War and elections in Nigeria

March 26, 2015

Baba Aye, editor of Socialist Worker (Nigeria) and a trade union educator, explains the background to the once-postponed elections set to take place this weekend.

EARLIER THIS week, President Barack Obama spoke "directly to...the people of Nigeria," reminding us of our triumphant struggles for independence and subsequently against military dictatorship.

He then pointed out that "a historic opportunity to help write the next chapter of Nigeria's progress" lies in the general elections--which commence on March 28--with the most keenly contested presidential election in Nigeria since independence in 1960. Elections for national legislators will be held on the same day, while those for governors and state legislators are scheduled for April 11.

The major parties in contention--out of a total of 14 with presidential candidates--are the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of President Goodluck Jonathan and the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), with a former military head of state, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, as its candidate.

The two sets of elections had been scheduled to take place on February 14 and 18, respectively. A week before they were to begin, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced a six-week postponement.

Elections in Nigeria have already been delayed once
Elections in Nigeria have already been delayed once

The military service chiefs had written a letter to the electoral judge demanding postponement. The excuse was that the military was in the midst of an offensive against Boko Haram in the northeast, and the extension was required not only for victory in the six-year war against the militant Islamists, but also for the state to be able to guarantee security across the country during the elections.

It was obvious that this was a gambit of the PDP--the odds were against it if the elections had been held earlier, as scheduled. The national security adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki, had floated the postponement earlier at Chatham House in London. The main reason he gave then was that barely half of the number of registered voters had, as of then, collected the Permanent Voters Card required to vote.

The APC and most Nigerians declared disbelief that a war which had dragged on for six years could be won in six weeks. But while Boko Haram might be far from being defeated, most of the territories that the sect seized over the last six months have been "liberated," shoring up some level of confidence in President Jonathan's campaign.

Nevertheless, the presidential election remains too close to call. Drawing from the history of Nigeria, this establishes an incendiary political context for the aftermath of the vote.

The APC and Electoral Politics in Nigeria

The Peoples Democratic Party has been in power at the national level since civilian rule was reinstated in 1999. Mass discontent against its anti-people's policies and inability to tackle the war in the northeast has rendered it very unpopular.

The APC presents a new dimension to the bosses' politics: an opposition party with national spread. In contrast, during the first two republics, each of the main parties of the bosses had a region as its "catchment area," based on the manipulation of ethnic affiliation.

Political mobilization of ethnic identities was central to the strategy of the different sections of the ruling class, garnished with neo-patrimonial patronage. The PDP is arguably the first "national" party of the ruling class in a sense.

The National Party of Nigeria, which ruled during the second Republic from 1979-83, was probably the earliest attempt to build a national party of sorts by the Nigerian elite.

The PDP emerged from the "G-34", a group of 34 "statesmen" from across the ethno-regional divide that had written to General Abacha not to transform into a civilian ruler, shortly before he died in mysterious circumstances on July 8, 1998. Their fear was that a seething upsurge from below, which that would open the gates for, would threaten the stability of the bosses' rule. Once the PDP won the elections in 1999, the state purse became nectar for a broad coalition of the elite, sustaining its hegemony--albeit fractured.

The APC was established barely a year ago, from the merger of four opposition parties and a fraction of a fourth, all of which had governors and national legislators from the six geo-political zones of the country.

It claims to stand for the masses. But in practice, there is little or no difference between the policies of PDP-ruled states and those ruled by APC--they are all anti-poor. APC states have raised tertiary school fees and are among the dozen out of 36 states that owe public-sector workers wages--for up to five months in some cases.

The Contradictory Figure of Buhari

For many people, the issue is not about the APC, but about confidence in its standard-bearer. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari has run three times before. He lost on each occasion, while winning the majority of the votes in the northern region, particularly from the poor talakawas (often translated as "peasants," but more correctly as "the poor" or "propertyless.")

Buhari is reputed to be very disciplined and incorruptible. If elected, he promises to defeat Boko Haram, stamp out corruption and reduce unemployment. These are all issues of concern for the working masses and have further endeared him to many. Some on the left have in fact described his bid for presidency as a "specter of Buharism-socialism"!

