Opportunities will arise for working class and poor to organise
The following document on sub-Saharan Africa was initially drafted in December 2015 and finalised after discussion and amendment at the CWI’s 11th World Congress held in January 2016.
The very successful week-long meeting was attended by CWI comrades from 34 countries, with delegates and visitors from east and west Europe and Russia, Africa, all parts of Asia, North and Latin America, Australia and the Middle East.
Africa stands before a new period of mass turmoil and revolutionary struggle. Already recent years have witnessed the overthrow of long standing dictatorial or authoritarian regimes as in Tunisia, Egypt and, more recently, the Burkina Faso revolution, protests against attempts to prolong unpopular leaders’ tenure in office as in Burundi, movements against oppression and austerity in Sudan and elsewhere, workers’ strikes to win concessions as in Kenya and South Africa and struggles to win positive reforms like the recent massive student anti-fee movement in South Africa. Even though in Burkina Faso Kaboré, a former prime minister in the Compaoré regime, has now been elected president this is not the end of the revolution. Workers and youth, many of whom are being radicalised by the left wing legacy of Thomas Sankara’s rule, would have drawn confidence from Compaoré’s overthrow and the defeat of the September 2015 attempted counter-coup and will not accept a simple re-imposition of anything reminiscent of the old regime. While, in Burundi, Nkurunziza succeeded in being re-elected for a third presidential term this election has not ended the protests and unrest which has killed hundreds. A civil war is not ruled out in that country.
The worsening economy will, in many countries, sharpen the already burning issue of corruption, especially the question of where did the money earned in the prosperous years go? The victory of presidential candidates popularly seen as “non-corrupt” in Nigeria and Tanzania reflect this. Such individuals may have a period of grace before they are faced with demands from below but the masses’ expectations cannot be easily ignored.
However implicit in countries like Burundi is the danger of disintegration along ethnic, religious and national fault lines if the working class does not come to lead a united struggle for change and breaking with capitalism. Much international attention has been given to the growth of Boko Haram’s growth has captured much attention, particularly after the kidnapping of over 200 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014 and its expansion beyond Nigeria. But it is important to remember that it did not dare to carry out any attacks during Nigeria’s biggest ever mass movement, the mighty January 2012 anti-fuel hike protests and general strike.
However, in the absence of the working class leading the mass of the population in struggle or where struggles have been defeated, reaction and counter-revolution can take the form of the continuing ethnic, religious and national conflicts seen in west Africa with Boko Haram, the renewed fighting around the eastern borders of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Great Lakes, Southern Sudan, east Africa as well as with Boko Haram. Generally these conflicts do not limit themselves to the colonial drawn boundaries, something seen in the growing Islamist insurgency around the southern edge of the Sahara and in east Africa.
Clashes between rival national ruling classes also continue, although not currently on the scale of “Africa’s World War”, the conflict in central Africa sparked off by the 1994 killing of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in which between four to five million perished. Nevertheless all these wars have resulted in 10,000s of causalities and millions of refugees.
The limits and reality of “Africa rising”
These events are taking place as Africa is gripped by deepening, turmoil as it faces a slowing world economy, a collapse in many raw material prices, climate change and rapid population growth. While a very few countries, like Kenya, have temporality gained from falling fuel prices they are still at the mercy of the unstable international economy. Generally the worsening economic situation heralds falling standards and less hope for the future. In many countries this will sharpen the already burning question of what has happened to the vast resources in the continent, particularly in countries like Nigeria that have earned petrol dollars. Many of the recent movements against sitting leaders have been driven by a burning desire to oust corrupt rulers.
The world economic slowdown, and in particular the plunging prices of raw materials, is already hitting the continent hard and dramatically pushing a series of countries into crisis. While world interest rates are still low, falling export revenues are threatening to open up a new debt crisis. The World Bank and IMF still expect Africa’s 2015 economic growth to be around 3.7%, the lowest since 2009, and below some estimates of the population growth. In some countries like Nigeria population growth will mean that GDP per capita will fall.
Rapid population growth, alongside climate change and in some areas the spread of desert, is adding to Africa’s volatile mix. The continent has a booming, youthful population predicted to increase from around 1 billion now to 2 billion by 2050 and 4 billion by the end of this century. Along with this there is also rapid urbanisation, currently around 40% of Africans live in urban areas and this is predicted by the UN to rise to 60% by 2050. A century ago of all African cities only Cairo had a population of over a million, now there are 50 with at least that number and the UN expects a further 43 to cross the million person mark by 2030. Lagos is currently the largest with about 21 million, making it, jointly with three others, the fourth biggest city in the world. Such ‘megacities’ can start to develop their own separate identities and increasing numbers of Lagos’ inhabitants see themselves as Lagosians, although that does not mean that it is immune from ethnic or religious tensions.
