28 May The Roots of the Crisis in Nigeria: interview with Femi Aborisade
In a wide-ranging interview for roape.net Tamás Gerőcs speaks to the Nigerian Marxist Femi Aborisade. From his early days as a labour militant in the 1970s and 1980s, organsing and building socialist and labour organisations, Aborisade discusses the crisis of capitalism in Nigeria today and the struggles against it.
by Tamás Gerőcs
Tamás Gerőcs: Could you briefly describe your entry point into the labour movement and national politics in Nigeria?
I got involved in labour movement activities through my membership of the Marxist Socialist Youth Movement as a student in The Polytechnic, Ibadan in the late 1970s. I later became the Secretary General of the Movement. The Movement’s tradition was to have an orientation towards the working class. Members were always involved in supporting the struggles of organised and unorganised workers. Our publications used to be produced by a system of stencil and cyclo-styling, were preoccupied with promoting the interests of workers within and outside the institution, nationally and internationally, particularly in campaigning against apartheid South Africa.
During the compulsory National Youth Service (NYSC) Programme for all graduates in Nigeria, in 1982, I was officially posted to work in a bank in Ondo State. But I requested that I should be deployed to work with the Nigeria Labour Congress, Ondo State Council. My request was accepted by the authorities and so I did my NYSC at the Nigeria Labour Congress inAkure, in the South West of Nigeria between 1982/83. At the Congress, apart from gaining experience in the strike activity organized by public sector workers against the government led by Adekunle Ajasin in 1983, I devoted myself mainly to organising trade union education programmes for affiliated unions of the NLC.
Along with another friend of mine who was deployed in one of the states in the eastern part of the country for his NYSC, I started the production of a socialist publication called ‘Progress’, which was being distributed free of charge to rank and file workers in Ondo State and elsewhere. Before my NYSC programme period formally came to an end, the National Headquarters of the Nigeria Labour Congress based in Lagos announced job openings for graduates. I applied for the position and I was employed as Administrative Officer in 1983. But in reality, I functioned more as an Administrative and Education Officer. The leadership of the Congress at the national level became uncomfortable with the emancipatory education programmes I was organising based on the militancy which rank and file workers who had attended my education programmes were displaying to the leaderships in individual affiliate unions. For this reason, the NLC national leadership sacked me in 1986. But I did not break my links with the rank and file workers. Along with friends, we started the publication called ‘Labour Militant, which was being distributed semi-legally under the military dictatorship (the second junta between 1983 and 1998). As the public face of the publication and its editor, I was arrested and detained several times, starting from 1988.
A national organisation was consequently built in 1989 by socialists and non-socialist human rights activists to campaign for my release. The organisation, initially called the ‘Free Femi Aborisade Campaign Committee’ was later changed to ‘Committee for the Defence of Human Rights’ (CDHR) after my release, which was also based on international campaigns, which the London based Militant Tendency, led then by Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe had built.
I later joined forces with one of the most renowned Nigerian human rights lawyer, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi to form the National Conscience, as a human rights body, concerned mainly with advocating socio-economic rights. The organisation transformed into a political party, the National Conscience Party (NCP) in October 1994, in defiance of military decrees prohibiting the formation of political parties. The NCP was built as an anti-privatisation political party. The party played a leading role in the formation of the Joint Action Committee of Nigeria (JACON), one of the umbrella organisations that campaigned for termination of military rule in Nigeria. I was the National General Secretary of JACON while Chief Gani Fawehinmi was its National Chairman.
In 2003, I stood for the post of Governor of Oyo State on the platform of the NCP but lost the election. The electoral contest was used mainly to advocate and popularise socialist programmes. For example, I stood on the programme of ‘a Governor on a workers wage, following Lenin’s own approach when he earned only the average salary of a public officer as the Head of the Government in the USSR.
Moving into the current period, can I ask you how the on-going crisis of capitalism in Nigeria – popularly described as neoliberalism – affect the labour movement in the country?
