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Nigeria in Turmoil

The #EndSARS movement is the latest outburst of protest against the tremendous hardship and repression that the Nigerian working class has endured. The oil-rich country also faces an economic crisis triggered by the collapse of oil prices, which intensified during the pandemic.

Alex Kole

December 3, 2020
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Image: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP

This article was originally published on December 2 on Socialist Resurgence.

This public power exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds. — Frederick Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”

What transpired on the night of Oct. 20 in Lagos, Nigeria, what is being referred to as Black Tuesday, proved to be a watershed event in the recent history of that oil-rich country. The event produced an incipient mass movement whose aim is not only to end police brutality but potentially to bring down a government.

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad, also known as SARS, moved against peaceful protesters, cut the CCTV cameras, shut off the flood lights, and commenced shooting. In the wake of violent repression waged by security forces against the young protesters, the protests have grown in size and intensity. And the government of former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari is now on the ropes as his security forces employ violence and repressive measures that only embolden the protesters and swell their ranks with radicalizing youth tired of daily harassment and the ever present threat of imprisonment, torture, and death. The #EndSARS movement, while erupting spontaneously from a video of a brutal police shooting of a motorist that went viral, is the latest outburst of protest of the tremendous hardship and repression that the Nigerian working class has endured, not only at the hands of the police but since the collapse of oil prices created an economic crisis that has only intensified with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.

The role of the police in Nigeria

As professor Abosede George notes in her recent piece in the Washington Post, “For half of the republic’s 60-year history and for the century of colonial rule before independence there have been quasi-military police forces and outright military police charged with repressing dissent from the civilian population.” She details the origin of the British colonial police force composed of Hausa men from the north of the country, who were brought to Lagos to protect the British population, and later were used against troublesome tribes that resisted British economic expansion and against striking workers during the General Strike of 1945 and the Enugu Colliery Strike of 1949.

After independence, during the First Republic (1963-66), Nigeria’s constitution established a federal system, but the Nigerian Police Force was nationalized and placed under the control of the central government in Lagos, the capital at that time. Central government control over the police was adopted out of concern that regional leaders might use the police against political opposition, although according to George, abuses persisted, especially under the military government.

When the military took power from the civilian government in 1966, the police became an auxiliary of the military. As George describes in her article, “armed men from the military and police ruled the nation, governed the states and patrolled the streets, indiscriminately meting out unchecked violence upon ordinary people,” and this endured off and on for 33 years as one coup followed another until civilian government returned.

Since the civilian government was restored in 1999 with the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo, police abuses against the working class and urban poor have persisted. Baba Aye, a Nigerian trade unionist and member of the Socialist Workers and Youth League, writing for the No Borders website, details police violence directed against the people under civilian rule. In part two of his series on the recent protests against SARS, he cites 2009 and 2016 Amnesty International reports that detail the use of torture against police detainees and violence, even murder, of those who cannot afford to pay bribes. Police corruption is exacerbated by the poor pay that the officers receive and their frequent use by local tribal leaders and politicians to intimidate political opponents and further personal political agendas.

A glaring example of this practice is the involvement of police and paramilitary task forces in the ethno-religious conflict in the northern Muslim states. In 2015, unarmed Shia Muslims taking part in a religious procession in the northern state of Kaduna were massacred by the hundreds. Police have also targeted Islamic groups and those on the left that have shown solidarity with them. One such case is the police shooting of one of Aye’s comrades and trade union leader, Alex Ogbu, who was gunned down on Jan. 21 at a busy area of Abuja. Ogbu was part of a peaceful protest organized by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), who are seeking the release of their leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky, who, according to a blog post on the Review of African Political Economy website, was “illegally detained since the massacre of 350 IMN members in December 2015 in Zaria.”

Subsequently, the police have shot and killed dozens of protesters associated with IMN and also from the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) movement, as was the case in 2016, when 150 peace activists from that organization were killed by police. Grizzly examples of unprovoked police violence against Nigeria’s people has been a hallmark of both its civilian and military governments, and in many cases, the severity of the violence employed has been in direct relation to the resistance of Nigeria’s toiling masses to the imperialists’ neoliberal model of economic development that has preserved the country in a semi-colonial state.

Neoliberal reforms in Nigeria, 1979-2020

Over the course of the 1970s, according to Jussi Viinikka in an essay from Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa, Nigeria grew into the third largest exporter of crude oil in the world, and due to significant investments in infrastructure and other commercial enterprises during the years of years of rising oil prices (1973-74), Nigeria’s industrial working class grew substantially. By the early 1980s, the working class was becoming more combative in its fight to realize its economic and political demands. Nigeria’s main trade-union confederation of the time, the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC), while established in 1978 under the military government Olusegun Obasanjo to integrate the labor bureaucracy into the state apparatus, evolved into an increasingly combative organization by the early 1980s.

