Interview with Hassan Taiwo Soweto and Abbey Trotsky by Per-Åke Westerlund at this year’s CWI International Executive Committee in Belgium.
The Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) has at last won the right to be registered and stand in all elections. This was decided by a Federal High Court in Abuja, the capital of the country, on November 28. This decision was long delayed, court hearings had been postponed no fewer than 19 times since the SPN was forced to start legal action in September 2014 after the official election body, INEC, refused to register the SPN after it submitted its application in June 2104.
“The Socialist Party Nigeria (SPN) can serve as a focal point. Today there is no party for workers and the poor”, the two leading members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI Nigeria), initiators of SPN, explained.
“Discontent with the governing party, APC, and President Buhari is growing. Although the other powerful party, PDP, has a limited appeal.
“In a state election recently, only 20 percent voted. Yet it was in one of the few states that actually has paid wages to their employees. In about 20 out of 36 federal states, wages have not been paid in 5-15 months.”
“When Muhammadu Buhari was elected two and a half years ago, it was with promises of major improvements and a fight against corruption. This was the first time in Nigeria that an incumbent president had been defeated in elections.
“The ruling class wanted to try with changes from the top to avoid a revolt from below – as in Zimbabwe now, and in Gambia earlier this year”, Hassan Taiwo Soweto explained.
“Buhari has made relatively more investments in agriculture, which the government claimed has reduced rice imports by 95 percent. School meals have been introduced in some public schools. The states have received extra money, however, without paying the outstanding wages to their employees.
“After a dramatic fall in oil export prices and global financial crisis, space is very limited for a regime that absolutely does not intend to challenge capital’s power. In 2016 the economy in Nigeria shrank – a country with perhaps the world’s strongest population increase. By 2019, the population is expected to reach 200 million.
“Buhari’s investments have been made with borrowed money. Public debt has increased from $ 10 billion to $ 15 billion over the last two years. Of a budget of 6,070 billion naira in 2016 (14 billion euros, about 15 percent of Sweden’s state budget), 1,360 billion naira went to pay off debts. It is more than twice the spending on education and health together.
“With the new loans, liabilities will be 40 percent of the state budget. Therefore on the basis of capitalism the crisis will only get worse.
“One sign of the deepening crisis is that the state of Kaduna plans to dismiss 22,000 teachers. This has been supported by Buhari. In the state of Oyo, teachers’ wages have been reduced by 1,000 naira a month. Another sign is that the government said they are preparing to raise electricity tariffs next year.”
Old wine in new bottles
“The new government is old wine in new bottles. Most people have lost faith that there will be a change, when so little has happened”, says Abbey Trotsky.
“Buhari’s campaign against corruption created hope for a strong leader to arrest and punish those who plundered the country. However, it has been shown to apply only to people from the PDP, not against corrupt leaders within Buhari’s own APC.
“It is the same with the war against Boko Haram. Its activities declined when the new government took office, but now they are increasing again, with bombs, attacks and kidnappings.
“With the crisis, the national question issue has come back with full force. Nigeria was created by British imperialism and consists of many peoples and languages. In recent years, agitation has increased for an independent Biafra in south-eastern Nigeria. In the northern part of the country, a group earlier this year threatened Igbo people from the southern part, unless they moved south. This ultimatum was a very serious warning even if it was not completed.
“DSM and SPN stand for the right to self-determination, but today do not urge the formation of new independent states and argue that workers and poor should not support bourgeois independence leaders but struggle jointly.
“The ruling class in Nigeria is very worried about its future. In January, a rumour was spread that the military would again take power. They have ruled the country more than half the time since independence in 1960. The rumour was an attempt to test the reactions.”
Time for new struggles
“In the last week of November, the Nigerian Central Bank declared that the worst recession is over. The reason is actually that oil prices have gone up, but for the government it’s a way to create a certain confidence and a more optimistic mood”, says Abbey Trotsky.
“At the same time, for workers and young people, it can be a signal for increased struggle. Some trade unions have already been on strike or announced strikes. This is especially in the education and healthcare sector. University teachers were on strike for several weeks this autumn and other Polytechnic staff have given notice of a 15-day strike.
“The biggest issues provoking struggle are unpaid wages and the minimum wage. The former President, Goodluck Jonathan, promised in 2011 to raise minimum wages to 18,000 naira per month (43 euros), but this has neither been fully implemented, even in the public sector, nor actually paid. The number of poor has increased sharply. According to the World Bank, 53.5 percent of the population, 98 million people, live on less than $2 a day.
“During the first years of this century, several powerful general strikes were organised against the government, mainly over price increases for kerosene and gasoline. These are necessary items for cooking and to power the generators needed to compensate for the substandard power grid. But after the biggest of these strikes in 2012, the union leaders have held back the fight as they are not prepared to seriously challenge the government.”
Possibilities for SPN
“The registration of SPN is an important part to coordinate and consolidate struggles. In September, we held a public symposium in Lagos with over 60 people, including union leaders and activists”, reported Abbey Trotsky and Hassan Taiwo Soweto.
“Although the trade union leaders once launched a political party they allowed it to be taken over by corrupt careerists. The SPN, while striving to aid struggles, to build itself and to stand in elections, simultaneously calls on the Labour leaders to form and build a mass working class political party open to all those wishing to fight and defeat the pro-rich parties.
“The comrades in DSM and SPN already conduct extensive campaigns. For example in defence of dismissed workers including some who worked at Dangote Cement Plc, a company owned by Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote. Another noted case concerns Omole Ibukun, a leading DSM student member who has been suspended from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, while at the same time the university’s Student Union faces repression.
“The DSM is also involved in several local campaigns against the poor electricity supply and attempts to charge “crazy bills” for estimated electricity usage when the power system hardly functions.
“Even though the Federal High Court has made its decision, it is the Electoral Commission that formally registers a new party. That can mean another long wait, but the process has taken a significant step forward.
“Once registered, DSM comrades will use their experiences from previous participation in elections, as members of the National Conscience Party in 2003 when DSM member Lanre Arogundade received 77,000 votes – 9.7% – in a Lagos constituency and other DSM comrades also achieved good results.
“The registration of SPN offers great opportunities for reaching out and organising workers, youth and the poor across the country,” said Hassan Taiwo Soweto and Abbey Trotsky.