No trust in Obasanjo: Build a mass Labour Party on a socialist programme

This is another editorial from the Workers' Alternative, written at the time of the transition from the previous military dictatorship to the present civilian regime. At that time there were many illusions in so-called "democracy", as people hoped it would rectify the dire economic situation. We are republishing it now, as we believe it is as relevant now as when it was first published. (June, 1999)

[Note: this article was first published in Nigeria in June 1999 as the editorial in the Marxist journal, the Workers' Alternative. It was written at the time of the transition from the previous military dictatorship to the present civilian regime. Then there were many illusions in so-called "democracy". Ordinary working people were expecting a change from the dire economic situation that had developed under the military. This article explained, from a Marxist point of view, why the ruling class in Nigeria were going down the road of "transition" and also why the masses should have no illusions in Obasanjo and that the only way out was to build a political party of the working class based on the trade unions, with a socialist programme. We are republishing it now, as we believe it is as relevant now as when it was first published]

According to the London Financial Times, Nigeria is going through "the worst economic crisis since independence in 1960". The crisis in Nigeria is magnified a thousand-fold by the world crisis of capitalism. All around the world the economy is either slowing down or sliding into recession. This has reduced the demand for oil. Thus Nigeria, which depends heavily on oil exports, is expecting state revenues to fall by about 50% in 1999.

The price of oil now stands at a little over $14 a barrel, and this is only thanks to the fact that the major oil-producing countries have agreed to reduce output. This means that compared to last year's $9.8bn expected revenue, this year the figure is expected to fall to around $7bn.

However, the economy has already recorded a record-breaking deficit of 3250 billion, this is way above the projected deficit for the year. The Naira has been devalued thrice this year within a short period (from March 17 to May 5 1999), and it now goes for 394.88 to a Dollar officially and about 3100 in the black market. This is about 10% of its value in February; there are plans for further devaluation.

Paying the interest on the external debt of over $30bn would cost $3.6bn. That means that more than half the oil revenues would be consumed by interest payments, leaving very little for other expenditure. However, the government has only budgeted $1.5bn for interest repayment and is thus forced to seek a further loan of $1.8bn. Already a $1 billion loan has been secured secretly from the IMF, with conditionalities.

It is a never-ending spiral. They borrow more money just to pay interest on previous debts. Thus the overall debt goes up, making things worse next year, and so on. This will only serve to strengthen the stranglehold of imperialism on the Nigerian economy and the Nigerian peoples.

Meanwhile the living standards of the masses have been falling for some time now. Annual income per head in the early 1980s was $1,000. It has now fallen to a mere $300. Everything is in short supply, fuel, food, clothing, jobs, shelter, electricity and water. The whole infrastructure is collapsing, power plants work well below capacity, the oil refineries are unable to meet demand due to lack of investment in maintenance. At the same time, corruption, which was already a serious disease, reached epidemic levels under the Abacha regime.

The Fall of Abacha

The Abacha regime had been able to stabilize itself for a period thanks to the defeat of the 1994 NUPENG & PENGASSAN workers' strike, which was betrayed by the Pascal Bafyau leadership of the NLC. This combined with the treacherous role played by the Nigerian ruling class, including the "June 12" faction, who in the face of the growing mass movement against Military dictatorship and economic hardship supported the Abacha's coup of 1993. They were all represented in Abacha's first cabinet. In addition, the temporary rise and stabilization of the price of oil to about $21 per barrel for about three years also gave the regime some breathing space.

But in 1997, things were changing. The economy began to slow down. Gross domestic product fell from 6.4% in 1996 to 3.9% in 1997, to 2.0% in 1998. (And this year the economy is expected to enter recession, with a fall in production of about 1%).

The Abacha regime, which had provided the ruling class with a temporary respite and stability, was now beginning to turn into its opposite. If the Abacha regime had survived much longer, it would have provoked a mass movement from below. The first signs could already be seen in the growing unrest among the students and the sporadic strikes on the part of the workers.

