Oaks grow from little acorns campaigning for democracy abroad


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Oaks grow from little acorns campaigning for democracy abroad

  1. 1. Oaks Grow from Little Acorns: Campaigning for Democracy AbroadBackground to International CampaignFrom the work of a few concerned Nigerians intent on exposing the viciousness of theBabangida regime to the various organisations campaigning for democracy under thecurrent dispensation, it is no exaggeration to say that the external campaign againstmilitary dictatorship in Nigeria has come a long way. When we started the NewNigeria Forum (earlier known as Movement for a New Nigeria) in the UnitedKingdom in 1990, most of the Nigerian groups in existence concentrated, perhapsadvisedly, on socio-philanthropic work. They are state unions, ethnic solidaritygroups and social networking organisations. Human rights and campaign fordemocracy were far removed from their agenda. [In fact, they pointedly told any onewho dared ask that politics was not on their agenda as though this were possible forany people-based organisation.] At the apex of such groups was the Nigerian NationalUnion – a coalition of Nigerian organisations. The NNU portrayed itself, and it wasperceived in several quarters, as an extension of the Nigerian High Commission and adefender of any government in power.Setting up any remotely radical group that existed outside the control of the NNUtherefore created its own worries for the High Commission. Even for the ordinaryNigerian just out in the UK to eke out a living after escaping the trauma of IBB’sStructural Adjustment Programme (SAP), it was difficult to understand why peoplewould choose to oppose a man as ‘dangerous’ as Babangida. To this group, we shouldjust let the man go without as much as questioning any of his antics. Their positionwas understandable: General Babangida was riding on the crest-wave of hismaradonaic fame, toasted by Queen and country, lavishly praised by MargaretThatcher and other world leaders for “forward looking economic strategies andcontribution to international peace-keeping.”. The fact that these same economicpolicies drove these laid-back Nigerians out of the country and led to the anti-SAPriots went unmentioned.Those involved in the group were roundly condemned as killjoys and destroyers ofNigeria’s image abroad who should be shunned and avoided like lepers. But theBabangida government and its agents took a very keen interest in the activities of thegroup, sending people to attend its open meetings, keeping tabs through theirintelligence outfits and making direct contacts with the group’s leadership with a viewto ‘settling’ them in the usual Nigerian manner. The military government wasconvinced that the storm had began to gather. As though in tandem, another groupsimilar to NNF and very critical of the Babangida dispensation, but broadlysupportive of the transition programme had emerged in the United States, called theNigerian Democratic Awareness Committee [NDAC]. By the time the various humanrights and democracy groups inside the country founded the Campaign forDemocracy in 1991, the two groups were in place to support the domestic campaignwith their external contact.Working for Democracy abroadRegular contacts were developed with governments in Europe and America, briefingsessions were held for human rights groups like Amnesty International, Committeefor the Protection of Journalists, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and 1
  2. 2. AfricaWatch [now Human Rights Watch/Africa] by the NNF. The group also startedits own regular journal, Nigeria Now. More importantly, forums were provided forvisiting activists and democracy campaigners to brief foreign journalists andconcerned politicians and individuals in Europe and America. No sooner had thisdeveloped that the official press in Nigeria – namely New Nigerian and Daily Timesembarked on a campaign of denigration of the work of the NNF abroad.Without a doubt, there was a gradual but seismic shift in the mentality of Nigeriansabroad following the plethora of consciousness raising activities that had become socommonplace by 1992 courtesy of the democracy agitation of the NNF. This wasenough to worry any regime that cared more about its image than the substance of itsstewardship, and many would agree that Babangida’s was an image-conscious regimepar excellence. The last time any Nigerian regime had reason to explain itself andtheir policy to the international community was during the civil war. Even then,Nigeria often insisted on the floor of the United Nations and the Organisation ofAfrican Unity that the problem was an internal one in which it could tolerate nointerference. In the two decades that followed the war, a combination of factors keptNigerians abroad from openly campaigning against successive governments at home.What with the relatively stable