Nigeria: State of emergency in Plateau State – the implications for the workers' movement

In May Obasanjo, the President of Nigeria, imposed a state of emergency on Plateau State, removing the local state governor. The measures were taken after serious ethnic conflicts erupted in the area, but behind all this lies a more sinister agenda. The central government is preparing the ground for more bonapartist measures, that are ultimately aimed against the labour movement.

General Olusegun Obasanjo, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, recently declared a state of emergency in Plateau State, one of the 36 States that make up the Nigerian federation. The Proclamation of the State of Emergency was also approved and passed by both arms of the National Assembly, viz the Senate and the House of Representatives. Notable contents of the Proclamation include the immediate suspension of the state Governor and the Legislative Arm – the State House of Assembly – among others for a period of six months in the first instance, subject to a review for an elongation at the end of the first six months.

This has been followed by a series of approving statements and disapproving comments by cross-sections of society. The main point of departure seems to be the constitutionality or desirability of the removal of a supposedly democratically elected governor, along with the elected Assemblymen by a Presidential fiat, in a supposed federated republic, and their replacement by a presidentially appointed Sole Administrator.


The proclamation of a state of emergency in Plateau State, according to Obasanjo in a nationwide broadcast, on the May 18, 2004, came after protracted inter-ethnic cum religious clashes (between Christians and Muslims) in the weeks preceding the declaration of the state of emergency. According to media reports the recent clashes were particularly prevalent in the Yelwa area in the Shendam Local Government area of Plateau State. Plateau State is in the North Central region of Nigeria. It is a multi-ethnic society, with a majority Christian population and a minority Muslim population - which is predominantly made up of the Hausa-Fulanis.

Up until recently, Plateau State had been one place in Nigeria which was considered a safe haven from sectarian clashes. However, the breaking point was the year 2001 when there was an unprecedented clash between the "indigenes" in Jos, the state capital city, and the so-called "Settlers" of the Hausa-Fulani extraction. The 2001 clash led to hundreds of deaths, and finally put paid to the fact that no community in Nigeria is immune to bloody sectarian clashes, which are usually but superficially based on ethnic or religious differences.

The 2001 Jos clashes spread to other parts of the state leading to destruction of lives, property and the attendant displacement of people to the neighboring states of Nassarawa and Bauchi. The refugees in these states since 2001 were estimated to be over 30,000 in number, and the situation has been seriously compounded by the on-going clashes in the state.

The recent clashes, according to media reports, started from Yelwa where there was an accusation of cow theft by the Fulani cattle-rearers against the "indigenes". Typically, there were also counter-accusations by the "indigenes" against the Fulanis. This soon snowballed into multiple deaths cum destruction of houses on both sides, and to reprisal against non-Hausas in faraway places, as was the case in Kano state. The Kano episode was particularly widespread, with multiple killings and destruction of properties. The estimated death toll in the Kano reprisal attacks was in the region of 3000.

The interesting thing about these sectarian conflicts is the open accusation and counter-accusation that leading politicians, including the state governors in both aforementioned States, were involved in the mobilizations leading to the attacks. The May 18, 2004 broadcast of Obasanjo also gave credence to this assertion, when he said all the political leaders in Plateau have been compromised. This however, is just stating the obvious; and it is a further confirmation of our writings in past publications that it is the different sections of the Nigerian capitalist ruling class that are the chief promoters of the various ethnic-religious sectarian clashes. They consciously promote ethnic chauvinism and sectarian hatred among the poor layers in society; therefore basing their rule on a divide and rule basis, and on the other hand they use this as a formula to selfishly bargain for their own share of the "national cake".

As far as promotion of ethnic chauvinism is concerned, there is no exception to this among the ruling politicians, President Obasanjo included. The link between the likes of Obasanjo, Vice-President Atiku, Senate President Wabara to their corresponding ethnic chauvinist organisations vis-à-vis Odu'a Peoples Congress, Arewa Consultative Forum and the Ohaneze Ndigbo, respectively, is all too glaring for all to see; with particular reference to their roles in the emergence of these personalities ,and others, during and after the last general elections. In other words, Obasanjo is very much guilty of the accusation of ethnic-religious chauvinism he accused the deposed Plateau State Governor of, in his nationwide broadcast.

Suffice it to say that sectarian clashes are not peculiar to Plateau and Kano states. They are a daily occurrence in most other states of the Nigerian federation. This is, however, a major reflection of the deep-seated socio-economic crisis of the underdeveloped capitalist mode of production in Nigeria. The sectarian clashes have become more prevalent as the economic crisis has deepened over the years. Years of deprivation and lack of any worthwhile social security for the future, including rising unemployment has provided a fertile ground for primitive sectarian hatred and killings largely promoted by the different sections of the capitalist ruling class. This explains why there were more clashes in the last couple of years compared with the oil boom years, when there were some positive impacts on the lives of the people socio-economically-wise.

But as the economic crisis has worsened, with the attendant impoverishment of the working class and the other poor masses, people have begun to ask questions as to the origins of all this and what is the way out of their poverty. In the absence of a clear scientific understanding of the crisis such as a Marxist tool of analysis, it is not difficult for a Christian pauper to buy the idea that the origin of his/her impoverishment is based on the antics of the non-Christians. Moreover, as earlier espoused, the various sections of the ruling class severely promote this idea for their selfish ends.

Incidentally, the economic woes have become worsened under Obasanjo these past years. The various IMF/World Bank inspired economic austerity policies of Privatisation and Liberalisation have worsened the poverty level of the people, with rising unemployment; collapse of social infrastructures, destruction of the agricultural sector due to an astronomical rise in the cost of fertilizers, collapse of the manufacturing sector and massive loss of jobs in both the private and public sectors of the economy among others. Here lies the evidence-in-chief of the reason for the ethnic-religious clashes in Plateau and other places in Nigeria. Hence, all the protagonists, and apologists, of these callous economic policies of imperialism, at the Federal and State Government levels are all guilty of the killings in Plateau, Kano, Delta and other similar cases.

