Nigeria - Obasanjo's military "democracy" - sliding into deeper poverty, bloodshed and corruption

May/June 2002

It is now three years since the civilian regime under president Olusegun Obasanjo took over in Nigeria, after 15 years of military dictatorship. And today, Western commentators and politicians talk about Nigeria being able to "reap the dividends of democracy".

Leading this sophistry is Tony Blair, who, in an article co-authored last June with South African President Thabo Mbeki asserted that:..."the African journey towards a better life has started. Across the continent, Africans have in recent years shown their preference for democratic governance and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Recently, the continent's most populous country, Nigeria, returned to democratic civilian rule." And he continued: "African leaders (...) will promote democratic and accountable governments based on the will of the people. They are committed to the protection of human rights and people centred development, market oriented economies and investment in health and education. They will consult widely and openly among their communities to ensure that their programmes meet the needs of the poor."

It was Nigeria's president Obasanjo who was chosen as chairman of the implementation committee for the West's "New Partnership for African Development" (NEPAD), which Blair alleges, will help to pull Africa out of poverty and address what he called "the scar on our conscience that is Africa"...

That all this utter flannel is nothing but a way of covering up the imperialist powers' policy of tightening the noose of Western multinationals over the continent's resources was most recently demonstrated by the British military intervention to secure Sierra Leone's diamond production.

But given that Nigeria comes sixth in the world league table for oil production, half of its output being controlled by Anglo-Dutch Shell, it is as important to British interests in Africa as Saudi Arabia is to those of the USA in the Middle-East. Hence Blair's visit this February to ensure that Obasanjo's regime would be "co-operating" with the West's aims in the region.

Of course, it goes without saying that Obasanjo's appointment to NEPAD amounted to handing him a certificate of approval for his "democracy", whatever the facts of the matter.

But what are these facts? It is true that formally, civilian rule has replaced the army and the dictatorship. But today the military is ever present, called in, even more so than before, in order to hold the regime together - and of course, this same army still provides the ruling elite with many of its cadres.

Corruption, which was the main feature of past dictatorships is more widespread than ever, while the poor population remains excluded from having any say whatsoever in political affairs.

Indeed, the only "democracy" in evidence in Nigeria today is in the unprecedented "free-for-all" of politicians defending their corners and using their own peculiar ethnic and religious devices for this purpose.

As for the so-called "dividend" of "democracy", there may be some cash dividends flowing into the coffers of city businesses and local entrepreneurs (like those selling mobile phones, for the time being!), but the conditions for the Nigerian population are worse than ever before.

A military "democracy"?

"Democratic" president Obasanjo is himself a retired general and a former military dictator - hardly the best "democratic" credentials! But for London and Washington, his regime represents the best of both worlds. It offers them all the advantages of past military dictatorships - the continuation of Nigeria's "helpful" military ventures in Liberia and Sierra Leone, in defence of Western interests, and a tight grip on a huge impoverished population - and all this with "respectability" thrown into the bargain!

The 65-year old "OBJ", as Obasanjo is called, got his first chance to crack the whip against the whole of the Nigerian population when he took power back in 1976, after the assassination of his army boss, dictator General Murtala Muhammad. Prior to that he had distinguished himself against the Biafrans during the bloody civil war and was the officer who had accepted their surrender in January 1970. He then earned some credit in the world of African politics when he nationalised Nigerian subsidiaries of Barclays Bank and BP on the grounds that they had broken the embargo which was then imposed against South Africa. However he also re-established good relations with the West, by presiding over the transition to civilian government in 1979. For this good behaviour, he was rewarded by the West with the position of co-chairman of the Commonwealth's Eminent Persons Group.

The civilian interlude lasted only four years, however, until the army took over again in 1983. And it was only in 1997 that, after 15 years of continuous military dictatorship, the then ruler, General Abacha, laid the ground for the present "third republic." To this end, Abacha set up 5 political parties and got all 5 of them to endorse him for president! But in June 1998, before he could get any further with his "democratic reforms", at the age of 54, he suddenly dropped dead. Officially he died of heart attack. But who knows for sure? After all, having imprisoned and executed so many of his political rivals, Abacha was not short of enemies. Besides, he had become too greedy, as was recently shown when it came to light that he had embezzled around £3bn of state revenue.

