Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Nigeria's Economic Crisis Underlies Unrest in the Northern Region

Nigeria's Economic Crisis Underlies Unrest in the Northern Region

Declining oil revenue and world capitalist meltdown at root of conflict

by Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

Over 700 people have been reportedly killed and hundreds of others were arrested in a police and military crackdown on the Boko Haram religious group based in several northern states in the west African nation of Nigeria. Western and domestic media reports have characterized the operations by the security forces as another anti-terrorism effort modeled on the United States occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet the underlying crisis in Nigeria, one of Africa's largest oil producers, is closely related to the present state of the world capitalist system and the subordinate role of countries which rely heavily on foreign exchange earnings from exports to the industrialized countries.

For five days beginning July 26 in Borno, Bauchi, Kano and Yobe states gunbattles raged between members and supporters of Boko Haram and Nigerian police and military forces. Although fighting took place in all of the states mentioned, the worst fighting occured in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, where the leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, 39, had his headquarters. Yusuf was taken into custody by the military and executed by the police on July 30.

Hundreds of bodies were placed in a mass grave while other residents of the homes occupied by members of the group were taken into detention including women and children. Mohammed Yusuf's execution has drawn concern and condemnation inside of Nigeria and abroad. Even though government officials have justified his execution saying that the leader was trying to escape from custody, others have demanded an independent inquiry into Yusuf's death prior to any charges being brought against him in a public trial.

According to the French Press Agency "Lagos-based independent Channels television late Sunday, August 3, showed footage of Yusuf surrounded by soldiers when they arrested him, and later handed him over to the police. He was pictured standing naked to the waist." (Mail & Guardian, South Africa, Aug.3)

In addition to the footage on Nigerian television clearly showing the Boko Haram leader in military and police custody, the networks later broadcasts his corspe riddled with bullets. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International (AI) and other local civil rights organizations not only questioned the circumstances surrounding his death but also called for an investigation into the arbitrary killings of others during the five day siege.

One of the leading opposition parties in Nigeria, the Action Congress, condemned on August 3 the killing of Yusuf. The party said that the death of the Boko Haram leader in custody was a "blow to Nigeria's image as a country seeking to return to the path of the rule of law, after eight years of sheer lawlessness" under the previous military regime of Sani Abacha during the 1990s.

What is Boko Haram?

Most reports related to the political and religious character of Boko Haram dismisses the organization or sect as a "Taliban-style" group of "terrorists" or fanatics." However, the organization had been growing in influence over the last several years and had recruited some key figures in several northern Nigerian states.

The group was reportedly founded in 1995 in response to the political turmoil that existed in Nigeria during the 1990s. The organization decried increasing "westernization" in Nigeria and placed special emphasis on what it described as the corrupting influence of the education system in this region of Africa which was largely inherited from the British colonialists who ruled the country for seven decades.

In fact, independent of the influence of Boko Haram, during 1999, there was a groundswell of support for the enactment of sharia law in several northern Nigerian states. These developments occured prior to the full-scale implementation of the United States so-called "war on terrorism" which became the cornerstone of the imperialist country's domestic and foreign policy after the events of September 11, 2001.

The majority of the population in northern Nigeria are Muslims and have been so for centuries prior to the advent of slavery and colonialism in west Africa. With the rise of British imperialism in this region after 1851, the policy of divide and conquer and indirect rule prevailed. The country of Nigeria, which has the largest population of any other state on the continent, was divided into regions under colonialism therefore necessitating the creation of a federal political system at the time of national independence in 1960.

Although the Muslim community dominates demographically in the northern region, there is a substantial Christian population. A leading organization within the community is the Christain Association of Nigeria (CAN) which issued a statement in the aftermath of the execution of Mohammed Yusuf and hundreds of other people in the region.

The conflict which arose in the four northern states increased tensions between Muslim and Christian constitutencies. CAN claimed that 20 churches were bombed and 14 pastors died in the aftermath of the siege against Boko Haram.

Elder Samuel Salifu, the National Secretary of CAN, stated in a press conference that Yusuf was killed in police custody to prevent a trial that could have exposed the supporters of Boko Haram within the state and national government in Nigeria. Salifu went as far as to accuse the Governor Modu Sheriff of Borno of complicity in the Boko Haram crisis.

