Sam Mbah: Towards an Anarchist Spring in Nigeria

Sam Mbah

Sam Mbah

Sam Mbah is the co-author, with I. E. Igariwey, of African Anarchism, originally published in 1997. In that book, Mbah and Igariwey argued for an anarchist alternative in Africa. I have included excerpts from African Anarchism in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Last year, Mbah gave an interview in which he discusses the prospects for anarchism, and a “African Spring,” in Nigeria, where he remains active. Below, I reproduce some excerpts from the interview, in which Mbah discusses power and corruption in Nigeria, the negative role of established religion, the weakness of civil society and trade union organizations, the role of the oil industry, environmental degradation, deindustrialization and the need for continuing support from people outside of Nigeria.

The entire interview can be found at: http://sammbah.wordpress.com/.

africananar3

Interview with Sam Mbah

When I wrote African Anarchism with my friend [I.E. Igariwey], 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…

I pointed out in the book… that anarchism as an ideology, as a corpus of ideology, and as a social movement, is removed to Africa… But anarchism as a form of social organization, as a basis of organizing societies – that is not remote to us. It is an integral part of our existence as a people. I referred to the communal system of social organization that existed and still exists in different parts of Africa, where people live their lives within communities and saw themselves as integral parts of communities, and which contributed immensely to the survival of their communities as a unit. I pointed to aspects of solidarity, aspects of social cohesion and harmony that existed in so many communal societies in Africa and tried to draw linkages with the precepts of anarchism, including mutual aid, including autonomous development of small units, and a system that is not based on a monetization of the means and forces of production in society. So, I look back and I feel… these are things… would throw more light on how these societies were able to survive. But again, with the advent of colonialism and the incorporation of African economies and societies into the global capitalist orbit, some of these things have changed. We’ve started having a rich class, we’ve started having a class of political rulers who lord it over and above every other person. We’ve started having a society that is highly militarized where the State and those who control the State share the monopoly of instruments of violence and are keen to deploy it against the ordinary people. That’s their business…

Nigerian fuel protest

Nigerian fuel protest

At the beginning of the year [2012] 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 to pay the 30% increase…

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…

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…

I can say without any fear of contradiction that the protests in Nigeria in January [2012], 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…

Toward an African Spring

Toward an African Spring

The activities of militants [in the Niger Delta] should not be viewed in isolation. The activities of militants is consequent upon the exploitative tendencies of oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, who are not adhering to international best practices that they continue to observe elsewhere around the world. In Nigeria, because they are complicit with the Nigerian state and the government, they carry on as they wish. They carry on as if tomorrow does not exist. They carry on because there is nobody to call them to order, to hold them to account. So the emergence of the militant groups in the Niger Delta is consequent upon the exploitative practices and tendencies, and the absolute lack of care for the environment in the exploration, drilling and production of most of the oil companies operating in the Niger Delta.

So, if viewed against this background, the militant groups are responding to a clear and present threat to the existence of communities in the Niger Delta. When we were growing up, we grew up to learn that most of the villages, tribes and social groups in the Niger Delta were essentially fishermen. But with the constant oil spills, despoliation of the environment, the denudation of the fauna and the aquatic life of the Niger Delta, much of the fishing industry has disappeared. Much of the farming and agricultural activities taking place there have also disappeared.

So, when you have robbed a people of their environment, how, in good conscience, do you expect them to survive? To continue to exist as a people? You see, our people have a saying that nature has placed at the disposal of every group a means of survival. I’ll give you an example. In the southeast, in Igboland for instance, our people survive mostly on our land. We survive on our palm trees, our people make palm oil, our people farm, this is the basic means of subsistence. If you go to the North, they do not have palm trees. They survive on other firms of agriculture, like planting onions, planting yams, and also pastoral existence. If you go to Niger Delta, the basic means of subsistence is fishing, and some forms of agriculture and farming too. So if we agree that nature has placed at the disposal of every group some forms of sustenance, we are witnessing a situation where the means of sustenance of much of the Niger Delta has been taken away. Through the activities of oil companies who are not minded on any form of corporate social responsibility.

