- Interview by
- Chris Dite
In February of next year, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a new president and a new parliament. The country’s democracy is still relatively young. Officially occupied by the British in 1851, Nigeria was under colonial rule until as late as 1960. Military generals seized power not long after the country’s independence, and in the late 1960s, this dictatorship — which, according to British journalist Frederick Forsyth, was “aided and assisted at every stage by Oxbridge-educated mandarins” — murdered and starved millions of people during a brutal civil war. The country only returned to civilian rule at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Despite its bleak experience of oppression and violence, Nigeria also has a vibrant political scene and history that is little-known abroad. While Western news outlets mainly report its horrific outbreaks of violence, more recently, the financial press has had only glowing praise for prominent Nigerians taking up key roles in the US Treasury, the UK Department for International Trade, and the World Trade Organization. Intriguingly, there has also been echoes of social democratic, Bernie Sanders–style enthusiasm around Labour Party candidate Peter Obi. His campaign has motivated young people and raised the prospect of change in a country beset by crisis.
But other stories paint a darker picture. Promises to address police brutality in the wake of the #EndSARS protests have not been met. The country’s debt servicing is now 118 percent of its revenue, and inflation recently hit 19.6 percent. Banditry and graft are sabotaging the major industries, and a failure to pay teachers and staff has crippled the education system. Lawlessness and insurgency ravage parts of the country.
Jacobin sat down with writer and socialist Aj. Dagga Tolar to discuss the upcoming elections, the growing economic and social crises, and what potential change the country might expect going forward.
The richest man in Africa is Nigerian. But 33 percent of the country lives in extreme poverty, and real per capita income hasn’t grown since the 1970s. How did this shocking inequality come about?
We have a handful of individuals who are extremely rich, while the vast majority wallow in extreme poverty. The contradiction is that Nigeria has abundant wealth and resources in terms of people and minerals. Given the right conditions and application, this wealth could benefit not just Africa but the entirety of humanity. But this has not happened. And it’s no accident.
That Nigeria hosts the richest billionaire on the continent while at the same time being the poverty capital of the world is connected to the growth of capitalism internationally. Colonialism and imperialism on the African continent is the attempt by capital from Europe to look for raw materials and markets to exploit.
You would have expected that the end of colonial rule would mean the end of this arrangement. Instead, a local elite substituted themselves as representatives of international capital and took over control of the entirety of African society. This control has increased the contradictions on the African continent.
Those who have taken over in Nigeria are incapable of developing the means of production because they don’t need to. Instead of building infrastructure that would improve the lives of this vast country of over 200 million people, they’re comfortable playing the middleman role, importing goods and services from the West and China. This is how they acquire their wealth, not from any process of actual development that could benefit working people.
Because of this, Nigeria is now plagued by insecurity, terrorism, religious extremism, and kidnapping. We have a large population of unemployed youth with nothing to do, day in, day out. Our vast wealth is frittered away by a tiny number of elites who don’t see governance as a means with which to develop society. They defend their own interests and that of the billionaire club.
The Nigerian finance minister, Zainab Ahmed, reported this year that the country spends 118 percent of its revenue on servicing its debt. She blamed public spending, in particular funds provided to the oil industry. Soon after she announced that the government will stop subsidizing petrol consumption for ordinary Nigerians in 2023. Similar attempts over the past decade have resulted in the massive mobilization of workers across Nigeria. How did this happen?
Nigeria’s massive debt servicing shows that colonialism has come to an end but imperialism has not. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) continue to exploit resources in the neocolonial world. It is not only that developed countries still play host to wealth looted during the colonial period. It’s that African wealth is currently serving to stabilize international financial institutions in Europe and the United States.
It is criminal that the ruling elite in Nigeria presides over an arrangement where, for every single dollar this country makes, it has to send $1.18 abroad. We have a ruling class that sacrifices the needs of the people — jobs, electricity, health services — in order to meet the greed of international finance capital.
It’s not a case of “forgive them, they know not what they do.” When the current ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, came to power, he announced that the petrol subsidy was a scam and a fraud. Now that he’s in power, he presides over the subsidy regime. It’s really a subsidy for the ruling class, providing them opportunities to appropriate as much wealth as possible from the coffers of the state. It ensures they’ll never work to diversify the economy.
