Youth protests against police violence in Nigeria, the #EndSARS movement, gained international attention with solidarity protests around the world. To understand those protests and the context of the political, economic and social environment in Nigeria, I speak with Comrade Abiodun Aremu, the general secretary of the Joint Action Front and the co-coordinator of the Amil Cabral Ideological School Movement. Aremu speaks about the failure of the government to fulfill the 1999 Constitutional obligations, the extent and role of police and military repression, especially of the youth, and the ties between the United States and Nigeria.
Comrade Abiodun Aremu is the general secretary of the Joint Action Force (JAF), a pro-labour platform, and the co-coordinator of the Amilcar Cabral Ideological Movement (ACIS) Movement, a pan-Africanist, socialist and revolutionary movement. The JAF is a long time partner of the Nigeria Labour Congress.
Margaret Flowers: You’re listening to Clearing the FOG, speaking truth to expose the forces of greed with Margaret flowers. And now I turn to my guest, comrade Abiodun Aremu, who is the secretary of the Joint Action Front, a pro-labor platform, and co-coordinator of the Amilcar Cabral Ideological School Movement, a pan-africanist, socialist and revolutionary movement. And the Joint Action Front is a longtime partner in the Nigerian Labour Congress. Thank you for taking time to join me today.
Abiodun Aremu: It is a pleasure. I’m joining you from Lagos, Nigeria.
MF: To begin with, can you tell our listeners about these organizations that you’re involved with?
AA: Yeah, the Joint Action Front is the product of the long-standing relationship between labor, the radical student movement and also the ideological civil society organizations. We used to have in the 40s 50s up to the 90s what we know as the labor and the oppressed movement in the society, not necessarily then as civil society because this whole things about CSO became a future of Nigerian struggle with the ascendancy of the neoliberal order when you have human rights organizations. So, when we talk about pro-labor, we talk about organizations with ideological commitment to the agenda of the working class. So it’s not just every civil society. Is civil society that have commitment to struggle on the terms of Labor ideological positions. So in the year 2005, following a series of resistance struggle particularly against the hike in fuel prices, the relationship between labor and the CSO transformed into a partnership of having the centers of labor, organized labor, and that we talk then about the Nigerian Labor Congress the Trade union Congress as an arm of the partner. Then we talk of all the other groups, some socialist, some not socialist and some human rights, classified as pro-labor organization and that which we have groups like Democratic Socialist Movement, Campaign for Workers Alternative, the Amilcar Cabral Ideological School Movement, Movement for Socialist Alternative, Center for Popular Education and several of those groups that are formed into the pro-labor Joint Action Front since 2005 and which labor we have struggled together on the basis of resistance particularly against hikes in fuel prices and against neoliberal policies. At the level of the Amilcar Cabral Ideological School, it started as an ideological movement to address the challenges of non-ideological kidders in the struggle. It is to position the struggle on the basis of class and on the basis of anti-imperialism. So I am the co-coordinator of that movement. So it is a Pan-Africanist movement, a socialist movement and the revolutionary movement with the goal of the socialist transformations of society.
MF: Wonderful. And of course that political education is fundamental towards building a revolutionary movement. Let’s talk about the current protests that are going on in Nigeria starting on October 8th after the police murder of a young man. There was a video that circulated widely has some parallels to what we are experiencing in the United States with our current Uprising that began after the murder of George Floyd, but also some other very high-profile murders of black and brown men and women in the United States. Can you talk about why at this moment there’s such a large Uprising in Nigeria?
AA: Yeah, there are more causes to the uprising because the issue of police brutality in Nigeria, particularly against the young Nigerians and students dated as far back as 1971 when the first student activist was killed at University of Ibadan, that’s Kunle Adepeju. But a much more wider dimension of the police repressions of student protests, of their brutality of Nigerian youth coincided with the impositions of World Bank policies in Nigeria in 1978. When the Olusẹgun Ọbasanjọ regime decided to withdraw tuition, introduce tuition into the universities and withdrawal of the subsidized feeding system and that led to that nationwide popular protests in which seven Nigerians were killed on the street. In fact, that’s what we can call the ascendancy of a police brutality. But also against the background that there is a deep-seated economic crisis in the country particularly since the 80s with the imposition of IMF policies and structural adjustment policies that put Nigerians out of jobs. As of today, we have a 40 million Nigerians that are out of a job and this is coupled with the fact that the neoliberal policies provide opportunity for the government to infiltrate the student movement, criminalize the student movement and promote on campus violence and brigandage. And by the time you have the political transitions coming up, some of the youth, students and non-students, became a mercenary for recruitment for violence, hostage-taking or fighting to secure the property rights. The campus now becomes environment that were no longer conducive for academic learning. So now with the deepness of the crisis at the political level because of the election rigging and others, you have a portion of youth that are always available to be recruited as mercenary to foment trouble and violence and coupled with the fact that the young ones also have to fend for themselves in an economy where there are no social welfare provisioning for the majority of Nigerian citizens. So the police in particular took advantage of the deepening economic crisis to harass and brutalize several young ones who could not on the face value explain their sort of existence. So that was the excuse that the police used. So the Special Anti-Robbery Squad had become suddenly curious that beyond the young ones everyone had become victims you see of their harassment, of distortions and even the barefaced robbery. Most Nigerian youth have had to survive on whatever is possible, odd jobs. And in a country without a national record in terms of even data as to not speak of national identity is non-existent in Nigeria. Yes, for the past 40 years there has been a project on national identity so the young ones that has no job but have to fend for themselves you want them to explain their source of income, the identity because identity becomes relevant in Nigeria. You are either in school or in the working places. So when you cannot provide an identity within the context of which authority, you become victims of police harassment, arrest and brutality that are taking place. So what happened on October 8 was just part of the smokescreen over what has been happening and what about the national revolution. Also, less than two weeks after that we had the struggle where we were protesting the hike in fuel prices and the fact that the labor leadership decided to capitulate in the face of that struggle also became a point of relevance in what happened about the spontaneous crisis of October. So it’s like the NLC leadership, the TUC leadership, particularly in labor, have for long provided leadership in times of struggle in Nigeria. So what was clear was that without an organized leadership, what happened from October 8 to 20 was expected in Nigeria that there as going to be spontaneous outbursts and the youth really demonstrated their strength and that commitment to recover the country in terms of that protest.
