The 14 July Ekiti governorship election confirms there is no essential difference between the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The two parties indulged in unbridled votes buying, after campaigns that lacked substance on how the lives of poor working-class people could be bettered. The elections also present us an opportunity as working-class and youth activists to reflect on the place of elections, in our struggle to free ourselves from exploitation and oppression by the bosses and their politicians, as the 2019 general elections beckon.
It was obvious that the ruling APC would leave no stone unturned to win the only state in the south west still in the grips of PDP, with “federal might”. While the military might not have played as blatant a role as it was used for by the PDP four years ago when Dr Kayode Fayemi was upturned for the PDP’s garrulous Peter Fayose, the deployment of 30,000 police officers was a clear display of the power of the state – and consequently the party in control of the federal government.
And they did not only bark. They dispersed a PDP rally with teargas, giving room for a comic melodramatic act of governor Fayose, who claimed he was beaten up.
At the end of the day, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared APC’s Fayemi winner, haven garnered 197,459 of the 384,594 valid votes cast. Professor Kolapo Olusola Eleka, Fayose’s deputy and the PDP candidate came a close second, amongst the other 34 candidates with 178,121 votes.
Coming up barely seven months before the presidential polls, the gubernatorial election was presented as a test case for INEC and a mini-referendum on APC’s 3-year rule. Being relatively peaceful and, on the face of it, devoid of rigging in the sense of ballot stuffing or changing of figures on the results sheets, many have scored INEC a pass mark. Similarly, those sympathetic to the APC and/or President Buhari have gone to town to claim this as a sign of impending victory on February 16.
Working-class people have been portrayed as mere objects in the elections, whose votes as use-values were bought and re-bought by the two main contending parties for between N3,000 and N10,000, only. This approach will be key in the strategies of APC and PDP as they roll out their war chests of illicitly acquired money from the wealth of our labour and resources which they have appropriated, to try buy our votes in February 2019.
Electoralism, and politics as condensed economics
A closer look however reveals a more unstable reality beyond this seemingly serene portrait of warring politicians from the ruling class united by corruption, and a disoriented poor working people, corrupted by the pittance of a few thousands of naira.
This requires a perspective, which situates the particular elements of the Ekiti election within the nature of electoral politics in general on one hand and the context of Nigeria’s socio-economic and political context, as it has developed, on the other hand.
Electoral politics is rigged against working-class people from the very start to the end. It does not promote a class-blind democracy with equal opportunities for the poor and for the rich. Such democracy has never existed and will never exist. Money is a central element of electoralism. It is only the way and manner such monies are deployed that differs in different climes and at different times.
In advanced capitalist countries monies might not be used for outright buying of working people’s votes, for several reasons. But so much money equally goes into wooing the minds and souls of working-class people through the media and other means. Barack Obama for example spent no less than N135bn for his 2008 campaign.
Electoralism does not only ensure the self-perpetuation of the bosses’ class practically – with monetization. It legitimises elite rule disguised as “government of the people, by the people for the people”. Electoralist ideology entrenches reformist illusions, presenting what is (i.e. the bosses’ class rule, as a whole) and has been so constructed by and for the benefits of the class of the rich, as the only way society could be administered.
Cosmetic “changes” in the form of substitution of one section of the bosses’ class (such as PDP for APC, or the republicans for the democrats in the United States, for example) are presented as if there is some essential shift in power. In some instances, such shifts in who controls government between different sections of the same class through elections might appear radical. The “change” movement that brought APC to power is arguably one of such instances.
But, as we have come to see, more often than not, this does not reflect in any significant improvement in the lives of working-class people. Those who benefit are those who have always benefited, the rich bosses.
The reason for this is not simply that of politicians’ corruption. Governments primarily serve the interest of the ruling class in any society, thus serving an important role in perpetuating the system which the bosses represent. Capitalism, which is the exploitative system that confronts us and which we must fight to overthrow, is one that thrives on the working-class’ exploitation.
But, the very logic of its quest to expand at the expense of our labour and wellbeing, is ridden with contradictions. A cyclic expression of this is economic crises, where working-class people are thrown into the abyss of sorrow, tears and blood, not because of insufficient social wealth, but rather due to the abundance of this – but which the few rich sits on.
