Authoritarian Democracy and Radical Resistance in Nigeria*

#RevolutionNow activists demonstrating at the offices of the secret police (SSS/DSS)

In our article for Issue 64 of Amandla in June, which analysed the February/March elections and related developments, we pointed out “the hollowness of liberal democracy in Nigeria”. In the months since then, the regime represented primarily by the ruling All Progressive Congress has become more authoritarian, whilst clinging to the shell of liberal democracy in form. The Coalition for Revolution (CORE) in Nigeria, further exposed the repressive essence of the regime. The state has violently tried to suppress the #RevolutionNow campaign launched by CORE in August without much success. This marks renewal of radical politics.

Attacks on press freedom, disregard for court orders and the crushing of peaceful demonstrations have become the order of the day. The likelihood of this slide towards a quasi-fascist order is likely to go further except curbed by struggle from below. This is in the light of the declaration of the president in the wake of his re-election that working-class people should brace themselves for tougher times ahead.

Turns to authoritarianism are often taken by the ruling class to push through unpopular policies and programmes at the behest of capital accumulation (or to maintain the stability of the capitalist system as some form of Bonapartism or the other). The Argentine political scientist, Guillermo O’Donell for example theorized on how military regimes that emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s in Latin America created Bureaucratic Authoritarian States to push through modernization of countries in the region.

In the 1960s to the 1990s when military dictatorship was somewhat in fashion, this took the shape of a series of military juntas in Nigeria. Buhari himself first appeared as a head of state at the twilight of 1983 as General Muhammadu Buhari, with a coup which ousted the short-lived second republic.
Of the half a dozen juntas that wielded power for all but four years from 1966 to 1999, his regime was the most autocratic, despite not being as murderous as that of General Sani Abacha. He whipped Nigerians in line with a national “War Against Indiscipline (WAI)”, retroactively effected laws which carried the death sentence, instituted Decree No 2 for detention without trial and Decree No 4, the most repressive press gag law in the country’s history, purged the civil service and selectively prosecuted civilian politicians, apparently targeting those from the southern parts of the country with great vehemence.

When running for his first term in office, four years ago, Buhari claimed to have become a “converted democrat”. But obviously, “dictatorial habits have proved hard to give up”. The habits of those who wield state power is however hardly ever the essential element of the ensemble that determines the nature of the regime they establish, continue or reconstitute. The dynamics of the world they meet on one hand as well as the nature and balance of class forces in struggle on the other, are usually of much more importance.

Increasing impunity and repression
Autocratic regimes have a propensity for constricting freedom of expression. The mass media and increasingly social media as well, face their ire. Since the 29 May inauguration of its second term, the APC regime has taken its tyrannical attacks on the mass media a notch or two higher.

It unleashed an avalanche of repressive measures in the very first week of June. The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) a supposedly neutral regulator of the broadcast industry, headed by Mr Modibbo Kawu a stalwart of the ruling party, suspended the license of Daar Communications.
DAAR Communications, whose African Independent Television and RayPower FM radio (the largest private broadcast network) were both shutdown, is owned by Mr Raymond Dokpesi, a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party. The reasons proffered were “inciting broadcasts and media propaganda against the government” and failure to meet financial obligations to the regulatory body.

That same week, Koffi Bartels, a journalist with the Nigeria Info FM radio was beaten black and blue by police officers. This was after he tried filming Special Anti-Robbery Squad police officers beating a young man. The policemen also said he had “been giving them problem for a long time” in his coverage of police activities in Rivers state which had been a major, theatre of violent battle between APC and PDP during the elections. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Nigerian authorities to “investigate and hold accountable the police officers”, to no avail.

By July, Press Attack Tracker (PAT) informed that not less than 36 Nigerian journalists were attacked between January and July. 30 of these were during the general elections in February and March. This was just a foretaste of what was to come, making an earlier wave of attacks on press freedom last year appear like child’s play as captured in the October Endangered Voices: Attack on Freedom of Expression in Nigeria report of Amnesty International.

The government’s reign of impunity has not been limited to suppression of press freedom. 11 members of the Shi’ite minority Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), were killed on 28 July. A senior police officer and young journalist were also felled by stray bullets of security personnel. The members of IMN were protesting the continued incarceration of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzakky, in contempt of a 2016 court ruling.