While naturally there are differences between situations in each country generally the recent claims that on a capitalist basis Africa is “rising” have been shown to be superficial and temporary. Even pro-capitalists have been forced to accept that the economic “progress made earlier this century was largely driven by windfall gains from high commodity prices” (Financial Times, October 27, 2015), and now that has been undermined.
This new slowdown is undermining the hopes of millions, especially in countries like Ghana, that new found raw material wealth would fundamentally change the lives of themselves and their families. There were always strong elements of propaganda in the pro-capitalists’ claims that the African middle class had rapidly expanded, claims often based on a very basic, low expectation of what qualified as “middle class”. Thus in 2014 the African Development Bank (AfDB) argued that the number of “middle class” Africans had risen from 115 million in 1980 to 326 million in 2010. However its definitions were very modest to say the least, its total was made up what it called a “floating class” of 200 million living on between $2 and $4 a day, an 82 million strong “lower middle” getting between $4 and $10 a day and a “middle class” on $10 to $20 a day.
The common highlighting of the explosion of mobile phone ownership does not, for the vast majority, mean an immediate increase in income and wealth. Giving the other side of the picture the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) reported in late 2015 that the number of “poor people” in Africa had increased from 291 million in 1990 to almost 389 million in 2012. A series of statistical GDP revisions to countries’ GDP figures, like in Kenya and Nigeria, saw big increases but these were largely on paper. Being told you were richer does not change living standards particularly when, for instance, South Africa, the second biggest economy on the continent, is one of the most unequal countries in the world.
For a significant number of fortunate Africans an important part of their income comes from remittances sent to them from family and friends working overseas, a sum which is now formally around $40 billion a year, before taking into account informal transfers. This is, of course, the absolute opposite of the elite who smuggle their often ill-gotten wealth out of the continent. While the absolute amount remitted is big for countries like Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt, it is the smaller, poorer countries that are more dependent on them as these transfers make up a significant proportion of their GDP, maybe 40% in Somalia, 38% in Eritrea, 26% in Liberia and 23% in Burundi. However economic slowdown in the host countries and increased competition for work from newly arrived migrants can both reduce what is sent back.
As in most capitalist nations in those African countries which saw recent economic growth, like Angola and Mozambique, there was a massive polarisation of wealth, usually with those elements close either to the regimes, finance or international companies especially benefitting. The end of the boom, however, hits workers and the poor hardest as they pay the price for the new crisis. In 2013 the Angolan government funded 70% of state spending through oil exports, but in 2015 this was halved to 37% and the state budget was cut by a quarter. This crisis has seen the slashing of jobs and now basic goods are in short supply. Discontent is brewing and protests have been met with increased repression by the authoritarian MPLA regime. Angola is not alone, there are similar situations developing in several other commodity exporting countries.
Despite all its human and natural resources the continent is still the most underdeveloped and is more directly dominated by imperialism than parts of Asia or Latin America. This, and the heavy preponderance of raw material exports, is a key factor in the ruling classes’ looting of the state and their “take the money and run” philosophy. The inability of capitalism to develop Africa in a rounded way is seen in the general trend of the local capitalists to invest in finance, property or in products that can be immediately sold locally like foodstuffs, building materials, rather than longer term investments that would bring them into competition with the international monopolies. They generally are compradors, local allies and agents of imperialism, not seriously trying to develop their own nation state, instead having a rentier or client character. Usually raw material extraction is, at best, done in collaboration with foreign investors. In some cases, like textiles, local industries have been almost completely undermined by Chinese and other Asian based competition. Even when there is some development of local facilities it is usually limited to assembly plants, for example of CKD (Completely Knocked Down) vehicle kits which are put together locally with only minimal local content. The African ruling classes’ lack of confidence in developing their own countries, and looting, is shown in the $ 50 billion annual illicit outflow of funds from the continent.
While now the commodity-driven new ‘scramble for Africa’ has hit a serious setback, rival imperialisms remain set on expanding in Africa in the medium-to-long term. In a world of anaemic growth, Africa’s riches in mineral, land and cheap labour power, along with its growing population of possible consumers mean the continent, despite the poverty of the majority of its inhabitants, will continue to attract some of the capitalists who are desperately short on profitable avenues for investment and sales. This imperialist attraction to Africa will not lead to the continent ‘rising’ as a saviour of world trade or end poverty. While the recent commodity boom-and-bust did not result in any leap in industrialisation, it sharpened class contradictions, as most of the benefit went to imperialism and their local allies.
New rivalries in Africa, economic and strategic
Recent years have seen new foreign interventions in Africa. Most have been by Britain and France, the former major colonial powers, or under the AU or UN flag. While often taking place under a “humanitarian” banner of ending civil wars or dealing with disasters like Ebola, they are generally aimed at securing friendly, pro-capitalist governments and investors’ interests. However this does not mean that these ruling classes do not seek to promote their own national interests, sometimes at the expense of their rival imperialists. The result is continuing competition between the rival imperialist powers for influence and profit. Thus as part of its own policy of increasing involvement in Africa the German government announced, after the November 2015 terror attack in Paris and as “help for France”, a large increase in German soldiers based in Mali where French troops have been since 2013 fighting Toureg and Islamist groups.