economy occasioned by the oil boom, Nigeria’s activeinvolvement in the international campaign against apartheid South Africa, and theattendant Cold war dispensation that promoted authoritarian structures and relegatedgood governance and democracy to the backburner.The late 1980s witnessed a significant change in the international scene asauthoritarian regimes began to fall one after the other in Eastern Europe. LatinAmerica too was seeing the end of many long-standing caudillista regimes, hithertopropped up by the west in the superpower rivalry of the time. The domestic scene wasalso changing in many African states as several stooges of the superpowers lost thepatronage of these metropolitan powers. Multi-party democracy and good governancebecame the buzzwords, military regimes began to experience short shrift even fromtheir staunchest supporters. In Nigeria, this was given an additional fillip by thedecimation and near total disappearance of its thriving middle class, courtesy of theeconomic policies of the Babangida regime. Many of these displaced middle classprofessionals had been forced into foreign lands as economic refugees. The growingdisaffection among Nigerians abroad against the regime that turned them intomigrants also made the work of activists groups a bit easier and more challenging. Itmeant the skills for mobilising people and articulating the problems of Nigeriansunder a repressive regime became easily available. It was no surprise therefore thatthese democracy groups benefited from the prevalent residue of disaffection, which,in turn helped in spreading the word and raising the consciousness of Nigeriansabroad.The annulment and its aftermathThis was the state of play at the time the elections were held and annulled in June1993. The reaction across the world was of course seen as spontaneous, and therewas, indeed an element of spontaneity to it. There was, however, a lot of co-ordinatedwork as well, especially among the groups already in existence abroad and the cadresof the Campaign for Democracy at home. All Nigerians abroad were united in theirdisgust and a protest rally organised by several Nigerian organisations witnessed oneof the largest crowds ever to grace any Nigerian outing. One group that played a 2
  3. 3. crucial role in this protest rally alongside the NNF was the Nigerian DemocraticMovement (NDM) which metamorphosed from a purely pro-Abiola cum SDP supportgroup abroad into a full-fledged campaigning body immediately after the annulment.Since then, NDM has played a crucial role in mobilising Nigerians abroad.In quick succession to the numerous rallies that took place, a major meeting wasorganised by the NNF in August 14, 1993. By the time we held the public meeting atthe Westminster Central Hall opposite the British Houses of Parliament, attended bynearly a thousand Africans, it was obvious that the British people could no longerclaim ignorance of the unfortunate events in Nigeria. The event was graced by thepresident elect – Chief Abiola, Professor Soyinka, Senator Adesanya, Barrister AkaBashorun as well as other senior African politicians and international figures likeNkrumahist – JH Mensah of Ghana, the late Abdulrahman Babu of Tanzania and LordEric Avebury of the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group, it was widelyremarked that “not since the days of the anti-colonial campaigns of the West AfricanStudents Union [WASU] has London witnessed such sheer determination on the partof the people”1For us in the Forum, and for many others outside the forum, there were two planks tothe campaign – we wanted to unite the international community against thedictatorship, and second, we wanted to eschew ethnic chauvinism through theformation of a broad democratic alliance in defence of the gains of June 12 that cutacross ethnic, religious and regional divide. The Campaign for Democracy wasalready leading the campaign to the best of its ability at home but despondencyoccasioned by battle weariness and inexperience had set in. Besides, other forcesinvolved in the democracy campaign were far too opportunistic, too depraved andvery much reluctant to break the bonds of friendship between them and the goons incharge in Abuja. This was to have untold repercussions on the entire campaign,culminating in the full blown return of the military in November 17, 1993. Themistrust that resulted from accusations of endorsement of the coup by leadingcampaigners nearly paralysed the work of the domestic movement. Indeed, somewould say we are yet to recover from this problem but a cursory look at organisationsof this type anywhere in the world would indicate a climate in which things constantlyevolved. As victims of the state machinery of manipulation and repression, it waseasy to see the ghost of enemies from within a broad movement, and thus play intothe hands of the dictators at large.Part of that evolution resulted in the