In any case, Abacha's close "friend", General Abubakar, took over. Abubakar abolished the 5 parties set up by Abacha, and perhaps fearing the same fate, given growing rivalries in upper circles in the army, called "democratic" elections within six months.

It was at this point that retired General Obasanjo popped back out of the box - or more accurately, the prison cell where Sani Abacha had placed him - to form his own Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP), a coalition of veteran politicians and retired generals of the faction opposed to Abacha.

Under General Abubakar's "rules", a party could only qualify to stand in the general election if it had obtained more than 10% in local elections held in December 1998. Only 3 of the 9 parties which had been formed after Abacha's death, managed to meet this criterion and they all represented the old political-military elite: Obasanjo's PDP, the All Peoples' Party, made up of wealthy business people and politicians many of whom had backed Abacha, and the Alliance for Democracy, a smaller, Yoruba-based party from the south-west, led by Chief Olu Falae, a Yale-trained economist, ex-banker and former finance minister.

In other words no party was allowed to stand which offered any perspective other than more of the same. The PDP in the end won an "overwhelming majority" in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Obasanjo immediately got the support of the West which bestowed upon him the label of "democratic leader", despite the fact that the election was, according to both foreign and local observers, "marked by cheating". His main opponent, Chief Olu Falae, accused him of monumental vote-rigging. Even former US president Carter, who was there as an official observer, said he was unable to make "an accurate judgment about the election" because of the "wide disparity between the number of voters observed at the polling stations and the final results"... The electoral commission had recorded over 28m votes - double the 14m votes cast in 1993!

Such was the birth of Obasanjo's "democratic civilian rule"

The army behind the scenes

s to the "civilian" nature of his regime, Obasanjo himself showed what he had in mind as soon as he got into office, when he made it clear that he had no intention of punishing soldiers accused of corruption and human rights abuses: "there will be no witch hunt", he said, "I will do what is best for the whole country." Indeed, many said that he was there precisely to protect the military from corruption investigations.

Of course, Obasanjo is said to have "turned the army inside out", apparently targeting the middle cadre officers who have always in the past been the key to any coup attempt. Besides, his coming to power has no doubt resulted in a redistribution of the loot of corruption among the various factions in the top spheres of the army.

But this has changed little as far as the considerable military might of the army goes. Nor has there been any change in its traditional role as the backbone which keeps together Nigeria's huge federal state, with its paradoxical corollary - the fact that the factional fights which have always taken place within the army when it was in power, often resulting in one dictator being overthrown by another, remain a potential destabilising factor for the country as a whole.

So civilian regime or not, the army and the small layer of politicians who have always been associated with it, remain the pillars of the regime. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the two diplomatic emissaries appointed this year to sort out the crisis in Zimbabwe were Ernest Shonekan, who used to be a close associate of ex-dictator General Babangida, and General Abubakar, himself a former dictator, though of brief tenure.

The long shadow of the army over the population is so pervasive, that when a munitions depot exploded in the Ikeja military cantonment in Lagos on 27 January this year, many people thought the military was staging another coup - especially as Ikeja barracks had been the launching pad for a number of previous attempts. However, this time the huge blast was not aimed at the regime. It propelled shrapnel and fireballs mainly into the neighbouring poor and overcrowded district of Isolo, which claimed a large number of victims (up to 2000 according to some estimates).

What this event exposes is the physical presence of the military in Nigerian society. Here, right in the middle of Africa's largest city, lives a huge contingent of well-equipped soldiers, often with their families, in an all but self-contained military town - with its own schools, shops and amenities. This is not due to any particular consideration for soldiers well-being; they are often badly treated by the army, judging by the backlog in the payments of soldiers' pensions and the lack of compensation granted to those who were injured in Sierra Leone. The only purpose for the soldiers' conditions at Ikeja is to keep them from developing ties with the city's population, which might weaken their obedience and resolve the day they are called on to defend the privileged against the poor masses of Lagos.

