Does Sowore have the programme for genuine change in Nigeria?

When the Abacha dictatorship in Nigeria (1993-98) was facing collapse, the Nigerian elite, backed and advised by imperialism, prepared the ground for a transition to a bourgeois democratic regime. The various presidents, from Obasanjo to Buhari today, have run corrupt regimes, doing nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Nigerian masses, while enriching themselves and their cronies in the process.

Oil accounts for about 90 per cent of the value of Nigerian exports, but more than 80 per cent of the money generated by those exports ends up in the hands of a mere one per cent of the population. According to a 2012 BBC report: “Poverty has risen in Nigeria, with almost 100 million people living on less than a $1 (£0.63) a day, despite economic growth, statistics have shown. The National Bureau of Statistics said 60.9% of Nigerians in 2010 were living in "absolute poverty" – this figure had risen from 54.7% in 2004.”

Establishment discredited

All this explains the discrediting of the two major parties, the PDP, in power between 1999 and 2015, and the APC, in office since 2015. Next month, February 2019, presidential elections are being held and there is much speculation about the possible outcome, given the discrediting of all the established politicians.

What we are facing in Nigeria is a similar process that we have seen around the world. The old established bourgeois parties that have run the system for years have seen their base of support slowly whittled away. However, the leaders of the labour movement, in this case of the Nigerian Labour Congress, have failed to offer a credible alternative. They do not mobilise seriously and have failed to build a political alternative, i.e. a genuine workers’ party. In this context a huge vacuum has been created on the political front, and because the Trade Union leaders refuse to fill it, someone else will do it, and that someone else is most likely to be a bourgeois or petit bourgeois populist demagogue.

It is in this context that Omoyele Sowore has appeared on the scene. His decision to stand in the elections has raised hopes among a layer, particularly of the youth, that here we have a candidate who can clean up and modernise Nigeria. Therefore, it is worth looking at who he is and what he stands for.

Omoyele Sowore, who is now in his forties, lectures Modern African History at the City University of New York and Post-Colonial African History at the School of Art, New York. He made a name for himself in 1992-94, when he led the Student Union at the University of Lagos. He was violently attacked by armed cultist gangs, was arrested and beaten several times, after which he left the country for the United States. Subsequently, from his Manhattan apartment he launched a website, Sahara Reporters, that began to make a name for itself by exposing high level cases of corruption. It has become very popular and has turned Sowore into a respected opposition figure in Nigeria. So big is the pressure within society that he even talks about “revolution” in Nigeria! What kind of revolution, however, is not specified.

Sowore’s financial backing

A layer of the youth, and also the working class, is looking to Sowore in the hope of finding the change they so desperately seek. The question we have to ask ourselves as Marxists is: does Sowore have the programme necessary to eliminate poverty, create jobs, build an efficient infrastructure and modernise Nigeria, as the millions of Nigerian workers, youth and poor urgently need? And more fundamentally, does he represent the interests of the Nigerian workers and poor? Or does he represent other class interests?

According to Pulse, “The presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC), Omoyele Sowore, has made N37.6 million ($103,045) in campaign donations from his GoFundMe fundraiser for the 2019 presidential election." His aim was to raise US$2million, so he is still far from his objective. The 100,000 dollars he has raised comes mainly from middle class layers of the Nigerian diaspora, people who are prepared to make donations to what they believe will be a candidate that can clean up Nigeria.

However, it is worth looking at who else backs and finances Sowore and his Sahara Reporters project. Among his backers are to be found the Ford Foundation and the Omidyar Foundation. Sowore himself stated the following in an interview: “Ford Foundation funded Sahara Reporters until the last general elections of 2015… Sahara Reporters, as a cutting-edge digital medium, has recently received further funding from Omidyar Network in California.” (See My Sahara Reporters Story-Sowore, Feb 28, 2016)

We have to ask ourselves why bodies such as the Ford Foundation would finance the activities of Sowore and Sahara Reporters. If we look at what kind of activities they promote it will help us to understand what limitations these bodies would put on Sowore’s programme.

