Nigeria: Oil, Elections and the International Community

Today (April 23/07), the electoral commission of Nigeria has announced the candidates of the ruling PDP as winner of massively rigged general elections. During the past week, the international media has been replete with stories about the violence and rigging that were the hallmark of the elections in Nigeria. On April 14 and 21, what was presented to Nigerians as opportunities to elect political representatives in state governorship and federal presidential elections turned out to be the “sham” that General Obasanjo and his ruling band programmed it to be. Usually circumspect international observers have expressed outrage at the conduct and outcome of the polls, with the team of the US International Republican Institute (IRI) condemning the process for “lack of credibility.” The NRI insists that “The system as designed did not work. Many people were denied the opportunity to vote. The Nigerian people were failed by their leaders”.

Even the European Union observer mission stated that the “elections have not lived up to the hopes and expectations of the Nigerian people and the process cannot be considered to have been credible,”. This is a departure from 1999 and 2003 when the team leaders of EU observers in Nigerian elections noted irregularities, but did not condemn the process. In the weeks following the elections in 1999, I attended a forum on Nigeria in Bonn and had to confront the leadership of the EU observer mission that argued that though the elections of 99 were rigged, the outcome reflected the wishes of the Nigerian people. Such warped conclusion only reflected the policy of the EU at the time: to play safe with the Nigerian ruling clusters with the expectation that the new government would work to maintain stability at a level necessary to guarantee continued profits from Niger Delta oil and gas supplies, and the revenue for debt servicing.

It did not matter much to the “international community” at the time that the mass of the Nigerian people had been disenfranchised by a military transition programme that denied pro-democracy groups and others the right to participate in the elections. General Abdusalami Abubakar (who became Head of State after his colleague, General Sani Abacha dropped dead in unclear circumstances) had decreed elaborate conditions and criteria for political parties to meet for participation in elections. Some of the criteria included having offices and staff in Abuja and in the over 700 local government councils across the country. Only retired soldiers and politicians that had participated in the grand looting of Nigerian oil revenues could cough up the money and hire people to meet those conditions. And at the end of the day, the military junta registered 3 political parties, including the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), All Nigeria People Party (ANPP) and Action for Democracy (AD). The last party, considered to be the party of the Yoruba at the time failed to satisfy the criteria set by the military, but got registered to pacify an ethnic group that had campaigned very hard for the revalidation of the June 12 (1993) general elections which the General Babangida military regime annulled after M. K. O. Abiola had won.

The campaign for the revalidation of the June 12 elections had become a project of the pan Nigerian pro-democracy movement that also, and more fundamentally, demanded for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) for representatives of Nigerian peoples and political formations to freely discuss how to build the foundations of the Nigerian federation, and to participate in developing a Constitution for the political administration of the country. The SNC and the referendum that would follow was meant to be the basis for organisation of the democracy project in Nigeria. But the military did not have any patience for the popular clamour, while their international community customers felt that the calls for the restructuring of the Nigerian federation, long distorted by military adventurers, was a distraction. So, with General Abdusalami and his crew insisting on the military plan to decree only 3 political parties for the elections, some of the most active political actors, and clearly the most patriotic elements from among pro-democracy ranks were denied the right to participate despite years in total struggle for democracy in which some spent months and years in prison.

(Prior to the 2003 elections, pro-democracy fighter, Gani Fawehinmi of the National Conscience Party -NCP got the Nigerian judiciary to declare that the national electoral commission was violating the constitutional rights of Nigerians by setting conditions for the registration of political parties. This judgement set the stage for the freeing of political party participation).

In 1999, the Clinton administration of the United States was more comfortable with the military plan than the popular alternative being proffered by groups like the United Action for Democracy, National Conscience, Democratic Alternative, Campaign for Democracy, Chikoko Movement, Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) etc. As a part of the Nigerian pro-democracy movement in the late 90′s the IYC in its Kaiama Declaration had condemned the General Abdusalami transition programme as being undemocratic while demanding for an SNC. With mass protests in the streets and creeks of the Niger Delta, the youths of Ijawland insisted on justice and made it impossible for the soldiers to conduct their elections in Bayelsa state, for a month. In the heat of the moment, President Clinton had sent ex President Jimmy Carter to meet with Ijaw Youth leaders in Port Harcourt. Carter said that the US government supported the conduct of elections as planned by the military while rejecting all the key democratic demands from the Niger Delta peoples, as indeed the demands for free multi party democracy and SNC.

During the military regimes, Nigerian pro-democracy platforms like United Action for Democracy (UAD) and its member organisations actively mobilised Nigerians against the military and their civilian collaborators that have squandered our collective heritage. With the active support of civil society and sections of the independent media, it was possible to articulate alternative paths to popular democracy, and the mass protests (which had forced the Babangida junta to abdicate) in the streets of cities like Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt reflected the connection between the leadership of the movement and the mass of Nigerian citizens. However, the corrupt Nigerian ruling clusters who were bound to lose power with genuine democracy coalesced against the Nigerian people, and organised their fraudulent transition with the support of the oil drunk international community.

If the EU and the US expected the new regime of General Obasanjo, which emerged after the elections of 1999, to maintain social stability, they got it wrong. With Nigerian peoples cut off from political representation as a result of rigged elections, corruption and increasing impoverishment flamed anger among the people. And months after those elections, thousands of Nigerian had perished in ethnic violence in the north of the country. In the south, marginalized Niger Delta youths got armed and attacked the oil and gas industry while challenging the legitimacy of the state. This brought panic to the global oil market and threatened the energy security of the international community.

While the immediate response of the US government was to support the Nigeria regime militarily and set up its own AFRICOM, there seems to be, or should be a realisation on the part of the international community that soldiers may not be enough to guarantee safety of oil investments or security of energy supply. The very regime they have supported over the past 8 years, even with the complicit silence in the face of massive corruption, is eating deeper and deeper to destroy whatever is remaining of the fabric of the Nigerian society. Taking oil workers hostage in the oil fields of the Niger Delta is merely symptom of a system in collapse. The entire Nigerian people have been held hostage by criminal gangs occupying the State House at Abuja.

However, beyond stopping Obasanjo from going away with another criminal looting of the peoples mandate, we must use this opportunity to reinvent the struggle to reverse the destiny of Nigeria. As we have seen over the past week, this is not going to be an easy task. The beneficiaries of misrule are very well entrenched, as they have hijacked the institutions of state including the security agencies that help them to steal tankers of crude oil, and to rig elections. They have also stolen the conscience of traditional rulers while compromising a large section of society.

Those that are calling on the aggrieved electoral contestants to proceed to electoral tribunals are correct. It is the law. There are a few judges that can and will demonstrate enough courage to stand with the people during these trying times. However, it is we the people through our self-mobilisation that can set the path for change. Opposition politics, under the circumstances, is not very useful if not linked to mass mobilisation. And if Buhari and Atiku – both part of the old regime, lack the necessary connection with peoples’ movements, it is because they have too much at stake with the system as it is to want to really transform it with popular power. But peoples’ power expressed in the streets is, above all, what is needed now and in the future.

We do not expect the international community to manufacture the structures for peoples’ power in Nigeria. Nigerian peoples are creating such structures for themselves. With citizens across the country realising more than ever that we are all victims of the state as it is, there will be a movement towards unity of the disparate community and civil society voices towards popular resistance. It is our hope that as we march on, the international community with the recent condemnation of failed leaders will support the Nigerian people and not take side with the Obasanjos, as it did in 1999.

Isaac Asume Osuoka 23 Apr. 07

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