It will be 60 years on 1 October since Nigeria got its flag independence from Britain during the decolonisation process of Africa. Faced with increasing demands for independence throughout its African colonies, British imperialism moved to hand over the reins of power in Nigeria to the local elite, rather than risk its rule being challenged by a radical liberation movement.
Much before the exit of British imperialism, the country had been billed as having a great future, given its huge human and material resources. But Nigeria has not lived up to its potential. Rather, it is a capitalist paradox – mass misery in the midst of huge resources.
Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy and its largest crude oil producer, yet it wears the toga of ‘poverty capital of the world’. Just under half of its population – roughly, 102 million Nigerians out of over 206 million – live in what is described as ‘extreme poverty’; the highest number of any country.
The country is a poster boy of the failure of capitalism in a neocolonial country whose ruling elite is backward, corrupt, and prebendalist i.e. pursues a system of political patronage.
As soon as it got self-governing powers in 1960, the ruling elite did not waste time demonstrating its utter incapacity to govern, not only in the interest of the working class but also in the long-term interest of capitalism itself.
Soon after independence, intra-class conflicts within the new capitalist elite descended into chaos. This paved the way for the 1966 military coup – the very first military incursion – which nearly ended Nigeria’s existence.
War and coups
A three-year civil war broke out from 1967 to 1970 over the decision of eastern Nigeria to secede, over claims of persecution, and form a new nation called Biafra. Over two million Igbos were reportedly died in the war – mostly women and children, who died from starvation.
From 1966, military coups were a feature of Nigeria, with the last military regime ending in 1999 after prolonged struggles by the working masses.
Initially, after independence, there were attempts, often state-backed, to develop industries, but over time these were abandoned. Partly this was the result of the constrictive imperialist-dominated world economy, but also the ‘get rich quick’ opportunity that oil and gas extraction provided. Increasingly, the bulk of the Nigerian ruling class took to living off and looting the income from fuel exports.
Today, in all human development indices, Nigeria’s record is appalling. It has the largest number of out-of-school children in the world. It also ranks among the countries with the highest maternal and under-five deaths in the world.
These are a result of poor funding of education and health care, especially since the introduction of austerity under the Structural Adjustment Programme in 1986 – something that has continued with the neoliberal capitalist programme of successive governments since the return to civil rule in 1999.
Before the adoption of neoliberal capitalism in the late 1980s, successive Nigerian governments were committed to providing public education, health care, and housing, as well as public investment in the economy, although not to the level of what was obtained in south east Asian countries. Pressure from the working masses on the ruling class for social and economic improvements played an important role, and concessions were won in the oil boom years.
This came to an end following the combination of a more unstable, polarised world economy, and the weakness, and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist ‘deformed workers’ states. Their collapse helped global capitalism shake off the fear of a rival social system, based on a nationalised, not capitalist, economy.
While these countries were not socialist but run by dictatorial elites, their existence as a counterweight to capitalism forced the ruling capitalist classes on occasion to grant concessions in spending on social services.
However, since the 1980s, and especially since the 1990s following the collapse of Stalinism, capitalism has gone on the offensive globally, but with a more devastating effect on the conditions of working people in developing countries like Nigeria.
This is deepening economic inequality. For instance, the charity Oxfam, in a 2017 report, reveals that “over the past 40 years, the gap between the rich and the poor has been growing in developed and developing countries alike. In 2015, just 62 people had as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, and the richest 1% owned more wealth than the rest of the world combined.”
Oxfam added: “In Nigeria, the scale of economic inequality has reached extreme levels, and it finds expression in the daily struggles of the majority of the population in the face of accumulation of obscene amounts of wealth by a small number of individuals.”
It continued: “While more than 112 million people were living in poverty in 2010, the richest Nigerian man will take 42 years to spend all of his wealth at $1 million per day.”
Earlier in 2004, the World Bank had even been forced to admit in a report that only 1% of Nigerians appropriate 80% of the oil and gas wealth. Nigeria’s economy is essentially about oil and gas, as it accounts for about 85% of government revenue and over 90% of foreign exchange.
This explains why the economic crisis in Nigeria is not principally as a result of the fact that the rate of population growth is outstripping the growth of the economy, which has an impact, but that of wealth inequality.
For instance, in the 2000s, the economy was growing at the rate of 5% to 7%, well above the population growth rate of 2%. But according to Oxfam, “the share of people living below the national poverty line over that period, increased from 69 million in 2004 to 112 million in 2010, equivalent to 69% of the population”. Now that the capitalist ‘good times’ are over, the future looks even worse.
The inequality and general economic crisis have created material conditions for the escalation of insecurity in forms of banditry, kidnapping, armed robbery, and the Boko Haram insurgency. It also accentuates ethno-religious conflicts associated with unresolved national questions.
The capitalist ruling elite and reactionary forces regularly exploit the country’s fault lines to appeal to ethnic sentiments for their self-serving agenda. This is made easily possible in the absence of a bold, militant, and socialist leadership of the labour movement, which could unite the working masses to fight back against constant capitalist attacks.
Capitalism has to be defeated in Nigeria before the wealth of the country can be freed for the benefit of workers and the poor, and also to resolve the national question.
In the 1980s, the trade unions adopted, on paper, socialist objectives that reflected the mood in the country. But this was not seriously campaigned on.
Today, the majority of the working masses have not yet drawn socialist conclusions, despite the monumental failure of capitalism. This is both a consequence of class consciousness being thrown back internationally in the last 30 years and partly because the alternative programme of socialism and socialist analysis of Nigeria’s crisis has not reached a mass audience.
A key factor in this is the absence, up to now, of a mass working peoples’ party capable of reaching the widest layers of the people, as well as the lack of a fighting socialist labour leadership with an alternative programme to capitalism.
Notwithstanding this political weakness, such was the anger of the working class, and many others, that Nigeria saw nine widely-supported general strikes between 2000 and 2012 – the last having many of the characteristics of a broad national rebellion.
However, the largely pro-capitalist trade union leaders sought to avoid calling for action and limit any action that they were forced to call. The result was, for a period of time, a downturn in workers’ struggle; a badly prepared general strike in May 2016 failed.
But now, the monumental failure of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) and President Buhari – who many had huge illusions in when he ascended to power in 2015 – has had a big impact.
This government has afflicted the working masses with a series of economic attacks, like the latest hike in fuel price and electricity tariffs, as done by past governments.
One result is a further erosion in the masses’ trust in the capitalist ruling elite. This has been reflected in the abysmally low turnouts in elections, especially the 2019 poll in which Buhari was reelected.
The class struggle may intensify and escalate in the coming months given the rising global crisis of capitalism, accentuated by the coronavirus pandemic, and the increasing attacks by the capitalist government. If this transpires, the working masses will begin to search for an alternative, for a way out.
This would, in turn, create the basis for a rise in socialist consciousness and for the forces of Marxism to grow. But if this does not happen, there is the prospect of an increase in civil breakdowns, ethno-religious conflicts and trampling on democratic rights amid economic and social chaos.
Unlike 2012, when Nigeria recorded its biggest general strike and mass protest since the advent of civil rule (and when there was no mass working-class party), at present there is the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) formed by the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM – CWI in Nigeria), in alliance with other forces. The SPN is presently small but can intervene with a bold socialist alternative in any mass struggle.
This is why we have called on trade unions, socialists, and activists to join the SPN and build it into a mass party.