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Africa :: Nigeria
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Nigeria has passed through nearly a month of turmoil. Footage of the hated Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit casually killing a man and driving off with his car was the spark.
Years of frustration, disappointment, poverty, and anger exploded into a mighty mass movement, fundamentally undermining the regime of president Buhari, and putting into question the future of not just the current government system, but the very country itself.
This tremendous, inspiring youth movement had an electrifying impact on many parts of Nigeria. This upsurge was in complete contrast to the leaders of the country's trade union movement who, just two weeks earlier, had called off a general strike at the last minute, and signed an agreement backing the government's austerity policies which the general strike was meant to oppose!
Officially, the country was meant to be in the middle of celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of independence from Britain. But what really is there to celebrate? A recent Senate committee report said that it would take "41 years" for Nigeria to have a stable electricity supply! This, on its own, is an indictment of both the Nigerian ruling class and the capitalist system.
Looting, corruption and bribery are endemic as the country's oil and gas wealth is systematically stolen. Yes, the low-paid police and military intimidate and collect bribes at roadblocks, but the real corruption starts at the top. It is why the capitalist politicians fight expensive and desperate 'do or die' election campaigns, to get themselves into positions where they can loot one way or another.
The movement against SARS, and its replacement SWAT unit, brought to a head the simmering anger. But the 20 October shooting down of unarmed demonstrators at the Lekki Toll Gate on Lagos' Victoria Island provoked an explosion of outrage.
The subsequent violence was not the result of the initially peaceful protests. Rather, much of it is in response to the sometimes brutal attitude of the police to demonstrations, and, more fundamentally, to the state and ruling party sponsored attacks on the demonstrators.
In the same way that 'do or die' politicians hire unemployed or criminal elements to attack rival parties and intimidate voters in elections, now they have been sponsoring attacks on the demonstrators and planting agent provocateurs, aiming to provoke confrontation, giving the authorities an excuse to act and profit from the chaos.
There are signs that some of these attacks had the backing of security forces. The BBC reported that "video evidence suggests that they were encouraged by police officers to target the demonstrators".
In an overwhelmingly young country, where two-thirds of young people are either unemployed or underemployed, there are those who can be hired to carry out such deeds.
But this violence has taken on a life of its own, with attacks in a third of Nigeria's 36 states on warehouses storing Covid-19 'food palliatives' - aid meant for distribution, but which has not been distributed over the past months.
The fact that some of this aid has rotted or been found in politicians' homes, did not help the government's claims that it was being stored in preparation for a second wave of Covid-19.
Significantly, it was not simply criminal elements looting these warehouses, the poor were as well; something not surprising in a country where about half the population, over 100 million people, are described as living in "extreme poverty".
The Democratic Socialism Movement in Nigeria (CWI in Nigeria) has long argued that working people and the poor need their own party, which can fight for their interests and build a mass movement that puts into power a government to end the rule of capitalism and, with socialist measures, fundamentally change the country.
To assist and deepen the anti-SARS movement, DSM launched the Youth Rights Campaign (YRC), which has produced leaflets, organised successful meetings, and more. Show solidarity, email YRC: [email protected]
This storm was brewing for some time. Even before Covid-19 hit, the country was in a severe social and economic crisis, alongside the Boko Haram insurgency and clashes between opposing ethnic and agricultural groups in central areas.
The fall in oil prices was leading to Nigeria suffering its second recession in four years. Inflation is taking off; currently food prices are rising at nearly 17% annually. In addition, there is huge unemployment (the official rate is 27.1%, ie 21.7 million people), with no social benefits, and the resulting poverty is worsened by widespread underemployment and non-payment of wages in both the state and private sectors.
The result is mass disappointment with Buhari, who was elected in 2015 with a promise of change, and continuing anger at the elite. It is not accidental that in London, Nigerian #EndSARS protesters demonstrated outside the expensive downtown house owned by Tinubu, the "National Leader" of Buhari's All Progressives Congress (APC).
This explosive situation was one of the key factors why the trade union leaders called off the general strike scheduled to begin on 28 September. They feared starting a movement which they could not control.
While many activists were not surprised at the trade union leaders' actions, they have behaved in similar ways before. For many young people it seemed to show that the union leaders were simply part of the system.
At the same time, there was deep hostility to politics. At first, the anti-SARS protesters were 'anti-political', refusing to let political speakers address the rallies. This included the widely known activist, but not socialist, Omoyele Sowore, who is currently being prosecuted for calling for "RevolutionNow" protests.
But as the #EndSARS protests developed there was a significant change. Political action was seen as being necessary and the idea of a youth party, one which broke with all the rottenness of the ruling parties and their satellites, gained support.
But just being young, or new, is not a political programme. The issue is one of programme, what a party or movement will do. That is the key if it is going to make a fundamental change.
Unfortunately, there are signs that at least some of those who have claimed leadership of the #EndSARS protests are supporters of capitalism, arguing that only corruption needs to be removed and then Nigeria will develop.
Seun Kuti, the very well-known activist musician and son of Fela Kuti, argued that the list of five demands put forward by those heading the #EndSARS protests were "elitist" as they did not seek to end oppression, when the divide was between the ruling class and the "common man".
The statement issued on 23 October by the 'Coalition of Protest Groups' was clearly orientating mainly towards the 2023 elections, and said nothing about fighting poverty, oppression or corruption. Instead, it talked of representing "the different coalitions; from celebrities to activists, legal minds to strategists, journalists to entrepreneurs, etc." A list which significantly included "entrepreneurs", ie capitalists, but not labour, the working class and poor.
Such an approach does not deal with the fundamental questions facing Nigeria - namely the inability of capitalism to develop the country and the impact of repeated crises within world capitalism. And there is the danger that a few will use this movement as a stepping stone for their own personal advancement.
The Democratic Socialism Movement (CWI in Nigeria), along with others, launched the Socialist Party of Nigeria - a party that can begin to challenge the pro-capitalist parties and argue for the creation of a mass working peoples' party.
The repeated opportunities lost when labour leaders have refused to challenge the ruling class does not mean that the working class is weak. The 2012 general strike was an example of how labour and youth can spearhead a movement with the potential to carry through the socialist revolution that is required.
The #EndSARS movement has given a glimpse of what struggle can do. Its strength has forced the government to grant concessions, but it is clear that the ruling class has been simply looking for a breathing space.
Currently, with the movement ebbing, the government is starting to issue threats, and trying to prepare the way to use repression against protests.
The challenge now is to resist any repression, consolidate the gains that have been won, discuss the lessons of both the #EndSARS movement and the aborted September general strike, while preparing for the inevitable future battles as oppression and poverty are resisted and the struggle to change society goes on.
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Article dated 28 October 2020
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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