Nigeria: A festival of the oppressed

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Every year, an extremely dry dusty wind blows from the Sahara toward the western coast of Africa, mostly between the months of November and March, and usually most intense in December and January. It’s called the harmattan. And this is its season. From east to west, north and south an intense wind is sweeping across Nigeria.

On the first day of the indefinite General Strike declared by the Nigerian Labour Congress [NLC] and Trade Union Congress [TUC], a human tide swept down major roads of every Nigerian city, fed continuously along its path. The tide swept away the innate conservatism in the thought process and consciousness of the masses. People poured forth from adjoining streets into the arena of history, armed with slogans and indignation to seek control of their destiny. There were talks about Tunisia, Egypt, Tahrir Square. There were talks about the need for change. The next day, day two, was no different. Well, except that the crowd more than doubled the previous day’s, and was still growing! Day three also recorded a higher crowd than Day one and two! And was still growing!

What this magnificent movement highlights is the colossal power of the working class in social life. It is a power which all too often the trade union bureaucracy do not know how [and, one can legitimately say, do not want] to use. The State was no less conscious of this power. Its machinery, the police and armed forces had been placed on high alert, and the first few casualties were recorded. However, especially from the rank-and-file of the police there seemed to be no overt hostility [really, in some cases there was covert sympathy–like the ones who bought the Workers’ Alternative newspaper from this writer].

Day three and this writer was stopped by some soldiers, led by a Staff Sergeant, at the army cantonment gate who insisted on seeing what was inside the back-pack. On seeing the Workers’ Alternative an argument ensued which was put to rest by the Staff: “Let the protests continue! Why should the government unilaterally increase the price of fuel!” And I was allowed to go. How this mood will develop in the coming days, particularly with the protests showing no signs of abating, and protesters displaying a readiness to intensify the struggle one cannot categorically say. Of course, here and there violence has broken out and as yet one cannot say for certain if these are genuine excesses or if agents of the State are infiltrating the movement to discredit it. Unable to attack the movement directly, the government is using these excuses to impose curfew in some states, with some labour leaders calling for a sit-at-home which the protesters are disregarding.

The regime, through its hired apologists – really one wonders how much genuine support this regime could muster – has launched an unprecedented media campaign against the Nigerian people. Not a single original and convincing argument could be presented. Rather, these hired troubadours find their arguments ready-made in the tired ideas of yesterday’s scoundrels. The government’s henchmen and women strongly recall those itinerant medicine-men who sold a ‘wonderful’ cure-all [Gbogbonise] on certain market days in my village. By the time the angry villagers realized they’d been had the medicine men had moved on. Except that in this instance, there is a good sprinkling of medicine-women among the men. Removal of the fuel subsidy, we are told, will cure all political, economic, medical ailments that are curable. Of course the intention is that by the time we realize we’ve been had, these medicine-men and women, much like the long-ago medicine-men of my village, would have moved on. Except that this time we are one up on them. Like the old saying goes, you can’t fool all the people all the time.

On New Year’s day Nigerians had got a gift from the regime of Goodluck Jonathan, promptly, without delay: a litre of fuel for approximately 1 dollar–in some states quite higher. And this in a country where the majority lives on less than 2 dollars [that universal denominator of poverty] a day. The next day, across the country’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory the indignation of the masses exploded in the streets. As a ‘palliative’ the government offers the Nigerian people a promissory note they cannot redeem: in the long run, it will be well. To which we say, in the long run we are all dead.

In the 1950s Nigeria began pumping its first barrels of crude oils. By 1999, at the dawn of the country’s return to civilian rule, it was pumping around 1.8 million bb. a day and daily capacity expanded to 2.5 million bbl. Nigerian capitalism took shape under the powerful pressure of Imperialism – which bled the colonies dry. Because of its late arrival on the world scene, Nigerian industry, born so late, could not effectively compete with the cheap products of the advanced capitalist countries. And so the country became an exporter of raw materials; groundnuts, cocoa, palm oil, etc. To this was added the powerful arrival of petroleum. The greater the revenue accrued by the Nigerian ruling class from this new industry, the less their incentive to pursue the development of agriculture and other branches of the economy.