Paradoxically, economic hardship and material deprivations have grown to unprecedented levels even in times of relative plenty. We can measure this collapse in living standards by any governance, economic or social well-being indicators. I think there is no question about this. Even the ruling classes with their parties and media must admit this as a fact. Indeed, currently, members of the national legislature, particularly at the House of Representatives have admitted in resolutions that Nigeria is a classic example of a failed state when all indices of governance, particularly the genocide-like political, religious and ethnic killings are considered.
The federal government is incapable of ending the scourge of insurgency and other forms of insecurity. The economic programme of the capitalist APC (All Progressive Congress)-controlled federal government fuels insurgency by increasing the number of the jobless, hopeless, frustrated, hungry and angry youths. Pervasive poverty over several decades of criminal neglect of the welfare of ordinary people produces the unprecedented insecurity being witnessed today all over Nigeria. The economic programme of the APC called ‘Economic Recovery and Growth Plan’ (ERGP) which reflected the needs of the private sector, rather than the public sector, being the engine of economic growth is fuelling poverty and by implication, insurgency and other forms of insecurity.
Poverty is also being fuelled by the anti-poor policies of state governments. For example, Kaduna State is one of the most dangerous states in Nigeria to live, work or visit in terms of the regularity of bloodshed, kidnappings and killings by bandits and ethno-religious inspired violence. The level of insecurity in Kaduna State today is a function of unprecedented, cruel anti-workers’ policy of the Kaduna State Government in terms of mass lay of about forty thousand workers in different Ministries, including twenty two thousand teachers, eight thousand workers of MDAs (Ministries, Departments and Agencies), over four thousand workers of local government councils, thousands of medical and health workers, eight hundred workers of Kaduna State Internal Revenue Service, among many others, all sacked, more or less, about the same time, simultaneously, in different Ministries of the Kaduna State Government in 2017.
The uncontrolled insecurity is therefore the ’harvest’ or product of anti-labour policies. It is a phenomenon that can be explained rationally. The solution does not lie in militarisation of society. If the resources being pumped into military-focused solutions were used instead for implementing poverty reduction policies in order to provide humanising and enduring jobs, social housing units, free medical care in a revamped health care system used by the President himself, free education used by the children of the ruling class, food for the hungry, a policy of minimum income for the weakest in society, care of the aged, etc…, insurgency and physical insecurity would be massively undermined and reduced in ways better than any military focused solution could achieve which the successive governments in Nigeria have been pursuing over the years.
The critical question is what is the way out? If labour could provide an alternative program and platform around issues of poverty, inequality, corruption, insecurity, and so on, we could win the heart of ordinary people, build a broader viable social movement, strong enough to win elections on a nationwide basis beyond local communities and state levels, and with the possible benefit of a long run systemic change not only within the confines of Nigeria but one that would actively support the struggles for systemic change on an international scale.
There are good examples of such movements with specific agendas gaining much attention and popular support. Unfortunately, the tendency of the unions’ top leadership appears is not to have confidence in the capacity of the rank and file of the labour movement to struggle and effect fundamental changes in the system. That is why some of the key figures in the leadership of the unions tend to prefer to contest elections on the platforms of the incumbent bourgeois parties. A good number of top union leaders have won elections on the platforms of bourgeois parties based on the prominence they acquired as unionists. Unfortunately, they usually end up betraying the interests of the working class by implementing anti-workers and anti-poor people programmes and policies.
Despite the weaknesses of the labour movement and its leadership, I am convinced and optimistic that there is a huge opportunity for political intervention and electoral victory of the labour movement. Labour is strategically positioned to intervene successfully in politics, even on the national scale. The progressive wing of the ruling classes which is now in power, the party controlling the federal government, has eroded much of its legitimacy. Its woeful performance, measured in the massive collapse in living standards and unprecedented insecurity since 2015, has shown that there is no fundamental difference between the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main bourgeois opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Both are built on a neo-liberal programme of privatisation of public assets and the perspective of the private sector being the engine of economic growth.
