Nigeria’s elections: will the voice of the working class be heard?

Come 14 February 2015*, Africa’s biggest democracy, most populous nation and largest economy will head to the polls.

Some 70 million eligible Nigerians will be voting in federal and state-level elections with the faint hope of ushering in a set of leaders to help Nigeria realise its massive potential – and to overcome its serious challenges.

But to say these elections have gripped the country in a state of anxiety would be a massive understatement.

From corruption to terrorism to massive inequality – Nigerians are battling insecurity on all fronts.

And as a country where politics frequently takes on a winner-takes-all approach, there have been major concerns about the potential for political violence.

Promisingly, President Goodluck Jonathan of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and his main rival Mohammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) were joined by 12 other presidential candidates in pledging to prevent political violence, before, during and after the elections.

It seems there are a powerful few in Nigeria who are dedicated to dividing people along ethnic, religious and other sectarian lines for political gain, but this only serves as a distraction from the real issues facing Nigerians: jobs, security, corruption and the economy.

With a population of 173 million people, one in 40 people worldwide is a Nigerian.

But despite the abundant natural and human resources, 61 per cent of the people still live on less than US$1.25 a day and Nigeria ranks 153 out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development.

As a result, a number of issues will be a priority for Nigerian workers on 14 February: effective implementation of the existing minimum wage; job creation; poverty alleviation; rising inflation; the introduction of new austerity measures to counteract the effects of falling oil prices; public service delivery; and infrastructure development.
But top of everyone’s agenda is security.


Boko Haram

The Boko Haram insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria has cost more than 14, 000 lives since 2009.

Thousands of men, women and children in major cities such as Maiduguri, Kano and the capital city, Abuja, have been affected while an estimated 1.5 million people from towns such as Baga, Damaturu, Askira and Bama have been displaced.

Most of them are now seeking refuge in neighbouring countries such as Chad, Cameroon and Niger, but recently, Boko Haram has started to attack these countries, too.

In April 2014, 219 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram from their boarding school in Chibok, Borno State – they are still missing.

Over 300 teachers and 2000 school children have either been killed or kidnapped by the Islamist sect.

Thousands more healthcare and other public service delivery workers have also been forced to flee the north-east region of Nigeria.

The government has come under strong criticism for failing to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency, or effectively address the country’s other security challenges, like non-terrorism related kidnappings.

And rightly so: the protection of lives and property is the absolute minimum that any government should provide.

That’s why, for Nigerian workers, the Boko Haram insurgency is a declaration of war on the Nigerian state.

Nigeria’s national trade union centre, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) has lamented the nonchalant response to the menace of terrorism in Nigeria by the country’s political class.

For it is Nigerian workers – bus and okada (motorcycle taxi) drivers, market stall holders, hawkers, teachers, commuters and others – who are most vulnerable to Boko Haram’s attacks.

It is also clear that massive unemployment – particularly in northern Nigeria – has fed the insurgency.

According to various media reports, jobless young men have been lured to join Boko Haram for fees of anything between 50,000 naira (approximately US$260) and 500,000 naira (US$2600) – a small fortune in this part of the world.



Against this explosive backdrop, the issue of corruption holds more weight now compared with any other election, particularly because of the link between national security and the military’s fight against Boko Haram.

Nigeria continues to be ravaged by massive public and private sector corruption.
In 2012, former World Bank economist Oby Ezekwesili (who was one of the co-founders of Transparency International) claimed that Nigeria had lost over US$400 billion in oil revenues since 1960.

One can only imagine the impact this money could have in social protection, public service delivery or even if effectively applied to help win the fight against Boko Haram.

Despite the fact that over US$10 billion has been spent by the Nigerian government on its efforts to defeat Boko Haram in the past four years, frontline soldiers continue to describe how the lack of the necessary equipment, uniforms or basic welfare –as a result of corruption – has a grave impact on both morale and efficacy.

The Jonathan administration’s fight against corruption can be described at half-hearted at best.

The President himself has gone on record to say that stealing is not corruption, and has suggested that jail terms should not be the only punishment for corruption, despite the stipulations of the law.

And to date, he is yet to coherently articulate his anti-corruption strategy.
On the issue of the economy, the global slump in crude oil prices is already having a massive impact in Nigeria where oil revenues account for approximately 70 per cent of the country’s GDP.

In November, the government introduced a number of austerity measures, such as tax increases and budget caps, to counteract the fall in oil prices.

The fear that the Nigerian working class will bear the brunt of these measures is already coming to fruition.

As we saw in December, both public sector workers and pensioners are the first to get their salaries cut – or even not paid at all – when things get tough.
And Nigeria’s five per cent growth rate over the last five years had very little impact on the majority of Nigerians.

The country’s alarmingly high youth unemployment rate underscores the weak state of the economy. The seriousness of this issue was underscored by a job interview stampede that led to the death of over 16 job applicants when over 225, 000 applicants applied for just 4500 positions around the country.

So far, all the political parties have promised to tackle unemployment, with the ruling party going as far as to pledge eight million jobs in the next four years if re-elected.
But Nigerians are tired of empty promises.

We want is free, fair and credible elections in order to stem the violence that is playing into the destabilisation script being carried out by Boko Haram.
Then the new government must deliver on decent work and decent living standards for all Nigerians to enjoy in full freedom and safety.


*On 7 February, 2015, Nigeria’s elections were postponed until 28 March, 2015 to give the government time to try to contain the threat posed by Boko Haram.