"The reported disclosure by security agencies especially the States Security Services (SSS) at the National Assembly last week which stated that as many as 21 security reports on Boko Haram had been submitted to the Federal Government without any reaction was an indication that the Yar'Adua Government and Governor Modu Sheriff knew more than what they wanted Nigerians to believe." (Nigerian Vanguard, Aug.4)

Salifu continued in the press conference by alleging that the "Government paid deaf ears to the 21 security threats and reports by the SSS for two years purely out of complicity, and sympathy for the fundamental objectives of the Boko Haram sect, but only reacted when government felt its own security was threatened." (Vanguard, Aug.4)

The CAN spokesperson also raised several questions about the possible relationship between the leadership of Boko Haram and the Borno state government. Salifu asks "Finally, how did his commissioner become second-in-command in the Boko Haram and yet the governor is just knowing about the group now?

"When Boko Haram was allowed to establish its headquarters in Maiduguri despite security reports, it raises logical questions of who are the people in government sheltering the Boko Haram sect from prosecutions. Why was the leader Mohammed Yusuf and his second-in-command, Alhaji Buji Fai, an ex-commissioner in Sheriff's government, reported to have been captured and taken to Government House and silenced so quickly? We sense a cover-up," the CAN National Secretary stated.

Other groups have also raised questions about the sudden execution of the leadership of Boko Haram prior to any criminal charges being leveled against them. The Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP), a coalition of opposition parties to the government of President Umaru Yar'Adua, also condemned the extra-judicial killings of members of the Boko Haram.

In a statement issued by its National Publicity Secretary, Osita Okechukwu, the CNPP said that the deaths of the top leaders of Boko Haram deprived the Nigerian people of an opportunity to uncover the character and structure of the Islamic sect.

"We call for a thorough investigation of the entire Boko Haram inferno, origin, metamorphosis, extra-judicial killings and the Police shooting of the leader Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf after his capture by the Nigerian Army, because his shooting denied Nigerians the opportunity to unravel his masterminds, financiers, foreign contacts and his network profile," Okechukwu said.

In an article published on August 7 in Nigeria's ThisDay newspaper, it claims that "Fleeing members of Boko Haram yesterday challenged some top aides of state Governor Ali Sheriff, to swear publicly that they have no link with them. The fundamentalists also said they are ready to come out with the true picture of everything, insisting that the movement is still very much around and that the deaths of some of their leaders and members cannot stop them." (ThisDay, Aug.7)

The Legacy of Colonialism and Regional Conflict

Nigerian politics has been shaped by the history of British colonialism which took root between the mid-to-late 19th century. By 1914 the country was designated by the British as a single colonial unit, but this was in name only.

The late South African journalist Ruth First in her classic book on the political character of post-independence military regimes on the continent, entitled "The Barrel of a Gun" (1970), pointed out that in early colonial Nigeria "the only bond of political unity was the person of Lugard, the governor-general. The only occasions on which the higher officials of two separate bureaucracies, one in the North, and the other in the South, could meet was a the annual session of the Legislative Council in Lagos. For all the formal act of unification, Nigeria was still run as two colonies." (First, pp. 144-45)

First also examines the economy in northern Nigeria and how it differed from other regions. She writes that "In the development of a cash economy and the production of crops for export, the North limped far behind the rest of the country. Social change and Western education came last and least to the North.

The writer also recounts that the northern region "was the last region to train its own civil service. Until the 1950s, the North had no vocal and aggrieved educated group; the first, and for some years the only, educated Northerners were the sons of titled families and high-ranking officials whose place in the social hierarchy was assured." (First, p. 145)

Wheras in the south of Nigeria the colonial system created greater demands for local commerce, artisans and a small group of western educated professionals. First points out in the same above-mentioned book that "New classes of entrepreneurs had arisen; of cocoa and rubber farmers, and growers of other export crops; of produce-buyers, traders, lorry-owners, money-lenders.

"Side by Side with them had emerged the clerks, the artisans and the labourers in the employ of the large export-houses, government, transport and trade. Each year thousands of school-leavers besieged the labour market, in the main unsuccessfully; and these young men, led by the thrustful middle classes of trade and the professions--especially the lawyers in Lagos and the Southern towns, groomed in the manners of British law and politics--put the steam behind a rising Southern demand for entry to the political kingdom." (First, pp. 146-47)

After the attainment of independence in 1960 the regional divide imposed by British colonialism further intensified. The unrest within the military in 1966 led to two coups and the outbreak in 1967 of the so-called Biafra War that lasted until 1970. Oil had been discovered in the South during the 1950s and consequently this export became the largest earner of foreign exchange at 90%. Although the wealth-producing areas of the South constitute the economic powerhouse of the country, the military is dominated by officers from the North.