At the same time, the US and most recently China, have also been strengthening their positions in Africa. The US has expanded its military position with now 20 military missions in the continent, three drone bases and a major military base in Djibouti. The formation in 2007 of Africom (United States Africa Command), significantly headquartered in Germany not in Africa, marked a stepping up of US military activity in the continent as it brought under its wing specifically designated “African” US army, air force, marine and naval units.
Chinese influence has expanded on the basis of a rapid growth of trade and investment. In 1990 half of all African trade was with Europe, but by 2008 it was 28%, while trade with Asia had doubled to equal the European total. Between 2000 and 2014 Chinese trade with Africa grew from about $10 billion to $222 billion and since 2009 China has been the continent’s top trading partner.
Overwhelmingly China sells manufactured goods and chemicals to Africa at the same time as it is also deeply engaged in construction. The many Chinese-funded large-scale infrastructure development projects, such as roads, dams, ports and railways, serve multiple purposes for the Chinese regime and corporations – most immediately, they facilitate extraction of the raw material, but they also provide some escape from the problems of the domestic construction sector. The allegedly ’progressive’ development offered by China also serves to strengthen political bonds to African regimes.
While there has been Chinese investment in production in Africa to take advantage of the lower wages, and sell to the local market, this has been limited. More than 85% of Chinese imports from Africa are commodities and raw materials. However now the value of these imports to China is falling, partly because of lower prices and also because of the slowdown in the Chinese economy is reducing demand.
In the first 9 months of 2015 there was an annualised 17% fall in the volume of Chinese iron ore imports from Africa, The Chinese slowdown has also cut back Chinese loans for African infrastructure projects. While still remaining Africa’s largest single lender, the total fell to $3.1 billion in 2014 compared to an average of $13.9 billion annually between 2011 and 2013. At the December 2015 China-Africa summit held in Johannesburg China pledged a further $60 billion for Africa but how much of this is “new” money or repeating past promises is not clear.
In Africa there is a mixed attitude towards the Chinese investment and trade. Development projects are welcomed by African regimes but there is concern due to the impact of Chinese competition on local industries like textiles, the generally harsh conditions in Chinese owned local businesses and the importation of Chinese workers to work on projects.
The rivalry between the world’s powers in Africa is not only economic. There is a developing contest for strategic influence. Djibouti is getting considerable income from hosting foreign military forces and now China is joining France, Japan and the US, in establishing a permanent military presence there, in this case a naval “support facility”. While China is stating that this will not be the same kind of bases that France and the US have, it will be China’s first ever military facility in any foreign country.
A further reason for the European powers’ renewed interest in Africa is how to stop, or at least severely limit, the flow of refugees and migrants from or via Africa to Europe.
Struggles against repression
The fact is that the world economic situation is worsening the situation of tens of millions after most only very partially benefitted from the boom times. The countries first hit are those dependent on raw material exports, others like oil importing Kenya benefited from falling prices etc. But Kenya, and others, is not immune from the impact of a slowing world economy and a fall in its currency’s value which is starting to fuel inflation in Kenya.
Generally Africa has no stable capitalist democracies. Most have limited democratic rights and varying degrees of bonapartism in the state structures. Even in South Africa, relatively the most stable, Zuma has sort to promote and lean upon unelected tribal chiefs while the police, as brutally displayed in Marikana, can be just as repressive as under Apartheid rule. The fundamental reason for this is that the weakness of capitalism in Africa does not allow consistent improvements in living standards and maintenance of democratic rights to last as long as they can in the major imperialist countries. This means that, even where mass pressure and struggle has won reforms and concessions, these gains can soon come under attack and be undermined, if not reversed.
Notwithstanding the example of “peaceful” transfer of power in Nigeria’s election last year, dictatorial and “sit-tight” rule still dominate Africa. On the whole, there are at least 10 brutal dictators on the continent who between them have spent nearly three centuries in power. One of them, 91-year old Robert Mugabe, is at 35 years in power one of the world’s oldest and long-serving rulers. The recent constitutional manoeuvre by Paul Kagame, ruler of Rwanda, who organized a referendum to secure new terms that potentially could see him rule till 2034, add to this growing list of sit-tight leaders. While the situation there is still developing, suffice to note that this manoeuvre in a country with a brutal past of genocide could constitute a tipping point for crisis in the near future. The growing opposition to the attempts to extend the often semi-disguised dictatorial rule of an elite are extremely significant, but working people need their own independent movement to ensure that one ruling clique is not replaced by a rival grouping.
Africa has seen waves of struggle, often movements in one country have inspired revolts and revolutions in other countries. But without a programme that draws the lessons from the past experiences of struggle, both in Africa and globally, the gains have been temporary or partial at best.
