The unreported Nigeria – mass struggles by the working class
Following her recent visit to Lagos, Nigeria, Sophie Simcox looks at the situation in the vast country of social and class extremes and the prospects for the growth of a genuine mass working class alternative.
When Nigeria is mentioned in the British press it is usually to report the horrors of Boko Haram’s latest terrorist attack or the – at least for now – successful battle against Ebola. The nightmare that has developed in the North East of Nigeria – with an estimated 13,000 killed by both Boko Haram and state forces over the last five years – is an important element of what is taking place in Nigeria. However, there is another side to Nigeria – the magnificent history of struggle by the Nigerian working class – which is rarely if ever mentioned.
Yet at the start of 2012 the biggest general strike in Nigerian history, and the eighth since 2000, paralysed the country for a week. This strike was against the removal of the fuel subsidy by the government and therefore the dramatic increase in fuel prices– from 65 to 141 naira per litre. The Nigerian economy is literally fuelled by oil – in the first six months of 2014 its income from sales of crude oil was the fourth highest in the world – but such is its economic underdevelopment and corruption that it still relies heavily on fuel imports because of the state of its refineries.
The notoriously unreliable – in fact barely existent – electricity supply means that the price of fuel is not only a matter of how much it costs to fill up the car, but also how much it costs people to light and power their homes via generators. Nigeria’s electricity grid produces only a tenth of the power of South Africa’s, despite its population being three times larger. The major multinational companies make vast profits from Nigerian oil. In 2010, for example, British/Dutch owned Shell’s profits from Nigeria alone were over $8 billion, more than enough to cover the continued cost of the fuel subsidy. Oil wealth has also bought huge riches for a tiny elite at the top of Nigerian society, but has done little to develop society as a whole.
Over three quarters of Nigeria’s vast 170 million population are under 25, with more than 68 million young adults without work. More than half the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. Average life expectancy is only 51 years. According to UNICEF adult literacy rates are barely over half – with only around 60% of children finishing primary school, never mind secondary school or university. Even the millions of young Nigerians who struggle to complete their education there is little prospect of a secure future. In 2013 there were only half a million university places available, yet 1.7 million students had passed all the exams necessary to gain a university place. Even graduate unemployment is running at 40%.
When the great Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, described ‘the combined and uneven development’ of capitalism outside of the most economically developed countries, he cannot have imagined how completely Nigeria today would confirm his analysis. Some of capitalism’s most advanced technology is widely used in society. Mobile phone usage has reached 60%, while 55 million people use the internet. At the same time the fixed phone line system has never been developed – with only 1 in 100 people having a landline. Increasingly middle-class Nigerians own cars, yet the road network barely exists, with car drivers in Lagos and other major cities spending hours every day at a standstill on grid-locked, pot-holed ‘roads’ that are often no more than dirt tracks.
Nigerian manufacturing industry – far from developing – is a shrinking section of the economy. Only 3% of GDP growth came from manufacturing in 2007, compared with 10% in 1983. Thirty seven textile companies alone have closed since 1990.
The 2012 general strike unified and electrified the country. No terrorist attacks took place in the week it was ongoing, and it was common – including in the North East where Boko Haram is based – for Christian strikers to surround Muslim strikers to protect them while they prayed and vice-versa. In the course of the strike an element of workers organising society even developed with a general agreement that small traders could open their shops after 4 pm in the afternoon in order to allow workers’ to purchase basic necessities. The leaders of the two major trade union federations – the NLC and the TUC – called of the general strike after the government decreased the hike in fuel price. The big majority of workers saw this as a defeat – the fuel price had still increased by a crippling thirty naira a litre. In reality the trade union leaders were terrified by the scale and power of the movement they had called into being – which objectively – even if this was not yet fully understood by the majority of participants in the strike, posed the question of the working class in Nigeria taking power and using the enormous riches of Nigeria to begin to develop a democratic socialist planned economy in order to start to meet the needs of the majority.
