'Whoever wins we must continue to fight' – Nigeria’s Socialist Labour activist on the coming election
First published at ROAPE.
Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) speaks to Nigerian socialist and activist, Alex Batubo, about the elections this month, and the political and economic situation in the country. Batubo focuses on the struggle of labour, and the possibilities of a radical alternative emerging from the challenges (and opportunities) of the present.
ROAPE: Can you please describe the situation in Nigeria at the moment, the major political and economic fault-lines and divisions? Also, if possible, describe last year’s strikes, and the situation for the labour movement.
Alex Batubo: As in many countries across the world, the common people in Nigeria have suffered from the ravages of neoliberalism over the last two decades and more. The economy has certainly grown since the end of military rule in 1999. In real terms the GDP is now at least three times bigger than it was two decades ago. In addition, the economy has been transformed. The government now depends for less than half of its income on the export of crude oil. The manufacturing sector of the economy is currently around 13% and is larger than the oil and gas sector.
Despite this huge economic growth and transformation, most people are now poorer than they were two decades ago. A recent survey by the National Bureau of Statistics found that 63% of the population or around 130 million people are now ‘multi-dimensionally’ poor. Half the population do not have access to safe drinking water or electricity. Most power stations are powered by gas and yet suffer from intermittent gas supplies when gas flaring is common across the Niger Delta (this is the largest contribution to climate change across sub-Saharan Africa).
Abject poverty for the majority continues with unbelievable wealth accruing to the rich minority. Whilst the majority of the population are poorer, the rich are now rich beyond their wildest dreams. Dozens of executive jets arrive for society weddings. Purchases of properties by the Nigerian elite have a significant impact on the cost of housing in London, for example. Aliko Dangote, the richest of the elite, is now richer than anyone in Africa and almost anyone in Britain.
The rich elite have stolen all of the oil wealth, so most people are as poor as anywhere across Africa and the quality of public education and health is one of the lowest. Certainly, government spending on health and education is significantly below the average for governments across sub-Saharan Africa.
This poverty, inequality and corruption is the reason for the rise of rampant insecurity. Crime, kidnapping and cattle rustling have exploded since the restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the informal sector. The trade unions have been active but have not provided a successful alternative. So, a minority of the desperate poor have turned to individual violence.
Yet since 2000, we have seen a wave of strikes including several general strikes. Unfortunately, in most cases, these strikes have been tightly controlled by the trade union leadership and have not actively involved individual trade union members. They have been ‘stay at homes’ rather than the militant active strikes that are needed to terrify the government and the ruling class.
So, for example, last year, the university lecturers were on strike for eight months, closing all the public universities. The workers at all the government research institutes were also on strike for more than a year. In each case they were striking over the failure of the government to implement previous agreements. Both of these strikes ended in defeat because the trade union federation, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) failed to provide the necessary solidarity.
The frustrating thing is that we know what is necessary for the movements to win. The NLC organised impressive rallies in solidarity with the striking university lecturers last year, in all 36 state capitals at the end of July. At the rally in Abuja, the general secretary of the NLC even announced a realistic strategy to win. He said that if the government did not act within two weeks a three-day general strike would be called. If the government then failed to act in the following two weeks, he warned, an indefinite general strike would be organised. Unfortunately, the NLC took no steps to implement this strategy, so finally the lecturers returned to work defeated and never received their monthly salaries for the period of the strike.
In May 2021, the NLC organised a three-day general strike in one of the states. This was an active strike involving all the workers in the state. The electricity was cut off, the schools and banks, for example, were all closed. In addition, daily demonstrations took place in the streets of Kaduna led by the president of the NLC.
But then, after three days, the NLC called off the strike immediately and was invited to talks by the government. Over the next year the governor who had been forced onto the ropes by the strike action, regained his confidence and once again sacked thousands of teachers including the national president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT). No action was taken by the NUT nor the NLC over these attacks.
The trade union leaders have similarly failed to provide adequate political leadership. Though the trade unions established the Labour Party, they then failed to adequately ensure a consistent leadership in the party. This resulted in a split and a series of court cases. A former vice-presidential candidate of one of the two main political parties then joined the Labour Party and became its presidential candidate within four days. He was Peter Obi.
However, the NLC is still not providing consistent support for the Labour Party candidate and in return Obi is not openly supporting the NLC’s Charter of Workers Demands. An NLC leader is standing as a state governor under the ruling political party. Similarly, the NLC leadership in Lagos, the business capital, has come out in support of the ruling party. Total disarray.
As a result, Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is likely to win the presidential elections taking place in late February. Tinubu was the governor of Lagos State for eight years from 1999. He might have been less corrupt than many other governors but led attacks on the workers and their trade union leaders.
We hope that the new leadership of the NLC, to be elected at their four-yearly congress later in February, will reflect on these issues. However, we know that it will require pressure from the member trade unions and the rank-and-file of these unions to ensure that we have the active strikes and the solidarity that is necessary to win our demands.
And whoever wins the presidential elections we will need a militant trade union movement to start to reduce poverty, inequality, and corruption. No president will just give us a decent minimum wage with regular increments. We will have to force them to fund public education, health, electricity, and water for all.
Ahead of the elections, can we chat about some of the party-political developments? The PDP (People’s Democratic Party) was the ruling party from 1999 until 2015, after which the APC came to power with Muhammadu Buhari as president, with much fanfare and promises to stamp out corruption, to deal with insecurity, and tackle poverty and poor service provision etc. Can you talk us through Buhari’s tenure?
In 2015, Buhari and the APC provided an optimistic manifesto. He promised to reduce corruption and use the money to adequately fund public education and health. As a result, he claimed he would eliminate insecurity, which at that time was largely limited to the North East. Many people hoped that Buhari would win the elections and implement his promises.
