Class matters in Nigeria’s elections

March 25, 2015

Kunle Wizeman Ajayi, a poet, ex-student leader and member of the editorial board of Socialist Worker in Nigeria, analyzes the country's presidential election this weekend.

AFTER THE unprecedented shift of the date of the general elections in Nigeria from February 14 to March 28, many Nigerians are highly expectant.

Plenty of people are arguing for and against both the incumbent Jonathan Goodluck of the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) and Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Party (APC). There are many different reasons and justified sentiments to vote for a candidate--some are about "performance," while others, tragically, are about tribalism, religion and age.

But many people, like me, are for neither the PDP nor the APC. Among these independent people, there are several factors forming opinions. Some, because the governments at various levels under both parties are failures, decide to be non-partisan. Some believe in other parties that may be in contention or don't have the political weight to compete. Finally, there are those who don't even believe in this electoral system and its pro-rich bias, especially in Nigeria, where the election campaigns are more about buying votes than outlining political alternatives.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan

This article, while recognizing these variants of opinions and stances, will concentrate on what the two big parties can do when they get to power, using their manifestos and records as yardsticks. It will be doing this from the point of the poor working people who make up the overwhelming majority of the population.

Recent debates were inspired by Chukwuma Soludo, who served as Central Bank Chief, and included contributions from Peter Obi, a former governor of Anambra state; Kayode Fayemi, a former governor of Ekiti; Okonjo-Iweala, the supervising minister of finance and the chief economist of the current PDP government; Pat Utomi, a popular economist who is a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC); and Femi Fani-Kayode, the Director of Publicity for President Jonathan's campaign team.

The debate has shown how stiff this election will be. Of course, the debates have left the major root of the current quagmire in the country untouched. "Corruption" and "incompetence" are touted as the cause for concern. By contrast, neoliberal policies, which are the reasons for the continued underdevelopment and mass poverty in the face of plenty, are sacred cows and so not to be touched. What this means is that all the debaters are defenders of the current system of "bosses at the top."

Also, the Chatham House speech of Major-General Buhari, who headed Nigeria for 20 months after a 1983 coup, is a rich contribution to the electoral discourse, as it can be said to have laid the APC manifesto on a global outlook. The big question is how the policies in this speech may be implemented, and so improve the lives of the ordinary poor scattered in the streets.

The many reactions to the speech are based upon the basic realities that both big parties operate from, side by side with the socio-political and economic status of Nigeria, which in itself demands a thorough political overview so as to properly understand the ideological context within which the two big parties operate.

"Transformation" vs. "Change"

The Jonathan-led PDP has been operating a "Transformation Agenda" which has been generally described as a backward agenda, resting only on the massive primitive accumulation of the country's wealth by the few rich.

"Change" is the single word that the APC has organized around. This carries a heavily pregnant meaning, which must be why the agenda is supported by the teeming mass of working people, many of whom are tired of the PDP governments over the past 16 years.

Between "transformation" and "change," is there anything for the masses?

Total NO! And I can say it many times. Nigeria is split into 36 states, many of which have been ruled by APC governments for years. People in these states understand that the difference between the APC and the PDP is really like the difference between six and half-a-dozen. Lagos state, after 16 years of APC rule, is still not a better place for working people. And after 16 years of PDP rule of the federal government, life for most people is still hell on earth.

Soludo--the former Central Bank Chief--seems to get this point, but what alternatives is he offering? He obviously has none except resorting to the rhetoric of Keynesianism: "Soon you will start asking the citizens to pay this or that tax, while some faceless 'thieves' were pocketing over $40 million per day from oil alone."

But we need to ask him the positive effects of the National Economic Empowerment Development Strategy [which Soludo drafted as chief economic adviser to former President Olusegun Obesanjo] on the economic development of Nigeria and her working people. We need to make him know that the so-called banks he boasts of making big and financially stable was done at the expense of the majority who are poor.

Public money was deployed by Soludo and his other economic "czars" to save banks owned by a private few. What economic effect has that had on our education, health and social welfare system? Corruption is tied to capitalism, which Soludo and others defend. To remove corruption, capitalism has to be smashed!

Okonjo-Iweala's weak responses to Soludo's challenges can be understood. Here is a woman who celebrated Nigeria being "the largest economy" in Africa, and within few months had declared austerity.