The fact that the army leadership chose to maintain a large munitions store in this cantonment, next to a highly populated poor residential district, large enough to wipe out thousands of people "accidentally", shows just how little regard they have for the population. But it also shows that it is ready and equipped to turn any social unrest among the poor into a bloodbath at any time.

Of course, this is always the role of the army under capitalism, regardless of the political form of government - whether it is "democratic" or not. But the extent of the military presence in the midst of the Nigerian urban population shows how little the privileged classes themselves trust the illusions created among the poor masses by their so-called "democracy" and how much they rely on the army to protect their interests.

In fact, over the last three years, Obasanjo has never had any qualms about using the army for its oppressive purpose in just the same way as previous military dictators.

Soldiers have been deployed in seven states in the federation since 1999 - especially where oil interests were threatened, as in the Niger Delta. Indeed, their first large scale intervention, in November 1999, razed the entire town of Odi (in the Delta) to the ground, killing as many as 2,000 civilians, in an act of retribution for the alleged killing of 12 policemen.

But the army was also called in to the northern city of Kano last October, after a weekend of inter-communal rioting in which hundreds were killed - and again in Lagos in December when Yoruba and Hausa groups clashed.

One of the worst instances of its brutality was in Benue state (central-eastern Nigeria) last October, after the alleged killing of 19 soldiers by a local militia. In a carefully co-ordinated operation, designed to take residents of the local towns by surprise, an army unit with tanks, armoured vehicles and 2-300 soldiers, took its revenge, systematically going from town to town killing, destroying, raping and pillaging. In Gbeji 150 people were shot dead or burnt alive. In Zaki-Biam, 30 people killed. Soldiers destroyed homes, shops and public buildings in seven towns in the state. The killings and occupations by the army continued into January and soldiers remain in the area to date.

Obasanjo's "explanation" for this, in an interview with a Financial Times journalist went as follows: "My dear man, you must think of cause and effect. (..) 19 soldiers were captured by local men. I told the governor of Benue to look for the culprits. (..) I sent soldiers. When you send soldiers they do not go there on a picnic." When asked why they killed civilians, he said: "the people who killed [the soldiers] were civilians and (..) were not innocent. (..) In human nature reaction is always more than action".

As for the police force - much like in all African countries it acts as an auxiliary of the army with its own additional purpose. It is worth quoting the description of this police force made by a Nigerian journalist, writing about next year's elections in the weekly, "West Africa": "This organisation, which is controlled by the Federal Government, is riddled with corruption and wantonness. Unfortunately, it is the only uniformed and arms-bearing body deployed into towns during elections. You dare not ask the armed forces to lend a hand in this democratic chore unless it is your desire to risk having some of them stray into radio and television stations to make announcements prefaced with "Fellow countrymen and women". This means Nigerians are stuck with a police force notorious for its trigger happiness, whose junior officers protested against appalling conditions of service by going on strike in February - for the first time in the force's history of nearly 100 years. This hungry outfit, in different shades of uniforms and mufti, is always on the streets, each recruit armed with an AK47, extorting money from road-users, shooting some of those who refuse to pay up and detaining others. These are the people supposed to enforce law during elections. It is going to be a real test for democracy."

The West hails "democracy" but invests in the military

The imperialist leaders may well praise Nigeria's "democracy" but they are not naive enough to count on it when it comes to protecting their own interests. The army remains their closest and most trusted auxiliary in Nigeria, just like in the days of the country's worst dictatorships, and its equipment is partly paid for by US and British "aid" - particularly over the past period under the guise of reinforcing "West African peace-keeping", as the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia discovered, to their cost.

In fact given the increasing instability in the whole region, the US and Britain have stepped up their relationship with the Nigerian army since 1999. During the year 2001, for instance, the US government financed a programme called "Operation Focus Relief" which involved the training of five Nigerian battalions for peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, and providing their equipment, including small arms, communications and vehicles.