The Ford Foundation does a lot of charitable and philanthropic work around the world, and is presented as a force for good. But its political agenda is clearly liberal, i.e. based on promoting a free market economy. It finances NGOs, renowned as organisations that are put in place to cut across the process of radicalisation to the left, to intercept these processes and channel them down safe roads. In the past the Foundation was even accused of having connections to CIA agents. The present president of the Ford Foundation is Darren Walker who worked as a lawyer and investment banker. In 2006, he was named the Rockefeller Foundation's vice-president for United States and international initiatives. Omidyar Network, on the other hand, describes itself as a "philanthropic investment firm," similar in fact to the Ford Foundation. It was established in 2004 and has provided more than $992 million to non-profit organizations and for-profit companies.

In a recent video Sowore Indicates He May Hire Seun Onigbinde as His Finance Minister, a key position in any possible future administration under Sowore. It is worth listening to this YouTube discussion, where the whole emphasis is on how to make it difficult, even impossible, for politicians to steal public funds. The idea behind this is that you can have a capitalist Nigeria without corruption. That is like saying you can have a lion that does not eat meat! But more importantly, it is worth looking at who Seun Onigbinde is.

Together with Joseph Agunbiade in 2011, he set up BudgIT [see Meet Seun Onigbinde, the man whose company will turn around government transparency for more details] as a means of publicising government spending and making it available to the wider public. Interestingly, in 2014, the same Omidyar Network, quoted above as a source of funding for Sowore, invested $400,000 in BudgIT. And in 2015, the governor of Kaduna State signed up BudgIT in an experiment in government transparency. Then in 2017 BudgIT received a further $3million from the same Omidyar Network and also from the Gates Foundation. >The Gates Foundation has among its donors people like Warren Buffet, one of the richest men in the world.

There is a saying, “Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are”, or if we want to change that slightly we could say, “tell me who finances you and I will tell you what you can and cannot do.”

The Danger of NGOism

Foundations like the Ford Foundation or the Gates Foundation promote and finance what are known as Non-Governmental Organisations, or NGOs. From a political point of view, what is the role of the NGOs? It is to cut across the radicalisation to the left of a layer of the youth and working class around the globe. In the 1980s the IMF and World Bank were promoting SAPs (Structural Adjustment Programmes) involving privatisation of state assets and the opening up of the economies of the former colonial countries. As opposition to these programmes grew among the workers and students in the early 1980s, the US and European Union, together with the World Bank, found a useful tool in the NGOs and decided to channel a lot of funding to them. NGOs are to be found promoting gender equality, anti-racism, etc., which provides them with a veneer of radicalism. They consciously seek out left-wing youth and offer them what seem to be practical campaigning activities, but with the advantage that they can find paid employment. Thus, they are launched into what becomes a personal career, involving their own material improvement. It is in effect a way of corrupting the militant youth and turning them into harmless social activists.

The growth of social movements challenging the impact of the SAPs was met by a project to subvert them. It is not by chance that the NGOs tend to be against so-called “statism” and promote the “free market economy”. The imperialist backed regimes – such as the ones we have seen in the past twenty years in Nigeria – proceeded to privatise and carry out the dictates of their masters, opening up their national economies to cheap imports, and paying out huge sums in debt repayment. They also began chipping away at the old labour laws, reducing workers’ rights. In the process the cost of labour was brought down and unemployment continued to rise. The NGOs are useful in this context, as they do nothing to stop all this, but limit themselves to promoting so-called “self-help” projects and “job training”, in the process alleviating the conditions of a very small layer of the poor, while corrupting the local leaders, and working to undermine any genuine mass movement from below.

Impending revolution and the need for clarity

Given the vacuum on the left in Nigeria, and given the seething anger of the masses and the inevitable radicalisation of the youth, it is logical that the more farsighted imperialist bourgeoisie and their agents in Nigeria will work systematically to divert the youth away from genuine revolutionary politics. That is precisely the role of the NGOs. They will also finance any political project that, while seemingly radical, does not go beyond the confines of the capitalist system. It is abundantly clear that Sowore’ project falls into this category.