Quite often, social and political crises march in tow with the crisis of the capitalist economy. It becomes clearer to an ever-increasing number of the people that the emperor has no clothes – the old “truths” of the system become questioned. Traditional parties, intellectuals, political norms and practices are jettisoned or have their otherwise vice-like grasp prised open. The electoral sphere becomes a more contested sphere as well, opening possibilities of further mobilisation beyond the hallowed box of ballots, for a multiplicity of contending forces, including the reactionary and the revolutionary.
The 2014 Ekiti governorship elections came up in the middle of a long depression of the world economy – which the capitalist system is still embroiled in. The specific ways this global economic crisis has impacted on virtually all countries has been largely determined by the manner they are integrated into the world economy. But in each of the country, the response of the bosses’ class has been to make working-class people bear the bitter burden of the failure of the capitalist system, which the crisis reflects.
In Nigeria, the dependence on revenue from crude oil exportation resulted in sharp decline of national income, due – to a great extent- to the waning industrial production and consequently demand for petroleum. But of course, that did not translate into cuts in the wealth available to the bosses and politicians to continue living their shamelessly ostentatious lifestyles. On the contrary, the burden was shifted to the poor masses. Backlogs of unpaid wages and salaries, rising youth unemployment, hunger, disillusionment, and generalisation of poverty was made our lot.
Fayose’s politics of “stomach infrastructure” well spiced with a false veneer of assumed populism painted with sitting to eat with the poor on the streets was a joker in the pack of an election well rigged under the armour of the army. But, alas! he could no more guarantee an improvement in the living standards of the poor masses than his predecessor and now successor over the last four years. On the contrary, a bad situation became worse.
Civil servants and teachers are being owed four months salaries, local government workers and pensioners have not been paid for upwards of eleven months. The major manufacturing firm in the state, Ikogosi Warm Spring Company has collapsed. Uncompleted projects litter the Ekiti State University (EKSU) and the army of unemployed youth has ballooned.
This is one part of the context in which just 44% of registered voters were bothered to go out and vote on one hand, and quite a number of those who readily “sold” their votes for a pot of porridge did so, on the other hand. The other part is that, Fayemi was not seen as an alternative par se to Fayose and his anointed deputy and thus could not inspire a massive proportion of the electorate to stand against Fayose’s antics and the terrible fate capitalism’s failure bestowed on them these past four years, with their voters’ card.
It is instructive that despite buying votes at a higher price and using the more criminally sophisticated means of “see and buy” (where voters give evidence of voting APC before being paid) as against the PDP’s “pre-paid” (where money was paid before the voter cast her/his ballot) Fayemi/APC did not secure a wider margin.
A large turnout for elections and well-deserved trouncing of an incumbent’s party requires much more than anger at how the lives of working-class people has worsened during such a party’s tenure. It requires hope and confidence in the force challenging such incumbency. President Buhari relied on such a mood in 2015, despite the fact – as time has shown – that the alternative of change he proclaimed is hollow.
Organised labour’s failure, and radical reformism
Moments of deep structural crisis of capitalism, such as that we are living through, marked by profound flux, throw up sharp twists and turns. Beneath the apparent docility of a sheep-like consent to being politically raped as demonstrated in the Ekiti elections, mass anger is seething waiting to burst out, across the land. The seams of electoral clothing stitched by the wolf that the bosses class is, might not hold the flexing of the working-class’ biceps, stirred to awakening by the heating up of the polity, once campaigns for the 2019 elections commence by November.
The rather belated demand by the trade unions in Ekiti for Governor Fayose to pay outstanding salaries before leaving office is an appetizer, albeit one which leaves a sour aftertaste. The unresolved question of an upward review of the national minimum wage is equally on the menu of the main course.
Trade unions are the primary defence organisations of the working-class. Their main concern is economic; struggle to improve wages and the terms and conditions of work. But, “politics is condensed economics”. Thus, not only could economic struggle including strike, become political, trade union movements, including in Nigeria have formed workers’ parties.