For 2002, another $6.75m in assistance has been granted by the US to enhance the Nigerian army's capacity to respond to disasters (sic) - including $6m for G-130 Hercules aircraft - plus $1m for US mobile training teams. Congress also provided $26m for a "West African Stability Fund", part of US "voluntary peacekeeping operations" which includes $8m for the continuation of Operation Focus Relief in Sierra Leone.

As for Britain, it signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" in military cooperation in September 2001 with Obasanjo. A British defence advisory team now provides all kinds of direct help to the Nigerian Ministry of Defence. During Blair's February visit, further arms sales and military aid were discussed. And this year, the British government will be giving its backing to Africa's largest arms fair - Africa Aerospace and Defence 2002 - to be held in September. The UK's Defence Export Services Organisation, which is part of the Ministry of Defence, will be taking part, while the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) will be sponsoring British defence companies. While African populations have been experiencing drastically increasing poverty, British arms sales to African states increased from £52m in 1999 to £125.5 m in 2000. The DTI hopes that this will top £200m by next year and Nigeria is expected to be one of the main customers.

"Democratic" parasites

Corruption in Nigerian political circles is a way of life and the only obvious commitment on the part of political leaders is the commitment to retain the power to enrich themselves and their own large entourages.

Of course it is the state which remains the main channel for this enrichment for a whole section of the privileged class, including the army hierarchy, particularly through shady oil and petrol sales, of course. And every effort is made to ensure that the wealth remains in the hands of these privileged few, regardless of the "democratic" process. In the run-up to the 2003 elections therefore, Obasanjo's PDP is already bending the rules so that it can remain in power and so that "sympathetic" state and local politicians keep their positions.

At present, political rivalries are resulting in the exposure of literally countless cases of political corruption. And these will become more and more bitter as the election gets closer.

When, in retaliation against attacks from opposition MPs, Obasanjo launched an enquiry purporting to find out how much MPs were taking in salaries and allowances of all kinds, they refused to co-operate, threatened to impeach him and counte-attacked by launching an enquiry into the "state of the nation", introduced by a demagogic statement condemning the "helpless insecurity of the country, the pitiable state of the economy, the lack of welfare for the masses and the flagrant flouting of the constitution by the president.". Certainly, the last things these MPs wanted was to have their personal accounts spread all over the papers. In a country where the average annual wage of employees in "proper" jobs is £200, the annual net salary of MPs is between N4.3m (£27,000) and N5.7m(£35,000), without counting allowances, utility bills, transport costs and constituency expenditures which are paid on top, in addition to many other "perks"!

One of the most recent corruption scandals surrounds the governor of the central state of Kogi, Abubakar Audi. Since assuming office in May 1999, he has bought a mansion in Maryland, USA, for £1m and one in Bishops Avenue in London for £2.5m. Kogi state, which was previously one of the "more peaceful" states in the country was recently shaken by a riotous demonstration by youth in Okene, against Audi's policies, during which 10 people died. This has not prevented Audi from being given a Media Tour Award for "good governance" apparently because he claimed to have initiated a cement factory project - which in reality does not even exist on paper!

The Southern Ebonyi state has recently been bankrupted by a syndicate run by its own auditor-general, Regulus Odo, who had been padding salary vouchers with fictitious names over a period of five years. This year state workers did not receive their January wages until mid-February and then only because commercial banks have agreed loans for the time being. But some local government workers have not received salaries since September last year!

The oil sector, which accounts for 95% of Nigeria's export earnings, has obviously been the main focus for government officials when it came to lining their own pockets. With all oil production being done through "joint ventures" between the state's Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) and Western multinationals, there has always been plenty of scope for bribes and "commission" of all kinds.

