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Baba Aye: Western oil companies have been getting away with murder, backing a self-serving local elite that enriches itself, creating the conditions for the rise of Boko Haram

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And we’re continuing our discussion about the roots of the conflicts in Nigeria–Boko Haram, the kidnapping of the girls, and so on.

But how does Nigeria get into this situation? As I mentioned in part one, Nigeria’s in the top ten exporters of oil in the world. It’s now the largest economy in Africa. Why is all this happening?

Now joining us again from London, although normally he is in Nigeria–he happens to be in London right now–is Baba Aye. He’s a trade union educator, deputy national secretary of the Labour Party, and national convener of United Action for Democracy.

Thanks for joining us again, Baba.


JAY: So, before we unpack more of the domestic issues–and, of course, all of this, the role of the elites in Nigeria, and of course in any oil economy, especially in a country as big as Nigeria, there’s going to be all kinds of factions fighting over who gets the oil, the gravy from the oil gravy train. But that being said, how big a role in all of this do the Western oil companies play and the U.S. policy and U.S. embassy? This is a rather–oil is a rather important thing in American foreign policy.

AYE: There’s this axiom in Nigeria that if oil had been discovered in commercial quantities well before the decolonization period started, probably we wouldn’t have gotten independence in 1960. But the Lancaster process that led to independence on October 1, 1960, had started years before oil was discovered in 1958 in commercial quantities at Oloibiri in the Niger Delta. And since then, in the ’70s, the oil boom and all that, there has been collaboration between sections of the Nigerian elite–and particularly those that have been at the driving seats, in the driving seat of the state at each point in time–and international oil corporations.

The case of the Ogonis is a well-known one, and some WikiLeaks reports have shown just how much Nigeria’s independence is real in how, you know, Shell in particular had manipulated through briberies, you know, decisions reached by members of the executive, including heads of states and the members of the legislature as well.

And a particular case, for example, is the Halliburton case. And this is part of where there is also the problem of the weaknesses of institutions or the Nigerian state getting away with blue murder. You have the Halliburton case that has resulted in some convictions in the United States, which implicated three former heads of states in Nigeria. But nobody has paid any–nobody has gone to jail; in fact, the whole issue just, like, swept under the drug. Civil society organizers [always?] scream and shout about it. No action whatsoever is taken. Billions of naira, I mean, in regular bribes.

So you see the way it does happen is this: sometimes it’s bribery in the form of vacation and all that, but more often than not bribery in the form of millions of dollars, millions of dollars to top members of government for choice oil blocks, for, you know, tax dodging to be condoned on the part of international oil companies, and several such practices.

And beyond that, also, in terms of militarization of the Niger Delta, the oil companies have not helped matters. There have been a good case, I think one of the most painful cases (this was during the military era), in which a village was literally wiped off the face of the earth. Why? Because the indigenous persons rose up against the spoliation of the environment–peacefully! Peacefully! And the oil companies Shell and Chevron paid, got the Nigerian army into this, and also mercenaries, and they wiped out an entire community.

So, you see, these were the things that led to the militancy in the Niger Delta, I mean, what was known as Operation Climate Change. We started with the Kaiama declaration of December 11, 1998. Before, of course, as I had mentioned earlier, by 2003 you had some level of hijack of this movement from below by the youths in the Niger Delta with, you know, the intrusion of electoral partisan political interests which they were courted–some sections of them were courted to serve.

But it’s impossible for the international oil companies to get away with what they get away with without collaboration of the elite. It’s very much like even with regards–oppression/imperialism thrives on the readiness of indigenous collaborators with the imperialists. Right from the period of even the transatlantic slave trade, if some chiefs had not collaborated in going into the hinterland–you know, you can talk of that, yes, the Europeans came with guns and traded with that for them to do that[, instigate that (?)], but it was possible only because of collaboration of some black chiefs, African chiefs that collaborated in, you know, taking their fellow brothers and sisters as–you know, these slaves were not taken from Africa. Human beings, we are able, bold-blooded people that were not taken away as the–.