In the early 1990s, inspired by the South African struggle against the Apartheid regime and what was seen as the ousting of totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, dictatorial or semi-dictatorial regimes were overthrown or forced to retreat in a series of African countries including Benin, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Madagascar, Malawi, Togo and Zambia. But in all these cases, while some democratic rights were won and old leaders replaced, their fundamental class structure was not changed. Not all the struggles were successful, the mighty “June 12” movement in Nigeria in 1993 and 1994 was ultimately defeated because those leading the mass protests and general strike did not have a clear strategy to overthrow military rule.
The “June 12” struggle was one of many examples in Africa of where mighty movements and indeed revolutions did not achieve their objectives or, if they did, the gains proved to be temporary. Generally this was not because of the weakness of the working class and poor. While the working class in African countries is still, despite rapid urbanisation, a minority in society it has enormous potential to lead the mass of society, particular the youth, the poor and the downtrodden. In many countries when the working class and labour movement act they can draw the broader downtrodden masses into action. The urban poor can struggle, although it is decisively important how that struggle is organised and particularly the role of socialists and the workers’ movement to help the development of a collective consciousness that links their struggles with a movement against capitalism. Youth, not only students and school students but young people generally, can also play a decisive role in helping stimulate and strengthen broader movements.
Programme – ending the legacy of Stalinism
However to secure a way out of the catastrophe facing the continent struggle has to be organised around a programme of what to do. The programme and method of the permanent revolution remains decisive in Africa both in terms of the political programme dealing issues posed within countries and internationally, where a successful revolution in one country can have a huge effect on neighbouring countries, including bigger ones.
For decades Stalinist ideas had dominated the left in many African countries. On the one hand opposition to colonialism and imperialism alongside the development of the Soviet Union, China and later Cuba, all contributed to a popular support for “socialism”. These states were widely seen as ‘allies’ in opposition to imperialism and its stooges on the continent, something strengthened by the decisive role Cuban troops played in helping defeat the Apartheid regime’s 1987/8 invasion of Angola. This popular support was one factor during the “cold war” enabling some African leaders to distance themselves from western imperialism by playing off one world power against another. Those who looked to either the Soviet Union or Maoist China adopted “socialist” phraseology, although the measures they took did not fundamentally end the capitalist character of their economies. However as their own internal crises mounted the Stalinist states’ leaders became more and more unwilling to take on supporting more states like they had with Cuba since the early 1960s. Thus, in 1982, when Ghanaian left wingers within Rawlings’ second military regime went to Moscow to seek economic support they were told to ask the western powers.
In Africa, as in many other parts of the world, the collapse of the Stalinist states from the end of the 1980s onwards resulted in a swing to the right in the workers’ movement. In Africa it also meant the undermining in many countries of the idea, albeit often in a distorted form, of an alternative, “socialist”, path to development.
During its height Stalinism’s influence within the workers’ movement paved the way for use of seemingly “Marxist” phraseology to justify alliances that effectively subjugated the working class and poor to political domination by so-called “progressive” bourgeois or petit bourgeois politicians. This ‘stages theory’ resulted in a refusal to build a movement aiming to rapidly break with capitalism because that would have meant an end to the alliance with the “progressive” capitalists. This approach, fundamentally the same as the Mensheviks in the 1917 Russian Revolution and the exact opposite of the approach of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, led to many lost opportunities, defeats and, combined with the top-down methods of most Stalinist influenced leaders, to stultifying the workers’ movement.
Although today Stalinism as an organised force is much, much weaker the approach they defended of, fundamentally, subordinating the movement of the workers and poor to alliances with pro-capitalist liberals and reformers remains ever-present within the continent’s workers’ movement and amongst some on the left. While there can be episodic joint action with pro-capitalist elements on concrete issues like fighting reaction, democratic rights, workplace issues etc. this cannot be at the expense of striving to build a politically independent, socialist movement of workers, the poor and youth aiming to change society. Marxists seek to win support, like the Bolsheviks in 1917, for the programme of the working class and poor coming to power, as opposed to the idea of coalition with pro-capitalist forces to “defend the revolution” or to “secure progress”; policies which safeguard capitalism and can open the door to new periods of reaction unless challenged by a revolutionary policy.
Especially in Africa a socialist programme cannot only deal with the broad political and economic issues. The question of how to overcome ethnic and religious divisions as, for example, seen in the recent Côte d’Ivoire election, is a vital question alongside those of programme and building a working class based movement.
The fact that the CWI has a base and a tradition in two of the key African countries, Nigeria and South Africa, is of immense importance. At the same time the start of CWI activity in Francophone and Arabic speaking African nations over the past five years is a significant step forward.
The last three months of 2015 saw the ANC government subjected to the most humiliating defeats of its twenty-one years in office; the first inflicted on it by the magnificent October ‘Fees must fall’ student uprising; the second in December by the capitalist class, taking advantage of the generalised revulsion against the Zuma regime in society. The early 2016 victories for the ‘outsourcing must fall’ movement were another retreat by the government in the face of opposition, this time from the working class.
