Nigeria decides: “The election doesn’t hold out much by way of alternatives to the neoliberal challenges”

To understand what this election means for labor rights, women rights and healthcare in the country, Peoples Dispatch interviewed Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian author, poet and environmental activist.

February 25, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Atiku Abubakar & Muhammadu Buhari
Atiku Abubakar to the left, Muhammadu Buhari to the right (Photo: Punch)

The Nigerian elections, the largest democratic exercise in Africa, was yet again marked by violence. 39 people are reported to be killed. Originally scheduled on February 16, the presidential election was postponed for February 23 due to logistical problems only hours before the voting was set to begin.

However, due to violence that rocked some regions, voting could not be completed on February 23, and continued on February 24. One such incidence of violence was a shootout between Nigerian army personnels and gang members, which resulted in seven deaths.

The deaths, however, are not an aberration. In fact, the death count so far has been less than that in the previous elections, although it might be early to say before the final results, expected tomorrow, as most election-related violence in the past has been after the announcement of results.

During the previous elections in 2015, which was the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1999 that an incumbent president peacefully conceded defeat and transferred power to the winner, 58 Nigerians were killed in violent incidents.

Apart from violence, mismanagement by Nigeria’s Independent National Election Commission has also played a part in causing the delays. A report by Youth Initiative For Advocacy, Growth And Advancement (YIAGA AFRICA) stated that “By 11.30 am, (only) 74% of polling units had opened nationally. As was the case in 2011 and 2015, polling units in the South-East and South-South opened later than in other geopolitical zones.”

The fact that these delays occurred despite the postponement of the election was highlighted in the report, which further complained that the “turnout for the 2019 elections falls below the bar set in 2015. This reflects the growing sense of disconnect between the Nigerian people and the political elite.”

However, despite the low turnout, this election is expected to be the most closely contested one in decades, with a wealthy businessman from People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, challenging the incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari from the All Progressive Congress (APC).

Abubakar, who has vowed to privatize the oil sector and push for further liberalization of the economy if elected, won in the Aso Rock region of the capital city of Abuja, where the presidential residence is located. The margin of victory is minute. While the APC received a total of 1,013 votes from the two polling units in the region, the PDP received 1,030 votes.

However, Buhari won in the Kwara state in the western part of the country, where he secured 462 votes, leaving Abubakar behind with 167 votes. Buhari maintained a lead by a large margin in the Borno state, into whose capital city of Maiduguri Boko Haram militants had fired missiles on the evening of elections. Buhari has promised to funnel more resources into the military to defeat Boko Haram.

The completion of counting, as well as the announcement of results, is expected by tomorrow. To understand what this election means for labor rights, women rights and healthcare in the country, Peoples Dispatch interviewed Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian author, poet and environmental activist, who was the executive director of Environmental Rights Action for two decades and chaired Friends of the Earth International from 2008 to 2012.

PD: Who are the major players in the election, and what should the working class population of the country expect from them?

NB: The electoral process in Nigeria is still evolving. We have several political parties with a whopping 73 presidential candidates. The challenge for the working class population is that the parties essentially run on the same neoliberal ideas – pandering towards the interest of the private sector and foreign direct investment especially with regard to lowering their responsibilities under the guise of increased ease of doing business. The “ease of doing business” to some of us signifies tax breaks and lax environmental regulations. These will not work in the interest of the working class. Definitely not. Although there is a Labour Party that is avowedly aligned to the interest of workers, the party has not been in power at the CENTRE and so we have not seen a real implementation of programmes that favours the working class. Nevertheless, if workers and the working class are to expect anything significant from this election round, the thread to hang such a hope must be very thin indeed.

PD: The current election witnesses two political powers Buhari, belonging to centre left, who has been accused of holding regressive values for women, and Abubakar, who favors corporatization and privatization. What are the progressive political alternatives?

NBI wouldn’t characterize any of these two parties as being left of centre. They are both on the right of centre. The big difference between them is their individual personalities. Both favour corporatization and privatization. One of the areas the present government has made significant strides has been in agriculture. Unfortunately, it is under this government that Nigeria has opened her doors to corporations and foreign influences to introduce a flood of genetically engineered crops and foods into the country. The future may know this government as as the government that opened the floodgates to GMOs into NIGERIA and other African countries, even though this state of affairs may have been orchestrated by officials that do not have direct presidential oversight. However, the assault on our food systems and our biodiversity- especially on staple crops like beans and maize- are all openly being done in his name and he has to answer for it.

There are a number of alternatives, coming from the newer political parties. We have candidates such as Omoyele Sowore of the African Action Congress, Kingsley Moghalu of Young Progressives Party and Fela Durotaye of Alliance for New Nigeria. Whether these parties will dislodge the entrenched parties remains to be seen when the votes are tallied and results announced. Whatever is the case, strong hope for radical alternatives may need to be constructed on the 2023 elections.

PD: How does the present election impact the issues of labor rights, public education and access to healthcare? The issue of brutal natural resource exploitation by multinational organizations and environmental degradation has been haunting Nigeria for long. Do you think the present election will find a solution to these issues?

NBInterestingly, election campaigns were did not focus very much on these issues. We have a nation where infrastructure has suffered much neglect and parties tend to promise they would fix them. These include promises of fixing roads, building railway lines and refurbishing airports. Meanwhile only a fraction of the population have access to potable water and electricity supply stays epileptic. The implication is that when the right to water is not assured, we cannot be assured of good health. And, without power, businesses (small and large) have a hard time growing.

Being an economy that depends mainly on petroleum resources for foreign exchange earning, the transnational corporations see themselves as national saviours and continue to massively pollute the oil field communities. We have had a pledge from government to tackle this issue by commencing a cleaning up of highly contaminated Ogoni environment, and it does seem that whoever leads the post election government will not be able to avoid taking the actions forward. The big challenge is that rather than wean itself off crude oil dependence, government is expanding the search for the resource in the hinterland while international oil companies like Shell are gearing up to expanding their offshore extraction. In addition, government is also seeking more investment in solid mineral exploitation.

The election doesn’t hold out much by way of alternatives to these challenges.

PD: What does the present election hold for the women of the country?

NB: There were a number of women gunning for the presidency on the ballot. Unfortunately, up to five of them, including Obi Ezekwesili of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, pulled out of the race at the dying minutes. The significant number of female contestants was an indication of change in a country that is yet to produce and female President, Vice President or Governor. Some of the candidates made promises of ensuring that women have a certain proportion of seats in their government, but promises that are not entrenched party policies may not become a reality. On the whole, without clear party manifestoes stating the pathway to emancipation of women, assurance of girl-child eduction, access to land and jobs, merely having offices occupied by women may not translate to an assurance of gender justice.

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