Is the phenomenon of trade unionists contesting on the platform of bourgeois parties an institutional decision or individual decisions?
It is not an institutional question. The decisions are usually taken by the individuals and not the collective decision of the union. In fact, the union is usually not consulted. It is therefore a reflection of individual motivation and ambition. Indeed, the individual unionists who decide to contest on bourgeois platforms hardly have any meaningful influence or control over the workers or the union, once they take such decisions. The weight of the harsh economic realities tends to be overwhelming so that mass struggles are difficult to suppress even with the presence of a former leading trade unionist in government. Though this does not mean there is an absence of efforts to use their influence to weaken workers’ struggles.
What is therefore required to get out of the political quagmire and bring about decisive political intervention is for the rank and file in the trade union movement to build social movement networks with pro-labour forces, pro-labour political parties, pro-labour intellectuals, community activists, rights activists and other mass organisations that are organising around other wider social issues. If social networking were strongly pursued, even informally, the unions would be better able to take strategic collective decisions on political participation. But the activities of such networking would have to be based on giving support to the practical struggles of different segments of the masses in their day-to-day strivings to defend and improve their living and working conditions. When the masses receive support from such a network of fighting organisations, the labour movement would begin to record more effective electoral participation and electoral victories. However, in the long run, the working masses would inevitably draw the conclusion that their interests cannot be guaranteed or sustained on the basis of capitalism and that there is a need to bring about system change. For tactical reasons, however, the masses should exhaust the electoral opportunities offered by the capitalist system before they are compelled to draw the conclusion that it cannot guarantee their interests on a long-term and sustainable basis.
These are interesting ideas Femi, can you explain what this networking looks like in practice?
Social networking is conceptualized as a civic movement to intervene politically or campaign around social issues from the experiences of the workers and other subordinated groups. These networks could form broader social movements and launch political campaigns as it occurred during the anti-fuel price hike mass protests in January 2012. Political platforms could co-exist simultaneously with the trade unions. While unions are used primarily to advance economic interests of the workers, the political platforms ans networks would be used to mobilise wider sections of the oppressed classes to give political support to the industrial struggles of the trade unions. Similarly, when wider social issues arise such as an increase in the prices of fuel, which affects workers and the poor generally, trade unions could declare strikes to support agitations by the political platforms and networks. This is the concept for the Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) which is an umbrella organization for Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Joint Action Front (JAF). I would call it a platform for pro-democracy and pro-labour groups where civil society activists and workers can meet, discuss and take practical actions together on the most burning current issues concerning the plight of the masses.
The key weakness of LASCO is that it is more of a coalition between top leaderships of the central labour centres and pro-labour activists; it does not include rank and file workers. The effect is that in any mass action, as it occurred in January 2012 general strike in Nigeria, pro-labour activists have little input in deciding when to call off a strike action. If rank and file workers were involved, it would have been required that resolutions are taken at various levels of the unions and communities, outside the unions, to terminate or continue a mass action. In that way, the national leaderships of the trade union centres alone would not have the power to call or call off mass strike actions without the inputs of rank and file union branches and several other individual communities in action.
Can I now ask you about unity in the labour movement, or what have been some of the historical (and recent) dividing lines?
The division within the trade union movement is usually created artificially at the top level of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) leadership. The NLC has been the umbrella organization for all the Nigerian trade unions since the 1950s and confronted the military regime strongly (many members were jailed during the dictatorship). The central labour organisation, NLC, has gone through various divisions since then. The current division and the emergence of the United Labour Congress is traceable to the stalemated March 2015 Congress based on the leadership induced election crisis rather than ideological differences. This gave rise to several affiliates forming a new centre called the United Labour Congress (ULC) in December 2016. The ULC is currently led by Joe Ajaero while the NLC is led by Ayuba Wabba.