Prior to this the 2012 Marikana massacre was a turning point which still echoes in South Africa. The shooting, with all its memories of the Apartheid state, and the ANC leaders’ defence of the police action, brutally marked how far the ANC had moved to the right. This development is of key significance not just for South Africa but the entire continent as South Africa is the most developed African country, with the strongest organised working class and with, at this time, the most developed socialist consciousness.
Like other pro-capitalist leaders of national liberation movements the ANC leaders used the victory over the Apartheid regime to try, generally with success, to become part of the ruling class.
This inevitably brought them into conflict with their base especially because the bedrock of the ANC’s struggle from the mid-1970s onwards had been the South African working class and youth.
This struggle saw the building of what was one of the world’s strongest and most radical revolutionary movements. Large numbers of the activists within this movement adopted socialist ideas in what was correctly seen as not just a struggle for democratic rights, but one for social liberation.
However, while the Apartheid regime was defeated, capitalism was stabilised on the basis of the then tremendous authority of Mandela and ANC, the end of state racism, winning of democratic rights plus some concessions. While already in the negotiations before his 1990 release from prison Mandela had made clear that he was seeking democratic rights and reforms but not the overthrow of capitalism, it took time before the demands for more radical action were side lined, something enormously aided by the huge enthusiasm of the ANC’s 1994 election victory and Mandela’s subsequent election as president. The Cosatu and SACP leaders, allied with the ANC in the ‘Triple Alliance’, played an important supporting role in probably one of the last “classic” examples of the misuse of quotations from Marx and Lenin to justify the Stalinist ‘stages theory’ that the working class movement should limit its programme to building a modern capitalism before any idea of overthrowing capitalism.
Although this was criticised by some on the left of the workers’ movement, for a whole period the ANC leaders were able to rely on mass support while carrying out pro-capitalist polices.
But, even before Marikana, experience was beginning to undermine the acceptance of this idea as, despite the ANC being in government, the old power structure had barely changed despite the emergence of a few black millionaires and a slightly larger black middle class. Large sections still suffer poverty; officially unemployment is around 25% but in reality more like 35% with around 50% of youth jobless. The 2011 census showed that the average white family’s income was six times higher than a black family’s. The London Guardian put it very mildly “ordinary South Africans feel they have been short-changed”, many workers and youth would put it far more sharply.
Already in 2007 this was reflected when the then sitting president Mbeki was replaced as ANC’s 2009 presidential candidate by Zuma who then had trade union and youth backing. Now the disappointment and anger with the corrupt Zuma and his rotten regime is even deeper than it was with Mbeki. There is the prospect that the ANC’s electoral support will, despite its historic role, will soon formally fall below 50%. However, while the ANC won over 62% in the 2014 election this has to be seen against the background of a turnout of only 54% of all those eligible, whether registered or not, to vote. In other words the ANC won the support of around a third of South African adults.
Now the economy, one of the many hit by the Chinese slowdown, appears to be staggering on the edge of recession. A doubling of government debt to nearly 50% has placed the economy on the edge of a fiscal cliff. In the previous recession in 2009 a million jobs were lost and were not replaced in the slow recovery afterwards. The South African Reserve Bank, having already increased interest rates incrementally, will in all likelihood be forced to ratchet them up more drastically as the Rand, the worst performer of all emerging market currencies, continues to tank. Over the last year alone, the Rand has lost a third of its value against the US$. The slowdown in China, South Africa’s biggest trading partner, has impacted severely on an economy whose commodity exports account for 60% of foreign exchange earnings. According to some analysts, the metal and engineering industry could be wiped out in less than six months, with as many as 200,000 jobs on the line. A declining Rand and the worst drought since 1992 means South Africa will have to import more than half of its maize needs, worsening the balance of payments and budget deficit and increasing the risk of the credit rating being reduced to junk. With 12m going to bed hungry every night, food shortages and further price increases — already doubled over the past year – could lead to food riots. The turmoil around Zuma’s December 2015 attempt to install a more pliable finance minister and his subsequent rapid retreat under fire from both the capitalists and ANC rivals has weakened Zuma’s position and opened the way for serious attempts to carry out more neo-liberal policies.
The experience of over twenty years of ANC government carrying out pro-capitalist policies, especially Marikana and the corruption scandals around Zuma, has led to tensions within the so-called “Triple Alliance” and open divisions and splits within the trade unions, one result being the expulsion from the Cosatu federation of the metalworkers, Numsa, the largest South African union.