It’s a similar thing you have with the collaboration of the Nigerian elites, the Nigerian state, with oil companies to situate that the goose that lays the golden egg is strangled, because the goose that lays the golden egg is the people who own those lands that cannot farm anymore, that can cannot–the water’s /ˈaɪvun/ almost impossible to drink. You have had, you know, carcinogenic agents. You have some places in the Niger Delta where 24 hours, 24/7, throughout every day, throughout every week, for years you have gas flaring. So all these are possible. You find, apart from bribery and all that, because of such situation, the kind of regulations that guides the oil exploration by international oil companies that are universally /ˈsɔːɹiaɪgɑdˌwɛ/, they are flouted at will, yeah? They are flouted. And they know that they can get away with it. The environmental impact assessments are hardly conducted, and they get away with it, because a few percent gets millions of dollars to put into their pockets.

JAY: Now, where is the sort of working-class opposition? There’s a big working-class in Nigeria. Where is the working-class movement? And to some extent does it suggest the weakness of that movement, that opposition to it, for example, to the regime in northeast, takes such an extreme, you know, Islamic, you know, convoluted form as Boko Haram? I don’t even know if you can really call it is Islamist, can you. I think it’s maybe not–it’s some kind of strange cult, is it not?

AYE: It’s an admixture of so many things. But its terrorist tactics must be condemned, and roundly so. But as I argued in an article earlier, the state, the Nigerian state, is as much of a terrorist. In fact, it’s institutionalized terrorism. You know.

But to your question, I think you raised a very important question: where is the working-class in all this? Nigeria historically, and even contemporaneously, has a very strong working-class. The decolonization process was greatly influenced by the 1945 general strike, which lasted for some 44 days. And since then, I mean, between the year 2000 and 2010, you had ten general strikes in Nigeria. And it is important to know that of these ten, nine were all related to issues of petroleum, which was petroleum from price hikes, fuel price hikes, where–I mean, fighting for the reduction of, you know, hikes.

Now, the fact of the matter with the trade union movement in Nigeria is this: it is politically vibrant, it is organizationally strong, and in Nigeria, where you have a general strike, the country’s–literally shuts down. The country’s literally shut down. The country’s literally shut down, because you have the bulk–the working-class population is–both the two trade-union federations added up together, their membership is barely 7 million within a country with a population of 170 million. But the large bulk of, you know, the informal economy workers, they join the trade unions when they call the general strike.

Now, where is the problem? And to understand where the problem is, one can also relate the issue of Boko Haram now to the issue of the earlier experience, like I had pointed out somewhere, that Boko Haram represents the third wave of the use of political Islam for secular purposes, you know, so to speak. The second wave, which was between 1978 and the ’90s, you had the Maitatsine. The Maitatsine was even, I mean, for want of a better word, crazier, in terms of–. People say Boko Haram means Western education is a sin. The Maitatsine, yeah, you could actually use the word cult for Maitatsine, yeah, because it was against any form of technology, as with–it was against the use of wristwatches. Its members get–I mean, riding in cars or even bicycles, the use of spectacles, all these were considered a sin. And in December 1980, there was a riot when its members wanted to use a prayer, a ground for prayers and things like that. I mean, to cut a long story short, in 11 days in the riots of the Maitatsine, you had 4,179 people dead in 11 days.

Now, what is the importance of the difference between then and now? Leading scholars pointed out that the attempts of the Maitatsine to become a mass force was delimited because of–it was based in Kano–because of the presence of radical political parties like the People’s Redemption Party, which was part of the larger labor movement. Right now you have a Labour Party, yes. I am deputy national secretary of the party. But the fact of the matter is that you have had serious de-ideologization of the trade union movement since 1989. And I’ll try [to] explain a bit. It’s that you had an ideological commitment to fighting for a better world. You know, there were contestations inside, and the government played on these contestations. Twice the trade unions were banned. And when the ban would be lifted in 1989, the left within the trade unions were, like, that, okay, the government have played on the fact that you had a left and you had more moderate forces, and it had used that opportunity to ban the trade unions twice; let us bury ideological divisions. But what that eventually–what that actually practically meant was that a capitulation to the right wing within the trade union movement. And this has affected, you know, the political formations, you know, that the trade unions have tried to bring about, and it has resulted in denuding the possibilities of it to serve as an alternative full of attraction from such forces as what Boko Haram is in the northeast and the militancy you had in the Niger Delta. So there is the need.