There have been many attempts to re-unite the labour movement because history has shown that the unity of the labour movement is the key to confront the ruling classes, check the excesses of their governments and curtail attacks on workers’ rights. Although the movement has not been reunited, the two centres tend to form joint action committees (JACs) for collective fight backs on critical social issues whenever necessary. Apart from the NLC, which is the central labour organisation, predominantly for ‘junior’ staff unions, there is the Trade Union Congress for ‘senior’ staff associations. Both the NLC and the TUC have a robust history of joint activities, rallies and protests over wider socio-economic issues affecting the poor generally in the country.
You mentioned the privatization scheme. How do you see the question of property relations in Nigeria?
Besides the question of inequality and poverty, or the low quality of public services there is a need for raising the issue of property relations. However, campaigning on changing property relations seems only possible in the public sector and in respect to public enterprises. This is because the two big ruling parties, the APC and PDP, both have a programme to privatize the state owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), among other public enterprises despite the opposition by some trade unions. In fact, in the last election, the presidential candidate of the PDP openly declared that ‘even if they will kill me, I would sell off NNPC.’ But sale of public assets is actually the policy of the incumbent APC-controlled federal government, as enunciated in its economic programme .
The labour unions, to a large extent, oppose privatization plans and instead favour public ownership. In some past privatisation, particularly in the electricity sector, unions were allocated a percentage of the shares. However, in the context of privatisation and mass layoffs of workers, the allocated shares became meaningless. In one particular instance, a former General Secretary who resigned from the Nigeria Union of Pensioners (Electric Sector) went ahead to form an Incorporated Trustee and channelled the money there although it was originally meant to be allocated for the union collective, . Workers did not benefit a penny from this privatization in the end.
From this experience, it is clear that unions should not support any form of privatisation. The minimum policy the trade union movement should advocate is public ownership based on democratic management and control of the working people, including elected community representatives in the case of the oil industry. Workers should not advocate a policy of co-ownership with private capital.
I like your description of Nigerian elections as a renewed inter-capitalist struggle. Could you elaborate on that comrade?
What we have encountered in the most recent elections was a heated struggle for the control of resources amongst various capitalist parties. International capital with its comprador allies seeks to maintain control over Nigeria’s economic resources, especially in the oil and gas industry. The incumbent APC-controlled government sought to use allocation of licences over oil blocs to maintain its hold on power in its negotiations with international capital and the local comprador bourgeoisie. Such negotiations are therefore not in the interest of workers and the poor but in the interest of national oligarchic capitalist groups and international capital. The President Muhammadu Buhari-APC regime thus threatens not to renew the oil bloc licenses once they expire so they can be allocated to capitalists (local and international) who gave political support to the APC/Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential re-election. His contender, Abubakar Atiku from PDP was supported by local and international capitalist groups with a view to having access to those licenses.
It is interesting to note, however, that Buhari enjoyed the support of international capital in the previous election in 2015 but due to failures of governance coupled with unprecedented insecurity, he lost this support, and international capital appeared to favour another candidate. This was the environment in which Abubakar Atiku could capitalize on the legitimacy deficit, and the subsequent political vacuum. He didn’t succeed, because in these dire economic conditions, the struggle between the capitalist fractions intensified and could not get easily settled. The thing to remember is that the national bourgeoisie is relatively weak in Nigeria, in fact it has no productive basis upon which it could ‘independently’ grow. The social reproduction of this bunch of oligarchs heavily rely on state patronage. Most of them own no factories or no industries, but they are either subsidized by the state or the state outsources functions of the government with allocated funds into the hands of these oligarchs. This is how they can make their fortunes. This could be termed a form of outsourcing public services into ‘private’ hands. These oligarchic groups are also strongly connected and interlinked. We see this network around Buhari now, and this is one reason why he won the election despite the widespread disillusionment and the inter-capitalist struggles. One good example for such a politico-oligarchic national capitalist is Aliko Dangote, the richest man in the continent who specialized and profited in these outsourced and allocated functions. He is a state-fed, state created multi-billionaire oligarch, the biggest amongst the national oligarchic capitalist class in Nigeria.