Zakzakky and one of his wives had been detained since 2015. This was after at least 348 of his followers, including one of his wives and three of his sons were killed and secretly buried in mass graves, in what has been described an operation of the Army with a “pre-determined mandate” to attack the Shi’ites during one of their ritual processions. IMN members have mounted a series of peaceful protests in Abuja, the country’s capital to demand the release of Zakzakky. Dozens of IMN members were brutally killed on 29 October 2018 during one of these demonstrations.

After the July 2019 killings, the IMN was banned. The government claimed that it had only “outlawed the criminality of the group”, but members of IMN were not been banned from practicing their religion. But 12 members of the group were again murdered by security personnel in a nationwide crackdown on 10 September, while marking the Ashura an annual Shi’ite mourning ritual.

An often under problematized aspect of the emerging post-fascist regime is its political consolidation of powers across the arms of government into one warhead of the executive. Friction between the leaderships of the two national legislative houses and the executive was the norm under earlier administrations, even when all sides were from the same party, including Mr Buhari during his first term. But he now has allies as the Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Just weeks before the elections, Buhari removed Mr Walter Onnoghen as Chief Justice for corrupt practices in what was a deft political masterstroke, especially as it appeared that Mr Onnoghen had surreptitious affiliation with the PDP. The role of the Chief Justice in constituting election tribunals, as well as the interpretation of laws, cannot be overemphasized. Mr Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed was sworn-in as Chief Justice in April. Despite verbal commitments to respect for the rule of law, his (in)actions presents the picture of a chief judge who is not keen to rock the boat.

It is probably within this context that the government believes no criticism can stop the enactment of a social media gag bill, presently before the Senate, which has been described by a former radical Senator, Mr Shehu Sani as a move towards totalitarianism. An earlier attempt to pass such a law in 2016 failed under the then embattled Senate President, Mr Bukola Saraki, due to mass mobilisation against it.

#RevolutionNow activists demonstrating against the draconian bills at the National Assembly
As if the intent to gag criticism on social media were not enough, APC Senators also re-introduced an anti-hate speech bill, in November. If passed, the death penalty could be imposed on anyone found guilty of hate speech that incites the death of another person. There is however widespread concern that the law could be used to hound opposition forces.

Despite the Dutch courage of the regime, inebriated by its seeming unalloyed potency, resistance has been alive. These draconian bills, the regime presenting them and the system this regime represents can be defeated through struggle, the embers of which were stoked on 5 August, and which continues to blaze in the face of the state’s oppressive weight. 

#RevolutionNow and the radical left
On 5 August, the #RevolutionNow campaign was flagged off by the Coalition for Revolution (CORE), with 5-core demands: an economy for the masses, an effective and democratic end to insecurity, an end to systemic corruption, immediate implementation of the N30,000 minimum wage and free and qualitative education for all, received massive support from working-class people and youth.

The regime tried its utmost best to snuff life out of the campaign, even before it began. On 3 August, it arrested Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters, the leading online source of exposés on political corruption and impunity in Nigeria. Mr Sowore, who is Chair of the African Action Congress (AAC) and was the party’s presidential candidate during the general elections was central to the formation of CORE.

The revolutionary coalition brings together; Take It Back (the movement which gave birth to AAC) and a number of radical and revolutionary left groups such as the Socialist Workers & Youth League (SWL), Socialist Vanguard Tendency (SVT), Nigeria Resistance Movement (NRM), Committee for the Defence of Human Rights as well as the Federation of Informal Workers of Nigeria (FIWON) and the Alliance of Nigerian Students Against Neoliberal Attacks (ANSA), the mass platform of students’ (including a number of their unions) arisen as a radical alternative to the bankrupt official structures of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS).

And before dawn on 5 August combined teams of the army, air force, special units of the police and paramilitary forces took over the streets in all state capitals of the country. Demonstrations had been planned for 23 out of the 36 states of the federation. Despite this unprecedented show of coercive strength by the state, #RevolutionNow activists organised protests in 14 of the states and 9 other cities across the world. The nationwide action was however limited in most of the locations as the protesters were constrained by having to circumvent the massive dragnet.  

Their dexterous organising was not sufficient to stave off a crackdown. Not less than 57 protesters, including some journalists were arrested in 7 states. 32 of the peaceful demonstrators were also brutalised, beaten and injured with one suffering a gunshot wound when the security personnel shot at them in Lagos, the epicentre of action.