Since 1956, the oil industry has been dominated by western-based, multi-national firms, ostensibly in partnership with the government through the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Nigeria is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)but the overwhelming majority of the people have not significantly benefitted from the reveunue generated through oil exploration and extraction.

Some of major firms involved in the Nigerian oil industry are Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Texaco, Chevron, Elf, and Agip. These firms have been targeted by the various rebel groups, many of whom are associated with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

Over the years there has been increasing discontent and unrest in the Niger Delta due to the failure of the people in this region to benefit from the billions in oil revenue that is generated annually. Efforts aimed at sabatoge have been successful in hampering oil extraction and therefore bringing about a significant decline in barrels-per-day production. As a result of this unrest, it was recently announced that Nigeria is no longer the largest oil producer in Africa and has fallen behind the southwest African state of Angola.

Economic Crisis Breeds Political Instability

Over the last several months there has been a drastic decline in the viability of the oil industry in Nigeria. This factor resulting from the unrest in the Niger Delta and in the northern states as well has been further impacted by the overall global economic crisis in world captialism. The near-collapse of the U.S. and European banking industry in 2008 has brought about the tightening of credit on the part of western-based financial institutions and therefore weakening export prices for resources and commodities produced in developing countries.

In a recent article published in Nigeria's ThisDay on August 4, it says that "Finally, the chicken is coming home to roost. The Niger Delta crisis--which dealt a heavy blow to Nigeria's oil income and crude production--is finally threatening to consume the country's foreign reserves which had been the saving grace in the current global financial meltdown." (ThisDay, Aug. 4)

The two writers of this article, Weneso Orogun and Onwuka Nzeshi in Abuja, continue by stressing that "With Nigeria losing an average of $1 billion in oil revenue every month as a result of production shut-ins rather than a fall in crude oil prices, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) may no longer be able to defend the current value of the naira (national currency), it has emerged.

"The reserves, which peaked at about $62 billion in 2008, could fall to below $40 billion soon if the CBN continues to draw from it to protect the naira by meeting foreign exchange demand at its weekly auctions. CBN has virtually become the only supplier of forex to the economy since the onset of the financial crisis, as other sources have dried up, thereby putting pressure on the apex bank to withdraw from the reserves to defend the national currency."

These developments in Nigeria illustrate clearly that the legacy of colonialism and the dependence upon the United States and European oil industries cannot be relied upon to maintain any semblance of stability within the country. The question of national unity must be viewed within the context of present class and regional disparties that were imposed under the British colonial system and reinforced through its political and economic reliance on U.S. imperialism.

The vast oil reserves and the wealth produced in the Niger Delta must be equitably distributed among all people throughout the region and the country as a whole. Unity based upon the common interests of the working people and farmers throughout the country is a prerequisite to the genuine national development of the post-colonial state.

Consequently, the unrest in the North must be viewed as resulting from the failure of successive governments to formally break with the political and economic system that still relies on the West for its main economic lifeline. Although the distrubances in the North seemed to be related to differences over degrees of religious fervor, the source of these problems cannot be viewed outside the class and sectional divisions that grew out of the character of Nigeria's integration into the world economic system.

In an article published by Nick Tattersall on August 6 by Reuters press agency, it quotes Jean Herskovits, Research Professor of History at the State University of New York, who wrote in the U.S.-based Foreign Policy journal that "Even established leaders of Islam in the north, who condemn Yusuf's preaching, are aware of how government has failed Nigeria's young."(Reuters, August 6)

"What has Western education done for them lately? For that matter, what have other Nigerian institutions, all easily seen as Western-inspired, done for them," this article notes. The author continued by pointing to the "mounting poverty and deprivation of every kind" that is hampering the ability of the people to realize prosperity.

The author emphasizes that "Nigeria is home to Africa's biggest energy industry but five decades of oil extraction have only exacerbated the poverty gap, making a small elite among the world's wealthiest while the majority continue to live on $2 a day or less." (Reuters, August 6)

Therefore, despite the amount of natural resources that exist in developing countries, the majority of the working people and farmers will not benefit as long as the ownership and relations of production are dominated by world capitalism.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire and has been following intensely the impact of the world economic crisis on developments taking place on the African continent.

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