By means of petro-dollars, the Nigerian ruling class consolidated its rule. According to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC,) an estimated $400 billion in oil revenues–an amount equal to all the foreign aid to Africa during the same period was stolen by the country’s rulers between independence in 1960 and the return to civilian rule in 1999. (TIME June 11, 2007). In his book on African oil, Poisoned Wells, Nicholas Shaxson of the International Affairs Institute Chatham House, London, the U.S. imported more oil from Africa than from the Middle East in 2005. Nigeria supplies 10-12% of U.S. oil imports. Rising demands from India and China and fears over instability in the Middle East have fuelled higher oil prices as well as renewing the scramble for energy. Analysts from the Center for International Policy, a U.S. think tank calculates that the Gulf of Guinea will earn $1 trillion from oil by 2020 if the price stays above $50 a barrel. This is roughly double the entire post colonial aid to Africa since independence in the 50s and 60s. Of course, it is a long shot that the chances that oil prices will remain above $50 a barrel.

The oil executives who have profited, and continue to profit from this windfall are worlds apart from the majority of the Nigerian people. This, of course, forms a historical basis for the ongoing struggle of the Nigerian working masses against the recent hike in the fuel price. While the Nigerian ruling class had got rich from the ‘curse’ of oil, while its members fought each other for the spoils, over two-thirds of the country’s approximately 160 million people have sunk deeper and deeper into pauperism, and pauperism, in the words of Marx develops more rapidly than population or wealth.

Socialism or Barbarism

This is the choice before the Nigerian working masses. The former is expressed strongly in the ongoing struggle against the hike in the pump price of petroleum, while the latter is contained in the Jos killings and Boko Haram. The end of military rule and the enthronement of civilian rule had not brought what the people yearned and struggled for. Military dictatorship ceded place to formal democracy. But the system that spawned the military dictatorship was not overthrown. Twelve years of democracy have given nothing to the poor working masses except continuing misery.

What comes to mind is Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Deserted Village:” “Ill fares the land to hastening ills a prey/ Where wealth accumulates and men decay.” The mass of the people could see no way out of this decay, and indeed on a capitalist basis, there is no way out. The leadership of labour had failed to provide a viable political option. It had registered, and failed to effectively build its own political party. It does not require political will to see signs of decay in 21st century Nigeria. They strike you in the face: cities and villages, streets, neighbourhoods, human beings decaying.

The recurrent outbreak of violence in the mining city of Jos is a sharp expression of this failure. Jos had witnessed, and continues to witness barbaric scenes of brutal killings of hundreds of people, some hacked to death, and some others burned alive. The killings reached barbaric heights in the early hours of the morning of March 7th, 2010, when a marauding horde of alleged Fulani herdsman swept through three sleepy farming communities in Jos, Plateau, in the middle belt region of Nigeria. The herdsmen cut a murderous swath. They left behind, desolate communities of charred houses and scores of broken and destroyed human lives. The attackers showed no mercy, they did not discriminate. Among their victims were women, children, the elderly, entire families.

The attack came barely two months after a previous one on January 19th on a mostly Hausa-Fulani “settlers” mining village that left at least 300 dead. The attackers surrounded the town, hunted down and attacked residents, killing many as they tried to flee and burning many others alive. Bodies, including several charred corpses of young children, pregnant women, and babies, strew the streets in rubbish-like fashion, including dozens stuffed down wells and sewage pits. Nearly all of the homes were burned.

Into this mix was thrown the Boko Haram. A bombing campaign has been instituted, and the corpses are piling. It is very obvious that the sect leaders exploited the declining economic situation to attract large followers amongst the commoners, who, unable to afford the basic necessities of life, became die-hard patriots of the sect. Evil in society is as a result of the embrace of Western civilization, and in order to curb such evil modern state institutions must be destroyed! It is correct to say that the Boko Haram sect is an assemblage of youths who are school drop-outs and university graduates who are not gainfully employed and who believe that their state of hopelessness is caused by the government that imposed western education and failed to manage the resources of the country to the benefit of all. The Christmas day bombing of a Catholic church between the borders of the Federal Capital Territory and Niger State seemed to tip the scale sharply towards barbarism. Until the New Year day whip of the Nigerian government galvanized the Nigerian people into revolutionary action.