Attempts to quash #RevolutionNow activities did not stop with the failure of the 5 August repressive offensive. There was a standoff on 18 August as police cordoned off the venue of a national symposium to discuss the current political situation. Once again, the state failed to stop the movement. In yet another failed attempt to stop further #RevolutionNow demonstrations, police barricaded the offices of the CDHR and the Sahara Reporters studio/civic media centre in the second week of September.

The movement represents a major turning point of resistance, fanning the embers of revolt. Apart from the trade unions with their ready-made structures, no other social force has been able to mobilise nationwide protest of any sort in the 21st century. And it took the explosion of mass anger after the military junta of General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the “June 12” presidential elections for the pro-democracy movement led by the radical and revolutionary left to rise up to such a stature in the mid-1990s.

The CORE-led movement has thus far demonstrated its building of a national infrastructure necessary for prosecuting radical struggle. It has also inspired mass awareness raising, without which revolutionary class consciousness cannot be forged. For example, apart from #RevolutionNow trending on social media for days on the eve of the flag off of the campaign, on 5 August, more than 5 million Nigerians searched for “revolution” on google.

The continued incarceration of Omoyele Sowore and Olawale “Mandate” Bakare, a 22-year old leader of the TIB arrested in the heat of the 5 August demonstrations, despite a release order for their release has also elicited widespread condemnation. This increased after a series of demonstrations by #RevolutionNow activists in front of the offices of the secret police, the self-styled Department of State Services (DSS).

When the #RevolutionNow activists and other supporters #OccupyDSS offices demonstrations were dispersed with live ammunition and pepper spray on 12 November, Professor Wole Soyinka, the renowned Nobel Laurette saluted them and called on civil society organisations to “come together” to fight the increasingly authoritarian regime. The response of the radical and revolutionary left has however not been as unambiguous as that of the liberal democratic professor.

In the wake of 5 August, with an ahistoric logic of popular struggles, including in Nigeria, and an accompanying contempt for the relative success of the movement’s first steps, the pervasive tone was dismissive. These included “analysis” for want of a better word, which considered the movement as nothing but “flippant agitation” and denigrated the movement’s revolutionary intent by involving liberals like Wole Soyinka whilst calling for a “left-centre coalition” on the basis of “basic nationalism”, in the same breath. 

And possibly well-intentioned but nonetheless primarily flawed “preliminary notes” which reduced #RevoutionNow to a supposedly amateurishly carried out, ill-prepared spate of protests on  5 August and put it on the same scale as “mobilisation” carried out by probably less than half a dozen members of some obscure “movement” with 400 copies of a publication in some corners of Lagos in the mid-70s.

Some even went to the extent of arguing that “Nigeria needs a revolution – but it must be a socialist revolution!” as if the socialist revolution comes readymade like an order on Amazon, as against being a social revolution entailing several political revolutions, through which working-class people not only build their strength onto victory but learning from, shed themselves of the murk of ages!

A summary but apt response to most of these described such talk by “a section of the exhausted left movement that cannot organise itself will oppose anything that exposes its inertia and lack of organisational work for change” as “talking trash”. Arising though, from the dynamics of the moment is a realignment of radical and revolutionary forces around CORE. These include groups and persons that might not fully agree with the repertoire of its methods and strategy, but realise the historic role it is playing, towards consummating intertwined developing revolutionary pressures. 

The near future is pregnant, something has to give. Worsening living standards are sowing seeds of anger on the soil of resistance, which #RevolutionNow is ploughing. The ignition point for a revolutionary upheaval could be arrived at spontaneously, through the deepening of economic mass strikes, as the working-class is roused in the coming period.

After much prevarication, the trade unions reached an agreement with government in October, on consequential increments based on the miserly minimum wage of N30,000 passed into law in April. However, the state governors have made it clear that they are unlikely to respect this. Meanwhile, the federal government has increased VAT by 50%, supposedly to fund payment of the new minimum wage and consequential wages increment. 

Rank and file demands will force the trade union bureaucracy to take action in the states, for any meaningful implementation of the wage rise to be won. With the genie of #RevolutionNow out of the bottle, it is unlikely that the battles ahead of working-class people will remain at the defensive economistic level or be easily called off as was the case with the #OccupyNigeria revolts of January 2012.

Nov. 2019

* An abridged version of this article was first published as "Radical resistance to authoritarian democracy in Nigeria", in Amandla! Issue 67/68, pp: 38-40


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