Ironically, "proof" of his ability to deliver on all counts to his supporters is the record of the military junta he led between 1983 and 1985. After overthrowing the second republic, it jailed politicians, instituted a War Against Indiscipline (WAI), quelled the militant Islamist Maitatsine revolt and defended the naira. But it also repressed mass democratic organizations and civil society organizations.

Many of his supporters acknowledge these shortcomings of his record, but see him as the lesser evil. His strongman visage is also courted as the precise antidote for the triple evils he identified. But these are largely beyond his capacity or that of any other person elected as president. There are material roots for the problems, which can be solved only with the overthrow of capitalism by the working class' self-emancipatory struggle.

Defeat Boko Haram today, and 10 Boko Harams by whatever name would arise. Jihadist ideology thrives on the pauperization and the (real or perceived) oppression of millions in the region where the Jihadists appeal to, and replenish their numbers with.

Corruption could be minimized in general, but it plays such a central role in the cycle of permanent primitive accumulation by the bosses and their dispensation of patronage that it cannot be wiped out by a party of capitalists. It is impossible to significantly address the problem of unemployment when the capitalist system is in crisis, particularly for parties of the bosses. The Nigerian government is broke. Victory for Gen. Buhari will not change that.

The "Contending" Electoral Platforms

President Jonathan's campaign message is centered on the "Transformation Agenda" he is supposed to have been pursuing over the last five years. That of General Buhari and the APC is "change." There has, however, been little debate on the contents of these misguiding synonyms, both of which in reality amount to little more than nought.

President Jonathan "vows to do more" of what he is already doing. Thus, within the context of the essential sameness of both campaign platforms, a concrete analysis of the so-called "Transformation Agenda" is arguably more feasible.

To deny any quantitative "change" in the country's economy from President Jonathan's "transformation" might not be apt. The economy has witnessed relatively impressive growth of 6.3 percent over the past 10 years. Trains that had been grounded for ages are back on the rails. There has been massive growth in agricultural production. Twelve new federal universities have been established. And for the first time ever, the 35 percent threshold for women on the Federal Executive Council has been achieved.

All these and more have made President Jonathan to declare himself as Nigeria's best president ever. The recent capture of territories from Boko Haram might further strengthen this claim.

The questions to ask might be: Why is there so much discontent in the land, despite such arguably laudable successes? Why is it that so many people that voted for Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 have publicly vowed to vote for General Buhari now?

There has been stupendous growth, but the beneficiaries have been the 1 percent of Nigeria. There has been a sharp rise in the number of billionaires and the nouveau riche. There is none of them without "oily" crony ties to the state, and they include quite a number of politicians. The increasing mass of the impoverished can see this contrast between their pauperization and the increasing wealth of the few, stoking popular anger.

Two things emerge from this. In general, capitalist development unleashes the astounding creation of wealth. But this largely benefits just an infinitesimal minority of the population whilst condemning the lives of the immense majority who toil to perpetual misery.

And particularly, in resource rich, but economically backward countries like Nigeria, cronyism as a strategy for intra-class distribution of the wealth being appropriated is central, displacing production in the face of a poor level of industrialization. Thus, President Jonathan might very well be the best president Nigeria has ever had--questionable as this might be. But that shows the essential limits of what the best of capitalist "transformation" could deliver for the teeming working masses.

The economic problem in Nigeria is reduced to one of the "correct" policy. As the APC leader sums up: "If only wiser policy had been known by those entrusted to have known," all would have been well. The party would thus fulfill its promises simply by pursuing neo-Keynesian policies.

Reality is however far more complicated. What we have at hand is more of a structural problem than merely one of "policies." The international character of capitalist development and the concomitant stranglehold of imperialism on the Nigerian economy make it near impossible, particularly for a capitalist government, to get away with such "Keynesian welfare nation state" schema at this period in history.

More importantly, for the moment at least, its economic program has not been at the fore of its campaign platform. Its selling point at rallies has been Muhammadu Buhari as an austere no-nonsense general.

It is opportune to take a closer look at the Boko Haram insurgency which APC claims can be crushed only by General Buhari, as well as other sites of violence in Nigerian politics.

