May Day in Nigeria: Jonathan government intensifies attacks on democratic rights

15 DSM members arrested at May Day rallies

The report of Democratic Socialist Movement members’ participation in this year’s May Day is dominated by the story of arrest of comrades, or threat of it, at a number of rallies nationwide. This is not accidental. We were the only group that went to many May Day rallies with materials critical of the corrupt and anti-poor government at a period when its intolerance of dissenting views is reaching a fever pitch. Indeed, we were the only socialist group that was present at most of the rallies where we intervened. Against the background of the increasing insurgency in the north, the past few months have witnessed President Goodluck Jonathan’s government using Boko Haram to justify a growing descent into civilian dictatorship with brutal attacks on democratic rights throughout the country. But as the report from Oyo state reveals President Jonathan is not the only culprit. A good number of the state governors could rival the President in the clampdown on opposing views.

A worker making enquiry at our stand in Lagos, photo DSM

However, this is not the first time our comrades have been arrested at the May Day rallies since the 1999 return to civil rule over our messages and demands against anti-poor government. In 2006 it was workers that physically wrested and freed Demola Yaya and Eko John Nicholas from the grip of police at the main May Day rally in Abuja. Then they were about to be taken away by the police, led the Abuja’s Commissioner of Police Lawrence Alobi, when the workers intervened. The police chief considered the inscription and caption on the DSM banner and paper respectively on the infamous third term ambition of the then President Olusegun Obasanjo very offensive. The message on the banner read, "3rd Term: Obasanjo Again? No Way! For a Mass Working Peoples Party Now To End All Anti-Poor Policies".

This year we set out to intervene in Abuja and 13 states cutting across North-west, South-west, Niger Delta, North-central and South-east parts of the country. We planned to take the advantage of May Day to reach out to workers with the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) as part of the membership drive for the party in addition to popularizing socialist alternative to manifold crises of capitalism in Nigeria. Today Nigeria workers, youths and the poor do not have a party. The Labour Party, formed and then effectively dumped by NLC, has completely become another anti-poor pro-establishment party run on a "cash and carry" basis with political merchants and mercenaries in its leadership. While we continue to campaign for a mass working peoples’ party running a socialist programme we of DSM have come up with the initiative of SPN as a party to represent the interest of workers, youths and the poor in elections and identify with them in their daily struggles against capitalist attacks.

Armed with Socialist Democracy (SD, the paper of DSM), SPN leaflets, SPN banners, SPN Manifesto, we went to the May Day rallies. One of the leaflets which had been originally produced for the intervention at the aborted April 10 protest against pension fraud and corruption and titled, "Bring down this Government of Looters", unsettled the security operatives. Acting to the mood of their Commander in Chief, who does not brook opposition, such materials would not only be disallowed at the rallies but the comrades also had to be whisked away. As the report from Abuja reveals, it was not only the leaflet that is considered "seditious". Placards with different demands and slogans were also seized from workers as everybody was being searched before going into the Eagle Square, the venue of the May Day Rally. The SSS (State Security Service) operatives in Kaduna also attributed the arrest of comrades in the state to the SD (our paper) with the bold headline on pension fund scam.

In all, comrades were arrested in Abuja, Kaduna, Niger, Anambra, Oyo and Imo States. We also were harassed by security operatives in Lagos and Osun states. Comrade Victor was chased out of the venue of the May Day rally in Delta and threatened with arrest. Good enough, he had been able to distribute some copies of the leaflet before the SSS operatives came calling. Indeed, somebody called to join SPN from the state having read the leaflet. We did not have incidents in River, Ekiti and Ondo states. Indeed in Ondo state four of 10 copies of SPN manifesto sold were bought by security operatives! The comrade who was supposed to go to Kwara could not make it for unavoidable reason and sent the materials to a supporter in the state who could not get them until after the May Day event.

It took pressure from comrades and supporters locally and internationally on authorities to secure the release of comrades arrested in Abuja, Kaduna and Anambra. Those in Kaduna and Anambra spent night in the detention. Francis in Anambra was actually arraigned before a magistrate court on seditious charges before being granted bail and matter adjourned till June 12. The Anambra state commissioner of police, overwhelmed by the protest calls and text messages, promised to withdraw the case at the adjourned date. We have to resume the protest action as the day approaches. Comrades in Oyo, Niger and Imo were released after the May Day event had been rounded off. Some of comrades arrested in Oyo were not allowed to be taken away out of the venue by some labour, civil society and student activists. Three of Oyo comrades have been asked to report again to State Security Service Headquarters on Friday May 10 for the fourth time since their arrest on May 1.

Three of the reports are essentially prison notes. The rotten alliance between labour leaders and state governors at the expense of interest of workers is a common feature in some of the reports. This has been the character of the May Day in Nigeria at least in the last one decade. We could not capture the main event at Abuja, particularly the mood of workers, because of the arrest of comrades at the "point of entry". Media reports revealed instances of the cosy relationship between the President and labour leaders, who did not however forget to lace their speeches with usual hot air. There was also exchange of banters on corruption and pension fraud between the President and labour leaders.

The theme of this year May Day was "One Hundred Years of Nationhood: The Challenges of National Development" to mark the centenary of the then British colonial rulers amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates on January 1, 1914 which led to the creation of what is today called Nigeria. This event will throw again to front burner of the national discourse the country’s unresolved nationality questions. We of the DSM shall effectively join the debate with socialist alternative to the crisis of nationhood in Nigeria. There is indeed plan to publish a book in this respect.

Despite the clampdown by the security operatives we achieved one of the objectives of the intervention which is to make new supporters and activists for the party, something we were especially able to do in Rivers state. However given the arrests of DSM comrades and the current downbeat mood among workers, sales of our paper Socialist Democracy were down on last year. Nevertheless, we were able to sow socialist ideas across the country which in time shall germinate and blossom into material force. At least 15, 000 copies of the SPN leaflets were circulated.

Find more reports on the regional May Day celebrations and battles in Nigeria here

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