Obasanjo's national dialogue: another brand of national deceit

The impasse of the Obasanjo regime has provoked one general strike after another. The situation is very explosive. To try and divert attention from the real issues the regime has now come up with the idea of a delegate conference known as “National Dialogue”, which opened on February 21. The petit-bourgeois opposition is calling for an alternative conference. Both are clearly diversions aimed at holding back the movement of the masses. The only way out is for the NLC leaders to break with all these manoeuvres and build a party of labour.

One issue that has feverishly gripped the heart of the local and international media reports and commentaries on the political developments in Nigeria, in the past few weeks, is the Obasanjo regime’s planned “National Political Reform Conference”, otherwise known as “National Dialogue”. The National Dialogue commenced last Monday, February 21.

National Dialogue is composed of 400 Delegates. All the delegates are nominated: 50 by the President; 6 by each State Governor, totalling 216 for the 36 states; 6 by the Labour Unions; 6 by the Employers’ Groups. The rest of the delegates are nominated by the registered Political Parties (PDP – 12, ANPP – 4, AD – 2, the other 27 smaller Parties – 2), the academic community, Nigerians in the Diaspora, Women’s groups, Youth/students nominees among other so-called interest groups.

Although, the formal agenda for the conference was not released – even a few days prior to its commencement – government officials at the presidency indicated what would be discussed at the National Dialogue – which has been proposed over the last three months – when the sitting started in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. Issues like fiscal policies, revenue allocation, federalism, types of political system at the centre and in the states, etc., are to be discussed. However, a no-go area for discussion is on the unity of Nigeria, which the government says is not negotiable.

Similarly, the economic “reforms” of the government that are presently being carried out at the dictates of imperialism – as represented in the IMF and World Bank economic reform agenda for Nigeria – were not on the agenda. As far as the regime is concerned, the devastating on-going anti- worker and anti-poor reforms of the economy are a fait accompli.

The regime’s “unexpected” convocation of the conference

To many commentators on Nigeria, both within and outside the country, this latest development has no doubt come to them as a surprise. To them, this does not add up, given the previously expressed statements of opposition to the idea of a national conference by key figures of the Obasanjo-led federal government in Nigeria; particularly vociferous about this all along had been President Olusegun Obasanjo himself.

The regime had all along maintained that with the National Assembly, which is made up of “elected representatives of the people”, in place there is no need for the convocation of any National Conference either sovereign or otherwise. The argument before now was that the present constitution, through the National and States’ Houses of Assembly, already has its inherent machinery on how the constitution can be amended for appropriate reforms to be effected in the polity. Thus, the idea of the regime calling a national conference at this point is most unexpected by many of the bourgeois media analysts and members of the opposition movement, this is also the case with a number of those in the civil society groups.

Confirming our perspective

On the contrary, the working class-oriented Marxist group organized around the Workers’ Alternative newspaper in previous analyses on the perspective for the Nigerian socio-economic crisis had warned in advance of the high possibility of this on-going scenario. And this can be recalled from the past articles published in the Workers’ Alternative and in the In Defence of Marxism web site (www.marxist.com).

In one of such publications in May 2002, titled “National Question in Nigeria: Ethnic cleansing or Socialist Revolution”, [which can be found in a collection of articles in Ethnic conflicts in Nigeria] we warned about the prospects of the Obasanjo Government convoking a form of the long-clamoured-for “sovereign national conference”, when faced with the might of an inevitable mass movement of the working class and the other economically oppressed groups in society. This we explained would have the aim of calming down revolutionary upheaval. This much can be inferred in a passage of the article, which had stated ‘prophetically’ thus:

“Moreover, it needs to be mentioned that, as the crisis of capitalism deepens in Nigeria and a revolutionary situation develops in the future, the ruling elites will definitely toy with the idea of the SNC. This is with the intent of using it as a reactionary bait to divert the revolutionary movement to the SNC talk-shop. This will concretely resolve nothing but will only serve as an avenue for the ruling class to defeat the revolutionary movement”.

The above statement made about three years ago to a large extent shed light on the way and manner in which events in Nigeria have been evolving since the quoted statement was made. The situation in Nigeria over the last two years has been particularly turbulent on the socio-economic plane, which is well reflected in the attendant class struggle.

Why The National Dialogue?