The value-added tax (VAT) on all goods had been increased by 10 percent. This will spell doom for the living standards of a majority of Nigerians, and it has been rejected by a majority of Nigerians. Indeed, the VAT should not affect common goods, but luxury ones. More importantly, the rich should be critically taxed, and not the poor. For it is the rich who are the Ogas at the Top that have milked the resources dry, even when oil was a boom.

These PDP policies do make many Nigerians have some beliefs in the APC's agenda of change. Kayode Fayemi responded to Soludo by promising to "block wastages" and localize production by looking up to other sectors other than oil. All these seem beautiful. But it will all be done in collaboration with the same corruption network called "private sector!" Through this network, entrenched in our country since SAP [the structural adjustment program imposed on Nigeria in 1996 by the International Monetary Fund], the rich people sink Nigeria's wealth into their pockets.

At Chatham House, Buhari made an intelligent speech, trying to put some round pegs in some round holes. On democracy in Nigeria, he tactically posits that it "is much more important that the practice of democracy goes beyond just allowing people to freely choose their leaders. It is much more that democracy should deliver on the promise of choice of freedoms, of security of lives and property, of transparency and accountability, of rule of law, of good governance and of shared prosperity."

He emphasized that the real democratic ethos of a "better life for the generality of people is not delivered in breach." These words, without querying the actual honesty behind them, carry a burden of reality, as most of the cronies of Buhari like Tinubu and Atiku are elements who have worked overtime to deny the mass of poor people these "promises of democracy."

While Buhari talks about tackling unemployment, poverty and inequality through blocking "waste and corruption," concrete reality shows that such action can never succeed when running a "private sector-led economy," despite promising to "maintain an active role for government through strong regulatory oversight and deliberate interventions and incentives to diversify the base of our economy, strengthen productive sectors, improve the productive capacities of our people and create jobs for the youth."

A "private sector-led economy" is one that is based, simply, on the maximization of profit by a few individuals. This is done by sacrificing the blood and sweat of working people who make the wealth being primitively accumulated while also constituting the majority, the 99 Percenters!

Both the "Transformation" agenda and that of "Change" are in favor of the rich people. That is why neither party is promising free education at all levels, full free health care and the redistribution of wealth. None is promising mass reduction of oil prices in Nigeria. None is talking of increasing the minimum wage. And none is talking of cutting the earnings of public office holders, as our parliamentarians get the highest pay in the world.

The only agenda that will change Nigeria is an agenda that is fashioned, championed and implemented by the working people themselves. Not all these ideas of the ruling class.

The Looming Electoral Violence

The word "looming" is rather not apt anymore as there are already spates of violence in most parts of the country. Attacks and counter-attacks on the campaign teams of both parties have been recorded in Rivers, Katsina, Lagos, Oyo, Ekiti and Kaduna, and Bayelsa, Osun, Edo and Bauchi states. The bosses' parties are giving the illusion of making life better for the masses without changing the existing exploitative system, inspiring different sectors of poor people to line up behind them and kill each other.

Because of the fact that the current capitalist order in Nigeria holds onto the prevailing idea, "accepting the social order as unchangeable" becomes a "major obstacle" to the fight for our freedom. The activities of working class organizations--which is comprised of labor and trade unions, revolutionary groups and parties--are marred with "ideological and political shortcomings." Giving clear class directions to the mass of working people thereby engaging the prevailing idea from above, suffers enormously due to this.

While the Socialist Workers League (SWL) calls for a mass engagement of the elections through "making working class demands" by the mass of working people organized in labor and community unions, a majority of people are queuing behind the big parties.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) have issued statements demanding a reduction in gas prices and an increase in the minimum wage, among other demands. But since the paltry 10 naira reduction in the gas price by the federal government, which was massively rejected, the unions have had less engagement.

So the political engagements with the neoliberal policies of the government have been weak. Privatization and other anti-poor policies of the government are having negative effects on the mass of poor people. The environment becomes quite ripe for what is popularly termed "stomach infrastructure," where the big parties churn out cash and sachets of rice and kerosene to poor people in exchange for votes. The army of the unemployed, which continues to grow en masse, becomes a reputable resource for thugs and brigands who are used to foment violence during elections.

The military set-up in the country is also a conscious collaborator in this. The Abuja Peace Accord, which was brokered by the international community, with both Jonathan and Buhari signing, has been reduced to a paperwork.

Trade unions and radical civil society need to start practical independent actions of mobilizing youths against being used by the bosses' parties as thugs, while also concretely providing political guidance to working people by intensifying the enforcement of demands already made, and kick-starting campaigns against austerity and for a "fairer society."

