Nigeria: Several Time Bombs

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Interview with Nigerian socialist Femi Aborisade

Can you explain what has been happening in Nigeria since 11 September?

It has been very contradictory. While there have been large anti-war demonstrations in the predominantly Muslim north, local politicians have used these sentiments against the war to exploit religious and ethnic differences. On 12 October, Muslims in Kano, a northern city, embarked on massive demonstrations in protest against the bombing. There was also an anti-war protest in Ibadan, in the south west, on 5 November, organised by a Muslim youth group. However, the protest in Kano turned violent. There was a lot of fighting between the Muslims and minority ethnic groups in the north who are often Christian. When the dust settled, over 200 people were reported killed, vehicles were burnt, and shops and houses were also torched. The violence at the Kano demonstrations notwithstanding, both the protests were motivated by a disgust at the massacre of thousands of innocent children, women and men in Afghanistan. Politicians and religious leaders used them for their own end.

Are religious and ethnic divisions often used like this?

This is a key feature of Nigerian politics. Some of the leaders of the Kano protests explained that the processions which they organised were peaceful but some unemployed youths seized the opportunity to carry out violence in some areas, encouraged by local politicians. The reality, however, is that the unemployed are not to blame. They, in fact, are victims of the capitalist system that has destroyed their lives and transformed them into canon fodder to be used and dumped by politicians and military generals who have fallen out of the existing power structure.

Responsibility for violence is to be placed squarely on the shoulders of government.

President Obasanjo sought to denounce and criminalise the anti-war protests in Kano as purely religious and assert that Nigerian Muslims have no business being involved in an event taking place 'in far away Afghanistan'. Obasanjo claims that the cause of the crisis is 'un-Nigerian' and does not concern northerners. The president has also introduced anti-terrorist legislation, using the war as a figleaf.

What do these protests tell us about Nigeria today?

In 1999 there were nominally democratic elections, which saw the first civilian president, Obasanjo, elected after years of brutal military governments. In fact he is a product of the military. The new government that arrived with so much hope has not only continued the same policies, but deepened them. Public utilities and other public enterprises have been privatised and thousands have been thrown into unemployment without any form of social security. Pensioners from all trade unions daily throng the streets protesting against non-payment of entitlements. Schools and universities have collapsed due to poor funding. People are being killed daily from kerosene explosions caused by adulterated supplies. Yet, twice this year, the federal government declared an enormous amount of excess revenue from the sale of crude oil.

This situation has given rise to the spate of ethnic violence which to a certain extent has been a feature of Nigerian politics since independence. Nigeria was left with an unworkable system by the British, which set region against region. But the crippling economic picture has caused despair and has fuelled the violence, spurred on by politicians, religious leaders and others seeking a share of the country's oil wealth.

As a consequence Nigeria is sitting on several time bombs that are ready to explode. There is the religious situation. Several northern states have introduced 'sharia' law in recent years, which has exacerbated religious tensions in the region. Recently the president of the supreme council for sharia in Nigeria indicted President Obasanjo for his 'hasty' support for the US. During the Kano demonstrations, the effigy of the minister of foreign affairs, a Muslim, whose base of support is - or at least was - in Kano and Jigawa States was publicly burnt. That shows both a deep-seated hatred for the stand of the federal government on the war.

There is also the ethnic time bomb. A week or so after the Kano violence, over 500 Nigerians, mainly men but including children and women were massacred by the military in seven villages in Benue state in the middle belt of Nigeria, to avenge the alleged killing of 19 soldiers. There has also been a spate of politically motivated assassinations and attacks. State governors are building private armies. The existing three main political parties have not delivered what is popularly known as 'dividends of democracy' since the end of military rule two years ago. Yet the existing parties were imposed by the military, and are divided and bitterly fractionalised.

What are the possibilities for radical social change?

They are enormous. Any event may spark it off. But unless the broad forces for change are led consciously by socialists who aim at genuine democracy and in the interests of the downtrodden, then Nigeria will not hold together.

The anti-capitalist movement is a great opportunity for seeing through this radical change. Interest in the protests that have gripped several cities in the north, Seattle and Genoa for example, is enormous. I have been showing the film of the Seattle protests to groups of trade unionists and socialists. I have also been involved in anti-privatisation groups, and in Africa we have had our own anti-IMF and World Bank protests since the 1980s.

More and more people can see that the current war against Afghanistan is neither against terrorism nor to avenge the killing of Americans on 11 September, but to guarantee economic interests through the imposition of political and economic hegemony in the entire region. Victory for the coalition will give them the freedom to impose their hegemony anywhere in the world, and in the short term in Africa. It will increase the feelings of frustration and impotence on the part of the exploited. We therefore have a duty to play a role in stopping the imperialist slaughter and preventing the spread of the war to other Arab countries.