Since May 2002, when the above quoted article was published up to the first week of December 2004, when the government announced its intention to call the conference with the formation of the Pre-conference Planning Committee, the turbulent nature of the class struggle has been unprecedented in the history of the Nigeria. The strike waves that have engulfed all sections of society remain at record level. The economic crisis over the time projected has worsened; the average industrial utilization capacity has remained as low as 35%. This is subsequently well reflected in the unemployment rate which is at an all time high, and many Nigerians remain unemployed even many years after they have graduated from the schools.

The poverty rate in Nigeria remains at over 75%, with this oil-rich country ranking paradoxically among the poorest 13 countries in the world. Many Nigerians are not sure of where or when the next meal will come from. Preventable but infectious diseases remain the most rampant killing force, particularly among young children in the country.

The situation is equally dramatic in the area of provision of social services and amenities. Health facilities owned by the government have largely collapsed and where they still exist have become wholly privatised and commercialised making them unaffordable for the largely poor Nigerians. This situation has led to many avoidable sicknesses and deaths of many Nigerians, mainly because they cannot afford the charges at these hospitals.

The educational sector is also in a state of decline; the public primary school system has virtually collapsed, the situation at the secondary schools is not much better either. Tertiary education in the universities, polytechnics, colleges of education, etc., is equally in a deplorable state with collapsed facilities and overstretched amenities. The various capitalist-induced crises that have virtually engrossed the whole educational system are reflected in the symptomatic eruptions of violent protest against the unjust and callous privatisation of student hostels and other facilities among others on the campuses.

The multiple layoffs in the workplaces, anti-worker pension reforms, worsened working conditions, wholesome reduction in the salary packages of workers over the last period, are all signs of the sickness of the socio-economic system called capitalism in Nigeria, all of which have caused continuous unrest among the working masses.

Over the past two years, there have been continuous fight-backs by the workers by way of strike action in the workplaces against the government’s and other employers’ anti-poor policies, poor working conditions and unworthy enumerations in form of salaries and allowances. The strikes that have taken place in these places over the last two years can be said to be more than what has occurred in the previous ten years put together.

Similarly, on the national plane, there have been four general strikes in the last two years led by the NLC and the other trade union centres – TUC and CFTU – which have been in response to the callous increment in the prices of petroleum products. The price of petrol has increased by over 250% over the almost six years that the Obasanjo regime has been in power. The latest general strike was to commence in November 2004, before it was called off at the last minute. As a matter of fact, the idea of the National Dialogue was proposed by the regime less than a month after the strike was to commence. This on its own explains the note of urgency in the convocation of the coming National Political Reform Conference.

The crisis is also reflected in the various youth protests in the Niger Delta and the multiple ethnic/religious bloody sectarian clashes across the country that have equally been very numerous since the inception of the Obasanjo regime.

The above scenario is apparently giving some key players among the ruling elites some serious concern that the situation cannot be maintained indefinitely without the revolt erupting from below and sweeping them to onse side in the process. This assertion tallies with the recent TV pronouncement on February 7, 2005 by one of the prominent members of the ruling party (PDP) and the Governor of Abia state, Orji Uzor Kalu, when he said that “everybody will soon be swept by a people’s revolution” if things do not change.

It is this fear of a revolution from below that underlines the present attempt to create the National Dialogue talk-shop, which is expected to serve the purpose of diverting attention from the endemic socio-economic crisis in the country. This will also serve the function of creating the impression that the crisis of the capitalist system in Nigeria can be resolved through reasonable discussion at the National Dialogue with the introduction of some “far reaching political reforms”.

Diversionary tactics from the economic crisis won’t work

The promotion of such an illusion that the social crisis can be resolved with new political reforms can potentially cause some confusion in the maturing class struggle in Nigeria. This is particularly so with the Labour Leaders’ intention to participate in the conference. Similarly, the National Dialogue will also be used to act as midwife for some superficial reforms from above which in the thinking of the ruling elites will help to undercut the revolutionary waves brewing from below.

As a matter of exigency, while the talk-show is going on at the National Dialogue, the government will attempt to use the diversion to carry out the meanest and the most callous of its anti-poor economic measures, including another increase in the prices of petroleum products, cuts in salaries, retrenchment of workers, backdoor introduction of anti-poor taxes, etc. To what extent it will succeed will, however, depends largely on the balance of forces and the complicity of the Labour leaders.

However, this plot of using the National Political Reform Conference to create confusion in the class struggle will fail. The impression that things can still work in spite of the fact that the status quo will remain with the capitalist ownership of the means production and distribution, including the upholding the present draconian economy reform requested by the World Bank and IMF, is doomed to fail.

