Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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In defence of whose realm?

By Gamal Nkrumah

There is no greater irony in the entire post-Cold War scenario than the failure of strong American world-leadership to restore nerve and vigour to the developing world of the South. Indeed, many countries in the South are now not so much developing as stagnating, or even worse, declining. As they thus revert to pre-colonial conditions, they inevitably come to qualify as ripe for re-colonisation.

In his recent broadside, The New Military Humanism, Noam Chomsky lays out for all to see the blatant and shameless hypocrisy of US intervention in trouble spots around the globe. The Americans have taken it upon themselves to be the stout-hearted trouble-shooters of this brave new world. Yet, argues Chomsky, their selectivity is nauseatingly Machiavellian. The thesis is immediately engaging, especially for those of us in the so-called Third World, for its refusal to apply itself to such red herrings as: Is socialism still relevant? Is the capitalist system in crisis? Is internationalism dead? Who cares? Well, we the wronged majority do.

Africa observed the 12th annual World AIDS Day on 1 December with a terrible trepidation. The number of HIV-infected individuals on the continent now stands at a horrendous 22.5 million. On 9 July 1999, US Vice President Al Gore announced a new Clinton Administration initiative to address the global AIDS pandemic, specifically in Africa and India. Over 95 per cent of all HIV-infected individuals are in the South.

Three departments are to be involved in this campaign. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Health and Human Services, and somewhat ominously, the Department of Defence. On the pretext that US military personnel are exposed to multiple HIV sub-types while on deployment in Africa, Washington proposes to "enhance" the education of their indigenous counterparts, while assuring us that the training modules created by the Naval Research Unit in San Diego, California and John Hopkins University will be culturally adapted to the areas they are "targeting". Meanwhile, the Ford Foundation, the Civil Military Alliance and the US Military HIV Research Programme are to co-ordinate funding and research activities to develop a "special intervention programme" aimed at the continent's brass. Even in outline, the whole project sounds dubious, to say the least -- an effect that is only enhanced by reading Chomsky's book.

The New Military Humanism focuses on Kosovo, but what the author has to say is all too relevant to Africa as well. This is no indigent polemic. Who are the biggest arms suppliers? The US tops the list with a walloping 48.6 per cent, followed by France and Britain with 17.6 per cent and 16.2 per cent respectively. That, in hard facts and cold figures, is the ugly face of the North's new caring attitude to the South.

While global arms sales continue to plummet, Africa remains the only continent where arms imports are actually on the rise. According to the US State Department's Arms and Conflict in Africa report, African defence spending currently tops $9.7 billion.

"Such is the influx of weapons into the African continent that an AK-47 costs as little as $6 in the war-torn areas of Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia," the report reveals. Even more alarming is the statement made by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in its study The Military Balance 1999-2000, that western banks, including international financial institutions, are funding Africa's armed conflicts. The technique is simple: "War loans are raised from the external private sector in return for property rights or concessions on oil and mineral assets."

It is in this context that rising ethnic violence in Africa's most populous nation-state, with a national debt of $30 billion, is especially worrying. Fighting and conflict are sweeping through Nigeria like wildfire, and a complete breakdown in law and order is reported in several major cities, including the country's economic centre, Lagos, and the northern metropolis of Kano. Governors of key states that have borne the brunt of the violence were summoned to the capital Abuja this week for consultations with President Olusegun Obasanjo.

A resurgence of ethnic fighting has killed hundreds since Obasanjo was sworn in on 29 May, thus ending 15 years of military rule. The election of a Christian Yoruba from southern Nigeria to the country's top job had soon created a climate of fear and suspicion among the predominantly Muslim ethnic Hausa and Fulani of the north. For it is these groups which have traditionally held the reins of power in the country. The army is still dominated by a Muslim officer caste, and Obasanjo has been obliged to tread very carefully. The northern Muslim military and political elite had only acquiesced in Obasanjo's bid for the presidency in the first place because of his record as a former military ruler.

Nigeria has long been sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines, and is periodically torn by ethnic violence, which climaxed in the late 1960s in a fully-fledged and quite devastating civil war.

Last weekend, the country's democratically-elected civilian government shut down a suburban Lagos market and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the area which was the scene of bloody clashes between members of Nigeria's two largest ethnic groups -- the local Yoruba who predominate in south-western Nigeria and Lagos, and the Hausa whose homeland is in the arid North.

Scores of people were killed. "The elasticity of our patience has been stretched to the limit and we have to act," Lagos Police Commissioner Mike Okiro said Friday night. According to reports filtering out of Nigeria, the police, who were authorised last Thursday to hunt down and eliminate ethnic troublemakers, still maintain a heavy presence in Nigeria's largest city and continue to patrol other predominantly Hausa areas of Lagos to ensure the violence does not spread.

On Saturday, Lagos State Governor Bola Tinubu met with market officials and community leaders to discuss ways of containing the violence. Security forces were also placed on alert in northern, predominantly Hausa cities such as Kano, for fear of a spate of revenge killings.

In Ketu, 12 km north of Lagos, Yoruba and Hausa traders have been vying for control of the sprawling food market for some time. The situation reached boiling point last Thursday when members of the militant and shady Oduduwa People's Congress (OPC) urged Yoruba traders to clash with their Hausa counterparts, steal their goods and burn their stalls. The conflict turned bloody with the warring parties resorting to guns and machetes. Dozens of stalls were set on fire, and several people were burned to death when flaming tires were forced around their waists. Police put the death toll at more than 150.