In the face of a wave of attacks against the working-class though, as most balefully demonstrated with a significant number of the states of the federation owing workers lengthy backlogs of unpaid salaries, the trade unions have not provided the necessary leadership for the working-class to fight back.
The unions have also not been anywhere near more successful in politics. NLC formed a Labour Party in 2002, but contrary to an earlier resolution of Congress that the party be founded as a fighting party with a socialist programme, which was eventually adopted as a policy at the NLC delegates’ conference in 2003, priority was placed on winning elections on the terms of the bosses’ class. This led to ideological and political accommodation of the party with some of the most repugnant of capitalist politicians.
NLC equally drifted away from its own creation, not on the basis of any principles, but in the most cavalier of fashions. Its attempt, along with the TUC to “reclaim” the party in 2014 eventually turned out to be a disaster, precisely because the faction it established for this purpose was as much focussed on electoralism and material self-aggrandisement, as the right-wing of the party which then took over full control of what was left of an earlier lofty idea.
A different approach to the class collaborationist manner of building what otherwise was the germ of a mass workers’ party over the past decade and a half would, most likely have laid the basis for a campaign within and beyond the space of electoral politics, for real change.
With renewed assertions by the trade union movement to reclaim the Labour Party, the need to draw lessons from this recent history cannot be overemphasized. The Labour Party as it were, cannot be reclaimed. Even if by some stroke of luck, the name is reclaimed, through renewed and hopefully a more serious and sincere factional struggle, the party would have to be sharply different from what the Labour Party became, to have any meaning for the working-class struggle for self-emancipation.
And if, as is being suggested in certain quarters within the trade union movement, such “reclaiming” takes the form of another format of collaboration with some section of the bosses’ class or the other, that would simply amount to a 360 degrees turn which returns one to the same point of a pointless party of labour – a workers’ party only in name, to be used and abused by pernicious bosses who drop out of their own class’ premier league parties.
Politics, like nature though, abhors a vacuum. The failure of the trade unions to provide leadership for the working masses in struggle against the bosses could result in other forces rising to fill the gap, as much as they can. An example that readily comes to mind, though under different circumstances, is the role played by the Campaign for Democracy in the opening scene of the mass movement that arose after the annulment of the 12 June 1993 presidential election.
We might be on the cusp of a similar moment, albeit with sharply different features. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, radical-reformist platforms – particularly the Yele Sowore-led Take It Back Movement – have seized the imagination and won the commitment of tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of change-seeking people, building towards a challenge of the old order of traditional politics.
This is part of a global trend, which along with emboldened far right politics has swept away or threatened institutionalised parties, including centre of left social-democratic parties at and beyond the polls. Bernie Sanders in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, AMLO in Mexico, La Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso, are just some of the more striking examples of the spirit of the historical moment.
Such renewed politics of mass resistance, especially when rooted in electoralist ideology however holds the danger of preserving misplaced faith in some leader or the other, or the apparatus of the bosses’ state (which they often seek to capture like one riding on a tiger’s back, that ends up deep in its belly), as the means of changing society in the interest of the working masses.
Such reformist ideas tend to lead to equally reformist practice, along a pathway of radical-reformism becoming the handmaiden of capitalism’s dictates, as we saw with Syriza in Greece, where the wish of the people expressed in an historical referendum was jettisoned for the hemlock of the IMF, EU and European Central Bank.
As revolutionary socialists, we cannot stay aloof from such radical-reformist movements, which an increasing number of working-class people and youth are turning to. Nor can our understanding and intervention be limited to the specifically – in this case, electoral – immediate goals they set themselves.
Marxism, our guide to action, is a theory of the totality. Different elements of the political can be understood only by interrogating their development as integral parts of the movements and struggles of different classes and their fractions. System change is our goal, as Chima Ubani once said. We are not going to vote out the degenerate capitalist system. The fate of humankind, socialism or barbarism, will be determined in the sharpest of conflicts – revolutionary conflict.
But, as Lenin noted “whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it”. The most important characteristic of a revolution is the working masses rising to become subjects of history and not its mere objects by entering the arena of politics (which in normal times are occupied by politicians, lords, business (wo)men etc i.e. the whole lot of stinking bosses) and taking charge of running society.
