Interviewer: In the last few years we’ve definitely seen an increase in authoritarian rule in many parts of the world, and austerity measures, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks in the States and the global financial crisis, more recently. How do you see those issues, and how have they affected Africa, and the struggle here?
Sam: When I wrote African Anarchism with my friend, we wrote against the backdrop of three decades of military rule, nearly four decades of military rule, in Nigeria. Military rule was a form of government that believed in over-centralization of powers, and dictatorship, as it were, and it was a strand that evolved from capitalism. So while the Nigerian society and much of Africa was under the grip of military rule and military authoritarianism, today we have a nominal civilian administration, a nominal civilian democracy.
Some people have called it rule democracy, some people have called it dysfunctional democracy, all kinds of names, seeking to capture the fact that this is far from democracy. And for me it is an extension of military rule. This is actually a phase of military rule. Because if you look at democracy in Nigeria, and the rest of Africa, those who are shaping the course and future of these democracies are predominantly ex-military rulers, and their apologists and collaborators within the civilian class.
So, looking at the global stage, capitalism is in crisis. At any rate, capitalism cannot exist really without crisis. Crisis is the health of capitalism. This crisis is what many philosophers, from Marx to Hegel to Lenin to Kropotkin to Emma Goldman, and more currently Noam Chomsky have spoken extensively about: the tendency for crisis on the part of capitalism. So, between the coming of ‘African Anarchism’ and today, we have seen 911, the so-called ‘war on terror’, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, today we’re faced with a major global economic crisis that is reminiscent of the great depression of the 1930s. And there is no absolute guarantee that, even if the global economy emerges from this crisis, it will not relapse into another, because the tendency towards crisis is an integral part of capitalism. For us, here, these historical developments have had a serious impact on our society, our economy, our government.
If we begin from the 911 incident, today the world is under the grip of terror and counter-terrorism as well. Here in Nigeria in the past one year, the country has commonly experienced bombings, explosives, we are seeing everyday increasingly everyday there is a bomb set off in one place. And how does the Nigerian State react? It reacts with more force, and in the process of using more force it creates collateral damages and casualties all over the place. So we are not immune from the ravages of terrorism and the ‘war on terrorism’ which the West embarked upon, after 911. Our country is well under the grip of terror. And it is ironical that any moment there is a bomb that explodes somewhere, the government shouts, ‘this is terrorism! this is terrorism!’ But the hard line tendencies of government and the agencies of the State which use undue force and undue violence in resolving issues that would otherwise have been resolved without any loss of life – these are glossed over and seen as being normal. But any moment a bomb is set off anywhere, the government counters that this is terrorism. I would say that government, the State, in Africa, is the greatest source of terror. The State in Africa is the greatest source of terrorism. I think that the society would be a lot better, the day the State ceases from acting and deploying its agencies as instruments of terror against the ordinary population, and the common people.
So, the global economic crisis, the global capitalist crisis, has impacted negatively on African economies, including Nigeria – because we are part and parcel of the global capitalist system, albeit we are unequal partners in the global capitalist exchange. Our economy is dependent on commodities. Our economy is a mono-crop one. Anything that happens to oil is bound to have a crisis effect on us. And that is one of the reasons why you saw Nigerians and the Nigerian State in a stand-off at the beginning of this year , over phantom subsidies which the government said it wanted to remove, and which people protested.
Interviewer: Could you explain a bit more about the fuel-tax subsidy for those who aren’t familiar with how it works in Nigeria?
Sam: OK. The fuel tax, or what the Nigerian government calls the ‘fuel subsidy’, assumes that the government is subsidizing the cost of fuel for the citizenry. That the Nigerian people are not paying a realistic value for fuel in the country. But the counter-argument is that we are an oil-producing country, and there is no reason why the cost of fuel should be based on the global or international market. We have refineries, we have about four refineries that collectively have a refining capacity of about 500,000 barrels per day. But you find that in the past twenty years these refineries have not functioned. They have not functioned because of corruption. They have not functioned because the powers that be in the country are not interested in these refineries functioning. The only reason why these refineries are not functioning is because there is corruption and a lot of people in government, in the military and in the bureaucracy, are benefitting from the wholesale importation of refined petroleum product. Nigeria is about the only OPEC country that imports 100% of its refined petroleum needs.