A Global Crisis of Capitalism

“Marxism is an ideology that seems to be effectively dead,” wrote President Goodluck Jonathan’s Special Adviser on media affairs, Mr. Reuben Abati some ten years ago, back when he was just another voluntary troubadour of capitalism. “In the argument, between capitalism and Marxism, it is the free market intellectuals that have won the battle,” Abati wrote, revealing he has long been available for hire. Does not onewonder why it’s necessary to declare Marxism dead again and again?

Twenty years ago, at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the capitalists and their hired and voluntary spokespersons felt triumphant. Not content with proclaiming the death of communism, they also proclaimed the end of history. The fundamental feature of these hired guns of capital is their reliance on external and secondary manifestation in evaluating a historical movement, revealing themselves to be poor marksmen.

Marx wrote over 160 years ago in The Communist Manifesto:

“Modern industry, has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land… The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

“The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.”

The conquest of new markets, that is globalization, which was one of the ways capitalism had attempted to overcome its crisis is now turned against capitalism itself. Globalization, which Marx spoke of long ago, and which bourgeois economists and governments seemed to have only recently discovered, now expresses itself as a global crisis of capitalism. Privatization, liberalization, deregulation, the mantra of bourgeois economists have resulted in untold misery, rising unemployment, poverty, and intense suffering for the mass of Nigerian workers who have sunk “deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class.” Mass unemployment, ruthless cuts in wages, increased taxation, the abolition of social reforms, and a general worsening of living standards have become the order of the day.

The removal of the so-called ‘subsidy’ in the pump price of petroleum by the government is simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. It has opened a stormy period in Nigeria’s social and political life. There is a time lag in the consciousness of the masses. As a rule people do not like change, particularly sharp and sudden change that upsets their preconceived notions. And so in ‘normal’ times they are accustomed to go about their business and leave the business of governance to ‘government.’ But at critical moments, consciousness catches up with events and men and women begin to question the kind of society they live in, its morality and justice, the way they are being governed. Such a period has been entered in Nigeria following January 1st.

Spontaneous protests erupted in cities across Nigeria, which received a boost from the entrance into the struggle by organized labour. The indefinite General Strike and protests declared by labour pulled virtually all strata of society including the amazing sight of pregnant women, women with babies strapped to their backs, children, beggars! At first the demand of the movement was simple and straightforward: revert to the 65 Naira pump price of petrol. But the forcible entrance of the masses into the arena of history taught them within hours, days what would have taken them years, decades to learn and so the demands of the movement, unprompted by any leader keeps started going beyond the initial demands to include questions and demands as to how they are being governed. The Nigerian masses are looking for a way out of the prison house of capitalism.

Marxists know that on the basis of capitalism there is no way out of this prison. The current crisis in Nigeria is a concentrated expression of the global crisis of capitalism. The ongoing struggle is connected with the Egyptian and the Tunisian revolutions. It has opened a period of struggle in the country. The masses will learn on the basis of their day to day experience. They will test their leadership, and will trust only those who correspond to the demands of the movement. Trotsky once said that a political leader “is always a relation between people, the individual supply to meet the collective demand.” The movement of the masses has pulled all political shades, composed of disparate elements. The current spokespersons of the movement are simply a response to a social demand. We support the anti-fuel price hike; we support the demands of the masses as to how they are being governed. Only on the basis of this day to day struggle of the working masses will the struggle for socialism triumph.

Thursday, Day four of the struggle witnessed a greater turnout than the previous days. New layers, hitherto unconcerned with politics were daily being drawn into political life. It is safe to say that things will never return to ‘normal.’ The Nigerian Revolution has begun. The middle class has completely lost its head; the regime is hopelessly split; the working class is united across ethno-religious lines with Christians and Muslims praying together. But strikes and protests are not enough. What is needed is a political alternative, a working class alternative that would ensure victory and safeguard permanently the gains of the struggle.

In the past period, following the collapse of the Stalinism, in the face of the fireworks display of the wonders of the “free market,” Marxists were forced to swim against a powerful current. Not anymore. This previously backward-flowing current is surging forward and we are swimming with it, no longer against it, onwards, ever onwards, swimming. What the bourgeoisie has produced, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the revolution are both inevitable. Our time has come.

A spectre haunts Nigeria–the spectre of revolution.