At the same time, every attempt to remove the petrol subsidy also ends up lining the pockets of the ruling elite, big business, banks, and the oil industry. Nigeria, an economy dominated by oil, doesn’t have a single functional refinery because the ruling elites refuse to build any. Nigerians have to buy petrol for use at the international market rate! All of this is why the working class has consistently demonstrated its clear opposition to deregulation and privatization of the key sectors of the economy.
In his book on Nigerian politics, Power, Politics and Death, Olusegun Adeniyi writes that “in a nation where so much power is concentrated in the hands of the presidency, even routine decisions sometimes require the sanction of the big man.” Why is the president so incredibly powerful in Nigeria?
The long years of military dictatorship and bourgeois civil rule in Nigeria have served the same purpose — to protect the interests of the colonizers by allowing them access to the wealth of the country. The powerful Nigerian presidency ensures this access. It also means each member of the ruling elite desperately seeks power for himself, not even necessarily for his class, which again helps to ensure the means of production are not developed.
If working people managed to gain any political power in Nigeria, they would immediately commence a program of development. This would mean a sudden break in the flow of capital from Africa into the United States, Europe, and China. But the system here survives by maintaining a single individual holding enough power to order working-class protesters shot and killed en masse. The presidency is a part of the system that serves the interests of international capital — so Paris, Berlin, and Washington will close their eyes to all of the atrocities committed here.
All the major presidential candidates recently praised British-Nigerian Conservative politician Kemi Badenoch. She has just become the UK secretary for international trade, and she will be implementing a new free trade agreement called the Developing Countries Trading Scheme (DCTS) that will see tariffs massively reduced on Nigerian imports to the UK. The scheme was posed as benefiting ordinary people. Is this the truth?
This latest deal is in line with the long-standing colonial arrangement of exporting raw materials to Europe at the cheapest possible price. It won’t improve the living conditions of ordinary Nigerians.
Alongside this arrangement is the determination of the IMF and World Bank to deregulate and devalue the Nigerian currency (the naira). The banking sector has put in place programs allowing foreign currency to flood the country, and the value of the naira has plunged dramatically throughout the current regime’s term.
The fact that all the presidential candidates have applauded Badenoch and the DCTS clearly indicates that, fundamentally, they don’t think any differently from the current president. They look to foreign capital as the only way for Nigeria to function, just as they always have. The fact that you have diaspora Nigerians in top positions in Europe and the United States doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that the mass of working people themselves hold no power and can’t negotiate for agreements that would, for example, ensure fair exchange rates; nor can they insist that African goods and raw materials are appropriately priced.
The 2020 #EndSARS movement against police brutality saw tens of thousands of young people take to the streets. It was labeled the largest uprising in Nigeria in a generation. Could you explain the nature of this mass movement? What happened to its momentum since 2020?
The Black Lives Matter movement was a reminder that the police state isn’t just a neocolonial phenomenon — it exists in Europe and the United States, too. Protests like these can show how the police, the military, the judiciary, and the law are instruments with which the elite maintain and defend their interests. And this is exactly what played out in the #EndSARS movement.
In Nigeria, the police are so underfunded that they have to buy their own uniforms, boots, and flashlights. In these conditions, their guns become an instrument they use to improve their living conditions. But rather than turning their guns on the rich, they turn them on the poor — stealing through bribes, roadblocks, and other methods. It had gotten to a point where ordinary people could no longer deal with the pressure. Police would escort you to an ATM and force you to withdraw cash at gunpoint. People were being arrested and shot in police stations. The #EndSARS protests became an opportunity for working-class youth to respond to this extreme level of police brutality.
So, what happened to them? For one, the movement had become intolerable to the elite for the reason that it was attempting to link up with the mass of working people. Many workplaces had closed, and an unofficial general strike was in motion. That’s to say, it was no longer purely a youth movement. But despite there being a wider mass of working people ready to unleash their anger at the Buhari administration, they were not mobilized by the trade union leaders. In fact, some weeks earlier, the trade union leaders called off a proposed general strike just five hours before it was supposed to begin. It was this awareness that labor leaders would not call workers into action that ultimately gave the regime the confidence to employ the military to crush the protests.