In this situation the idea of a workers’ party came to the fore. Already in 1993, before the ANC’s 1994 election victory and reflecting the more radical layers’ unease at the ANC leadership’s rightward development, the fourth congress of the metalworkers’ union Numsa stated that workers needed to be independent from the new government and called for the working class to develop an independent programme on how to advance to socialism. This, the congress declared, could take the form of a working class party. However this decision remained a paper one for years as the Numsa leaders continually refused to take concrete steps, even after Marikana massacre. This also reflected that while the Numsa leadership has broken politically with the South African Communist Party (SACP), it is still tied to it ideologically and adheres to what amounts to a ‘two-stage’ conception of the revolution, of first building an advanced capitalist economy before breaking with capitalism. The Numsa leadership’s complaint is that the SACP has abandoned the ‘national democratic revolution’ and that getting to socialism requires a “radical” implementation of the Freedom Charter. But what they do not see is that the pro-capitalist polices of the ANC government flows precisely from the fact that they are working within the capitalist system.
The continuing influence of the SACP’s traditions is reflected also in the Numsa leadership’s determination to exercise complete control over all structures and even ideas of the Movement for Socialism, United Front and the workers’ party they pledged to create at their historic special national congress in 2013 where they broke from the ANC, SACP and Cosatu. After two years of procrastination the Numsa leadership may have lost the opportunity to take the initiative to actually start to build an independent workers’ alternative.
Especially after Marikana there were huge possibilities for a workers’ party, something which was seen in the initial response to the call for and launch of WASP. However the Numsa leadership continued to make left sounding statements but not acting, they rejected the offer that to “take over” WASP. Instead they even refused to make any recommendation on which way their 330,000 plus membership should vote in the May 2014 general election.
The potential for a workers’ party was reflected in national survey held between February and March 2014 that found that a third of South Africans definitely thought that “a new political party,” a workers’ or labour party, “will assist with current problems facing SA”. Amongst the fully employed the answers were 30% “definitely” and 39% “maybe”. Just after Marikana a Cosatu financed survey of 2,000 shop stewards “found that Cosatu shop stewards want nationalisation, they have no confidence in the South African Communist Party, and they want Cosatu to form a labour party.” (Daily Maverick, December 12, 2012) and 67% said they would vote for such a party.
But, with a small cadre, WASP was unable to concretise that potential and without an initiative from Numsa and other left unions Malema, the former ANC youth leader, stepped into the vacuum and launch the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in July 2013, seven months after the initial appeal to form WASP had been made.
Within months of being formed the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with a radical sounding programme, a history of (recent) opposition to Zuma and, despite corruption allegations against Malema, won well over a million votes (6.35 percent) and secured 25 of the 400 MPs in the May 2014 elections. While the EFF has made a big impact with its activities within and outside parliament, there has been a marked shift to the right in its programme with the EFF leaders substituting their demand for expropriation and nationalisation with appeals to big business to give workers 51% shares as an incentive to avoid strikes and discourage demands for nationalisation. This reflects the current attempts of the EFF leadership to adopt a more accommodating approach towards big business and to position itself as a power-broker to prop-up the ANC or any of its factions.
The ANC, despite being re-elected in 2014 with over 62% of the vote, has not enjoyed stability. Partly this is due to divisions over who will be elected as its new leader in 2017 and thereby would be likely to stand as president in 2019. But more significant has been the movement of the working class and recently the mass student anti-fees upsurge which forced a rapid retreat by Zuma.
While South Africa has a magnificent radical tradition of struggle and support for socialist ideas, and the largest trade union movement in Africa, it is not immune from the dangers of reaction. The repeated anti-migrant attacks, especially in 2008 and early 2015, are warnings. Without a strong working class movement such national and ethnic divisions could be exploited. Zuma himself has exploited his Zulu origins and tried to promote the role of tribal chiefs. Without a class alternative poverty can lead to scapegoating of “foreigners” or “outsiders” as the culprits rather than the ruling class. Such anger can not only directed against migrants from the rest of Africa, in some Cape Town townships there are tensions between those born in the townships and those from other parts of South Africa.
The key lies within the workers’ movement, but the Numsa and other left” trade union leaders currently seem to remain unwilling to take serious steps, for example it is unlikely that they will either sponsor or support candidates in the forthcoming 2016 local elections. This will pass the responsibility to forces like WASP to put forward a strategy that combines building fighting campaigns and arguing for the formation of a left, workers’ alternative which can include the best fighting elements from the movement, including Numsa, the EFF and other forces.
Today the essence of Nigeria’s situation is the increasing impact of the falling world oil price which is hitting the country, and particularly the state sector, hard. Workers and pensioners in many states, plus those working for the federal government, face months of wage and benefit arrears. Amongst the population this is overwhelmingly blamed upon the defeated Jonathan administration, particularly the rampant corruption that stole much of the country’s export income during the years of high oil prices. Buhari’s victory, Nigeria’s first ever peaceful handover of office to a rival political party, was a decisive popular call for change. The Buhari’s presidency is under contradictory pressures including widespread popular hopes it will bring real change and, on the opposite, pressures to carry our austerity measures. Indeed Buhari’s election was largely based on the hope that this “modest”, “incorruptible” ex-military ruler could make a real change. Initially the Buhari administration’s main activity was its anti-corruption campaign which included some high profile arrests.
