Nnimmo Bassey: Years of Western-backed military dictatorship and unfettered plunder by oil companies have created enormous disparity in wealth and a corrupt political elite – a breeding ground for extremism
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Nigeria is in a state of semi-chaos. And the question I have, and I think most people following this story have, is: how did Nigeria get to a point where such events can take place?
Now joining us to help give some historical context to all of this–he’s now in Ghana, but normally he’s in Nigeria–is Nnimmo Bassey. He’s a Nigerian architect, environmentalist, an author, a poet. He chaired the Friends of the Earth International from 2008 through 2012. He was executive director of Environmental Rights Action for two decades. And he now is the director of the Mother Earth Foundation.
Thanks very much for joining us.
NNIMMO BASSEY, DIRECTOR, HEALTH OF MOTHER EARTH FOUNDATION: My pleasure, Paul.
JAY: So can you just give us quickly what’s happening now on the ground in Nigeria and a little bit about who the Boko Haram is and what they represent?
BASSEY: As you said, Nigeria is undergoing very difficult times at the moment. But these had been building up over time. Usually in the past we had incidents of clashes over religious differences between the Muslims and Christians in the northern part of the country, but these were on-and-off incidents. But what we’re seeing now is a sustained aggression by a diversity of groups who are generally grouped under the label Boko Haram. Boko Haram does not appear to be one single organization that has a command structure as such, but an amalgam of groups who share perhaps a philosophy of just wreaking destruction in the nation.
Nigeria gained political independence in 1960, but the structure was not perfect. And just as the nation was getting its act together, six years into independence, the military struck. And a few years–I mean, the year after the military struck, Nigeria faced a civil war [incompr.] you know, from a number of reasons. And when the Civil War ended in 1970, Nigeria [incompr.] wealth from oil revenue, crude oil revenue. And then, at that time, the military head of state said Nigeria had the problem of how to spend money, not how to make money. So that kind of settled the philosophy.
JAY: Before you get into the oil politics, ’cause I know it’s such a big story, from after independence, 1960s and so on, it’s at the height of the Cold War, and much of African politics, as I understand it, was shaped by the Cold War. What was the role of U.S. policy in the development of the military dictatorship in Nigeria?
BASSEY: Now, you know, from–we had military rule in Nigeria from 1966 [incompr.] and this went on for about three decades, with just a little space of time that they left in 1979 and came back in 1983.
And also in this time, the U.S. has maybe made a few [incompr.] made a few noises against military dictatorship more generally. I believe the U.S. was not really obviously against the governments in power. And, of course, Nigeria was a very strong frontline state against apartheid in South Africa at a time when U.S. was ambivalent, the U.S. was ambivalent about what was going on in South Africa. So it wasn’t really a very smooth relationship all through this time.
But the military were not politicians, generally. They were just young man who grabbed power for whatever purpose. And they had to run the country down to the ground. And so what we’re seeing now manifesting in the country now is a result of several years of misrule, both by politicians and by the military, and right now have been in meetings where the past military rulers go to great pains to explain that they cannot be to blame, because they always work with politicians. And, of course, with the local politicians, they also work with politicians from the U.S., from Europe, and from elsewhere.
But we had a situation where wealth has been concentrated in a few hands across the nation. If you look at statistics, right now the Nigerian economy is said to be–the GDP, gross domestic product, is said to be growing at a rate of more than 6 percent per year, and just a couple of weeks ago the government announced: by recalculating the gross domestic product, Nigeria is now the biggest economy in Africa, bigger than South African economy.
But at the same time, what is not being told to the world, what is not being announced clearly, is that poverty is increasing rapidly also. So you have a situation where 70 percent of the population live in poverty, and then wealth is concentrated in a few hands. And in the northern part of the country, this disparity is much more sharper because of years of negligence, especially in educational sector, because some people have [incompr.] to manipulate the poor and the marginalized, children, especially, and the youth, into not obtaining suitable education, but just being put in a state where they have to depend on the rich for daily handouts and occasional days of festivities. And so you find in the northern part of the country very deep and, you know, desperate poverty besides incredible wealth here of a few people. And so over the years, this has built up. This has resulted in discontent, especially amongst the poor, young people.