Between 1981 and 1983, Viinikka notes, the NLC-affiliated unions led a series of strikes that were met with an increasing level of repression as activists and union leaders were red-baited and jailed, and striking oil workers in particular were prosecuted under Decree 35, a law against sabotage of oil production, which could carry a penalty of death. Labor unrest from those years provoked another military coup that ended civilian government, and the generals thereafter began implementing structural adjustment reforms, which, in classic neoliberal fashion, have stressed privatization of state-owned enterprises (SOE) and drastic cuts to social welfare spending.

When Buhari was installed as president in 1983 by Sani Abacha’s coup against the government of Nigeria’s Second Republic (1979-83), the military initially adopted policies intended to end shortages for basic staples and thus reverse the rampant price inflation and significant job losses that devastated the standard of living for Nigeria’s working class. By 1985, when General Ibrahim Babangida replaced Buhari as head of state, Nigeria’s foreign debt was at the forefront of the problems that the military faced. While Babangida publicly repudiated that IMF proposal for structural adjustment reforms, in practice he accepted an IMF loan of $2.8 billion U.S. dollars and adopted the same set of IMF reforms under the guise of its being his own government’s economic program. The results were devastating for Nigeria’s working class.

Babangida’s government enacted a series of measures that cut social welfare spending, froze wages, and sold off SOEs to cronies of the regime. Citing a 1991 World Bank report, Viinilkka paints a grim picture of the effects of neoliberal reforms on Nigeria’s working class by the early 1990s: “Per capita income dropped from $1,000 in 1980 to just $300 in 1993. The GDP in U.S. dollars fell from $99 billion in 1980 to $37 billion in 1990. By 1993, Nigerian workers typically took home 20 percent of their 1983 wages in real terms.”

Writing for the Review of African Political Economy website, Lai Brown, a Nigerian trade unionist and activist, argues that foreign debt payments are a form of neocolonial control that have done very little to improve the lives of ordinary Nigerians. He notes that Nigeria’s foreign debt has increased from $10.3 billion U.S. dollars in 2015 to $22.08 billion in 2018, and according to the African Development Bank, 50 percent of government revenue is spent to service this debt. The legacy of Nigeria’s struggle with debt persists to this day. Although civilian government returned to Nigeria in 1999, the fact remains that payments on foreign debt represent a considerable percentage of Nigeria’s national budget, and in order to service the debt, the working class has assumed a greater burden as the government has imposed regressive consumption taxes—i.e., a Value Added Tax (VAT) and electricity tariffs—to increase government revenue.

On top of the neoliberal diktats and regressive taxes that have devastated the living standards of Nigeria’s working class, the collapse of world oil prices combined with the economic hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic and severe environmental degradation, have brought the workers and peasants to the edge of an economic abyss. According to a report by Africanews, Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics stated that “the GDP of Nigeria, an oil-producing country, contracted by 3.62% in the third quarter of 2020, after having already declined by 6% in the previous quarter,” and unemployment has ballooned to 27.10 percent in the second quarter of 2020. As the economic situation in Nigeria becomes more dire, the question that arises is will these demonstrations morph into something broader, which combines the demands from the youth protesting against police violence with a broader series of economic and political demands representing the interests of the entire working class and its allies.

Class struggles on the horizon

The extent to which the mass protests against police violence succeed in opening a renewed chapter of class struggle in Nigeria largely depends on Nigeria’s powerful trade unions and especially those in the oil sector. Unfortunately, recent history demonstrates an unwillingness to take on either the bosses or the state. So far, the unions have limited their support of the #EndSARS movement to public statements of solidarity and calls on the government to reform the security apparatus. It remains to be seen if they enter the fray and take collective action against the government’s failure to rectify the economic crisis. The NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) called off their plan for a general strike back in late September over the rising price of fuel and electricity tariffs that resulted from the government cutting subsidies that kept prices in check.

The government, while obstinate that the subsidy deregulation must remain in effect, won over the unions with an aid package to help their membership defray the cost of the fuel price inflation, and entered into negotiations with the union over the electricity tariff, according to a report in USA Today. While the union leadership has thus far avoided a fight with Buhari’s government, the rank and file could become more restless if the crisis continues and standards of living continue to deteriorate.

While the NLC has been historically very cozy with the state and hostile to militants and socialists in its ranks, strikes it led in the 1980s and 1990s did result in both economic gains and political change. And the fact remains that Nigeria’s industrial working class, especially those organized in the oil sector, have tremendous social power. What it lacks are militant leaders in the unions that have sufficient authority over the ranks to lead more aggressive class battles against the imperialists and their lackeys among Nigeria’s bourgeoisie.

Decades of repression and the persecution of its more militant leaders mean that new leaders from the ranks must emerge, who are not only willing to take on the capitalists, but join Nigeria’s rebellious youth in forming a vanguard party that can, once and for all, end the authoritarian practices of Nigeria’s civilian and military leaders and lead the masses in struggle against the capitalist system that has oppressed the people for so long.

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