Not only does this parasitism of the privileged layer affect Nigeria's export revenue, it also affects the standard of living of the population when it comes to kerosene (used for cooking), diesel and petrol. Western multinationals have never bothered to build refineries in Nigeria, given the low prices they could expect for their products. So the refineries producing for the domestic market are all state-owned and they have been falling into disrepair, causing chronic fuel shortages. The reason is simple. Rather than maintaining the state refineries, government officials found it more profitable to import refined fuel on which they could take a commission. And the size of their pickings can be gauged by the fact that, while Nigeria's refineries have the capacity to produce one third more than domestic requirements, last year 82% of domestic consumption was imported!

A collapsed economy

So for all its oil wealth, Nigeria is following the downward economic trend which besets all of the world's poor countries. The very poor are getting even poorer. The fall in the prices of raw materials and agricultural produce on the world market has meant that the small amount of income from this sector has become even smaller. Manufacturing accounts for only 6% of total GDP and there have been a host of factory closures, particularly in the textile sector. In fact, gross GDP has halved in last 20 years and Nigeria's debt stands at $32bn!

Official unemployment is 28% but this only takes into account the "formal" sector, which employs the minority of waged workers. And even in this "formal" sector most jobs are casual - including many in the large foreign companies, banks, the oil industry and in state departments. Non-payment of wages by the state is common, and payment in arrears, of course, even more so.

With the average income of those in work at only £184-200 per year, the UN estimates that 70% of Nigerians live under the poverty line today - compared with 48.5% in 1998. Average life expectancy at birth has fallen from an already short 54years to 51 years over the same period. Two-fifths of children under 5 are malnourished and only 50% of the population has access to clean water. Even in the great "aquatic port" of Lagos 60% are deprived of safe water.

Of course it is difficult to paint a "national picture" because of the great regional variation in this huge country. But everywhere it is the so-called "informal sector" on which the poor have to rely in order to scrape their precarious living. Despite its sky-scrapers and affluent residential lagoon, Lagos teems with more beggars than anywhere else and the homeless and jobless are everywhere. The explosion in Ikeja, in February, rained molten metal down on homeless people, who had never had any shelter, and on people who lived in tin-roofed slums crowded up against the army arsenal. Afterwards many were forced to beg in the streets for help, given the absence of medical and relief facilities for the poor.

In Nigeria, unlike in many of the poor African countries, there used to be some public services. However after years of parasitism on the state resources by the corrupted elite, they have disappeared. There are no longer bus services to speak of and worse, there is hardly any organised refuse collection or sanitation in many parts, with all the health hazards that accompany such neglect in a hot country. What is more, the deterioration of infrastructure - primarily roads, because the railway network is tiny and also in a dilapidated state - makes transport even by taxi or private cars a hazard.

As for the increase in the price of diesel and kerosene (the only cooking fuel in most homes), via the removal of state subsidy, this has resulted in a price hike of 322% in just two years, leading to a big knock-on effect on the general cost of living as all commodities were affected. In Lagos transport fares increased three-fold and even porters in the market doubles their fees. According to petty traders, who live day-to-day on their paltry market sales, everyone is now asking for credit just to buy food for their tables.

And it is in this context Obasanjo boasts of his "big projects" - namely his £59m "space programme" and the "world class" football stadium he plans - fiddling while Rome burns!

Political rivalries; a lethal flaring

Against this backdrop of poverty the rivalry between the politicians to secure an even larger share of the cake for themselves - or just to fend off possible rivals - is taking a more an more lethal direction. The old tradition of fuelling ethnic rivalries has reached a level which is reminiscent of the period in the sixties when southern politicians declared the Biafran secession, with the under cover financial and military support of France, which was hoping to gain control of the Niger Delta oil fields. And It should be recalled that this resulted in a civil war in which 1 million people lost their lives. Today, the question of secession of Biafra has again reared its head - proposed by some of the very same generals from the old days.

What is more, political assassinations - such as the recent killing of Federal Attorney General, Bole Ige - seem to be back on the agenda in the run up to the 2003 election, and as usual are likely to remain "unsolved".

