The 2023 general election, which commences on Saturday, must be seen against the backdrop of the magnificent youth movement of 2020, known as EndSARS (referring to the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS unit of the Nigerian police). This was a highly significant development in Nigerian politics. It terrorised the ruling elite, and to this day continues to haunt them. It was unparalleled in recent history, not just in its scale, but also the ferocity of the struggle.
Therefore, the ruling class hopes to use these elections as a means to divert the anger of the youth into safe channels; as was done in 2015, when the All Progressives Congress (APC) headed by Muhammadu Buhari was elected on a message of hope and real change. This election was the ruling class’s response to the mass movement that erupted in 2012 against the PDP government of Goodluck Jonathan. Their objective was achieved: the movement of the masses underwent almost three years of lull before it started building up again.
Unlike in 2015, the situation today is proceeding in precisely the opposite direction to what the ruling class wished and planned for. The most far-sighted section would have loved to have a “younger” presidential candidate, who could deceive the youth by pretending to articulate their grievances, especially the middle-class layer. Instead, all they have to offer are old career politicians (both over 70 years of age) who are rightly seen as part and parcel of the hated establishment.
The APC and People Democratic Party (PDP) represent the two pillars of the Nigerian establishment. Both have been tested in government and both have attacked the masses with reactionary policies. And neither could even produce a superficially young, dynamic or appealing candidate.
Instead, the APC is standing Bola Tinubu, a multimillionaire who was governor of Lagos state for over a decade, and has faced repeated allegations of corruption. Having served as kingmaker in several previous administrations, his presidential pitch is no more inspiring than: “it’s my turn.”
The PDP are putting up Atiku Abubakar, yet another multimillionaire with multiple claims of corruption against him, who has run unsuccessfully for president five times already, and served as vice-president under Olusegun Obasanjo. His campaign promises to double-down on the very policies of economic liberalisation that have motivated mass protest movements in the past.
Evidently, neither of these bourgeois scoundrels are going to arouse much enthusiasm. Unfortunately for the ruling class, factional interests have trumped their general class interests, as sometimes happens, especially in backward capitalist countries like Nigeria, with its comprador bourgeoisie.
As a result, rather than the coming general election cooling down the movement of the masses, it has poured petrol on a raging fire. It is not only sharpening the divisions among the ruling class, but is also spurring forward the masses in the streets, as Nigeria's intense economic crisis continues to make life unbearable for ordinary people. Just days before the election, riots broke out against a chronic cash shortage. Prior to that, there were protests in Lagos against blackouts and high energy bills.
Movement enters political stage: masses build a third force
The ruling class’s inability to rule in the old way, and the unwillingness of the masses to tolerate the unbearable burden placed on their shoulders, has finally produced a result on the political front. The discredited establishment and its two parties are being abandoned. We note that a popular slogan during the EndSARS protest was “neither PDP, nor APC”. We are now seeing a political alternative developing, a third force. The Labour Party has turned out to be the vehicle through which this process is expressing itself. Unlike the APC and PDP, the Labour Party has captured the support of a significant layer of the youth, particularly urban elements in the south, who call themselves ‘Obi-dients’ (after the party’s leader, Peter Obi).
For these reasons, despite the peculiarities of the situation, the Marxists would clearly orientate towards this third force. However, we do not for a moment drop our criticism of the party’s leadership, which is rotten to the core.
As we have written on several occasions in the past, the Labour Party was registered and funded by Nigerian trade unions, but later completely abandoned the working class and became a home of charlatans and all forms of renegade bourgeois politicians. If not for this lack of support by the leadership of the trade unions for this potential mass workers’ party, and the sectarian attitude of the weak Nigerian Left, this process would have proceeded along a much healthier path than what we are faced with. This would for the first time have started the task of building a mass, all-Nigerian party of the working class.
But unfortunately, the man who accidentally found himself at the head of this political movement has nothing in common with the genuine aspirations of the working class. As we have commented before, Obi is a bourgeois stooge, a former banker and Governor of Anambra state, who supported privatisation and attacks on working people.