The more far-sighted wing of the ruling class could see this and was already preparing to move against Abacha. Diya was involved in a coup plot at the end of 1997. According to his own version, he was set up. Whatever the truth is, the fact remains that Abacha's second in command was prepared to take part in a coup. This was not a chance event. It reflected the divisions right at the top of the regime. It is usually the case that approaching revolutionary developments are reflected first in divisions appearing in the ruling class. Some sections of the ruling elite can sense the growing discontent among the masses and therefore they try to forestall the movement by giving some concessions, the first of which is the removal of the hated dictator. That does not mean in any way that Diya was a friend of the masses. On the contrary, precisely because he feared the consequences of a mass movement, he was prepared to plot against Abacha.

Even Abacha himself had some understanding of this and that explains why he was preparing his own "transition", but with himself as "civilian" ruler. He had his own vested interests to defend. Like all dictators, he feared that upon being removed from power, he would become a scapegoat for the anger of the masses.

But if he had remained in power, he would not have been able to appease the masses. It would have been a further provocation for them. That explains the opposition of the G34, NADECO and so on.

The fact is that Abacha had outlived his role, as far as the ruling class was concerned. But as he had risen above the same class he represented they could not control him. Thus, his 'untimely' death was a relief for the ruling class of Nigeria, and for imperialism. He may even have been assassinated as many have speculated.

The reasons for the present "transition"

The jubilation of the masses on hearing of the death of Abacha sent a clear signal to the ruling elite. It made it absolutely clear how widespread the hatred for the military regime had become. The regime could no longer continue to govern with the old methods.

That explains the whole process of "transition" in the present form. Initially some sections of the Ruling class and some "Human Rights" organizations were calling for the formation of some form "Government of National Unity". However, this would mean that the regime immediately hand over power to such a body. The regime did not want this, as they feared to hand-over power too soon to such a body. They fear that such a body maybe too unstable and independent to defend their interests. Some other wings particularly the pro-Abacha elements in the Abacha Parties (UNCP and co) were calling for the conclusion of the Abacha's Transition programme without Abacha; all the five Parties adopted Abacha as their presidential aspirant. However, this would have had to be based on the structures set up by Abacha.

This would not have been convincing enough for the masses who were already beginning to stir. The masses could feel the regime weakening. That explains the upsurge in the student movement and the wave of strikes in the closing months of 1998.

The "transition" had to appear to be more "democratic" so instead of the Abacha agenda, "new" parties were allowed to be formed. However, the "transition" is to be a controlled and undemocratic process that would ensure that only the members of the ruling class would be allowed to participate. In this the G34, NADECO and others participated, giving the whole process a semblance of greater democracy. In reality, the same old figures were manoeuvring behind the scenes.

This "transition" is the result of the growing mass movement from below. The ruling elite hopes that by loosening the reins from above it can forestall this movement.

But for the masses, "democracy" is not an abstract thing. For them, it has meaning in the sense that they hope it will bring some alleviation from the gruesome poverty in which they are forced to live.

Will "democracy" solve the problems of the masses?

So long as capitalism survives in Nigeria there will be no solution to the problems of the masses. On the contrary, things will get worse, as imperialism and its Nigerian stooges attempt to extract even more profit from the labour of the masses. That means that the "transition" can only achieve a very short-lived slowing down of the movement as the workers wait for the results. But how long can the workers wait? The tensions are already there in the various strike movements in different states. Once the "hand-over" takes place, the workers will take the struggle onto a higher level. But for now they are being asked to "wait for democracy", both by the "business community" and their own leaders in the NLC.

However, the figures for economic growth show quite clearly that on a capitalist basis no improvement for the masses will be forthcoming. In the last ten to fifteen years the population of Nigeria has been growing at the rate of 3.85% a year, while the economy has been growing at an average annual rate of 2.2%, not even enough to guarantee a stable standard of living. The fact is that the Nigerian ruling class is totally incapable of even using the existing productive forces. Capacity utilization stands at an incredible 26%! That means that Nigerian industry is only producing about one quarter of what it could produce. These figure alone shows how totally bankrupt the Nigerian ruling class has become. It cannot even fully exploit the production of oil. The collapse of the oil refineries has meant that Nigeria, one of the biggest producers in the world of crude oil, has been forced to import fuel, adding further to its external debt!