Boko Haram, the War in the Northeast and Political Violence

Violence has been a central element of elite (electoral) politics in Nigeria. In the 20th century, this was largely along ethnic lines, flowing from the mobilization of ethnic identity by different sections of the ruling class.

The roots of such mobilization, particularly in the North, can at least partly be seen in colonial policy of enforcing the segregation of cities into quarters for: Europeans, Lebanese and Syrians; the indigenous population; other northerners, and "'native foreigners' who were largely Christians from southern Nigeria."

The explosion of violence that trailed the 1964 general elections in post-colonial Nigeria paved the way for the first coup d'état on January 15, 1966. The pogrom against Igbos from the eastern region in the north and a counter-coup by junior officers of northern extraction months after this, led to a 30-month civil war which left over a million people dead.

Religion became an added item in the combustible recipe of ethno-regional conflicts in the run up to the 1979 general elections that ushered in the Second Republic. Partly inspired by the Iranian revolution and the Mujahedeen's resistance in Afghanistan, a new and militant wave of political Islam sprang up.

Its umbrella body was, the Sunni Jama't Izalat al Bid'a Wa Iqamat as Sunna (Society for Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna), otherwise known as Yan Izala. It gave support to the Muslim candidate of the National Party of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who became president until the Republic was overthrown by the military in 1983.

It was within the Yan Izala that the seeds of the anti-establishment Islamist politics of Boko Haram and other Salafist groups were sown in the 1990s. They rose as opposition to the corruption of the movement's leadership who had been won over by the military government.

Mohammed Yusuf, the founding leader of Jam'atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda'awatih wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad), better known as Boko Haram, established himself in this period as a voice for poor and disillusioned Muslims against the corruption and excesses of both the state and the Yan Izala leadership.

Elite mobilization of religion and ethnicity created the context for the eventual emergence and development of Boko Haram as a lethal version of militant Islamism. In the largely Muslim far northern states, this started with Alhaji Sani Yerima's electoral platform for Sharia in 1999 and the resounding victory he won. By 2002, when Boko Haram was formed, there was a strong pro-Sharia movement with some 12 of the 19 northern states implementing or considering the introduction of Sharia.

Boko Haram was courted in Borno state by Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, a gubernatorial candidate, in 2003. By this time, the group had established a mass following of about a quarter of a million persons. It ran health care centers, Koranic schools, shelter and soup kitchens for the poor.

Its collaboration with Sheriff, which brought in resources and arms, strengthened the group organizationally and helped to further broaden its ideological and political influence. This marriage of convenience, however, fell apart in no time, as the sect felt that the governor did not go far enough in implementing Sharia. This set the stage for confrontation, and in July 2009, Mohammed Yusuf was shot in questionable circumstances while in police custody.

That was the beginning of a six-year bloody war. It has claimed over a 20,000 lives according to the federal government, with many more maimed and over 900,000 people displaced. To put it graphically, last year alone, the number of persons killed in this war was higher than in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The war has gone through several phases, with the federal government dithering between negotiations and brute force. The numbers of persons killed by the security forces are, according to Amnesty International, as high as those killed by the sect. This has helped the sect's recruitment in a region, which is the most impoverished in the country.

But the brutality of Boko Haram's indiscriminate killings and abductions, including those of the Chibok Girls Secondary School students, have also made it unpopular with the working masses in the region and nationally. By August last year, partly inspired by the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it commenced the seizing of territories as part of a caliphate it claimed to be establishing.

A Joint Task Force (JTF), with the army as its backbone, but encompassing other security services, failed to defeat Boko Haram. It was scrapped, and a regular army division instituted in its place. But that brought no improvement in the military offensive.

Ill-equipped, underpaid and frustrated, rank-and-file soldiers have mutinied time and again and, along with officers have also deserted the war, crossing over into neighboring Cameroon in their hundreds, only to be returned. At least three general court-martial rulings have condemned over 66 soldiers and officers to death. Some 200 soldiers have also been dismissed, while a brigadier general and 21 other officers are also presently facing court-martial.