As mentioned earlier, the conference agenda does not include any worthwhile discussion on the on-going economic reform being marshalled under the guidance of the World Bank technocrats in government like the finance minister, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala. This implies that discussions on workers’ wages, pension reforms, workers’ rights in workplaces, anti-labour laws, deregulation of the petroleum sector and other social services sectors are not subjects of discussion at the conference.

This attempt to give the impression that the social crisis in Nigeria can be resolved with mere political reforms without touching on the economic foundation that the political structures lay upon is a conscious effort to chase after shadows. Karl Marx once observed correctly some 150 years ago that, “Politics is concentrated Economy and vice versa”. In other words there is no separation from the reigning economic foundations of a society and the type of political structure on ground.

In Nigeria, the capitalist mode of production and distribution of goods and services is the reigning economic system; the present political superstructures at all levels of governance exist to preserve the present order. Incidentally, the present order is the rule of a handful minority rich over the vast majority poor.

In class terms it is the rule of the capitalist few over the overwhelming population of the working class and the other poor layers in society. The common saying that “he who pays the piper decides the tune” brings the meaning home here, implying that a fundamental change can only come about in the lives of the majority of the poor masses if the economic and political equation changes in their interest, with the coming to power of a workers’ and poor people’s government and the institutionalisation of a system which is the opposite of the present miserable capitalist mode of economy, i.e. socialism, which is the only way to guarantee the economic interests of the workers and the poor in this society. We shall emphasis more on this later in the article.

Opposition to the conference

One interesting development is the opposition among the ruling class, notably in the National Assembly and among the petty-bourgeois middle class political movements largely reflected among the trend in the opposition civil society group. The reasons for the opposition of these two trends seem to differ on some grounds.

The National Assembly was openly opposed to the idea of the National Political Reforms Conference on the pretence that it is an unconstitutional body; as such it will be unlawful for the Assembly to support it. To this extent both the House of Representatives and the Senate rejected the formal request of the Presidency to get the National Assembly to grant extra-budgetary allocation of over Nine Hundred Million Naira (about $7millon). On the same ground, 57 members of the House of Representatives are also challenging the legality of the National Dialogue in the Law Court.

The constitutional opposition of these gentlemen of the parliament is definitely very untypical of them. On several occasions before now they have openly lined-up behind many so-called unconstitutional and highly distasteful actions of the Obasanjo regime in the past. Among these actions were the numerous increments in the prices of petroleum products, upholding the poisonous privatisation pills of the government-owned companies and the retrenchment of the workers in the affected company, the 419 (deceitful) pension reform bill of the regime, including the various introductions of very high fees in the educational institutions owned by the government.

To this extent it is obvious that what is at stake is not the constitutionality of the National Dialogue. The reason for the opposition of the members of the National Assembly to the National Dialogue is best understood from the perspective that the original essence and intent of the creation of a parliament in any society – more so in a capitalist society like ours – is to give the impression and delude the masses that the peoples’ representatives in parliament will discuss and make laws in the interest of the people.

But in the on-going scenario, the National Assembly lacks any authority that can create any illusions among the working masses. In the first instance, just like the presidential election, they National Assembly is the product of the largely discredited and rigged elections two years ago. We also have to remember that never in the history of Nigeria had the Parliament openly embraced all the unpopular policies of the Executive as the present Nation Assembly has done.

To this extent, the reason for the opposition to the National Dialogue on the part of the parliamentarians flows from this perception that the proposed Conference is a vote of political irrelevance in the National Assembly. This is even more the case with the assemblage of prominent members of the ruling class surfacing as delegates to the proposed Dialogue. So far the various delegates from the states and the other government nominees are packs of established personalities of the ruling class. A number of them are oldies in the political terrain, and although many had been previously discredited and are now being rehabilitated, nevertheless in the bourgeois political terrain they are better known and more respected than most of the present gentlemen in the National Assembly.

Confirming this explanation again was Orji Uzor Kalu, Abia State Governor, who said in the earlier mentioned TV interview that the “the convocation of the National Dialogue is tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly”.

Sovereign National Conference?

The other opposition to Obasanjo’s National Dialogue is organized around the Pro-Sovereign National Conference Organisations (PRONACO) led by Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka and Anthony Enahoro. The grouse of PRONACO against the National Conference being proposed by the Presidency is that it has not been democratically convoked by an election, that there is no existing enabling law for the convocation of the conference and that the final ratification of the outcome of the conference will be made by the National Assembly and not by an envisaged national referendum proposed by them.