Interviewer: So at the beginning of this year …
Sam: So the ordinary people in Nigeria are saying, if our refineries were working, and they refined our crude, the government should be able to say at what cost this crude, these products are refined. And based on the cost of refining you can now set a price. That insofar as you have not been able to make the refineries functional, and you are fixing the cost of petroleum products on the basis of what it is in the international markets, you are making a grave mistake. Because the cost of living in Nigeria is different from the cost of living in United States. So the government says, ‘We pay so much to the importers of petroleum products as subsidy’ – that means the difference between the cost of importation and the selling price of the refined product. But you find out that even those who have been in government, even ministers of petroleum products, came out to say that much of what you pay as subsidy is based on corrupt documentation, which the government does not investigate, which the government does not in any way try to clarify, which involves senior officials of the organs and agencies that are supposed to regulate the petroleum industry. They are the ones who are paying these huge sums to themselves and to their companies. Let me illustrate the concept of the oil subsidy by one reference. The Nigerian government allows a multiplicity of traders to bring in petroleum products. They buy refined petroleum products from a multiplicity of international traders, when in fact the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation – the NPC – which is our national oil company, can enter into purchase agreements with refineries that exist abroad, and get these refined products directly from refineries. Instead, they prefer to go through middle men, who get the refined products from refineries, and sell them to NPC at exorbitant rates.
Interviewer: So what happened at the beginning of the year ?
Sam: At the beginning of the year the government wanted to supposedly deregulate the downstream sector of the oil industry. And labour and civil society groups protested, and resisted such a move. In the event, a two week strike was called. During those two weeks, the people stayed away from work, the people protested in the streets of Lagos, Kaduna, Port Harcourt, Kano, Ibadan, in different parts of the country. And because the government sensed the resolve of ordinary Nigerians to resist these arbitrary increases, the government backed down somewhat, by bringing down the over 100% increase in prices of petroleum products to about 30%. And of course the labor movement practically sold out, because the civil society and the mass of the population were prepared to go on with the protest and refuse the pay the 30% increase, but labor sold out, and that is where we are today.
I would say, it is an unfinished struggle. My sense is that the government still intends to achieve its objective which is 100% increase in the price of petroleum products. But if there is anybody in government who is still thinking, who is still moved by any sense of objectivity, they would have seen that the resolve of Nigerians to resist these arbitrary increases based on false analysis of what subsidy constitutes, is something they cannot wish away. The people are also mobilizing. Just as the government is devising other strategies through which it will increase the price of petroleum through the back door, the people are reviewing the last encounter and trying to find out what other ways they can employ that advance their cause.
Interviewer: In that massive and very inspiring mobilization, there were elements of reflection of some of the global movements we’ve seen recently, some part of the protest was called ‘Occupy Nigeria’. We’ve seen the explosion of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, what do you think of those?
Sam: Yeah, yeah, the Occupy movement in parts of America and Europe has really inspired a lot of people in Nigeria. The resolve and the courage that has been demonstrated by the Occupy movement in different parts of America and European capitals, is a pointer to the endless possibilities that abound if people decide to struggle. The Arab Spring on its part, has been a most refreshing experience for those of us in Africa. Actually, I’ve had conversations with my friends and I try to point out the fact that the Arab Spring should have been happening in sub-Saharan Africa, rather than in the Arab world, in North Africa, because the abject conditions of living in Africa [are much worse than] the relatively advanced standards of living in most of the Arab countries and even our neighbors in North Africa. So the Arab spring should have been happening in sub-Saharan Africa. That is my sense. But why is it not happening? It is because we have not been able to turn our anger into resolve, we have not been able to build the requisite social consciousness, to be able to instigate and sustain such a struggle.
But based on what happened in Nigeria recently, I have no doubt that people are beginning to draw lessons from what is happening in the Arab world. And asking themselves some searching questions – if it can happen in the Arab world, why not us? If people who are living in better social conditions can elect to fight, to struggle, to protest in the streets, for days and months on end, how about us who cannot even find light. Light in Nigeria is a luxury. Our economy is a generator-set economy. [The State electricity grid functions very poorly; the rich use private electricity generators.] You virtually provide your own water, you provide your own security. Nothing works here. Unlike if you were to go to Libya. I’ve not been, but I’ve read stories about Libya, Egypt, Tunisia. These are better organised societies, where social amenities and public utilities function. But here we are in sub-Saharan Africa where nothing works. So, I can say without any fear of contradiction that the protests in Nigeria in January, were an offshoot of the Occupy movement in America and Europe, as well as an offshoot of the Arab Spring. So, I don’t know whether our protests have gotten to the point where we can call it a ‘Nigerian Spring’, but I guess that the Nigerian Spring will still come.