Democratic Socialist Movement

For Struggle, Solidarity and Socialism in Nigeria

By - DSM

No choice Presidential elections

No choice Presidential elections

Robert Bechert, London

A commentary by the Committee for a Workers’ International, the international socialist body that the DSM is affiliated to.

Different weekends in April are scheduled to see Nigeria go to the polls for a new president to replace Obasanjo, a new Senate, House of Representatives, 36 State Governors and 36 State assemblies. The campaign has been fast and furious. The nomination process even saw gun battles inside parties. Losing contenders switched parties to get onto ballot papers. Candidates were disqualified on different pretexts.

Just weeks before the first round of presidential voting on 21 April it is not certain who the main candidates will be or if voting will go ahead as planned. Outgoing president Obasanjo is backing Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, outgoing Katsina State governor and one-time ‘left’. Obasanjo moved might and mane to block the current vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, winning the nomination of the ruling PDP, and is now trying to use corruption charges to stop him standing for the opposition Action Congress (AC). There is a legal challenge to Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, running for a second time for the main opposition party, the northern based ANPP.

All of them support the capitalist system, although Buhari is running as an ‘anti-corruption’ candidate. But he is remembered by many activists for vicious repression of trade unions and students during his 1984/5 military dictatorship.

However there is a striking contrast between the battles between the candidates and the attitude of most Nigerians. The mass of Nigerians are viewing this contest with indifference, not because they do not care about the future, but because these elections generally offer them nothing.

Eight years of civilian rule have not fundamentally changed the lives of most Nigerians, apart from ending the most brutal aspects of military rule and the introduction of mobile phones. Repression continues. A US State Department’s 2006 report stated that “government officials at all levels continued to commit serious abuses… the most significant human rights problems included the abridgement of citizens’ rights to change their government”. Between 1999 and 2004 an estimated 10,000 Nigerians died and one million became internal refugees due to communal clashes and state repression. In Plateau State over 200,000 fled fighting between February and March 2004.

The Bush government is concerned because it views West Africa as a new important source of oil in the face of the deepening crisis in the Middle East. Capitalist strategists agree that Nigeria is facing potential disaster. Last year the World Bank listed Nigeria as a “fragile state”. Imperialism fears the destabilising effect that turmoil in Nigeria could spread throughout the region, let alone the effect on oil supplies. So far the military has not shown signs of taking control again, mainly out of fear that a new coup could lead to the country’s break-up.

Potentially one of Africa’s richest countries, Nigeria is failing to move forward. In the 50 years since it began exporting oil, Nigerian governments have received $400 billion in oil revenue. But where has this wealth gone?

Last year, the World Bank reported that 1% of Nigeria’s population received 80% of its annual oil revenue. In 2006, oil income was $36 billion, its population around 140 million. Therefore the richest 1,400,000 received nearly $29 billion, an average of $20,700 each, while nearly 139 million shared just over $7 billion, a $50 average.

However, it is not simply a question of unequal shares. The Nigerian elite generally takes the money and runs. Given the imperialist domination of the world economy they do not even try to be capitalists, rather, they are increasingly looters and speculators. At best, Nigerian industry is stagnant. According to Nigeria’s Central Bank, last year industrial capacity utilisation was 25%, and production is falling.

The vast majority has gained nothing from the surge in oil prices, unlike the late 1970s and very early 1980s when an oil boom at least led to a temporary improvement in life for many. This oil boom has been accompanied by surging inflation, and cutbacks in education and health services. Symbolically during the election campaign two of the main presidential candidates, Yar’Adua and Atiku, were both rushed to Europe for medical treatment when they fell ill; the elite will do all that they can to avoid having to go to a Nigerian hospital.

This is the background to the brutal election struggles. For the elite and would-be elite, elections are an opportunity to secure a position in the state machine and get rich quick through looting. This is why candidates spend huge amounts on money, often paying people to vote, hoping to ‘profit’ from their ‘investment’. If they are not elected, they, without scruples, decamp to the winning parties or turn to more ‘normal’ criminal activities!

