This article should be read together with our articles on the Nigerian National Question, Ethnic conflicts in Nigeria, which is a collection of articles on this issue written by Nigerian Marxists for the journal Workers' Alternative .
The terrible ethnic clashes and killing of over 200 people in Northern Nigeria that erupted around the Miss World pageant, that was scheduled to take place in Nigeria, have brought to the attention of the world media the national question in this impoverished African country.
However, this is not the first time such clashes have taken place. Over the past three or four years there has been an unprecedented escalation of ethnic, tribal and religious conflicts in Nigeria. At least 3000 people have been killed in these clashes, as many as were killed in the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001. But these deaths in Nigeria have had nowhere near the amount of media coverage as those in New York. The fact that these problems have made big headlines only because of the Miss World pageant reflects the superficial, distorted and prejudiced nature of the bourgeois media.
It also reflects their class interests. For to seriously investigate the causes of the recent killings in Nigeria would mean unveiling the role of imperialism that is literally strangling this country to death.
Of course, the clashes have very little to do with the actual Miss World contest. Supposedly the clashes were sparked off by an article by a young journalist, Isioma Daniel, in the This Day newspaper. Some of the contestants had decided to boycott the contest in protest at the ruling that an unmarried mother should be stoned. This was in accordance with Sharia Law (Islamic law) which has been introduced over the past two years in practically all of the Northern states of Nigeria, where the Muslim population is the majority. Isioma Daniel in her article suggested that the prophet Mohammed "would probably have chosen a wife from among them."
What we should note, however, is that the rioting and killing did not start immediately on the day the article was published. According to Pini Jason, a journalist writing in the Vanguard newspaper, based in Lagos, on November 26, "If the This Day story was the problem, the riots would have been spontaneous. But the riots did not start until five days [later]…" As the British newspaper, The Guardian, commented (November 30), "Almost no one in Kaduna - Muslim or Christian - seems to have read Daniel's piece. Few have any knowledge of or opinion on Miss World. It was not until four days after the publication of the article that Kaduna's furious Muslim mobs organised themselves."
It is obvious that there was political manoeuvring going on behind the scenes. When the rioting started primary targets were the local governor's house, his business headquarters and his campaign office which had been set up for the forthcoming elections. The rioters were shouting slogans of aspiring candidates in the forthcoming elections. Cars that displayed the present governor's stickers were burnt.
Also, not all the deaths were caused by the religious conflict itself. Many were killed by soldiers firing into the crowds indiscriminately. There was clearly an element of revolt against the authorities involved in these events. According to witnesses who spoke to The Guardian (Britain) "it was a full day before the riots became overtly sectarian." In the same article a nurse is quoted as saying that, "We have always been living together so you should never say there is religious hatred here."
It is clear that behind these killings there is the conflict within the Nigerian ruling class itself. The article in the This Day newspaper was picked up on by the local elite to transform the rioting into a sectarian Muslim-Christian conflict. Muslim gangs were whipped up into a frenzy against the Christian minority. Behind these gangs is part of the local ruling elite. Because of the dire economic situation the country is facing local rulers have been pushing for more regional autonomy. They have been using the national question to put pressure on the central government to make concessions. Thus it is the poor masses that pay for the aspirations of a tiny wealthy minority.
For these privileged layers over 200 people dead and more than 4000 left homeless is a mere bargaining tool in their hands, with which they can try and gain greater wealth for themselves.
Once the rioting had taken on a religious colouring people were killed on both sides. Christian and Muslim gangs began roaming the city of Kaduna in the North, murdering families of the opposite religion. Muslims and Christians were killed, but obviously, given the balance of forces, most of those killed were Christians.
However, these killings are not the first and are not even the worst. Two years ago more than 2000 people died in Kaduna in a month of religious rioting. That was at the time of the introduction of Sharia law.
But the conflicts are not merely isolated to the North, or even to the Muslim-Christian divide. There is, unfortunately, a very long list of such conflicts that involve also intra-tribal conflicts, that goes back a few years. In 1999 there were the clashes between the Ijaws, Urhobos and Itsekiris in the town of Warri. In Ondo State we have seen clashes between the Ijaws and Ilajes. In Anambra state, between the Aguleri and Umuleri. There have been the Ife-Modakeke, Ogoni-Andonis, Zango-Katof, Jukons-Tivs conflicts, and the list goes on. In Lagos Hausas from the north have been attacked and killed.
The fact is that Nigeria is divided into many national and tribal groups. It has 120 languages. On top of this there is the religious divide between Muslims and the various Christian denominations. This divide even cuts across national groups. For example one of the biggest national groups are the Yorubas who inhabit mainly the South-West. They are mainly Christian, but some of them are Muslim. So within the same tribal or linguistic group there can be religious divisions. There are also sub-groups within the same national group, who often come into conflict over the control of land. Or it may be over the allocation of spaces in local markets that such conflicts break out.
Migration of peoples has also made the question even more complicated. Over the past few decades millions of rural Nigerians have flooded into the cities looking for work in order to survive. So there has been a mixing, with the cities divided into areas inhabited mainly by one group or another.
Therefore the national question in Nigeria is an extremely complex, and also a potentially explosive one.