Curiously enough, under the presidency of a Yoruba, the OPC is gaining ever more converts in south-western Nigeria. The OPC is a militant group which is agitating for an independent Yorubaland (Oduduwa), as well as threatening to turn out the Muslim Hausa traders who have lived and worked in Lagos and other Yoruba cities for generations. In a desperate bid to contain the violence they have sparked off, Obasanjo has ordered police to arrest anyone associated with the organisation.

Ironically, the concept of Oduduwa owes much of its present popularity precisely to the fact that it is acting as a lightning conductor for widespread discontent with Obasanjo's civilian administration. Economic malaise and social deprivation, especially among the youth who make up some 45 per cent of the population, is on the rise. Oduduwa itself, meanwhile, strikes many as a grim reminder of the ill-fated Biafra, the name chosen for a short-lived unilaterally-declared independent republic in south-eastern Nigeria that was dominated by ethnic Igbo. It took a bloody three-year civil war to put down the Biafran secession.

To make matters worse for Obasanjo, civil disturbances and ethnic clashes in the south-eastern part of the country is on the rise. Nigeria's National Security Council recently ordered a fresh round of punitive expeditions into the Niger Delta. Locals talk of whole villages being razed to the ground. Governor of Bayelsa State Diepreye Alamieyesiegha was also summoned to Aso Rock, the seat of the Nigerian government in the capital Abuja, and severely reprimanded for not keeping his people in line.

Unacceptably high unemployment rates among the restless youth of the Delta, a lack of medical services, water supply shortages and sparse facilities for basic education are the main causes of discontent. The siphoning off of the area's abundant wealth is another.

Following the meeting, the Federal Government's Press Secretary, Dr Doyin Okupe, explained that Federal troops were being sent in to quell the rebellion at the invitation of Governor Alamieyesiegha, and that the troops are under his command. This represents a curious volte-face, if true, for the governor was quoted only a few days earlier as having vowed to prevent Federal troops from entering Bayelsa.

The Delta people are outraged that Justice Mohammed Auta, who four years ago ordered the judicial execution of author, environmentalist and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa along with eight other men for crimes they never committed, is still siting on the bench in Abuja. They also charge that the National Security Council has no indigenous Niger Delta member. In their eyes, the deployment of federal troops in Bayelsa is little short of an invasion. They are outraged that all top-level jobs in the oil industry, the private and state sectors are monopolised by members of Nigeria's three major ethnic groups the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. They feel entirely excluded from the decision-making process, and accuse foreign oil companies of deliberately employing non-indigenous people. Mobil has mainly Yoruba as top executives, while the Igbo are said to monopolise all the key posts at Royal Dutch Shell. At Chevron, the honours are equally shared between the two "foreign" peoples. The oil companies are accused of devising policies that exclude indigenous people from employment and contracts in flagrant violation of the Federal government's policy of reserving 70 per cent of all skilled labour and 100 per cent of all unskilled labour for the locals.

The indigenous people of the Delta are further aggrieved because the Nigerian civilian government, like its military predecessors, has failed to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to areas affected by oil spillage, fires and other hazards connected with the oil industry. Two major fire disasters recently claimed the lives of thousands of people in the Urhobo communities of Idjerhe and Ekpakrame, yet no effort was made to provide rehabilitation for the victims.

Economic pressures have also triggered ethnic clashes between the peoples of the Delta themselves. Confrontation between Urhobo and Ijaw people in and around the city of Warri devastated the area, while an Ijaw militant group, Youths of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities, has attacked Chevron and Shell oil installations, seized a Shell helicopter and kidnapped five employees including one expatriate, releasing them only after a substantial ransom was paid. Militants routinely disrupt traffic and communications in the area and loot oil production facilities.

During his election campaign, and again more recently when touring the US, Obasanjo promised to improve Nigeria's abysmal human rights record. He specifically vowed to improve the quality of the lives of the impoverished indigenous people of the oil-rich Delta which generates most of the country's foreign exchange earnings, as well as 90 per cent of all federal Nigerian government revenue.

The indigenous people of the Delta complain that vast areas, including the whole of Bayelsa State, have been reduced to a state of abject poverty and catastrophic environmental degradation by the exploitation of the multinationals. In this context, the tribal militias see themselves as merely exercising their right to self-defence against invaders from other parts of the country. The government, for its part, refers to the militias as terrorists, trouble-makers and vandals. Yet to the locals, they are freedom fighters.

Obasanjo decreed that "police action" was necessary to restore law and order in the Delta area. It would be a sad twist of fate if a civilian administration were to find itself "obliged" to carry on the ruthless tradition of repression that made its military predecessors infamous.

The Nigerian situation should be compared with that which now prevails in Indonesia. Civilian governments, which have their hands tied by military overseers are easily forced into the most compromising positions. Forcibly reining in disparate -- and economically desperate -- peoples has emerged as the major challenge facing many large post-colonial countries. Democratisation generates its own unique difficulties when the state in question is the artificial creation of a foreign power. We should always remember, when we think of Nigeria, that the country's name was conjured up by Lady Lugard -- the wife of the British governor of the territories. It is this legacy of exploitation and oppression which continues to oppress the Nigerian people today.

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