This requires, mass movements of working-class people to be built. No matter how correct our theory is, it weighs no more than the weight of the grey cells in our heads on the scales of history except such theory is embodied in the mass, thus becoming a material force that could change the course of history.
Humankind makes history, socialism is not guaranteed because of the knowledge of historical materialism by miniscule grouplets of “genuine Marxists” no matter how well meaning. There is the alternative of a deep abyss of barbarism, into which already, capitalist development by its inherent nature, is dragging us and the planet down to.
A major challenge the revolutionary left has faced (and not only in Nigeria) is that, we have lacked the critical mass necessary for meaningful political impact on the organisation and consciousness of the masses, and particularly the working-class which is the one class in society that can effectively wield the anvil of revolution to break the chains of our exploitation and marginalisation as workers, subsistence farmers, urban poor, artisans, market women and men that merely eke a living, youth etc.
This challenge is not accidental. The dominant ideas of all ages, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels highlighted are the ideas of the dominant classes. Thus, through a motley of channels from cradle to grave, and with the mechanisms of a broad array of institutions and norms including the electoralist ideology, we are made to see the existing order of capitalism as something that has always been, is and will always be, and we are expected to simply say amen, hallejuah to this false consciousness. Unfortunately, many of us do, at least most times – because we never get to access alternative ideas which could guide us to fight and win real change, re-making the world.
The bosses don’t just rest on their oars with the dominance of their ideas across every sinew, nerve and vein of society. They take concrete actions to smash revolutionary organisations and prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas. Left-wing student activists are expelled, socialist workers are black listed or retrenched, Marxist circles are broken, communist literature (as the colonial and early post-independent governments did) are banned. The list could go on and on.
Matters are also not helped by sectarian and/or amateurish frolics of many a socialist group.
Quite often you find groups of handfuls of persons who carry themselves as the “genuine Marxists” who will liberate the working-class, as if the emancipation of the working-class could really be anything but an act of self-emancipation.
Even when they pay lip service to this insight, their practice lacks the echo of such theoretical understanding. Their little grouplets and not the working-class become the referential point. Lacking roots in the working-class, such self-referential politics become reinforced. And what begins as submission to a challenge adorns itself in the dubious glory of empty self-adulation.
There are however moments when cracks appear in the well-constructed walls of the bosses’ castles of legitimation and repression. These could become footholds of struggle for real change by the working masses. Such struggle, which could be long drawn, requires organisation and clarity, particularly for revolutionary activists. And above all else, it requires our being with and within the rising masses, armed with perspectives and showing ourselves the most tireless of organisers and fighters.
This is no mean task. Rising up to the occasion requires a sense of revolutionary politics forged in earlier drudgery of routine and work in the organisations of the working-class, even as small groups, with a common purpose – the cause of the working masses, and perspectives
Does such a moment beckon, laughing silently in the dark away from the ludicrous pantomime that the charade in Ekiti was? Could the renewed sense of a different kind of politics being called forth by the mobilisation to “take it back” ignite the coalescence of a heavy beam of the masses that would crack the walls of the APC-PDP castle?
Time will tell. We however have the benefit of lessons from our history, such as the June 12 movement where the genie was let out of the bottle of an electoralist moment, and a clear understanding of the current historical moment seizing the world.
There are however a few things that are clear, as we march forward. As we join the fray of the 2019 elections, we must put forward the position and interests of working-class people free from the bosses’ ideological and political influence, at each turn of the way. And we must fight all incubi and succubi of the electoralist ideology in the movement itself, that would do deals with the devil of an APC or PDP like Mr Yunusa Tanko, national chair of the National Conscience Party.
We must deflate the caricature of “alternatives” that are not alternatives as a Fayemi to an Eleka in Ekiti, and go beyond this to placing the struggle for much more than elections before the masses. Real change will be won only by the working-class people themselves. The emergent movement represents a possibility of igniting demands for much more than the change of one oppressor with another in 2019. Audacity of perspectives and urgency in organising has never been more pressing for working-class activists than now, since the January 2012 Uprising. We must seize the bull by the horns.
by Baba AYE