The most successful fight against Boko Haram before now has come in the form of the Civilian Joint Task Force (Civilian JTF). In April 2012, angry youths in Maiduguri, armed with sticks, clubs, machetes, axes and shotguns, beat back a Boko Haram attack. They then constituted themselves into a network of standing militias in the neighborhoods, where they were welcomed with open arms.

They are mainly de classe and urban poor. Their commendable example of self-organization from below has been replicated in several adjoining towns and cities. It is however a contradictory phenomenon. While independently established, it considers itself the civil society extension of the JTF. The state leveraged this to incorporate their fighting spirit.

The Nigerian army cannot solely claim the successes of the current offensive, in all honesty. A Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) of soldiers from Niger, Chad and Cameroon as well as mercenaries (from South Africa, Ukraine and Georgia) was put together as a standing body just two years ago when Boko Haram fighters started rampaging into the territories of other Lake Chad basin countries.

After the abduction of the "Chibok girls" on April 14, 2014, the United States, Britain, France, Israel and China offered assistance in terms of training and intelligence to the federal government. Training centers were established for Nigerian soldiers, the main technical advisers in these were from the United States. But their expertise was to no avail.

The more recent involvement of mercenaries shows the level of desperation of the state and suave business negotiations by private military companies. Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater, struck a deal with the Nigerian presidency to deliver military contractors from South Africa through his Frontiers Services Group. French mercenaries are also fighting alongside the MNJTF as part of the Nigerien contingent.

It is very unlikely that Boko Haram could be militarily defeated. What has been done against it in the current war is to roll back its conquest of territories, which only started six months back. There have been continued bomb blasts by the sect with dozens killed in cities across the Northeast, and also Jos in the North Central region, even as the offensive gains strength. The sect is likely to continue with the sort of urban guerrilla tactics that initially gave it notoriety for a while.

The government offensive and its relative triumphs have thrown up a question making the rounds: Why did it take the presidency so long to take such action?

It is also difficult to forget that President Jonathan did not say a word about the abduction of the Chibok pupils for three weeks. And this was after celebrities and politicians across the world had raised their voices to join the chorus of #bringbackourgirls (BBOG). Campaigners of BBOG have also been hounded by security forces.

Also, while Jonathan condemned the "dastardly terrorist attack" against Charlie Hebdo, within hours, he never so much as uttered a word regarding what Amnesty International described as the "deadliest massacre" by the Boko Haram, with about 2,000 people killed, in the same period.

There is a strong likelihood that in the next few days or weeks, the Nigerian state will have to contend with another form of violence: post-election violence. Over 900 people were killed in violence that erupted (mainly in some northern states) when Goodluck Jonathan was declared president. There was also more localized fracas flowing from contestations of the gubernatorial elections in some volatile states.

The signs are ominous that things could be worse this time around. According to the National Human Rights Commission, no less than 58 persons have already been killed in political violence related to the two major parties' campaigns.

This is despite the signing of an "Abuja Peace Accord" by all the presidential candidates and the signing of similar "accords" by gubernatorial candidates in several states. And presently, hours to the elections, the two leading candidates are still running more or less neck and neck, according to opinion polls. Victory for either could thus be quite easily alleged to have been falsely won.

The PDP might be setting the stage for denying the veracity of elections results with its demand that the Permanent Voters Card (which over 80 percent of registered voters have now collected) should not be used.

The APC's support for the use of PVC and the card reader might possibly constrain its leadership's public cry of foul. But its foot soldiers, particularly in the northern states, would most likely challenge such loss with violent protests. Tens of thousands of southerners living up north have travelled back home, to avoid being caught up in a fratricidal backlash.

The Labor Movement, the War and the Current Situation

The one thing that there is an agreement on in the labor movement, regarding Boko Haram, is that its reign of terror is condemnable. Within the socialist left, though, there are quite significant differences in perspectives on what Boko Haram is or represents, and consequently on what is to be done, regarding this phenomenon.

The trade unions are further agreed on charactering the sect as a terrorist organization, demanding the military's crushing of Boko Haram and prioritizing the need for peace in the northeast.

The perspectives of the Marxist-Leninist left (which is the dominant socialist trend within the NGO community) could basically be considered as the same with those of the trade unions.