formation of the National Democratic Coalition[NADECO] in May 1994 - a group, which brought together leading politicians, ex-military generals and civil society activists. NADECO came at a particularly timelyperiod when the new dictatorship appeared to have consolidated its grip on power.Through its deft moves, it succeeded in dividing the opposition to it by offering keypoliticians ministerial appointments, creating a serious crisis of confidence within thedemocratic movement. The fact that the coalition has in its cadre well knownNigerians also guaranteed the needed media coverage that stood it in good stead.Besides all these though, NADECO came out with a very clear agenda that peoplecould identify with – actualisation of the June 12 elections, convening of the1 See Olu Oguibe (Ed) Democracy in Nigeria: The June 12 Mandate (London: New Nigeria Forum &Africa Research and Information Bureau, 1993) in which speeches delivered at the August 14 gatheringwas published. 3
  4. 4. Sovereign National Conference and the reconstitution of the military – earlierpromoted as core princples within the Campaign for Democracy. In addition, withinweeks of its formation, NUPENG and PENGASSAN – the two oil workers unions,called the ten week long national oil strike that paralysed the Nigerian oil fields. Thenational strike shook the regime so much that its eventual failure inevitably meant thehounding and harassment of leading figures in NADECO and the oil unions. Many ofthose affected are still being held in jails across the country, and several fled intoexile.It was at this stage that NADECO took the steps of opening a branch abroad, whichhas been active since September 1994 to date. In complementary roles to thedemocracy groups are the environmental and minority rights lobby, the women’s’groups, the human rights organisations, all of which, have assumed greaterprominence since the mindless execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and his colleagues inNovember 1995, a decision which earned Nigeria its current suspension from theCommonwealth group.Strengths and WeaknessesThe cynic of course might argue that the international campaign has not had anysuccess since the military are still in power in Nigeria, and several leaders of thedemocracy movement still in jail or exile. Others might even argue that theopposition to the military is riven by various ideological and petty divides, which onlyserve to consolidate the grip of the dictatorship. Well, the cynic would be wide off themark on both counts. It is of course very difficult to assess the precise role andinfluence of the democracy, human rights and environmental lobbies in certaindecisions, there can be no doubt that we have succeeded in internationalising thestruggle against military dictatorship in Nigeria, and very little doubt exists in theworld today that the Nigerian regime is a pariah regime. This has been made possibleby the objective conditions on the ground, but more importantly, by the articulationand presentation of such conditions, in terms of the contribution made by theinformation available to international organisations, embassies and governments andthe citizenry. The fact that many of these governments and organisations in turnapproach the groups for specific information and details can only be a measure of thecredibility they have gained over the many years of campaign. The fact that theNigerian groups abroad and their international allies were able to mobilise widespreadsupport inside Britain, the rest of Europe, Africa and the Americas on the Nigerianquestion has made it easier for the Commonwealth and other world leaders to take upthe issue with increased vigour. The relationship between domestic pressure andinternational campaign has been very direct on the oil sanctions campaign as withother campaigns of a similar nature.On the second plank of unifying the campaign under an umbrella and eschewingethnic dissension, the objective remains an essential one for virtually all the groupsinvolved in democracy campaigns, even if complete success is not achieved yet. Thatis why we now have NADECO and the United Action for Democracy join the CD ascoalitions of organisations inside Nigeria and the United Democratic Front of Nigeriaand NADECO-Abroad working in the international arena. As with every youngcampaign, it often takes time to work through group differences in order to have onesingle, unifying organisation at the apex of the struggle. Some even argue that this isnot a feasible project, given the differences in ideological outlook of the various 4
