Nigerian Rulers Attempt to Avert Growing Discontent

The ruling class of Nigeria is facing a dilemma. The Indonesian revolution has brought home to them what could happen in Nigeria in the coming period. As in Indonesia, one man at the top was attempting to hold onto power in spite of the growing undercurrents of discontent among the masses. The overwhelming majority of the Nigerian population wants an end to military rule. That is why people came onto the streets to celebrate the death of the hated dictator, Sani Abacha, in June.

The ruling class of Nigeria is facing a dilemma. The Indonesian revolution has brought home to them what could happen in Nigeria in the coming period. As in Indonesia, one man at the top was attempting to hold onto power in spite of the growing undercurrents of discontent among the masses. The overwhelming majority of the Nigerian population wants an end to military rule. That is why people came onto the streets to celebrate the death of the hated dictator, Sani Abacha, in June.

Abacha was becoming more and more isolated. Opposition to his rule was growing within the ruling class itself and also among the top layers of the army. Last year the army's second in command, General Diya, was involved in a coup attempt against Abacha. Diya was arrested and sentenced to death, although the new dictator, Abubakar, has changed that to a long prison sentence. Abacha was desperately trying to hold onto power, but in so doing he was closing himself into a corner. He no longer called meetings of his cabinet, but limited himself to meetings of his military commanders. This showed how his regime was resting almost solely on the military jackboot.

He had managed to hold onto power after his coup of 1993 thanks to a combination of factors. The first was the total lack of initiative and combativity of the leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress (the equivalent of the TUC). This leadership had squandered the magnificent movement of the working class in the period of 1993-94.

In 1994, Nigeria's oil unions, NUPENG and PENGASSAN, brought the country's biggest industry to a standstill. Oil provides 95% of Nigeria's foreign earnings. Although it was legal, the strike was a direct challenge to the government. The union leaders had to go underground. The strike paralysed Nigerian industry and the government was losing $34 million a day in oil revenues. Public sector workers joined the strike in support. In Nigerian cities, students built barricades, which troops brutally dispersed.

Lacking oil to fuel generators, electric power plants began to stop operation, and blackouts spread. Air traffic ground to a halt as planes could not be refuelled. Air traffic controllers joined the protest.

Eventually after weeks of mounting pressure from below the Nigerian Labour Congress leaders were forced to declare a general strike. Although they called it off after just one day, many workers refused to go back to their jobs.

The trade union leaders

But lacking in leadership the strike movement was defeated. In August 1994 the military government disbanded the national executives of the Nigerian Labour Congress, and the oil and gas workers' unions. The regime clamped down hard on opponents, attacking trade unionists, closing universities and arresting oppositionists. But the Nigerian working class is one of the most powerful in Africa and has a militant tradition. The death of Abacha opens up an entirely new and stormy situation in Nigeria.

Following on from this Abacha was able to benefit from the increase in the price of oil, which gave him extra resources with which to manoeuvre.

However none of the fundamental problems were solved. In fact they continued to worsen. The price of oil has gone down from about $21 to the barrel to $14 and the country has slipped further into economic crisis. Today Nigeria has debts of £19 billion. Despite its exceptionally valuable resources&emdash;Nigeria is the world's fifth-largest oil producer&emdash;the country suffers from an acute energy crisis. The breakdown in infrastructure has led to a position where only one of its refineries is working and its power stations are operating at only 32 per cent of their normal capacity. The impasse of Nigerian society is revealed by the fact that 64 per cent lack access to clean water and sanitation, half of the population is illiterate, and life expectancy is only 51 years.

The movement of the youth

Significant in all this situation is what has been developing among the youth, in particular among the students. After the defeat of the 1993-94 movement of the working class the student movement was also affected. The NANS (the National Association of Nigerian Students) split with the bulk of the movement falling into the hands of the right-wing. Now the opposite process is taking place. The mood amongst students is one of unity towards a single NANS. The right-wing was losing control as this mood developed. Abacha, in fact, was extremely worried about the possible effects of a movement of the students. He called the right-wing leaders of NANS to a meeting where they were given money and orders to come up with a pro-Abacha movement. But when those "leaders" went to the mass meetings of the students they ended up with the opposite of what they had hoped for: the students voted that the NANS leadership should organise anti-Abacha demonstrations throughout the country. In fact the mood was so strongly against the regime that the right-wing didn't even bother to turn up at the meetings!