The point of departure of the Socialist Workers League, associated with the International Socialist traditions is that Boko Haram can be best understood only within a context of totality--of the evolution of political Islamism (in Nigeria and globally); the nature of the ruling, working and intermediate classes; the national question; and the state of the left.

We have identified three phases of the evolution of political Islamism in Nigeria, with the most lethal phase, which Boko Haram is representative of, commenced largely as a Sharia movement that was only potentially a lethal "menace" until the turning point of 2009 when the insurgency started. Boko Haram had propensity for growth at the beginning of this phase, precisely because its roots were not in the Sharia movement. Its leadership had won respect and influence from a teeming mass of the poor in the earlier phase, for speaking out against both the secular and pro-establishment Islamist powers that be.

Understanding the class nature of movements as part and parcel of the broader class dynamics of the society in which these movements evolve is thus of fundamental importance for defining them and propounding perspectives as guide to action for revolutionaries. Boko Haram has a contradictory class character. It "involve(s) sections of the ruling elite for whom religion-as-politics is a tool for mobilization of mass support for their aims." These made money and land available to the sect in its early years to prosecute its Islamic "welfarism."

"Many poor and dispossessed people within their localities that are fed up with the corruption and flamboyant lifestyle of the elites, in the face of their own poverty and hopelessness" also flocked to its banner. It is important though to stress that core working class elements within this rubric cannot but be minimal. In the first place, an extremely low level of industrialization and formal sector production leaves the working class as basically one comprising the public sector workforce.

The leadership of the burgeoning Islamist movement at the time was drawn from the petit bourgeois strata of artisans, lower cadre professionals and former students. As it grew, this cadre of the group expanded in numbers. Hundreds, if not thousands, of new converts who were graduates tore their diplomas to shreds, in condemnation of Western education, presented as corrupting. The outright turn to armed struggle, using terror tactics has drastically reduced the number of active members of the group. But while the support from sections of the ruling class might have become more surreptitious, this class mix of Boko Haram could arguably be said to still subsist.

In a country with not less than 250 ethnic nationalities, of which the largest three make up about a half of the population, the national question has been a major factor in both mainstream and resistance politics. The simplistic picture of a predominantly Christian south and a mainly Muslim north common in the Western press is very misleading. The north, which is now divided into three geo-political zones, was dominated by the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) in the First Republic.

NPC was led by Sir Ahmadu Bello, a scion of the Sokoto Caliphate established through a Jihad in 1804-09. The myriad of ethnic nationalities in the North Central zone were mainly Christian. But in the Northeast, the Kanem-Bornu Empire, which stretches back a thousand years, had adopted Islam as the official religion. The modern period that unfolded with de-colonization saw old ghosts emerge in the relations between these two zones in the "Great North."

For decades, it appeared that the marginalized nationalities in the country were those in the south. Almost all the juntas in the long military interregna latched on to, and where identified as representing this "Northern" power bloc. "Power shift" to the Southwest in 1999 presented the northern elite with a ruse of "marginalization," connected to religious identity (expressed in the Sharia movement), as a powerful tool for mass mobilization.

It was the context of pauperization and real (or perceived) marginalization on one hand and identity politics mobilization by the sections of the elite in each concerned region on the other hand which deepened resistance in the creeks of the Niger Delta into a guerrilla war (with perceivable strands of criminality) before the amnesty deal five years back. With the history of the peoples in the Northeast, this same context's birth of an upsurge could not have but been with a religious coloration.

The level of influence of left politics at different times has been very important in determining the particular course of development of mass movements. Such left parties as the Borno Youth Movement, Northern Elements Progressive Union and the Zamfara Commoners Front ensured that the masses' resistance to oppression and yearning for a better system was propelled along secular lines. In the early 1980s, the Peoples Redemption Party, as well as the fighting trade unions, provided secular radical leadership to the poor working masses. This was pivotal in undercutting the ideological and physical growth of the Yai Tatsine movement.