In reality, there is nothing "democratic" about the present "transition". There is no real parliamentary democracy, no real freedom to organize into parties. The three parties allowed to stand are all capitalist parties. Both Obasanjo and Falae represent the interests of the capitalist class. Obasanjo served his class between 1976 and 1979 when he was military dictator, and Falae served under the dictator Babangida as Finance Minister; he also served under Obasanjo in the 70s. As The Guardian, (March 15, 1999) explained quite bluntly, referring to Obasanjo, "he was a candidate of the combined team of the southern/upper business class (including, in fact, the bourgeoisie of the South-West) and the core of the northern political class." On the other hand, Falae was the choice of another wing of the southwestern bourgeoisie.

Falae and Obasanjo represent the same class, the capitalist class

The fact that they represent fundamentally the interests of the same class is shown that in spite of Falae's court challenge to Obasanjo's "victory", as the Sunday Punch explained (March 21, 1999), "Chief Oluyemisi Falae was the first to renew the clamour for a broad based Government of National Unity..." The same article also quoted a certain Dr. Doyin Okupe, one of Obasanjo's campaign managers, who declared that, "General Obasanjo is positively disposed to sharing power with other political interest groups in the country." These statements show quite clearly, that in spite of their differences they both represent the same class, the ruling class, the capitalists and the generals who have plundered the wealth of the country for decades.

Neither of them offers a solution to the problems facing the Nigerian masses. Neither of them is opposed to privatization. Neither of them is prepared to give a decent minimum wage to the workers. Both of them are prepared to bow down to the dictates of imperialism. Any differences there may be between them simply reflect different interest groups within the ruling elite itself. They may differ on the tempo of the privatization programme in order to better defend the interests of their backers, but in no way do either of them defend the interests of the masses.

In addition, they both contested in an undemocratic "Transition" Programme, which was designed specifically for the rich. The Constitution of the "Fourth Republic" is being released three weeks to hand over, it has been written and approved by the PRC, and not by the working people, it is meant for.

No guarantee the military will not return at a later date

And neither does civilian rule guarantee against the return of the military to power. For now, they are forced to withdraw from direct control of power. Not to do so would mean risking an even greater mass movement. But the civilian rulers, such as Obasanjo, will solve none of the problems.

In the long run, the military can come back. They have done so in the past, they can do so again. The fact is that on the basis of capitalism genuine parliamentary democracy can only be a fleeting experience. The masses will use this so-called "democracy" to fight for their rights (better wages and working conditions, etc.). But capitalism cannot give them these rights and therefore the ruling class, in the long run, can only maintain their rule by returning to brutal dictatorship. As the London based magazine, The Economist (March 6th 1999) stated, "As for those army officers who stand to lose some of the perks they have grown rich on, many are confident that the civilians will mess things up again - and, sooner or later, they will be back in charge."

The danger of tribal conflict

But a return to such form of rule does not mean that everything would be as before. If the military come back thinking they can rule with the old methods, they will get a surprise. The masses are desperate for a solution to their problems. If the Labour Movement fails to offer a solution then the temptation to go down the road of localism, tribalism and nationalism will grow. Different sections of the ruling class can play the card of ethnic division, that can lead to the break up of Nigeria in a similar process to what we saw in the ex-Yugoslavia.

Lack of jobs, housing, water, etc., would be blamed on the other ethnic groups in a crescendo of tribalist reaction. But this is not inevitable. It all depends on the ability of the working class to offer an alternative way out.

The generals plundered the resources created by the labour of the masses. In many cases, generals have become capitalists. Their wealth and privileges will remain intact. NEPA, NITEL, the oil refineries, and the other utilities are in a state of ruin due to the lack of investment on the part of these parasites. However, privatization is no answer.

No to privatization

Privatization only means handing over theses assets to private hands that will use them solely for the creation of their own profit. In the main, it will be foreign capital that will come in.

Obasanjo's programme will involve an attack on the workers and youth. He will follow in the steps of Abubakar, who is not even prepared to concede a decent minimum wage. The same applies in the field of education, where big fee hikes have been announced in the universities. At Ibadan, they have announced hikes of between 100 and 150 per cent.

All this is unacceptable to the workers and youth of Nigeria. They are not responsible for the present crisis, and yet they are the ones who are expected to pay.

It is not true that the resources are not available. Billions of dollars have been stashed away by the generals and their cronies over the years. Over the past 25 years, total oil revenue has been $280bn. The money is there. It is just a question of getting a hold of it and using it in the interest of the mass of the working people.