Unsurprisingly in the aftermath of the defeat of the general strike the level of trade union and class struggle has been low. Nonetheless, there have been some important strikes including prolonged action by university and polytechnic lecturers. Teachers’ trade unions also refused to go back to work until hygiene measures were introduced to prevent the spread of Ebola. There have also been struggles by students against ‘fee hikes’ (increased tuition fees) in which the student wing of the Committee for a Workers International in Nigeria (the Education Rights Campaign) has played a leading role. Importantly one of these struggle – at Lagos State University – has successfully seen the fee hike reversed.
The brutality of the Nigerian workplace – and the often rotten role of the trade union officials – was revealed by one strike that took place when I was in Nigeria. Over one thousand workers at the Linda wig factory came out on strike after one of their workmates died in work. The factory management ran a point system. Any worker who gets 27 points is automatically sacked. The worker who died had 24 points, so had struggled into work despite being critically ill. When he died the management had thrown his body into the street, hoping to escape blame for his death.
All of the workers who marched out on strike in response to this outrage paid union dues via a check-off system. However, a local official for the union concerned seems to have agreed to the point system in return for some ‘reward’ from the management. This is not uncommon. May Day, traditionally powerful in Nigeria, has increasingly become a reflection of the trade union leaders incorporation into ‘the system’. At this year’s May Day celebration in Lagos the trade union leaders brought a giant cake, which they proposed to present to the state governor! For the second consecutive year the Democratic Socialist Movement (the Committee for a Workers’ International in Nigeria) had their leaflets and newspapers confiscated on a number of the May Day marches as part of a general ban on any political material.
The role of the trade union leaders, however, will not hold back struggle indefinitely. The continuing misery facing the majority of Nigerians is preparing the ground for future huge social explosions. Even before the general election, which is taking place in February of next year, the trade union movement has been forced to threaten further general strike action over an attempt to effectively bypass the minimum wage legislation. Even though the 2011 minimum wage increase to 18,000 naira (£ 66) a month has never been implemented in most states, this latest measure is a provocation that the trade union leaders could not ignore. The TUC statement even quotes the example of ‘Professor Sawant’ and the victory for $15Now in Seattle! They do not, however, draw the necessary conclusions about the need to urgently build a political voice for the working class and poor in Nigeria.
Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) Lagos meeting, October 2014
Both trade union federations support the Labour Party, which they say needs to be a party for the working class. In reality, despite originally being initiated by the NLC, the Labour Party now is cut from the same cloth as the other capitalist parties in Nigeria. This was graphically revealed during my visit when the governor of Ondo State, Olusegun Mimiko, left the Labour Party and returned to his previous home, the President’s party – the PDP. The trade union leaders reacted to this announcement, which has effectively turned the Labour Party into little more than a play thing of the PDP, with outrage and refused to recognise the national Labour Party convention being organised, with Mimiko’s support, in Ondo state. If the trade union leaders’ call had been a move towards removing the pro-capitalist politicians from the Labour Party, and building it as a genuine party of the working class, it would have been an enormous step forward. It quickly became clear, however, that they had no power to remove Mimiko’s pro-PDP fellow-travellers and other pro-capitalist elements from the Labour Party. On the contrary, out of a national executive of 100 members only three seats were held by trade union representatives, and these had never been filled!
For a party of the working class
Since its inception the Labour Party in Nigeria has acted to provide a career for capitalist politicians that have failed to make it in the major parties with candidacies being sold to the highest bidder. The failure of the trade union leaders to break with this was rotten method was demonstrated even in their outrage at Mimiko’s defection, with one of their press statements even declaring “there was nothing wrong in parties forming alliances” with pro-capitalist parties, only adding it was going too far for “a governor that has defected to another party [to] sponsor and host the party convention.” Already in the 2011 presidential election the Labour Party backed the PDP candidate Jonathan and its leaders have said for that time that they will do the same again next year.
Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), the Committee for a Workers’ International in Nigeria, has a long, proud history of fighting for the establishment of a genuine mass party of the working class and poor in Nigeria. Most recently we have been campaigning to establish the Socialist Party of Nigeria as a platform for change-seeking workers to contest elections. SPN has successfully met the onerous and undemocratic criteria for registering a political party, including raising the vast one million naira (£ 3,700) ‘processing fee’ which the electoral registration body (INEC) arbitrarily announced after the SPN had launched its campaign to register. Despite meeting all the criteria, however, INEC has refused to register SPN, undoubtedly reflecting the fear of the capitalist elite at the potential for a party like SPN. DSM has now launched a campaign to demand the registration of SPN, alongside SPN taking the battle to the courts. The CWI internationally should do all we can to support the campaign by Nigerian socialists for the right to offer an alternative to the endless corrupt ‘money-bags’ politicians that dominate Nigerian elections.
It seems most likely that the current President, Goodluck Jonathan, will win the general election in February. This would not reflect widespread popular support for him or his party – the PDP – but rather that the PDP has deeper pockets, and a stronger influence on the state machine, than the main opposition party, the APC, whose anti-poor, pro-rich policies are not fundamentally different to those of the PDP. What Nigerians call ‘stomach infrastructure’ (buying votes with free food and other basics) is practised by all the capitalist parties in Nigeria, but most successfully by the PDP. However, the unstable situation means that Jonathan’s victory is not completely certain.
Boko Haram ‘ceasfire’?
The character of the ‘cease-fire’ with Boko Haram is currently unclear. It may be that a ceasefire was agreed with elements in Boko Haram, which other sections of the group have ignored. It is also possible that this was always a pre-election bid for popularity without real facts behind it. Whatever the truth the backlash from the breakdown of a deal could potentially have an effect on the outcome of the general election. Even if some kind of ceasefire agreement is established before the general election, which above all would have to include release of the kidnapped schoolgirls, it would not mark a permanent end to the nightmare developing the in the North East of the country.
Nigeria was created one hundred years ago, like many African countries, to meet the needs of British imperialism. The over 250 different ethnic groups that make up Nigeria were given no say in the matter. When Nigeria finally won independence in 1960, British imperialism attempted to protects its own economic and political interests by pursuing a ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy leaning on the feudal elite in the mainly Muslim north of the country. It was more than three decades after independence before a southerner became President. Some elements of the northern elite are not unhappy to see the current Southern president undermined by the military success of Boko Haram. At the same time the extreme poverty in the mainly rural North East of the country – where three quarters of the population live below the poverty line– creates conditions where desperate youth can turn to the ideas of Boko Haram, especially given the lack of an alternative and the vicious brutality they face from Nigerian state forces.
Another factor in Boko Haram currently holding an area with a population of about 10 million is the demoralisation in the Nigerian army. Scores of soldiers have been sentenced to death for ‘mutiny’ and ‘treason’ as a result of their unwillingness to fight ill-equipped against a relatively well-armed force (much of its arms taken from the Nigerian military).
Beyond the general election all of the class and social contradictions in Nigerian society will become sharper. Further fuel price hikes have already been mooted. If the world oil price continues to fall this will speed up and intensify the attacks by the Nigerian elite on the working class and poor masses. The response will be a renewed and mighty struggle of the Nigerian working class. The need for Nigerian workers to organise and fight for trade union leaders that actually fight in the interests of the working class is urgently posed, as is the need for workers to find their own political voice.
On the other side the shrinking of the trough from which the elite is gorging itself would also lead to an increase in national and ethnic tensions between different sections of the elite, as they fight over who gets the biggest chunk of the pie. After sixteen years of democracy, albeit of an extremely truncated and corrupt character, the capitalist class would not easily return to military rule, not least because of their fear of the terrible consequences of a new civil war. However, such is the unstable character of Nigerian capitalism, this cannot be ruled out at a certain stage; possibly with a democratic ‘covering’.
However, the working class is potentially the most powerful force in Nigerian society, and will have opportunities to transform society. Socialist ideas, currently the preserve of a minority, can gain mass support on the basis of workers’ experience of the brutality of capitalism in Nigeria, combined with the campaigning of socialists. Only if the working class and poor takes the enormous wealth and natural resources of Nigeria into its own hands will it be possible to build a society that meets the needs of all. On this basis it would also be possible to for the democratic and national aspirations of all religious and ethnic minorities to be genuinely met instead of, as at the moment, being used cynically as the tools of the different sections of the Nigerian elite desperate to further their own interests.