The primary role of Obi in these historical events is to act as a brake on the movement. His task is to moderate the anger of the youth and the masses generally, and divert this anger to safer and more accommodating channels. This explains why a minority section of the ruling class fully supports him. Whether he has enough authority to achieve this objective or not remains to be seen in the near future. But nevertheless, there is now the prospect of a fight to win the workers and youth who are looking to the Labour Party, wrestling them away from the influence of the bourgeois gangsters who lead it today, and turn these forces into a genuine mass vehicle of the working class.
Who will win and what to expect?
The Nigerian ruling class have been thoroughly exposed before the masses for who and what they are. The experience of 24 years of bourgeois ‘democracy’ has proved sufficient for the masses to see through the lies and manipulation of the elites. Therefore, the ruling class has been left with the tactic of pushing ethnic and religious divisions to the forefront in these elections. For example, while both Tinubu and Abubakar are Muslim (of the Yoruba and Fulani ethnic groups, respectively), the former has chosen another Muslim running mate, which is seen as a provocation to Christians, because it breaks with the tradition of a mixed-faith ticket.
However, this election is not like those in the past, where it was always a clear race between two parties, both representing bourgeois interests, and the choice could more easily come down to sectarianism around ethnicity and religion. We now have a third political party, posing a serious challenge to the previous monopoly of the two main parties.
Nevertheless, it is still likely that one of the main parties (APC or PDP) will eventually come out on top. However, after 24 years of this republic, we finally have a third party that will significantly split the vote of the APC and PDP’s traditional bases. It is not impossible that none of the parties will be able to get sufficient votes to be declared the winner. A presidential candidate must win at least a third of the votes in two-thirds of the states of the federation to win, which may be very difficult to achieve in this election. Partly because of the extreme use of ethnic and religious factors, and also partly because of the emergence of the challenge posed by the Third Force.
No matter what result the election eventually produces, what is very clear is that the regime will be extremely weak and beset by tumult. We can see this clearly in the ongoing cash scarcity crisis, and the terrible hardship it is causing.
The depth of the crisis of Nigerian capitalism means the country cannot avoid recession in the immediate period. Despite the internecine fighting by sections of the ruling class, and the crocodile tears they shed for the suffering of the masses, both the main parties have overseen this disaster.
The PDP came to power in 1999 when the international price of oil was just slightly above $17 a barrel, but it then rose to over $100 during its rule. This resulted in significant income, through which the PDP in its early days was able to stabilise itself by giving crumbs to the masses. It even paid off the country’s so-called IMF debts. When the price of oil fell, the crumbs disappeared, and cuts and austerity were the order of the day. The APC regime came in 2015 and temporarily borrowed itself out of recession: thereby solving one problem only to enter into a fresh new one: massively increasing Nigeria’s debts.
The next regime will rule over a sharply divided and extremely angry people. It will supervise a highly indebted economy that uses over 80 percent of its income just to service debt. In January 2023, the headline inflation rate rose to 21.82 percent. The Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) has projected that the country’s unemployment rate will hit 37 percent in 2023. Its 2023 Macroeconomic Outlook report said the country’s poverty headcount will also rise to 45 percent.
Therefore, no matter who emerges the victor on saturday, the ruling class and its political representatives will have limited room for manoeuvre. The growing anger will not be easily assuaged, and there will be prolonged class struggle.
What is to be done?
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) – the biggest Trade Union Confederation in the country, just elected a new leadership, which has publicly laid claim to the ownership of the Nigerian Labour Party. We completely agree with this move. But it is not enough to own something, it is important to also have firm control over it.
The task of retrieving the party from careerists and bourgeois politicians, who are currently dominating it, is an important struggle that must be waged. The working class has the capacity to build this party as a fighting tool to wrest power from the thieving and inept ruling class.
The coming period is going to witness prolonged clashes between the ruling class and the masses, and the leadership has to be provided by the working class. To effectively provide this leadership, a mass party of the working class is a necessity.
To successfully build this party into a fighting organisation, we need to win back our unions from the right-wing careerists who have found a home in them. Events will not proceed in a straight line, and there will be a series of defeats, but these will come side by side with victories. We are confident that in the end, the working class and Marxists will triumph because we represent not the filthy past, but a decent and just future.