Buhari’s first budget proposals made various promises of reforms based upon borrowing more, but it is questionable how long such an approach will last. However the economic crisis, along with the anti-corruption campaign, is being used by key sectors of the ruling class and government to prepare a neo-liberal offensive. Yet at the same time the new Buhari regime is hesitating before implementing austerity measures out of fear of provoking the working class and poor; the last attempt to raise fuel prices in January 2012 failed in the face of the biggest mass protest and general strike Nigeria has ever seen.
In addition to this unfolding economic emergency is Nigeria’s huge population explosion. At the time of its independence from Britain in 1960 there were around 45 million Nigerians, now the number is approaching 185 million. It is estimated that the population has grown by 5.5 million in 2015 alone. This rapid growth is despite having West Africa’s lowest life expectancy of 47 years of age. Approximately 44% of Nigerians are under 14 years old and a further 19% are between the ages of 15 and 24. About 52% (roughly 90 million) of Nigerians live in urban areas but this does not indicate the size of the working class, current estimates of numbers of unemployed or under-employed are around 50 million. Nevertheless the mass of the urban population supported and some were involved in the huge January 2012 protests and general strike. A new feature of the urban situation is the growth of gangs of young teenagers upwards, which use force of numbers to carry out robberies and even general looting of areas.
The small post-election improvement in electricity supplies did not stop protests developing against what is popularly called “crazy billing”, where the recently privatised electricity companies are imposing huge ‘standing charges’ (generally there are few meters) that assume electricity has been supplied! They argue they need the money for investment. In some cases bills for non-existent electricity are higher than the house rent. CWI members in Lagos have played an important part in these protests which may widen if the electricity companies proceed with plans for huge price increases in 2016.
As has long been the case there is the question of whether there will be new protests if the so-called “fuel subsidy” is removed. This has been a longstanding issue, particularly because of the corruption in the oil industry and low oil refining capacity industries which means that Nigeria has to import, at world prices, most refined fuel products. The last attempt at the start of 2012 resulted in the biggest revolt and general strike that Nigeria has ever seen, a movement that began spontaneously from below and eventually forced the then new, and more right-wing, trade union leaders to call a general strike and then call it off as soon as some minimum concessions were offered. While Buhari himself seemed initially reluctant to go down the road of price rises, he appointed a largely neo-liberal cabinet which is in favour of removing the subsidy. They argue that now is the time to do it as, with world oil prices low, any resulting price rise would be much smaller than it would have been in 2012.
For many Nigerians the re-emergence, in November 2015, of widespread fuel shortages is seen as part of a drive to raise the official fuel price in the expectation that if regular oil supplies could be guaranteed then it is possible that a smallish price rise would be accepted as, in times of shortages, the black-market price is way above the official one. And, sure enough, in mid-December the government, testing out the level of opposition, proposed a 10 naira (5 US cents) rise per litre.
But this rise was not mentioned when, at the end of December 2015, the government finally unveiled a so-called “price modulation” policy, which essentially allows fuel prices to respond to market forces. Clearly the regime feared protests and so, to ensure this plan sold, the petroleum ministry which is headed by President Buhari cleverly fixed the new price of fuel very, very slightly, just 50 kobo (0.5 US cent), below the previous official price. It is still unclear if this already means an end to subsidy as a policy given that, at the same time, the minister of state for petroleum promised that government would be prepared to step in to ensure prices are stable. However, it seems government is on the way to deregulating the oil sector and this manoeuvre is simply an initial step to test reaction. Given the extremely low price of crude oil, there is no logical reason why a litre of fuel should sell close to N80 in an oil-producing country. In fact it is debatable whether, at current rate of oil price, that government is presently paying anything as subsidy on petroleum products.
The relief, if any, at the lower fuel price will be short-lived. On the basis of lack of adequate local refining capacity and profit interest, a rise in fuel price is to be expected in the long run especially if situation in the crude oil market improves. Even now in many parts of the country it is almost impossible to get fuel, especially kerosene, at the official price with many forced to pay high black market rates. On a capitalist basis, Now Nigeria is confronted with a paradox: Any increase in the price of crude oil while a blessing for the state’s declining revenue would in turn bring up sharply the price of petroleum products for the populace.
Generally recent years have seen fewer mass struggles than before partly because of a new, less combative trade union leadership. The first 12 years of this century saw a series of mass protests, 9 general strikes took place and a further 4 general strike calls that were cancelled at the last minute. Some of these general strikes began to pose the question of power. However since the January 2012 strike the trade union leaders have avoided taking generalised action, even on the continuing question of the ongoing non-payment of the new minimum wage set back in 2011 and have only taken very limited, largely token action, on the issue of wage and pension arrears. Most of the trade union leaders are seeking to ally themselves with national and federal state-level political leaders and so limit themselves to making occasional bold statements but doing nothing. At this moment a key to reviving the trade unions and beginning a serious struggle on the issues facing the Nigerian working masses is the development of activity and pressure from below.