Changing mood

This changing mood among the students is a reflection of the general dissatisfaction of the whole population. And that also explains the growing opposition to Abacha (before he died) among a significant layer of the ruling class itself. There were many calls for him to stand down. Western imperialism was also putting pressure on him to go. They realised that rather than being a factor for stabilisation Abacha was provoking enormous anger that could spill over into a revolutionary movement of the masses. In spite of this he doggedly went on with his particular from of "transition". He had allowed five parties to register, all of whom had chosen him as their sole candidate for the 1st August presidential elections. After these elections the plan was to hand over power to civilian rule by 1st October, i.e. to himself. If this plan had gone ahead it would most likely have led to an Indonesian type situation. So Abacha's death was very timely from the point of view of Western imperialism and of the Nigerian ruling class. In fact there has been speculation as to whether Abacha may have been actually "aided" in getting his heart attack. All the circumstances surrounding his death seem to indicate that this may well have happened. If this were proved to be the case it would serve to underline how desperate the situation had become for the more serious strategists of capital!

Abubakar, the new dictator, immediately upon taking over attempted to woo the support of the West and to appear as being genuinely intent on restoring some form of democracy in Nigeria. He has released a number of prisoners, amongst which are the leaders of NUPENG, Frank Kokori and of PENGASSAN, Milton Dabibi and he invited the exiles to return to Nigeria. However this should not lead the workers into false illusions. All previous dictators have played this game in the past, in order to consolidate their grip on power. In fact Abubakar has recently announced that the hand over of power to civilians would now be delayed until May 1999, instead of 1st October as had been promised by Abacha.

What has further complicated the situation in Nigeria is the death of Abiola in prison. Abiola was generally recognised as being the winner of the 12th June 1993 presidential elections. Practically all opposition groups inside and outside the country had been calling on Abacha, and later on Abubakar, to hand over power to a government led by Abiola. On the surface this may seem the logical thing to do, but we have to remember the nature of the 12th June 1993 presidential elections. They were part of general Babangida's "transition". Babangida was the previous dictator who held power from 1985 to 1993. He had banned all political parties and then had set up two artificially created parties, the SDP and the NRC. He also wrote their manifestos, based on IMF and World Bank policies.

All opposition groups at the time regarded the whole process as a farce because the candidates were hand picked by the regime. This was reflected in the turnout for those elections. 34% of the registered voters came out to vote, (which is quite a high figure for Nigerian standards). But the registered voters are only about 40 million out of a potential 80 million or so. The majority of the population do not see the point in registering! Out of the roughly 14 million that actually voted about 8 million cast their votes for Abiola.

Abiola was an out and out bourgeois. He was head of US communications giant ITT's African and Middle Eastern operations from 1971 to 1988. He actually welcomed Abacha's coup of November 1993 and had close links with many individuals involved in the Abacha junta. The man who stood as his vice-presidential candidate later joined Abacha's government. Although he was no friend of the people this did not stop Abacha from imprisoning Abiola in 1994 when he insisted on recognition of the June 12th election results.

In spite of their previous position, most of the opposition in Nigeria continued to call for a government led by Abiola. Before his death there was speculation that Abiola would have been prepared to renounce his claim to the presidency in order to be released. The United Nations and US imperialism were pressurising him to renounce his claim in exchange for a role in the process unfolding in Nigeria.

Socialists must have nothing to do with such manoeuvres. An Abiola led government would have been a capitalist government and we would not give any credence to such a government. Faced with a growing movement of the workers and youth the ruling class of Nigeria would be prepared to concede some form of parliamentary democracy. Marxists would recognise that this would be an enormous step forward. The workers would be able to organise more freely into Trade Unions and into a Labour Party. However any bourgeois government that may be formed through such a process would inevitably carry out anti working class policies. Such a government would try and head off the movement of the workers and youth, most likely by involving the leadership of the labour movement itself. That is why Marxists in Nigeria must stand firm and oppose any kind of support for such a government. We have seen so-called "democratic governments" in the past. They have always ended up with a return of the military. Initially there may well be illusions in whatever form of government is formed. The attitude of the masses would be that anything must be better than this military regime.

Political voice

The fundamental problem in Nigeria is that the workers do not have an independent political voice. That is why one of the key tasks facing the Nigerian Labour Movement is the building of a Labour Party armed with a socialist programme.

Marxists must warn the workers and youth of Nigeria: count only on your own forces, build your own party and fight for a socialist transformation of Nigeria. That is the only guarantee against a return of a military regime. So long as the economy remains in the hands of companies such as Anglo-Dutch Shell, Italy's AGIP, Elf-Aquitaine from France, and US giants Chevron and Mobil there is no guarantee that democracy will be long lasting, and in no way can the problems facing the workers be solved. These companies split their oil revenues 50-50 with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, a government-run corporation. The power of these companies must be broken, and that can only be achieved through the struggle for socialism in Nigeria, which would then have to widen out to the rest of West Africa and to the whole continent.