For nationalization and workers' control and management of the economy

How is this to be achieved? First and foremost, we must oppose all forms of privatization. The problem is not state control, but the form of state control. At present control of the state run industries is in the hands of profiteers and people who mismanage them for their own greedy ends.

The solution is to place these industries under democratic workers' control and management. To this, we should add the demand to nationalize the commanding heights of the economy that are still in private hands. Only with such a programme will it be possible to plan the resources of the country in the interests of the working people.

Furthermore, we should not fall into the trap of believing that the IMF or the World Bank can provide a solution. As we have already seen, any further loans will not be used to invest in Nigeria, but will only be used to pay the interest on the outstanding loans. In reality, Nigeria has more than paid back its debts. All the interest paid over the years amounts to more than has actually been borrowed from these imperialist bloodsuckers. This is confirmed by figures provided by the London Financial Times (February 23, 1999), "During the 1990s, Nigeria has been a net capital exporter to the tune of some $2.5bn a year". So who has been financing who? These figures show that rather than the imperialist countries financing Nigeria, the opposite has been the case. The only real solution, the only serious proposal, is, therefore, repudiation of the foreign debt.

Build a Labour Party...

The problem is that neither the PDP, the APP or the AD can accept such a programme, for it goes against their own class interests.

That is why we need an independent party of the working class, a Nigerian Labour Party. In the past, under the pressure of its own rank and file, the leadership of the NLC launched such a party, only to later abide by registration requirements, thus allowing its dissolution. The NLC must launch such a party again. The working class needs its own voice.

And it would not be a question of waiting for the powers above to concede the right to registration. It would be the movement of the masses themselves that would legitimize such a party. After all, are the present day leaders of the NLC not free to lead the NLC thanks to the pressure of the mass movement?

...with a socialist programme

But it would not be sufficient to simply launch a Labour Party. It would have to have a genuine socialist programme as outlined above. The Nigerian workers must insist on such a programme, as it is the only way out of the current crisis created by capitalism. They must pressurize the leadership of the NLC to accept these programmes.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the NLC at the earlier period accepted the programme of privatization (albeit with some "consideration" for workers). They accepted the reduction of the minimum wage for civil service workers from 35,200 to 33,500/33,000, and the increase in the price of fuel from 311 to 320. It must not be forgotten that some elements within the leadership of Labour actually called for the fuel price increase before the increment. In addition, rather than demand that the Abubakar regime restores the price of fuel back to 311 after the first increment they supported the reduction to 320.

Before March, they have twice called off a general strike. However, due to the enormous pressures from workers (in the face of growing poverty and more attacks from the regime and the capitalists exploiters) they have been forced to lead the civil service workers strike in 28 States, the National teachers' strike, etc.

At the May Day rally, the NLC President, Adams Oshiomhole, came out openly against privatization, the regime's mispolicies and for a Labour Party; this is quite commendable.

However, not only must activists of the Labour Movement fight for their own Party, they must, even now, still fight to change the programme of the NLC.

An independent party of the working class based on a genuine socialist programme would gain the support of the students, the unemployed, the rural farmers and the urban poor, thus winning the overwhelming majority of the population to its cause.

It would thus cut across the ethnic divisions which risk plunging Nigeria into a bloody nightmare in the coming years. With such a party and programme it would be possible to unite the peoples of Nigeria (Yorubas, Igbos, Hausas, Delta, etc.,) by bringing them together in a common struggle against the real enemy, the capitalists of Nigeria and the imperialists.

After the death of Abiola, we had a foretaste of what may come in the future: one ethnic group fighting another. We saw that in the South West, but we are also seeing the demands of the Ijaws in the Delta. The break up of Nigeria would involve "ethnic cleansing" of nightmare proportions. A way out of the present impasse must be found. If the Labour Movement does not rise up to the tasks posed by history then a nightmare is facing the Nigerian peoples. Either the workers will prevail or the capitalists.

That is the task before us. Let us build up the forces of genuine socialism in Nigeria among the youth and the workers. If we do this successfully, transform the NLC, build a mass Labour Party on a socialist programme, then no force on Earth will be able to stop the Nigerian masses in their struggle to transform society.