  5. 5. groups, generation divides and egomaniacal pursuits of those involved. Moreobjectively, there is need for a clearer position on what unification sets out to achieve– formation of a political party or an ephemeral movement for change. Although,they are not mutually exclusive since examples abound the world over of activistsgroups turning into political parties as we had with Solidarnosc in Poland and AfricanNational Congress in South Africa, the position has to be stated at the outset to ensurerevolutionary discipline necessary for the sustenance of such political movements.Inevitably, success will come when we create a structure in which differingtendencies find expression in an open and democratic manner, even when there aredisagreements on tactics and strategies. For now, the objective of unification shouldbe pursued from the perspective of joint working groups on specific projects, allowedto develop incrementally into a solid movement for change.If the objective of a united coalition is not immediately achievable, it may well beasked whether all this work will yield major dividend in its international campaignbeyond the symbolic international action already taken against the regime. Forexample, will the campaign achieve its goal of an oil embargo, where powerfulinterests can continue to drive a wedge between the groups and emphasise theirdivisions rather than common purpose. Since Shell is still in Nigeria, and theconsociational alliance between international monopoly capital, the military junta andthe local compradorial class seems to be waxing stronger, one might be inclined toreach such a conclusion. There is no doubt however that the current campaign againstShell and other oil multinationals has helped to focus attention on Nigeria anddemonstrated the significant opposition to the military dictatorship in Nigeria as wellas the shoddy practices of foreign oil multinationals. Had there been no furoresurrounding the environmental record of Shell and its counterparts in Nigeria, itwould have found its way back in Ogoni, polluting the countryside. Instead, we nowhave a ‘listening’ Shell subjecting its operations to a Niger-Delta EnvironmentalSurvey and producing a charter on human rights upon which it now plans to base itsoperations anywhere in the world. Although we may still see this as just keeping upappearances, these are no small steps for an organisation that is rigid in structure andsteeped in tradition.2 It is of course not always possible to block all deals as we haveseen with the half a million dollars donated to the Mr Clinton’s Democratic Party byGeneral Abacha’s chief agent – Mr Chagouri, or stop all multinationals from theiroperations given their international network and strong influence in governments, butthere can hardly be any doubt that the Nigerian situation constitutes a major worry tointernational interests. After all, Shell never left South Africa even at the height ofthe apartheid regime’s madness. But we must also note that they are controlled byshareholders, and increasingly their shareholders are becoming sensitised to the criesand campaigns of the oppressed the world over. What is important therefore is that thematter should be kept under surveillance with rapid response as and when necessary.A marathon, not a dash!It is of course rather premature for any of the groups involved in the campaign againstmilitary dictatorship to start counting the chickens of success as yet. Indeed, all willagree that training in organisational and institution building is needed for greaterefficiency and task oriented campaigns. There is hardly any doubt that the campaignis still dominated in certain areas by pettiness and personality differences. As a young2 See Janet Guyon, “Shell: Why is the World’s Most Profitable Company turning itself Inside Out?”,Fortune Magazine, 4 August 1997. 5
  6. 6. campaign, it still lacks the structure that can make it adaptable to changingcircumstances in an ever-changing world. Many in the struggle are beginning to take alonger-term view of the work involved though; they know that this is a marathon, nota dash and even the removal of the military will not signify the end of the struggle.Yet, in spite of its shortcomings, there can be no doubt that the work done by groupsabroad in complementing our colleagues at home gives the dictatorship sleeplessnights. This is best imagined by those who have come face to face with the level ofparanoia often displayed by regime operatives. The fact that most of the leadingfigures currently in exile are charged with treason, and those operating the oppositiondemocracy radio are equally condemned - remains a pointer to how the regime seesthe groups campaigning abroad. Another evidence that might well be worthconsidering is the amount the regime spends in propping up foreign lobbies andcampaigners abroad.Ultimately, only the oppressed people in Nigeria can win freedom and democracy forNigeria but international action by their colleagues and friends can make the task alittle easier, and perhaps bloodless. The activities of the several groups campaigningfor democracy abroad continue to give one hope that this dictatorship will collapse,and it will not do so on its own terms. © KF 6