Over the past decade, both as a result of the repressive brutality of the previous dictatorships and due to increasing deprivation (and resulting looting and crime), local defence militias - which were often ethnically based - appeared all over the country. In the run-up to this year's local elections, Obasanjo has just sent a bill to the National Assembly to ban them, targeting in particular those in the oil-rich south, including the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), the Odua Peoples Congress, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and others.

Any violence which has flared up however, has been constantly stoked by local politicians for their own ends and they often use the local militias to protect their interests against rivals.

But the most lethal trend of all today is the use of religious tensions for political ends which allows the mobilisation of much larger numbers among the population. Indeed, in a country where there are 250 ethnic groups, religious differences are far more effective than ethnicity in rallying people under the same banner. And it should be recalled that in the period preceding the Biafran conflict, the moves towards secession were "justified" by clashes in the North, in which northern Muslims attempted to burn out better-off Christian southerners who were settled in "their" territory and who, due to the fact that they were usually better educated, were seen to be taking the best jobs.

Since the new "democratic" civilian regime came in, 12 northern states (out of 19 northern Muslim majority states) have officially incorporated the Islamic sharia into their state law, starting with the geographically desolate Zamfara State in January 2000. In passing, this means that, ironically, the medieval sharia is now enforced by institutions which are largely modelled on Britain's own medieval system, complete with robes and powdered wigs!

Though sharia courts have existed informally in Nigeria for decades, it is only in the last two years that such barbaric punishments as stoning to death for "adultery", lashes for "fornication" and amputation for theft, have been introduced. In these states, Christians are no longer allowed to teach, hold government office or appear on radio. Of course, the drastic shortage of jobs has been a powerful lever for politicians to mobilise Muslims behind demagogic campaigns for the introduction of the sharia. And to date, across the North, this demagogic politicking has already resulted in over 10,000 people losing their lives in clashes between Christians and Muslims.

Before being murdered, the Federal Justice Minister Bola Ige had said he would not allow stoning to be carried out in Nigeria in the 21st century: "some of our brothers in the northen part of this country have made so much politics out of sharia that it is denting the image of Nigeria". But so far nothing has been done by the federal institutions to reverse the trend. Nor has there been any constitutional test of the sharia in the federal courts, because no case has got that far. In fact though amputations for theft have been carried out, sentences of death by stoning have been stopped at state appeal court level. So for instance, in February this year, Safiya Huseini, a 35 year old woman convicted of adultery (she had conceived her baby "out of wedlock") and sentenced to death by stoning, had her sentence overturned by a state sharia appeal court on a technicality.

As to Obasanjo, he has been cautious to avoid taking sides. - neither advocating the formal endorsement of sharia by the federal state, nor condemning its local adoption. In February this year, he declared for instance: "I allowed Sharia law to exist because we are not a secular state. We are a multi- religious state. That is what we call ourselves in our constitution". He told a BBC World Service question-and-answer session that he was not opposed to sharia because ""sharia is part of the life and soul of a Muslim. (..) At the state level, every state has what it should have. A state that has enough Muslim population can implement sharia." He was asked if sharia contributed to current religious clashes and said he couldn't agree or dispute the idea. " I want to see statistics, and how?" On the case of the clashes in Kaduna - where attempts to introduce sharia in 1999 led to fighting and massacres with 2,000 plus people killed - Obasanjo said this was co-incidence and that Kaduna had always been a "hotbed".

Obviously, as a Christian southerner, Obasanjo does not want to provide his northern Muslim rivals with a stick to beat him with. Besides, without the support of his northern constituency, neither he nor his PDP (vote-rigging or not) would obtain the national majority needed to retain power.

This year the violence in the north has continued unabated. In January, Muslim mobs went on the rampage in the capital cities of Adamawa, Yobe, Sokoto and Borno, blaming the lunar eclipse on the sins of non-Muslims. In February 100 people died and 430 were injured in 3 days of clashes in Lagos, where opposing Yoruba and Hausa gangs razed hundreds of homes.