We must understand that what has been allocated to him and his company group are public companies or economic opportunities the government should have maintain control over through massive investments. But instead they have been outsourced to individuals, which is the typical rent-seeking behaviour of those state-fed oligarchic capitalists. Dangote could however create a productive base with the cement industry which was sold to him. The other important example is that Dangote is willing to build a new coastal refinery which is much needed in West Africa. The state should have been responsible for that, but due to its failure, or maybe even intentionally, this has become another opportunity for the oligarchy. There is a dialectical relationship as well, Dangote must still rely on the state and his business is dependent on the domestic infrastructure, but his business also weakens the state on the other hand. There is a strange interdependence which is characteristic in this global dependency with the dominance of the comprador capitalists, but it is a close enough circle as well for these oligarchic groups to remain both in power and in business. The oligarchy actually controls Buhari but they also depend on his government. These sorts of complexities need to be understood by those seeking to analyse the state and capital in Africa.
For example, one telling moment was when Buhari’s wife, Aisha Buhari expressed this openly in public when she spoke to the media of how a few ‘cabals’ control her husband and his government, which must have been a very shameful but honest moment for Buhari. I would say the build-up of this system is the hotbed for the rent-seeking behaviour prone so much to corruption. What needs to be added is that this system is very fragile, the political oligarchy is tactically behind Buhari at the moment, but they can switch loyalty anytime, if they feel threatened – and this is exactly what they do.
Another lesson for us is that it is not enough to fight corrupt figures, but we must go down to the systemic roots of this problem, otherwise it will be always be reproduced at the expense of the majority of the people. And we will have to do this job sooner or later, because for labour there is just no benefit in the inter-capitalist struggle. The compradors and the national oligarchs are all the same, they pay the same wage and exploit the workers with the same tactics. We must look at their intra-class struggle as a moment of opportunity to intervene on behalf of the people. And not only in the name of the labour movement, but as I have highlighted already to you with the example of the umbrella organizations, we need other political activists, civilians and ordinary people to organise, provide an alternative to change this corrupt system.
What does the future hold for Nigeria, what is the way out of the recent crisis?
Many new parties and movements have been recently formed by young people as a response to the intensification of the social crisis. This is also the result of the political crisis and the political vacuum. The two large parties are clearly not helping the people but enriching themselves and their oligarchic circles. The problem is that both of the two large parties seem so desperate to stay in power that they do not hesitate to deploy violence. This explains the rising tension, especially during times of election. The level of killings and bloodshed and the escalation of violence before the February elections were unprecedented and clearly show the de-democratisation process or how democratic institutions have been hollowed out. Ruling classes have also mobilized enormous electoral money to induce the electorate, to make sure they either displace the incumbents or maintain their hold on power. Ordinary people, in large numbers, were simply excluded from the election. So, the smaller or newer parties had not much chance to challenge this system with little or no means at their disposal. By these explicitly undemocratic methods, the big parties of the establishment managed to stay in power but by doing so they have also deepened the contradictions of the legitimacy crisis.
In terms of what the future can bring let me recall what Antonio Gramsci referred to as the ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ As for the former, within this systemic trap into which Nigeria has been pushed into, no solution seems to arise to tackle this multifaceted crisis, including the social, political crises imminent in this system. It has already produced enormous suffering and social tension in the form of ethnic or religious violence at different levels of the state, and we can anticipate that as the contradiction grows further, the tension will escalate accordingly. To illustrate the extent of the scale of the crisis of political representation, we need to refer to the undemocratic constitutional amendments which members of the two main parties in the national assembly made. For example, they have secretly amended the constitution to the effect that small or new parties that are unable to win seats or certain minimum percentage of votes in elections would be deregistered. This amendment is to preserve the political interest of the incumbent parties of the establishment. The secret constitutional amendments actually show how the old establishment parties feel threatened by the emergence of new political platforms and they are ready to use any means to protect the status quo. This is partly why the repression, authoritarian rule, political corruption and the subsequent organized and spontaneous ethnic violence have been on the rise. I expect the crisis of representation to escalate in the coming years.