Beyond this is the fact that their main complaint is that the conference composition should mainly reflect the ethnic groups in Nigeria. In other words delegates’ representation at the conference should mainly be on ethnic lines. To many of those in PRONACO, the problem of Nigeria is mainly the National Question. This is to say that the crisis in the political framework of Nigeria is myopically narrowed down by these gentlemen to the fact that the countless socio-economic crises come about “because we never sat down to discuss if and how we will like to live together in the country”.

On the contrary, recent experience has shown us the unpalatable reality of the situation. Before now for example, a number of those in the ethnic chauvinist groupings use to say that the problems facing southern Nigerians were due to the fact that the previous rulers from the North used their positions to the detriment of the southern Nigerians. However, for almost six years now we have had in power as the Executive President of Nigeria a southerner, Obasanjo, and the lot of the Southern Nigerians, particularly the south-western Yorubas, is no better than it used to be before General Obasanjo came to power in May 1999.

Hence, to create the impression that the crisis of inter-ethnic relations in Nigeria is the root of the socio-economic crisis is standing the truth on its head. On the contrary, it is the endemic crisis of the decadent capitalist system in Nigeria that is responsible for the confusion exhibited in the various ethnic wars and religious crises as we have emphasized in our previous publications, where we pointed out that as the economic crisis worsens so do the various inter-ethnic/religious clashes increase.

At any rate, the PRONACO agenda does not seem to see that the main issue to be discussed is the need to dismantle capitalist rule in Nigeria. Meanwhile, experience in other West Africa countries like Togo and the Benin Republic have shown that the concept of a “sovereign national conference” is not an end in itself.

In these countries, the respective National conferences, were convoked by the governments after a series of strike waves and protest marches, only for the same regimes to remain in place or to come back soon afterwards. All this was in spite of these conferences. In Togo, after the National Conference in 1992, Eyadema continued to manoeuvre and remained in power for a further 13 years, right up to his death a few weeks back on February 5. In Benin, after the “Sovereign” National Conference, Matthew Kereku was voted out but soon came back through the ballot again and has remained in power ever since. In the main, in the final analysis these conferences solved none of the fundamental problems.

In other words, the opposition of the supporters of PRONACO to the National Dialogue is not a fundamental one from a class point of view. They are not opposed to the present capitalist system, which presently has Obasanjo and co. as its caretakers. This explains why a number of their supporters in the Afenifere, Alliance for Democracy(AD), Ohaneze Ndigbo, etc., are already embracing the National Dialogue, and more sections of PRONACO are likely to join the Obasanjo National Dialogue as the situation unfolds.

What the Labour Leaders should be doing

The socio-economic situation is in a critical state; the economic crisis cannot be reformed on a capitalist basis to satisfy the interests of the working class and the other poor working masses. As experience is showing, the present economic “reform” is leading to more impoverishment. The only way forward is for the working class to strive for power and use this to rebuild society on a socialist basis, which will put the needs and the interests of the ordinary people at the top of the agenda by collectivising the available resources, through the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy under the democratic control of the workers, and use this to provide appropriate social welfare and facilities in education, health, housing, good roads, massive employment programme, etc., which are largely lacking now.

Time and time again, the working masses have shown the desire to fight back against the attempts to shift the burden of the crisis of the reigning system on to their shoulders by embarking on strike action and mass protests. The response to the multiple NLC-led strike actions against the increment in the price of petroleum products are pointers in this direction. But for the leadership of Labour – who were not prepared to go all out for the final blow – the regime would have fallen as a result of the previous general strikes. By using the authority accrued during the strike movements, the Labour leadership, Adams Oshiomhole and co., is obviously in a position to give a more meaningful direction to this desire of the working masses for a decisive change from the present mass poverty in Nigeria.

The first step in this direction would be for the Labour leadership to fill the present vacuum by setting up a serious political opposition to the Obasanjo regime. This is best done by providing a vehicle for power and genuine change for the toiling masses through the rejuvenation of a Political Platform for the desired change in the existing Labour Party. The NLC leadership and others in the Trade Unions should declare openly for the party and ask workers and the other toiling masses to join. The expected enthusiasm and desire for change would become even more meaningful with the adoption of the socialist policies outlined above as the programme of the Labour Party. It is only on this basis that Nigerian society can be saved from further degeneration and socio-economic decline.