These hopes were completely dashed. Poverty, inequality, and corruption have all increased significantly in the last eight years. The resulting despair and the economic desperation of the majority of the population is the reason for the major rise in insecurity.
The value of the minimum wage has reduced to less than US$50 a month, one of the lowest in Africa. It has only been increased once since Buhari came to power, despite inflation at around 15 – 20% each year. This increase has not even been implemented in some states.
The proportion of the federal budget dedicated to education and health are now lower than when Buhari became the president. In 2015, more than 12% of the budget was to be spent on education, by 2021 this had fallen to less than 6% and it has not significantly increased since then.
Buhari promised change and he has certainly delivered that, unfortunately in the wrong direction. Most people are now poorer than they were eight years ago whilst the corrupt ruling class are laughing all the way to their banks in London.
Tinubu, the most likely next president, paid tens of thousands of US dollars to each delegate at the APC primaries to become their candidate. This money came from his continued draining of money from Lagos State, where his consultancy company still collects massive revenue, in his media empire.
There is limited hope that the next government will be any better and the opposition from the NLC still needs to be organised. The new president of the NLC will be elected unopposed at their congress later in February – he’s Joe Ajaero. He comes with a good reputation, but this is hardly deserved. He is from the electricity workers’ trade union – the General Secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) – who have suffered privatisation since 2013 with very limited fight back. In addition, Ajaero led a five-year split from the NLC when he failed to be elected president in 2015.
Interestingly, and some would say, positively these elections are being contested by Peter Obi of the Labour Party. Many young Nigerians seem very excited about the candidacy of Obi. Can you talk us through the emergence of Obi, the history of the Labour Party and his programme for change in the Nigerian elections?
We live by hope, many, especially the youth, have now placed their hope in Obi of the Labour Party. This is the optimism of the will, promoted by Gramsci. The pessimism of the intellect is that Obi is unlikely to be successful. He is a business tycoon who was the governor of Adamawa State for eight years. This background and his open support for neoliberalism does not really justify the faith that millions are placing in him.
What is more, Obi has not created a strong or broad enough coalition to win victory in the polls, let alone to become the next president. Until recently he was a leading member of the PDP that ruled Nigeria from 1999 to 2015. His alliance with the trade union movement has not been consummated, nor is it based on his actions when he was a state governor. However, the Labour Party leadership retreated late last year, voting firmly and clearly to support the NLC’s Charter of Workers Demands. But no mention of this document is made in Obi’s manifesto. Similarly, this manifesto does not mention the Nigerian Labour Congress nor the need to implement a decent minimum wage.
Perhaps as a result, the NLC leadership is not providing consistent support for Obi as the Labour Party presidential candidate. The NLC support for the Labour Party has always been lukewarm and the NLC president is rumoured to have been a card-carrying member of the ruling party, the APC.
Despite this, Obi, as the candidate for the Labour Party has created a level of enthusiasm especially amongst the youth not seen for some time. This resulted in a series of mass rallies in many cities. These were largely attended through conviction rather than people being paid to attend, as is the tradition for the two major political parties. Plus, several opinion polls have indicated that Obi leads in terms of public support.
Whether this support is enough to bring victory is yet to be seen. Tinubu of the APC appears determined to use his stolen wealth and political support to win. His party holds both the Federal Government and most of the state governments and this power will probably determine the outcome, no matter who people actually vote for.
If, as you say, Obi does not fundamentally offer an alternative for Nigerians hungry for real change, can you tell us what needs to be done, and the state of the radical left across Nigeria, and regionally?
The organised left is small and is split over the elections. The moderates are calling for support for Tinubu of the ruling party. They claim he is less committed to privatisation than the PDP candidate. Other parts of the left are calling for support for Omoyele Sowore who also stood in 2019 under the African Action Congress. He would need to receive 50 times as many votes to win this time.
Somehow, we need to be able to unite the left to argue and push for the NLC to lead an active and sustained campaign against poverty, inequality, and corruption, whoever turns out to be the next president.
In the medium term, we need to patiently re-build the radical left and attempt to create a viable electoral platform.
In the last two years or so Socialist Labour has begun to build a left current based on the need for the working class to lead active opposition to neoliberalism. We now have several hundred members on our supporters WhatsApp group. This is still small in a country with well over 200 million people, but it is significantly larger than the more established left groups.
International experience has shown that building a progressive or left electoral alternative faces considerable challenges. There are all too few successes from which we can learn. But it seems to me that we need to start from the grassroots and build some electoral success at the local level, rather than first demonstrating our weaknesses at the national level. We also need to build alliances with other progressive organisations, other radical groups and progressive civil society organisations.
The recent alliance between the African Action Congress (AAC of Sowore) and one wing of the northern based Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) provides some medium-term hope. This could be built as a militant alternative to the Labour Party. But it would be even better if all three (and more) of these parties came together in an electoral alliance. There was talk of an alliance between the Labour Party and the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) of the former Governor of Kano State, but this did not come to fruition.
However, there is a history of party hopping. Several governors in the past were elected as Labour Party candidates or supporters only to leave after being elected. All the Labour Party candidates in Jigawa State recently left to join the ruling APC.
I believe strongly that the future, as the Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg said, is socialism or barbarism. We have had more than our fair share of barbarism across Africa. The immediate economic prospects in Nigeria look poor, with a declining price of oil, government revenue is likely to fall, and all three leading candidates have promised to end the subsidy of the price of petrol by June. In these circumstances we need a robust, active, and sustained campaign by the labour movement. We all need to unite to try and deliver this.
Alex Batubo is a member of Socialist Labour and a trade unionist. He is now based in Abuja but comes from the Niger Delta.