Nigeria. This is because they are mostly career capitalist politicians who, having lost nomination battles in their former parties, suddenly declared themselves for Labour!

The DSM was planning to stand in Lagos State on the banner of the radical National Conscience Party. The DSM played an active part in the NCP, since the party’s foundation in 1994, and led it in Lagos, its largest and most active region. However, this campaign was beheaded by a manoeuvre by the NCP’s new right-wing national leadership and the electoral commission.

Ever since the party’s founder, Gani Fawehinmi, stepped down as chair, in 2004, the leadership shifted decisively to the right, doing deals with capitalist politicians. NCP leaders wanted an alliance with Buhari, and the ruling elite, as a whole, did not want a high-profile DSM-led NCP campaign in Lagos. In 2003, despite rigging, the DSM-influenced NCP generally came third in Lagos State, the commercial nerve centre of the country. A leading DSM member, Lanre Arogundade, officially won over 77,000 votes (9.6%) in one of the big Senate constituencies in Lagos.In other Lagos elections; DSM members got up to 15%.

The ruling elite feared the Lagos NCP could become a key force in this city of over ten million.

This means in Lagos, like most of Nigeria, there is no clear alternative offered. The likelihood is that there will be a low election turnout, although a certain late swing towards Buhari as an anti-corruption ‘lesser evil’ cannot be entirely ruled out.

No stability

While it is unclear what will follow the elections, it is certain that there will not be stable or upward development. Already, the IMF confirmed the government plans yet another fuel price rise after the elections, which will further cut living standards.

The experience of another rigged election will put the question of struggle back on the agenda. However, that raises the issue of the labour movement learning from the experiences of 2000-04 and being able, as the DSM argues, to build a real working peoples’ alternative. Without this, Nigeria faces a disastrous future.

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March 2007