There are debates within the trade union movement, within the broader labor movement, I mean, which point at the possibility of reclaiming, I mean, such higher ground lost. And it is important also [to] be clear about this. What happened in Nigeria, although there was this fundamental local part of it–which I have called the great compromise of 1989–but it was within a bigger global-historical context–the downturn, the attacks on the working-class ideologically, politically, and organizationally in terms of membership and the structure of the working class, which neoliberalism represents. And don’t forget also that ’89 was when you had the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

And, I mean, this was–in many ways it was axiomatic of several things. You had ideas of socialism that were–. A lot of people forget or a lot not even know that the closest to a referendum that you ever had in Nigeria was in 1987, when the federal military government set up a political reform commission, which toured the nooks and crannies of Nigeria on what was the economic and political system that Nigerians felt would be best suited to move the country forward. And do you know the resulting answer was socialism? Socialism! That was the Cookey–Cookey political reform commission in 1987. A lot of people now don’t know, and some that knew then have forgotten. But how could that come about? It was because you had a vibrant, you know, labor movement that had an ideological clarity /vuː/ within the contentions within it. But now business as usual, partly due to, you know, the global collapse of socialism as an alternative for many, and also the local great compromise by the left of the trade union movement. So these are what could explain what you have had now as against what you had, like, during the period of the Maitatsine. But there are debates within the movement, and I think that, yes, gradually we would move away from where we are now.

JAY: I guess it’s rather convenient, too, in the sense that if Boko Haram is the bogeyman, then you get mass support for a stronger central government, a stronger state. And it’s also, I would guess, somewhat of a distraction from the working-class struggle there.

AYE: Exactly. And, you see, what you have said now, you see it being played out in some very dangerous senses, because apart–and related to this–I must bring this also in–is the possibilities of xenophobia. And what are we saying here now? You have had even people on the left–I mean, of course not everyone [incompr.] but a sizable chunk being able to say, okay, yes, state of emergency might not be the best of thing, but we need it to smash Boko Haram. Yes, of course normally we would not welcome NATO forces, the United States, France, Britain, China, Israel to Nigerian soils, but, well, what can we do about it? We need anything that we can get to do what–to smash Boko Haram. Our [brothers?] need to be close because the Sambisa Forest, which is Boko Haram’s base, stretches across Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and–yeah, Cameroon, Niger, Chad. You know. And why? Because we must smash Boko Haram.

So the government has and continues to try to whip up patriotic sentiment, but the fact of the matter is this: truth is sacred, because–I mean, and practice is not only the sole criterion of truth. I mean, facts are sacred. Just yesterday, something funny–I must say, funny in tragicomic manner–happens. And what was this? You found Malala was in Nigeria, the–.

JAY: The young–the Pakistani girl who had been attacked by the Taliban.

AYE: Exactly. You know? And she advised the president, President Goodluck Jonathan, to meet with the families of the Chibok students. And then it was after this that President Jonathan, who had once said he was traveling to Chibok but later canceled that and went to Paris for a conference on Chibok, called for the parents of the Chibok students. They turned that down, and rightly so, too.

JAY: Yeah, the parents turned down the meeting with the president, right?

AYE: Oh, yes, they did, they did. And what would the president say? The president said that activists organized around the “bring back our girls” campaign were playing politics. I mean, who the hell in this case is playing politics? The president that is–it’s just like it took him 19 days, 19 good days, to make a statement on the abductions, and that was not until several, I mean, politicians and celebrities across the world, including Barack Obama, that spoke. So, you see?

And it did not end at that. He accused activists around “bring back our girls” campaign as carrying out psychological terrorism. So, essentially what you have here now is that war against terror has become a bogeyman with which the federal government tries to make the dominant narrative such that it is one that deflects away from the issues of poverty, the issues of the state’s insensitivity and crass /ˈtɪfri/. But the fact of the matter is you can’t wish facts away. In the first place, facts and interaction of forces brought about even this Frankenstein in the first place.

JAY: Right. Okay, Baba, we’re going to do one more segment, and I’m going to ask you what’s to be done.

So please join us for the third and final segment of this series of interviews with Baba Aye on The Real News Network, coming up soon.


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