The people behind such operations are bourgeois liberals. They do a lot of philanthropic work, they fund many activities, they even put on a left face promoting anti-racism, gay rights, etc., but they remain fundamentally bourgeois. Therefore, the fact that they are prepared to fund Sowore and the people around him, such as Onigbinde, says much about the limitations of his policies and the whole project he is promoting.

If anyone has any doubts about what we are saying here, we can quote at length from the horse’s mouth. Sowore gave an interview under the title “Why I Want To be Nigeria’s President”, published in Sahara Reporters on March 28 last year, in which he said: "We helped ensure that Obasanjo’s third term was scuttled. Sahara Reporters was instrumental in ensuring that we had a constitutional transfer of power to Goodluck Jonathan when Yar’adua died. And in 2015, our pioneering efforts at the real-time reporting of electoral results helped to ensure the sanctity of the electoral process, leading to the defeat of an incumbent party. We’ve done this not just in Nigeria – but across the African continent in nations like Zimbabwe and Gambia."

Thus, rather than campaigning for a genuine left alternative, they limited themselves to making sure “democracy works”. But what benefit was there for the masses in the passage from Obasanjo to Goodluck? None whatsoever! It merely served to defuse some of the anger against Obasanjo who was trying to stay in office, but the essence of the policy carried out at the top did not change.

Sowore promises a lot: "Power supply, security, and unemployment are major issues. There is no reason why Nigeria should have an almost 20% unemployment rate. We have tens of millions of willing, able and competent people who are waiting to be put to work, the best way to get them to work will be to provide at least 20,000 megawatts of electricity with the first three years of coming to power. I will turn Nigeria into a construction site, everything from roads, hospitals, schools, modern railways and highways will be built like never before. We have massive deficits in housing and infrastructure – and my government will immediately move to address those deficits, generating jobs at the same time… I plan to immediately employ up to 200,000 young graduates as teachers that will be deployed in cities, towns and villages and other under-served areas. They will be trained for six months before they head out to work."

Sowore wants a better kind of capitalism

Nobody would argue against the fact that the power supply in Nigeria needs to be increased massively, that an efficient transport system across the whole country must be built, and that millions of jobs need to be created. In that sense, as Marxists, we enormously sympathise with the aspirations of the workers, the poor, the youth, who look to Sowore. But we also have to ask the question: how is he going to achieve all this, how is he going to finance it all? His answer is very revealing. He says he will do it by promoting business: "The creation of an enabling business environment will be a major plank of our growth platform… My government will work to make it easier for businesses to thrive in Nigeria…"

Sowore is basically trying to promote a better kind of capitalism, and in that sense he falls into the category of bourgeois liberalism. He thinks he can develop capitalism in a better way than previous leaders in Nigeria. He claims that by combating corruption he will allow for development. He ignores the fact that corruption is what the whole system rests on. You can’t have capitalism without corruption! His propaganda is in fact very similar to that of the Five Stars Movement in Italy that denounced corruption and inefficiency and promised to modernise the country. But after the elections the Five Stars entered a coalition with the far-right League, and among the many policies they have come up with is a massive pardoning of tax evaders, a legalisation of illegal constructions, all mixed together with blatant racism and discrimination. If Sowore were ever to become President he would show in practice, as the Five Stars in Italy is doing, that you cannot change the monster of capitalism into a gentle guardian angel of the working people.

Let us take one of his promises, to massively increase the power supply. He says he will achieve this by promoting the private sector: "In order to fund these projects, I will be relying on a more judicious use of our existing resources as well as the judicious use of public-private partnerships (PPP)."

Public-Private Partnerships have been used for years in Britain, promoted first by the Tories in the 1990s and then enthusiastically embraced by Tony Blair. Private capital has made huge profits from all this. (See Private Finance Initiative: Britain leads the way - to disaster! For more details on this) The “old” way for a government to build new infrastructure (hospitals, schools, or new roads), was to find the finance, either through taxation or borrowing, and then pay for the project to be carried out. This way the new infrastructure would become a state asset. With a Public-Private Partnership, however, the asset remains in the hands of the private builder and the state basically leases it over many decades.