Another case of the 'pot calling the kettle black' is the accusation made by Obasanjo that one of the reasons for the removal of the Plateau State Governor is the governor's multiple foreign trips without informing him. Without necessarily defending the sins of governor Dariye, discerning observers of the Nigeria polity will readily attest to the fact that Dariye is only taking after Obasanjo. Incidentally, one of the standpoints of the proponents of Obasanjo's impeachment in 2002 at the National Assembly was his endless foreign trips, with nothing significant to show for it. Almost everybody including his main apologists agreed that Obasanjo was guilty of this allegation. Similarly, one main aggravating point during the July 2003 NLC-led General Strike action, against the increment in the prices of petroleum products, was when Obasanjo traveled to Liberia to meet with the notorious former ruler Charles Taylor, "when the country was seriously burning".

X-raying the State of Emergency

From the aforementioned, it can be seen that Obasanjo and indeed all the members of the ruling class are guilty of all the same accusations being made against Dariye. Hence, the declaration of the state of emergency in Plateau State must be seen as a smokescreen for another hideous agenda. Significantly, it represents the emergence of a formal Bonapartist rule in Nigeria, using Plateau State as a testing ground.

In the presence of an inability of the Obasanjo regime to solve the basic socio-economic needs of the workers and the other poor people, the logic is to throw away all pretence to democratic norms and hold down the people's response against the austere socio-economic environment via dictatorial means. This explains the suspension of the 'elected democratic structures' in Plateau and there replacement with an unelected Sole Administrator, the former Chief-of-Army-Staff, retired General Chris Ali.

The "constitutionality" of the State of Emergency has been challenged by notable liberal personalities like Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka and the National Consciousness Party (NCP) leader, Gani Fawehinmi, among others. The Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu notably also condemned the removal of the Plateau State Governor among other things. They had variously asserted that though Section 305 of the constitution allows for the declaration of a state of emergency in a part or the whole of the federation, it does not expressly state that a governor can be removed by the President as has happened in Plateau State.

Without necessarily going into the merits or otherwise of this opposition to the declaration of the state of emergency, it needs be emphasized that the recent actions leading to the Plateau phenomenon has exposed the fact that Nigeria's 1999 constitution, like all others before it, does not serve the interests of the ordinary people in society.

In the final analysis the concerns of Marxists, and all conscious working class fighters, is to examine the impact of the State of Emergency on the working class movement and other poor layers in society. For one, a state of emergency implies the emergence of new autocratic powers for the administering Authority to use to curb any rising movement of the people. It would not matter whether the reason for the movement is genuine or not. It is a direct blow aimed at the working class in the final analysis. In the light of the new situation in Plateau, strikes, mass meetings and demonstrations will be expressly outlawed, all under the guise of maintaining "order and public peace". This is our standpoint and the basis of our opposition to the State of Emergency in Plateau State. It amounts to a direct assault on the democratic rights of the poor working masses.

This is also the reason why the position of support of the Nigerian Labour Congress in a May 18, 2004 statement by its President, Adams Oshiomhole, expressing the NLC's support for the State of Emergency is most unfortunate. It directly reflects the ideological emptiness and corruption of the labour aristocracy, grossly lacking in the understanding of the interplay of class forces in society, leading to giving a "blank cheque" support to the state of emergency, a weapon that will eventually be used against the working class.

Similarly important to note is the massive support that the National Assembly gave the promulgation of the state of emergency. It cut across the main parties' differences. It was so easy for the main minority party, the ANPP to align with the ruling PDP on this issue. What was at stake was the potential and real threat to the very existence of corporate capitalist Nigeria, a system that guarantees their collective thievery and the exploitation of the workers and the poor masses.

It can also be seen that as far as the capitalist ruling class is concerned, it can easily move from either side of the same coin of "democracy" or "open dictatorship". What is happening in Plateau State in the state of emergency should seen as the beginning of the open transformation to a full-blown Parliamentary bonapartism on the part of the Obasanjo regime. This is because it is becoming impossible for the government to continue to pretend that it can allow open expression of the "constitutionally guaranteed" democratic rights of freedom to protest, etc.

The brutality that was employed by the Police when the opposition Citizen Forum led by Wole Soyinka and Gani Fawehinmi organized an opposition demonstration, in the commercial city of Lagos, some days before May18 , 2004, gives credence to the fact that the open declaration of emergency measures in Plateau State is not accidental or isolated. They are all signs and symptoms of a grand plan of the emerging Bonapartism that will spread across the board to the entire nation. This explains to a large extent the reason for the open criticism on the part of Governor Tinubu of the state of emergency in Plateau because his own job is also at stake, and to some extent, individuals like Tinubu may also represent dissenting voices within the ruling class towards the inherent danger that the emerging Bonapartism will pose to their system in Nigeria in the final analysis.

To what extent Obasanjo and co will succeed in this desired transformation will depend on their ability to smash movement of the working class, the other opposition trends and also on the economic prospects among others. The working class has not been defeated. On the contrary there is a rising mood of militancy among the workers. Therefore the most likely perspective is that Obasanjo will be incapable of playing out the script completely. It could even have the opposite effect to what was desired and provoke a massive reaction on the part of the workers.

An antidote against the emerging scenario ending like the debacle of the military coup and the 1967 ethnic-based civil war, that followed the 1962 State of Emergency in the old Western region, will depend largely on the maturity of the struggle of the working class leading to the Nigerian Socialist Revolution and indeed the international socialist movement.