And the problem generally across the nation has been that over–the years of military rule has made even the civilian politicians behave sometimes like–as if they were military overlords. And elections have not been fair and free most of the time. And politicians were very, very readily amenable to using political talks, some of whom have been armed with weapons. And if you look at the crisis that occurred in the South in about–around 2005 in the Niger Delta, in the oil fields, where militancy heightened, you find that some of the young people who were involved in this militancy had been–had worked as help to politicians through elections, but would not–they would not receive what they were promised at the end of the day. And so the politicians used to use and then dump them.
And a similar thing also occurred in the northern part of the country, but we are not in a position to say exactly how what has become the Boko Haram phenomenon grew, from what was the root. What is known is that the amalgam of groups generally operating under this name or under this nomenclature believe that anything Western must be rejected, especially Western education. And so they will fund a lot of attacks on schools, on public institutions, and then on the military, on whatever they feel would hurt the government.
But what has become very reprehensible is that over the past few months, these insurgents (as they’re labeled these days) have concentrated on killing defenseless children, some in their sleep in their hostels, in secondary school hostels. They’ve recently–three weeks ago they abducted over 200 girls from a hostel in a school at Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. In Abuja about two weeks ago they set off explosions in a very densely packed motor park, a public transportation hall on the outskirts of Abuja, killing innocent workers and children who were either on their way to school or to their offices.
JAY: How much has the interests of big Western oil companies shaped the politics of Nigeria? I mean, you’re talking about, you know, a handful of very, very wealthy, and in the north tremendous poverty, where all these events are taking place. But in terms of over the last decades, how much has Nigerian politics been shaped either by, you know, Western/American oil companies, and even directly with U.S. CIA and such involvement?
BASSEY: Well, let me speak about how the Nigerian economy and politics have been shaped by multinational corporations. They’ve been very key in shaping the way politics has developed in the country and how the economy has grown. We are running an economy that is based, basically, on oil rents, collection of royalties and rents from oil production by transnational oil corporations. They have overbearing influence on the political development of the country and on the economy. In fact, the national budget of Nigeria has always [the bit about?] the budget, especially the one that has currently just been passed by the National Assembly has been about what should be the benchmark of the price of crude oil. And so crude oil has been a determinant factor right from the early 1970s, when oil revenue became the major source of foreign exchange [incompr.] for the country. And so right now the oil companies operate above the law, because the government would not do anything, it would not do anything whatsoever to offend them or to make them lose their profit. And so they break the law with absolute impunity.
For example, from 1984, gas flaring has been illegal, the burning of gas associated with crude oil extraction has been illegal in Nigeria. The corporations have to show plans of how they want to stop that environmental pollution before. They would then be fined and then given a permit to flare. But this has not–we do not find this to be the pattern of things. We’ve tried this through the locals. We found that oil companies are living, are working in a way that is not in compliance with regulations.
Now, because of the heavy dependence on oil revenue, as I said, these corporations have very heavy influence on politics. And [incompr.] rich people in the country are rich because they have a slice of oil revenue, not because they engaged in anything productive. And so we run a kind of voodoo economy, something that is more or less maybe beginning to change now because there are other sectors of the economy that are contributing to progress, and that is getting a bit more productive than before.
But as I say this, the influence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank has also been very significant in dislocating [incompr.] the pattern of growth of the Nigerian economy and African economy generally that was visible between–in the early ’70s through the early 1980s. And that, of course, happened through the introduction of structural adjustment programs that opened up the economy for dumping of products from the North, from the Global North, from North America, from Europe, from Japan, Australia, and then also killing local production, local industries, killing local agriculture, and, you know, making these countries kind of dependent on–sometimes some countries get [incompr.] almost totally dependent on foreign aid and stuff like that. So we’ve seen a situation where the negative influence of multinational corporation has played a very, very big role in keeping our nation from being on the right path of progress.
JAY: Okay. Nnimmo, we’re going to come back, I hope, to talk to you again soon. This is just the beginning. This is obviously a very complicated story. Thanks very much for joining us.
BASSEY: Thank you very much.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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