The impact of the collapse of revolutionary and radical forces presence and influence within the trade unions, on the campuses and in partisan politics has been quite dire across the country. In the Niger Delta, it contributed to appropriation, in the main, of what had started as a radical self-determination movement during the era of military dictatorship, to a money-making machine for "militants," some of whom have vowed to take up arms again if their "son" Goodluck Jonathan loses the presidential election.

Of the few registered left parties, the Peoples Redemption Party, which is, in more ways than one, a mere shadow of the Second Republic PRP has "painfully" adopted President Jonathan's bid, while the candidate of the National Conscience Party, which the SWL is campaigning for, is unlikely to make any significant impact.

More importantly, from several quarters on the left, the APC and particularly General Buhari, its candidate, have been supported as the "pragmatic" thing to do in pursuit of, for some, a "national democratic revolution." Others, rooted in the NGO community, are more concerned with ensuring the institutionalization of free, fair and credible elections. This is supposed to consolidate the democratization process necessary for left elements to be able to win "power" today or someday, through the polls.

Indeed, not a few leftists participated in primaries of the two leading parties of the bosses (more so in the APC). But they learned the hard way that big money is the lifeblood of bourgeois politics, falling aside in the face of better-organized campaign machines of more established rich aspirants. Civil society organizations like the Center for Social Justice have condemned the excessive monetization of the electoral process to the tune of billions of dollars in contravention of relevant laws limiting campaign funding, to no effect.

Conclusion: Beyond the General Elections

The likelihood of crisis in the aftermath of the elections is very high. The seeds for this possibility have already been sown.

On the part of the radical left, there are also frantic efforts to forge a broader coalition in the face of austerity measures and the possible upheaval that could flow from the keenly contested elections. The trade unions are also undergoing a rebirth, albeit with some friction. While attempts at reconciliation are ongoing, organized labor is still better placed now to give leadership to an emergent mass movement than was the case during the military era when such a situation arose after the annulled 1993 elections.

The PDP tried its utmost to ensure the Permanent Voters Card is not used, claiming this amounts to "electronic voting," which violates the electoral law. Several attempts were made to remove Professor Jega as INEC Chair. The general mood in support of the use of both the PVC and the card reader to check electoral fraud, however, tied the hands of the PDP. But if it loses, this will definitely serve as an excuse to dispute the results.

Confident that it would be victorious, the APC has thrown its weight solidly behind the use of the PVC and card reader. It has, however, raised its voice against the deployment of troops to provide security during the elections, fearing that it is a ploy by the PDP to rig the vote. A court ruling several days before the elections in favor of an APC legislator bars the military from being deployed without a resolution of the National Assembly. But it appears that the military would be used all the same, at the outer periphery of electoral areas.

Irrespective of how things work out, the state's depleted resources would engender mass anger. An APC government might try to implement its Keynesian pipedream, but the cold water of reality would douse this in no time. Austerity measures, which have commenced are likely to bite harder. A series of fierce anti-austerity battles most likely lie ahead.

The myth of a defeat of radical Islamism is also likely to unravel in no distant future. While territories seized by Boko Haram have been retrieved by the military, suicide bombings have not stopped. The likelihood of militarily defeating Boko Haram as an urban insurgency is very slim. But even if it is defeated, similar groups in gestation are likely to take its place.

Now more than ever, the revolutionary left has to throw itself into the tasks of organizing and spreading the influence of socialist ideas. Avenues for these are expanding with the recent/ongoing fightback against tuition increases on the campuses, the commitment to a return to the founding principles of the trade union movement in the NLC, and a restive mass, seeking much more real change than APC could in the final analysis give.

In the unfolding moment, working people across the world--as well as Nigerians in different countries, as happened during the January 2012 uprising--must join us in the struggle against the bosses, who merely seek to perpetuate the bondage of we, the 99 percent, irrespective of their party colors.

The struggle against the exploitative system of capitalism is an international one, even as the front line for us all is against the bosses of the lands we live. Our allies are not Barack Obama, with fine-sounding but empty words, or a junketing John Kerry. Only we, as working people anywhere, can stand by us as working people anywhere.

Beyond the 2015 elections, a renewal of mass struggle and the reawakening of workers' power beacons on the horizon. United and determined, we will win.

Further Reading

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