Relentless pressure of imperialism
The recent events in Nigeria are in reality the result of the enormous and relentless pressure of world imperialism. The multinationals and banks of Europe and the USA are directly responsible for what is happening in Nigeria today. They are literally sucking the lifeblood out of the Nigerian people.
A few figures will help to underline this point. Nigeria has a foreign debt of around $30 billion. Over the next ten years servicing this debt (i.e. paying the interest) will mean Nigeria will have to pay the IMF, World Bank and other Western banks, almost $30 billion without paying off a cent of the actual debt itself. The government is forced to set aside 65% of the country's capital expenditure to cover these payments.
The IMF and World Bank's "cure" for Nigeria is worse than the original illness itself. They have imposed widespread privatisation, the removal of subsidies on basic goods, the sacking of huge numbers of workers and the opening up of Nigeria's markets to foreign goods. This has led to the collapse of what little there was of Nigerian industry.
Over the past twenty years capacity utilisation of Nigerian industry has gone down from 80% to around 30%! Per capita income has gone down from $1000 per annum to $200 today. Unemployment is widespread and growing. The cities are full of gangs of frustrated unemployed youth. 90% of the population is classed as poor or very poor. And the situation is rapidly deteriorating by the day. Many companies are slashing wages by 40-70%!
The pressures of world capitalism are not only having an effect on the masses. The instability, which all this causes, is creating huge divisions among the local Nigerian ruling class.
For a large part of its 42-year history (since independence in 1960) Nigeria has been ruled by the military. This has traditionally been dominated by officers from the Muslim north. This domination was particularly enhanced after the Biafra war in the late 1960s, when three provinces in the South-East attempted to secede. (Again, imperialism has a responsibility for that. French imperialism was trying to get its hands on oil in the South). The North is far less developed than the South. Industry and Commerce is mainly based in the Yoruba dominated South-West. But the bulk of the wealth produced in Nigeria is now concentrated in what is known as the South-South, or the region around the Niger Delta. This is where the oil is. Through their control of the state many Hausa officers were able to enrich themselves and become millionaires and billionaires.
Since 1999 Nigeria has had a limited form of "civilian rule" under the Obasanjo regime. Under his rule the Southern bourgeoisie has attempted to redress the balance of power. At the same time the regime has been forced to cut funding to the various local governments. Thus the introduction of Sharia law in the North, and the whipping up of Muslim sentiments, has to be viewed as an attempt by the local elites in the North to force the central government to make concessions.
Sharia law has enraged the Christian minorities in the North, and has also led to reprisals against the Muslim minorities in the South. The introduction of Sharia law was actually unconstitutional, but Obasanjo dare not take measures against the Northern states for fear of sparking off a process that could lead, in the long run, even to the break-up of Nigeria. If such a process were to begin it could develop into nightmare proportions. It would not lead simply to a North-South conflict, but it would provoke a whole series of local conflicts. So long as the Nigerian federation holds together each minority group can feel they have a degree of protection within the federal state, where no single group has a majority. But if for instance the South-West were to break away this would be a state with a Yoruba majority, and all the minorities living there now would feel even more threatened. The recent events in Kaduna are just a small taste of what could be all across Nigeria. Thus, so far the regime has attempted to maintain an unstable equilibrium.
Only the working class can offer a solution
But for how long can this be maintained? The economic and social situation is getting worse by the day. The pressures on Nigeria are remorseless. Where is the solution to be found?
The solution lies in the hands of the working class. Over the last three years every section of the Nigerian working class has taken strike action. In June 2000 and again in January 2002 there were general strikes that shook the nation. They showed the enormous revolutionary potential of the Nigerian workers. In February of this year, following on from the general strike, even the police formed a union and went on strike!
The problem, as everywhere else in the world, is the leadership of the working class. The main workers' organisation is the NLC (Nigerian Labour Congress). Its leaders have systematically held the workers back. In January they did everything to guarantee the collapse of the general strike. The leader of the NLC is actually promoting privatisation!
In spite of this, the general strikes showed one clear thing. When it comes to concrete struggles over wages, jobs and living conditions, the workers of all the various national, linguistic and religious groups come together in a common struggle. Only the class struggle can therefore cut across all the divisions. Thus a heavy responsibility lies on the shoulders of the NLC.
Nigeria has the resources. It is rich in oil. It receives £15 billion a year in oil revenues. There is even speculation that its oil reserves may prove larger than Iraq's. It also has a potentially rich agriculture. All Nigerians could have a job, a house, clean water, healthcare, etc. This would cut across the national divisions. As Lenin once pointed out, the national question is fundamentally about bread!
In the 1970s, on the basis of even a small growth in the economy, Nigeria had a period in which the various national and tribal groups peacefully co-existed side by side. Imagine what would be possible if the workers of Nigeria had direct control of the country's resources! And what could be done with all the money that is being siphoned by imperialism!
Instead, the last twenty years have seen a decline in living standards, and a deterioration of all the infrastructures. Nigeria has been plunged into a living hell.
The recent events are a warning to the workers of Nigeria. If you do not want to be dragged down into this pit of hell you must build your own party. You must transform your unions into genuine fighting organisations. You must demand the expropriation of the imperialist multinationals and the local Nigerian capitalists. Once you have the wealth in your hands then you can begin to tackle the problems of poverty, unemployment and ethnic conflict. There is no other way.
December 2, 2002