Oil Pollution in the Niger Delta

Oil Pollution in the Niger Delta

So, that is the context in which I view the militancy that sprung up in the Niger Delta from the late 1990s till today. Yes, most of the militant groups engage in all forms of criminality and banditry as well, which do not in any way serve the interests of ordinary Niger Deltans. And that is condemnable, but it does not in any way vitiate the original sin that pushed them into further sin…

Before the advent of colonialism, our people were mostly African religionists, who worship our small gods – gods of thunder, gods of river, and such other gods. With the coming of colonialism, the two main global religions – Islam and Christianity – became a predominant force in the lives of Nigerians.

The rivalry and competition between the two religions has tended to play down the fact that not all Nigerians are Christians or Muslims. Even in the North-central, you are talking about pagan tribes and different forms of African religion that take place in those places. But today Nigeria is profiled and stereotyped as a Christian South and a Muslim North. Yet if you go to the North you find a lot of non-adherents to Islam, you come to the South as well you find a lot of non-adherents to Christianity.

But I would say that in the past 20-30 years the singular influence of Christianity and Islam has been considerably negative on the society in the sense that both religions have become sources of manipulation, political manipulation of ordinary people. When you hear that there is a religious riot in the North, a religious riot in the East, when you go down and examine the issues, they are not basically religious. Politicians are using religion to manipulate the ordinary people into fighting for the political positions and beliefs of the elite…

We must continue to engage, even with those in power, in some form of call to account. And we must devise more realistic ways of being relevant in society and trying to make a difference in our respective communities and in society at large…

Occupy Nigeria

Occupy Nigeria

Military rule stultified the development of trade unionism in the country. They were able to do this by invoking primordial sentiments, religion, tribalism and issues of regionalism as well, to divide and rule, to manipulate workers. Depending on which government was in power. The trade union movement in Nigeria – towards the dying days of military rule – tried to regain its voice, started calling major national strikes, started organizing on a national scale.

But I can tell you that the fortunes of trade unionism has been hampered by the deindustrialization process that has continued taking place in the country, since the dying days of military rule. Most industries have folded up. One of the largest employers of labor in this country used to be the textile industry. It is no more. The textile industry has been wiped away completely. We now depend for our textile materials on cheap textile materials coming from China, neighboring countries, India. The textile industry used to employ more than 200,000 workers across the country. The automobile industry used to have assembly plants – here in Enugu Anammco, Peugeot was in Kaduna, Peleot was in Bauchi, Volkswagen was in Lagos. All these assembly plants have closed down. We used to have a trident steel sector in [a number of places]. They’ve all closed shop. So there has been massive deindustrialization in the country in the past 20 years, and it has affected the fortunes of workers.

So the core of the workers we have today are either in the civil service, the banking sector, or the petroleum industry. The workers in the petroleum sector see themselves as being favoured souls. So they hardly take part in their union activities, except the junior staff. The same thing also in the banking industry, in fact one of the codes of practice was that you don’t take part in union organizing. For upwards of 10-20 years the workers accepted it. But since the first failure of banks in Nigeria, which took place in the late 1990s, the junior workers in the banks are beginning to organize again. But they’re no longer as effective. So basically, what you have as unions in Nigeria, are basically the civil servants. And you will agree with me that the industrial experience is based in industrial workplaces, not in offices. Not in air-conditioned offices and white-collar tables.

So the state of union activities today in Nigeria is deplorable. And most union leaders see their positions from the point of view of their career. They think of their career first and foremost, before anything else. It is one of the key factors that affected the last nation-wide protests, in the sense that the leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress capitulated at the last minute.