Nevertheless it is significant that the government is ever fearful of a new workers’ upsurge. Faced with mounting wage arrears the Federal government at the end of August 2015 “bailed out” 27 of the 36 federal states with loans to enable them to pay wages, albeit charging 9% interest over 20 years.
But despite the August “bail out” the Nigerian media is reporting that “over 26 states of the country are barely able to pay salaries of their workers” while unemployment is rising, the economy slowing down and inflation rising to officially nearly 10% as the result of 2014’s currency devaluation. Partly as a result of this Buhari is, at present, trying to resist a further devaluation.
Like most African countries Nigeria’s borders were set by imperialism who decreed that around 250 religiously diverse nationalities and ethnicities would be in one state whose name was invented by the first British Governor’s wife. The consequent tensions have dominated since Nigeria came into being in 1914 and now the national question is starting to take a new turn. The warfare in the north-east is continuing, and it is seemly unlikely that the government’s aim of ending Boko Haram’s insurgency by the end of 2015 will be met. Already over 13,000 have been killed and two million displaced by the fighting. While Boko Haram has been extending its activities beyond Nigeria’s borders the increasing randomness of some of its attacks has led to speculation whether this is less of an offensive military strategy rather than an attempt to hold onto the areas they control. Currently Boko Haram is not active in the largely Christian south but if it started attacking targets there sectarian tension could, without decisive attack by the labour movement, quickly develop. The dangers of sectarianism lurk all over the country, notwithstanding the growing “mixed” population in urban areas, especially Lagos. A recent warning of what can happen was the Boko Haram attack on a Shia Muslim procession in the north followed by a disputed clash between the military and a Shia group have increased sectarian tensions.
The end of 2015 has also seen the question of “Biafra”, the succession of the Igbo dominated areas from Nigeria, come back onto the agenda. The arrest and refusal, despite a court order, to release on bail a well-known pro-Biafra activist sparked off a wave of large-scale protests, some of which have been violently repressed. Part of the background to this is a result of the 2015 election. Since the resumption of civilian rule in 1999 part of the Igbo elite have been involved in ruling the country as a junior partner to the northern Hausa elite. While this was somewhat undermined during Jonathan’s rule, as he was an Ijaw from the South-South, it still continued. But now the Igbo elite are somewhat marginalised as the current administration is an uneasy alliance between part of the Hausa elite and the Yoruba one. The speed at which these largescale protests have erupted shows the issue of Biafra did not disappear with the end of the civil war in 1970.
While supporting the right of self-determination the CWI in Nigeria does not, at his time, call for separation. In the past, CWI in Nigeria has argued for the convocation of a democratically elected sovereign national conference composed of elected representatives of the working and oppressed classes to discuss the political and economic future of the country. This includes the question of the basis and manner of relationships between the various nationalities and the attendant right to self-determination. Currently it calls for united struggle across the country and also for the working class and poor to democratically decide what would be the shape of a workers’ and poor peoples’ Nigeria. But it stands opposed to nationalities being forcibly held within the present boundaries of Nigeria. However this is linked, particularly in a country like Nigeria with around 250 nationalities and ethnicities, with socialists defending the full rights for all minorities within any new state and for close relations between workers and poor in both the new and old states.
At same time it argues that capitalist independence is not a solution to poverty and oppression, as the examples of Eritrea and South Sudan have recently shown. The key to real liberation and self-determination is breaking with capitalism and, on that basis, working to extend the revolution to other countries in order to create a confederation of states run by the workers and poo r that can co-operate in building a socialist future.
Since the foundation of the CWI in Nigeria over 30 years ago a central call has been for the building of a working peoples’ party. There have been many steps towards and away from this, ranging from the short-lived Nigerian Labour Party in 1989, the comrades work in the National Conscience Party between 1994 and 2007, the repeated, but short-lived, attempts to work within the Labour Party (LP) after 2007 and the 2012 decision to launch the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) as a rallying point and a party able to present an alternative to the pro-capitalist parties. Although it is still not clear whether the SPN will be allowed to stand in elections, it is increasingly unlikely that the trade union leaders will succeed in their so far half-hearted attempt to take control of the LP from the bourgeois careerists currently running it. While it cannot be absolutely ruled out that the trade union leaders are able to take control of the LP, it is more likely that in the coming period a left opposition to the Buhari government will develop through a combination of experience, struggle and the work of socialists and trade union activists.
The CWI has already a proud political record in Africa based upon a clear programme and honest analysis of the situation combined with a principled, active approach towards building serious revolutionary forces. It has shown that it can simultaneously strive to help build a politically independent workers’ movement while, at the same time, working with other forces on concrete issues. While so far these have been generally small steps, the activities of our South African comrades after Marikana and the repeated involvement of our Nigerian comrades in struggle are examples that can and must be built upon in order to help create the forces that can end capitalist exploitation and backwardness in Africa.