These actions could well serve as pointers for working people dissuading them from fighting behind one set of oppressors against workers on the "other side."

The War Against Boko Haram and Election Postponement

Despite the strategic visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to prevail against the postponement of elections after it became "imminent," as National Security Adviser Ibrahim Dasuki has hinted, President Jonathan's reply that "May 29 is sacrosanct" [as the date of the election winner taking office] seemed to calm some nerves.

But the elections were postponed against all odds to March 28. The security report from the military played the joker. The Independent National Electoral Commission was forced to postpone elections as the security forces gave the excuse of being busy fighting Boko Haram. All local and international outcries against the postponement were snubbed.

Experiences all over the world have shown that the "war on terror" is vehemently a fight against mass of working people. The case of Baga is classic here. The first massacre in Baga was perpetrated by the Nigeria military in 2013. Al Jazeera, after the attacks, called this a "silent war." Evidence shows that the military has maimed and murdered innocent lives just as as large numbers as Boko Haram.

The APC also continues the "strongman philosophy" in Buhari as a possible answer to defeating Boko Haram.

As Buhari himself said at Chatham House, "What has been consistently lacking is the required leadership in our battle against insurgency." He further says, "We will be tough on terrorism and tough on its root causes by initiating a comprehensive economic development plan promoting infrastructural development, job creation, agriculture and industry in the affected areas." He as well promised to personally lead "from the front and return Nigeria to its leadership role in the regional and international efforts to combat terrorism."

The allusion to "regional and international" fights against terrorism further confirms the APC and Buhari's loyalty to imperialist wars and others that have been used to effect capitalism's reign. The U.S. "war on terror" has resulted in the plundering of Iraq and other countries into more hardships than before.

So the "war on terror" is at best a ruthless onslaught against the mass of poor people. The immediate answer is to negotiate with Boko Haram while giving support to the Civilian Joint Task Force to ensure self-defense of the working people themselves, as is shown in Maiduguri.

After two weeks of election postponement to concentrate on fighting insurgency in the North as the security forces proclaimed, Boko Haram has not been crushed. Biu in Adamawa state and Jos in Plateau state were attacked on Friday, February 27, by suicide bombers with scores dead and many injured.

Suspicions are rife all over that the ruling party may try for another postponement. This is bound to cause crisis. Legal experts are wary of even the current postponement with the belief that there will not be enough time for legal tussles in challenging and defending the election results.

In Lieu of a Conclusion, What Alternatives?

There are short and long alternatives to the current situation.

Other than the APC and PDP, I prefer that Nigerians vote for National Conscience Party (NCP), with Martins Onovo as presidential candidate. His party was formed by the late revolutionary lawyer Gani Fawehinmi and has a 10-point blueprint centered on "abolishing poverty." Most on the left adopts this party as portrayed by the Joint Action Front.

I must say that this party's structure may not be able to slug it out with the big parties. But as part of a short-term alternatives, Nigerians should vote with all eyes open, and make concrete demands before voting.

For the long-term answer, we should start preparing for a country where "greed and power" is crushed. This will be a hard road, but it is safer. We tried it in January 2012 during the anti-subsidy removal rallies. Those who were martyred during this period cannot be compared to the mass of people who get killed every day in the country by this horrible system imposed on us. About 110 women die every day during childbirth and other related issues.

For it is the capitalist system, which Sam Aluko called "kalokalo" economics, that is the problem. It is a system that thrives on corruption through the compulsory "maximization of gain" and "primitive accumulation of wealth" by its actors. To drive this through, this crude and wasteful system relies on "blood and mud" to sustain itself. Only a revolution led by the working class in their collective self-emancipation can save Nigeria and, indeed, the whole world.

The 2015 elections are important as it is the first general election since the popular January Uprising against fuel subsidy removal in 2012. It will be quite different from the 2011 elections, which were much more determined by divisions around homophobia, ethnicity, religion and age.

Though these divisive elements are still on the boards of public opinion, economic and welfare issues overrides them. Many Nigerians now see more of their class differences than other system-imposed differences. The headache now is that they will now have to rely on any of the bosses' parties to pitch their tents. This is tragic.

As we go to the elections, we must know that the point is to prepare to tackle any of the "devil's alternatives" that emerges. We must know that the elections will provide few answers and that we can only fulfill our collective destiny as a people when we realize that there are only two divides here--the rich and the poor.

That realization would always ginger us to struggle and organize beyond these elections to a totally different political system where our commonest slogan would be "all for one, and one for all!"

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