In the same way Christian fundamentalism has been increasing in the south and east. This phenomenon also accounts for some of the clashes taking place in the large cities and especially Lagos - where Christian gangs can just as well be the instigators. What is more, in Delta and Rivers states, in the south, "Igbo marginalisation" has been blamed on "Muslims controlling the country" by well-known Christian churchmen such as bishop Alexander Ekewuba. He wrote in the weekly "The Source", for instance that: "The northerners will destroy this country. Let them thank God that I am not a politician, otherwise any time they kill one Igbo man in Kano or Kaduna, I will order that 10 Muslims be killed here"

If the truth be known of course, if the people of the northern states have something in common with their southern counterparts, it is marginalisation and poverty!

The working class: the only unifying force

Against all these conflict-generating factors, there is only one unifying force that could bring together the poor masses and protect them from the politicians' manoeuvres - that is the country's very large urban working class - employed and unemployed. It should be remembered that 44% of Nigeria's 123m population is concentrated in urban areas. The workforce numbers 66,000,000 - and if only 10% (as estimated in 2001) are employed in industry, this alone constitutes six million workers. 20% more workers are in "services" (12m) and 70% work in agriculture.

Of its 21 large towns and cities, Lagos, the most populated city in Africa, has a population of 12 million and Abuja, the newest city and the legislative capital, 2 million. These cities are a melting pot for all the different ethnic and religious groups. The large majority of this urban proletariat is crowded together in slums, where ethnic and religious boundaries tend to become blurred due to the vital necessity of helping each other in order to survive. This situation could constitute a fertile ground, allowing the poor masses to unite against these rival politicians representing the privileged elite, who have no qualms about building their careers out of the blood of the poor while trying to push them back hundreds of years into the past.

It should be recalled that, in addition, the Nigerian working class has a long tradition of determined struggles, in which it has sometimes taken the lead of much larger layers of the urban poor. And even since Obasanjo came in, he has been forced to postpone the ending of the oil subsidy three times because of the mobilisation of the population. Two years ago he had to back down after a 5-day general strike during which trade unions ordered banks and petrol stations to give out free cash and most complied. Eventually Obasanjo sent in the army to deal with the strikers. Then in January he tried to raise fuel prices by 18% and was met with another general strike in Lagos and main cities. Police fought street battles with youths and eventually the government only managed to stop the strike by making it illegal and arresting the leaders of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC).

There are many other recent examples of working class militancy. When the government appeared to be backtracking on its promise to pay back-dated wages and pensions in Borno state a general strike was held in November 2001 which forced it to promise to settle outstanding debts by January this year. The Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM) in Benue called a strike following the military occupation of part of the state in December 2001. This was joined by bus drivers and other workers who demanded action against the soldiers who were accused of rape, assault and extortion.

At present the NLC is waging a campaign against casualisation and the subcontracting of labour. Due to their longstanding militancy Nigerian workers have won the introduction of a number of "Labour Acts". Of course these are not enforced, but then labour statutes are not enforced in Britain either. But it may surprise John Monks to learn that in Nigeria workers are meant to be given paid leave after six months on a job, and that an employer is expected to regularise a casual worker's employment after three months. Last December the NLC issued an ultimatum to all companies that have casual staff that it would organise work stoppages. And as one NLC leader put it "that means grinding the whole production to a halt" because there is no sector which does not employ casuals. 90% of the workers at Lagos International Airport are casuals; 75% of junior bank employees have no conditions of service, no letter of appointment and are denied unionisation. Unilever and Dunlop have recently been forced to comply with the Labour Acts after picketing by the unions. The unions' target for April is the industrial area of Ikeja in Lagos - which includes among other companies, the well-known Guinness.

With such fighting traditions and militancy, the Nigerian working class could take the lead of large sections of the urban poor and rally their support behind their common class interests against the country's tiny privileged class, its parasitism and its corrupt politicians. It may even find that many soldiers in the army have been treated with so much contempt by the rich and the generals, that they are no longer so loyal to their masters. Yes, this working class has the strength and the numbers to force itself to the fore in society and set its own class agenda to stop the parasitic privileged from tearing Nigerian society any further apart. We can only hope that it will.

29 April 2002