Finally, can I ask you what is beyond the confines of politics in Nigeria, where do you see geopolitical constraints?
Nigeria is highly dependent on the export of oil and the price movements have very strong and direct effect on the economy as well as on the state budget. There is always this fear of a new price collapse which could push the economy into severe recession as it had happened several times in the past few decades. My concern though is that whether prices go up or down, the majority of the people still suffer from the same or even worse conditions. The crisis in reality has nothing to do with the price movements, and people tend to misunderstand it when they link Nigeria’s structural crisis to the question of oil. This is just the surface of the problem, but the origin of the crisis is deeply rooted in the global system of dependency.
Obviously, dependence on oil export is a very negative economic legacy whether prices are up or down. One thing that people encounter in this respect is that the oligarchic ruling classes use oil revenues, and even more the ‘ideology’ of the oil economy to justify their misconduct and repressive governance. The Nigerian state uses oil revenues to please the excessive greed of the ruling classes. This is the channel through which they are most closely linked to international capital. So, the way they integrate themselves into the global economy and the way it is linked and translated into the local political dynamics is all organized around the oil industry and embedded in the question of NNPC privatization. In terms of the ideological package, the state and the associated ruling classes only use the ‘oil crisis’ as an excuse to pass the cost and pressure of this very bad legacy onto ordinary working people.
International capital and the national oligarchic ruling class are in an absolute agreement on how to push the burden of the crisis on the working class. This is not just the oil industry, but international financial capital is actively involved. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF came to Nigeria early this year to argue for cutting fuel subsidies in a country of large oil reserves where people face difficulties to make their living when prices are high. Nigeria has been in the shadow of international finance capital which is one of the most absurd things. Nigeria is not a poor country. Ordinary people are poor because of the theft and waste of wealth by greedy oligarchs. A massive debt is accumulated from time to time to satisfy the greed of the ruinous ruling class and this gives financial capital leverage over Nigerian politics. For example, in the crisis, they wanted to cut subsidies and divest from social infrastructure, but they asked the government to bail out the so-called failed banks. International capital is also behind the privatization scheme especially in the oil industry.
Despite their disagreement and sometimes struggle with domestic oligarchs, international capital and the national capitalist class are in alliance to exploit this country and their people for their own benefit, even though they sometimes fight over the share and distribution of this prey. This is exactly where the roots of the systemic crisis come from. They use what I would call the ‘imaginary economic crisis’ to encourage the government into a debt-spiral which allows them to impose ever stricter conditionality of external financing. Unless we do something about it, the contradictions will worsen, and the violent nature of the crisis both the political and the economic, can go nowhere but escalate further. I believe that there is just no way for Nigeria to improve while remaining a slave to global capitalism. It can only systematically end up trapped in the systemic crisis which we have been experiencing since independence. This is not only our history but also the result of the working of global capitalism.
I have already mentioned the Gramscian framework. This was the pessimistic view stemming from our analysis. But on the other hand, I also have the ‘optimism of the will’ as well. We want to use the moment of the crisis to organize labour and if we do this organizational work correctly, there is a chance that we can change the course of events and intervene in politics for the benefit of the ordinary working people. Yet it is critical to build up the labour movement’s own capacities because the crisis will deepen further and we don’t have much time to resist effectively.
Tamás Gerőcs is a political economist, currently employed as a Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. This interview was conducted at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan on 12 April, 2019.