The movement helped make clear to young people that the police and military are agents defending the ruling class. But it also highlighted that, in Nigeria, the police and rank-and-file military aren’t living in conditions any better than ordinary people. This is not an attempt to justify the role they play. Rather, it points to the potential in future protests to undermine their allegiance to the elites and build solidarity with ordinary people through demands for appropriate housing, training, and democratic rights.
In this volatile situation, is there any possibility of the military returning to power in Nigeria in the near future?
We must ask if there is a possibility of a military coup, and whose interests such an administration would serve. The government that comes to power in 2023 — whether it’s under Bola Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar, or Peter Obi — will not be able to meet the needs and aspirations of Nigerians. Mass movements will inevitably break out.
The military may attempt to use that as an excuse to return to power, as we’ve seen in other parts of Africa — Egypt and Sudan, for example. Military rulers who’ve recently come to power in places like Guinea and Burkina Faso were counting on the failure of the civilian wing of the ruling class and waiting to capitalize on emerging insecurity. The same state of insecurity has engulfed Nigeria — Boko Haram continues to be a threat to the Nigerian state; agitations have broken out in the eastern part of the country, and bandits in the north are a permanent threat to peace.
With the emergence of the Peter Obi campaign, these issues seem to have been put aside. But they’ll reemerge when a new regime comes to power. Nationalist agitation in Biafra and elsewhere will grow. It’s not impossible that Islamic fundamentalist bandits will become capable of taking on the Nigerian state. Some eight weeks ago, they invaded Abuja, released some of their people from prison, and made a public statement saying they were going to kidnap the president. Even though they currently have no political agenda to launch a bid to rule the country, it can’t be dismissed in the future. One thing is for certain: if a break is not made with capitalism, then the Nigerian state will become weaker, and the crises for working people will intensify.
There are some working-class youth in the south of the country who think that Peter Obi — the former vice president of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and a two-term governor of the southeastern state of Anambra — could transform the country. The 2023 elections may well have the highest recorded voter turnout ever. Against a cast of criminal characters who’ve looted the wealth of Nigeria for themselves for years, Obi is perceived as a more capable manager of our situation.
Peter Obi only recently decided to run with the Labour Party, because he could not afford the bidding war involved in the bigger parties’ nomination process. His campaign has not really emphasized this “Labour Party.” Will the Labour Party under Obi become the vehicle that could transform Nigeria? The answer at this stage is no — but not a permanent no. If there were a mass entrance of working-class activists into the party, and more change-seeking elements were allowed to enter and present clear ideas, there could be a qualitative shift. It is possible to build a political alternative. But only if the working class is really willing to fight for its interests and confront a ruling class that refuses to employ the wealth of the country to develop the means of production.
So far, Obi has refused to confront some fundamental questions about the rotten state of the Nigerian economy. Not just how it is managed, but the very nature of it. In fact, our situation cannot be “managed.” There can be no basis of social partnership between capital and working people that will ensure working people’s needs are met.
American readers might know of the World Trade Organization’s director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The multilateral organization she heads has been rendered completely toothless, in part thanks to another prominent Nigerian, the US deputy treasury secretary Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo. Adeyemo has pioneered an anti-China “America First” unilateralism, the rumblings of which began under Barack Obama, exploded under Donald Trump, and now gather pace under Joe Biden. How will Nigeria fare under the growing crises of global capitalism and the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing?
You can be sure that this competition will intensify. There is no possibility of a Bismarck-style “Berlin conference” partition of Africa between China and the United States. Currently, the approach of China is to play the Santa Claus role: providing funds, developing infrastructure, and so on. But the African elite will actually be an obstacle to larger attempts by Chinese capital to develop the means of production. This is because the more infrastructure developments, the more an emboldened working class will demand improved working conditions. And this is not something the ruling class in Nigeria is willing to concede.
There are those on the continent who look to the development that has taken place in China as a model. But given the context, China can no longer go beyond the role played by US and European capitalism in Africa. The conditions to which US capitalism subjected Chinese workers are now being exported to Africa. Any new agreements will guarantee the exploitation of African raw materials, resources, and people.
China is positioning to hedge out the West from controlling the wealth and resources of the African continent. Conflict will result. But a conflict in competition for the resources of the universe won’t benefit the working people of Nigeria, or of Africa.