Often, voting has little to do with who is declared the winner. An international analysis of elections in 2003 estimated that “results in a third of the states were rigged and in another third were dubious… as many as ten million voters’ cards had been fraudulently issued”. Obasanjo, then standing for re-election, formally won 99.92% in Ogun, his home state. Officially, he won 1,365,367 votes there, but on the same day, his party’s candidate for Ogun State governor got only 747,296 votes. This difference was explained by peoples’ ‘enthusiasm’ to re-elect Obasanjo!

The Nigerian working masses and poor can be enthused when they see a real alternative. Between 2000 and November 2004 there were seven general strikes and mass movements against Obasanjo’s policies. These struggles were huge, mobilising the majority behind the trade unions and labour movement. They showed the potential power that could change the country. But the union leaders held back. Repeatedly, struggles were called off, citing minor or non-existent ‘concessions’.

Worsening conditions led to a growing mood for ‘regime and system change’, which became widespread in the mobilisation for a general strike scheduled for November 2004. This scared the trade union leaders even more and they called it off a few hours before it was due to start. Because of Nigeria’s poor communications, news was slow to get out and the country stopped on 16 November, but then workers returned to work. This demoralised the movement, leading to activity dropping off as millions sought personal solutions to the crises facing them and their families. In some areas, especially the oil producing Niger Delta, this has boosted separatist forces, with conditions close to civil war developing there.

Nevertheless, there is still potential for a movement against the elite. The Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI, Nigeria) has long been campaigning for the labour movement to form its own independent political alterative that would struggle for the working masses’ demands and to change society. This was a theme in the address the DSM was asked to make to February’s conference of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), the largest trade union centre. (DSM website: But the union leaders backed away from this step.

A few years ago the NLC launched a ‘Labour Party’ but it did not really begin to develop until late last year. Then the NLC’s outgoing president, Adams Oshiomhole, announced that he would stand as Labour candidate for the Edo State governorship. Although the DSM had been calling on Oshiomhole to run for the presidency on a workers’ programme, they backed his campaign in Edo. However Oshiomhole then said he would stand the Action Congress (AC) candidate, a big step back as the AC is one of Nigeria’s three big capitalist parties. Nonetheless, in Edo many workers and poor are enthusiastic about Oshiomhole’s candidature and he has adopted a radical call for a “peoples’ government” and mass mobilisation against rigging.

The same cannot be said of Labour Party candidates in other parts of Nigeria. This is because they are mostly career capitalist politicians who, having lost nomination battles in their former parties, suddenly declared themselves for Labour!

The DSM had been planning to stand in Lagos State on the banner of the radical National Conscience Party. The DSM has played an active part in the NCP since the party’s foundation in 1994, and led it in Lagos, its largest and most active region. However, this campaign was beheaded by a manoeuvre by the NCP’s new right-wing national leadership and the electoral commission.

Ever since the party’s founder, Gani Fawehinmi, stepped down as chair in 2004, the leadership has shifted decisively to the right, doing deals with capitalist politicians. NCP leaders wanted an alliance with Buhari, and the ruling elite as a whole did not want a high-profile DSM-led NCP campaign in Lagos. In 2003, despite rigging, the DSM-influenced NCP generally came third in Lagos State, the commercial nerve centre of the country. A leading DSM member, Lanre Arogundade, officially won over 77,000 votes (9.6%) in one of the big Senate constituencies in Lagos. While in other Lagos elections DSM members got up to 15%. The elite feared that the Lagos NCP could become a key force in this city of over ten million.

This means that in Lagos, like most of the country, there is no clear alternative being offered. The likelihood is that there will be a low turnout, although a certain late swing towards Buhari as an anti-corruption ‘lesser evil’ cannot be entirely ruled out.

While it is unclear what will follow the elections, it is certain that there will not be stable upward development. Already the IMF has confirmed that the government plans yet another fuel price rise after the elections, which will further cut living standards.

The experience of another rigged election will put the question of struggle back on the agenda. However that raises the issue of the labour movement learning from the experiences of 2000-04 and being able, as the DSM argues, to build a real working peoples’ alternative. Without this Nigeria faces an uncertain future.