NLC

Let me also point out that the professional groups in Nigeria – the medical doctors, the bar association, the architects society, the society of engineers and similar professional groups are not minded on working-class organizing and development. They start from the perspective of seeing themselves as being privileged members of society. Even though the circumstances of a significant proportion of their members is the same as that of ordinary Nigerians. For them there is no incentive to begin to organize. Instead what a person is trying to do among the professional groups is trying to see how he can use the system to advance his personal or group interests…

Especially here in the south-east, we have not been able to build a virile civil society in this part of the country. The people in Lagos have been able to create better models essentially because they have greater experience in this field, arising from the years of military rule. The people in Abuja are doing well as well, because since the movement of the seat of government to Abuja, we have witnessed the concentration of activists organizing to hold the government accountable in one way or another. But we have not been so lucky here. I guess that part of the problem is that most people are concerned with the struggle for everyday survival. But I reckon that this is not enough of an excuse to give for not being able to organize.

Osmond Ugwu

Osmond Ugwu

The experience of one of our comrades Osmond Ugwu who, not too long ago, has been a victim of state high-handedness. He came out to organize workers, to protest against non-implementation of the minimum wage. The minimum wage was a national policy of the PDP government, and a national minimum wage act was passed by both chambers of the national assembly. All the states in the country were now obliged to implement the minimum wage, to bring it into practice in their respective states. But the governor here in Enugu refused to implement it. Or decided that he was going to delay the terms of implementation. And when Osmond and one or two of his comrades tried to organize the workers, to sensitize them on resisting this harassment by the government, he was incarcerated. It is instructive to note that while Osmond was trying to mobilize the workers, the leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress here was collaborating with the state government and negotiating away the rights of workers to organize. Ultimately he paid the price by being sent to jail and being tried on trumped up charges. It was not until the later part of January this year [2012] that he was released. Based essentially on the protests mounted by Amnesty International. And today he still faces a criminal charge which is as ridiculous as anything can be. This underlines the threats faced by those who struggle to create a new society in our kind of environment…

People in the metropolitan world can assist us by trying to help us build capacity. You see, the civil society groups here are not quite at home with the tools of modern communication – the social media – which has played a very important role in the Occupy movement in different parts of Europe and America, and in the Arab Spring. You’d be surprised that the Nigerian protest was not significantly boosted by social media. Yes, there were instances when social media came into play, but our notion of social media here is going to your email box and replying to email or going to your own Facebook. That is the notion of the average Nigerian about social media. But [it is more difficult to learn] how we can utilize twitter or YouTube, to upload pictures and things, how do I create a blog that is easily accessible to other activists who have access to the net…

Solidarity

Solidarity

So people from the metropolitan world can really help us by trying to create capacity in the tools for social media communication. That is very critical if we must make progress in organizing and even in building solidarity with the outside world. If we have access to these tools, it becomes much easier to keep in touch with the rest of the world, and for the rest of the world to know exactly the true situation of what is happening here. People should be able to, from their respective areas, not just the urban areas, to be able to take pictures and upload on the net and try to make as much capital out of them as possible…

I want to say a few words to our anarchist friends and groups that in the past associated with us, supported us, in one way or another, especially from Europe and North America. I say to them that anarchism is not dead in Africa. But it is important for them to appreciate that anarchism as a movement, as a political movement, as an ideological platform, is still going to take some time to crystallize here. But in the mean time, we must continue to engage with the rest of the society. We must continue to interrogate the government in debates where we can achieve. That is what informed some of us going into non-governmental organizations…

It is difficult in this part of the world to begin to build a movement based on anarchist principles alone. But we can build a movement based on trying to hold the government accountable, trying to fight for the environment, trying to fight for gender equality, trying to fight for human rights. Because these are minimum principles on which a broad swath of the population agree, and it makes sense for us to continue to interact and interrogate social existence and public policy on this basis. And seek to ensure that civil society is not extinguished completely. While also those of us who genuinely believe in anarchism will continue to organize and develop tools of organization that will someday lead to the emergence of an anarchist movement.

Full interview at: http://sammbah.wordpress.com/

African Anarchism

African Anarchism

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