The idea of Public-Private Partnership was developed with the excuse that the public debt was already too high and so the state could not afford to directly finance new projects. In practice, where this has been applied, the state has ended up paying far more over a long period than it would have done had it directly built the infrastructure itself. Thus, what Sowore is proposing is to create very lucrative projects for the Nigerian and foreign capitalists, and it would be the Nigerian people who would be called on to pay for all this for decades to come. It is no accident that the present Corbyn-led Labour Party in Britain is promising to bring back the PFI projects under state control.

Role of Marxists is to warn of limitations of bourgeois populism

The role of the Marxists is to explain all this patiently, and while have a friendly and sympathetic approach, warn the workers and youth that the programme Sowore stands on cannot solve their problems. We need to warn ahead that this project will be used to promote a bourgeois liberal agenda, disguised as a “revolution” of course. This means privatisation, cuts in social welfare, increases in student fees and so on, but all covered in the veneer of “clean politics” of anti-corruption, etc. In the final analysis, none of this will be to the benefit of the working masses of Nigeria.

Yes, we are all against corruption, we all want good roads and houses, hospitals, schools, and we all want to massively upgrade the power supply and the distribution network. But how is this going to be achieved if it is all based on making a profit for the private companies that would be involved? How can the private sector help in this? The private sector is dominated by all the major operators who have made a lot of money by holding political power. It is not by chance that among the most powerful and wealthiest men in Nigeria are to be found former military dictators who became rich on the back of the Nigerian people.

The central question is the following. Is Sowore prepared to go one more step forward and call for the expropriation of these ill-gotten riches? Is he prepared to call for nationalisation and workers’ control? Since he is promoting “good capitalism”, a “clean capitalism”, a “people's capitalism”, we strongly doubt if he will do that, because there is no such capitalism and it will never be achieved. So long as capitalism – or the “free market economy” – remains in place it will be its economic laws that will continue to govern. Nigeria will continue to be at the mercy of imperialist domination. Profit will remain the driving force, and the mechanism of competition means the strong survive and the weak go under. There is no way of avoiding this on a capitalist basis.

Marxists bring out the reality of the situation. The wealth to carry out what Sowore promises is there, but it is in the hands of the local rich elite and the multinational oil and gas companies. It must be taken out of their hands. Therefore, the expropriation of these corporations is the only concrete demand that would really make available the funding for all the projects Sowore promises to carry out.

For the same reason stated above, it is doubtful if Sowore will go down this road. If he were elected – and that is not at all guaranteed, considering the many means the ruling elite have to get the election results they want – he would proceed to expose his own limitations. He would enormously disappoint those honest workers and youth who today in Nigeria are in desperate search of a political force that will defend their interests. When this happens, a genuine mass left alternative must be in place that can offer a way out of the nightmare of Nigerian capitalism.

The reason why a phenomenon such as the movement around Sowore can emerge in Nigeria is because the working class has been denied its own political voice. The reason for this lies fundamentally on the shoulders of the leaders of the NLC (Nigerian Labour Congress), the trade union leaders – such as Oshiomhole in the past - who had immense authority among the masses but preferred to line up with one wing of the Nigerian capitalist ruling class rather than build the workers’ alternative.

Given this situation, today we cannot stop the rise of bourgeois populism in the short term, but we can dedicate ourselves to work systematically towards the building of the workers’ alternative, which can only be based on the nationalisation – under workers’ democratic control and management – of the key sectors of the economy. Part of this huge task involves addressing the illusions that many people may have in individuals like Sowore. He may live a period of popularity, and can gather around him a section of the youth who yearn for genuine change and for an end to the rotten system in Nigeria. However, we must tell these youth the truth, which is itself a revolutionary act and win the most advanced to the programme of Marxism and build the revolutionary alternative that the workers of Nigeria so desperately need.