MF: Yes, and in fact The Joint Action Front had called for, you were talking about this, actions on September 16th because of the increase in the prices of fuel and energy. So that kind of what I’m hearing is that kind of fed into people were already mobilizing and upset about that and then this police violence, you know was another level but the fact that the people in Nigeria have been fighting for years against this particular branch of the police force called SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad which was formed in 1992, can you talk about that squad in particular and why that’s being targeted? And I know the government has tried on face value to say they’re doing some things but are they really taking any action on this police brutality?
AA: Yeah, you see the issue we have is much more deeper you see that what we had occurring in October is part of the real occurrence of police brutality against Nigerian citizens. You can cite several examples of how notorious the Special Anti-Robbery Squad has inflicted maximum damage, violence, death on several Nigerians, some on premeditate charges that are non-existent because why do you have a Special Anti-Robbery Squad? As a matter of fact, there is no no evidence, or there is no record in recent time of people who have been tried for crimes committed and the SARS in particular are notorious that innocent people have become victims of their recklessness and brutality. It’s almost 20 years now, that you can talk about a successfully-prosecuted armed robbery case, which is what they are supposed to have done because what we have in the Nigerian experience is that those who are charged for robbery are tried and when tried and sentenced, they are subject to death either by hanging or by firing squad. So and that it formed in the late eighties and early nineties a campaign to put the firing squad as a matter of the past, to get rid of it for a life sentence but in the past 20 or 25 years, there is no evidence of any successfully prosecuted case of armed robbery. In fact what you have had is more extrajudicial killing that have been committed day in and day out and year in and year out. And we have a further corrupted you see the policing in the county. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad is supposed to be a unit of the police but the issue of the brutality by the police falls squarely you see on the head of every police person because for all the protest, many of us have been involved, almost all those protests are always repressed when it has been cleared that you don’t need any permission to legitimately protest. So the act of brutality itself beyond what happened in the particular of the harassment and killing in October, goes beyond. It is almost a daily occurrence. And that is why I said beginning from 1978, the young Nigerians have been victims of police harassment and police brutality. So it is almost at the point, similar as the youth, because in a country that is not responsible in providing jobs, providing an environment for the young to exist you see. Moreso, part of the challenges in Nigeria is that it needs to have tuition-free tertiary education. So, in the absence of which many of the students or prospective students are out of schools. So and the youth become the direct target you see by the policing system because it is believed that once you are not in school, once you are not in job, you must be doing something that they classify as unlawful. And that becomes the basis for the Special. So that is the order that you are having where the youth become that direct victim, most especially the youth that find their way out of the country to try to survive and once they come back to the country, right from the airport, they become target of harassment, target of violence by the police. So, it’s not by accident that you have the kind of response that you have. You see we have the issue of extrajudicial killing. You have several cases of people who are even innocent being charged with crimes. So you have those incidences and in the past civil liberty organizations, committees for human rights, who try to document some of these things in their annual reports. They’re uncomfortable of those assessments. So, it’s not by accident that you have that kind of reactions, an uprising, that the youth came up with for those two or three weeks. For it was clear that they have become that direct victims and the have to be very resistant. So that is why it was like an end SARS struggle but you see it goes beyond end SARS because the SARS is just a unit. The culture of police brutality goes beyond even the end SARS, you have the joint patrol of the military and police that have been going on for two decades now. So they are combined in the harassment and the violence being meted on the citizens.
MF: Yeah in some ways does it does it feel similar? I mean Nigeria was under military rule for several decades which ended in 1999 and there was very severe repression then. People didn’t have a right to protest during that time. Are there similarities between what’s happening now and what was happening in that period?
AA: There is nothing significantly different. What is different is that because you are operating within a civilian regime, it has been assumed that there’s some civility. Not really the possibility for the student movement. You see every major protest of the student movement were repressed. I was a student in early 1986 when protesting within the campus at Ahmadu Bello University some of their students were killed and that informed the nationwide struggle then that was called “The Ango Must Go.” Ango Abdullahi was the Vice Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University and for that protest, which was national because we were all out in solidarity under the leadership of our platform then, the National Association of Nigerian Students, all the campuses throughout the country went to those solidarity struggles and the police repressed that. As a matter of fact, the Nigerian Labor Congress had to declare the day of June 4 a day of national solidarity. The leadership also was arrested on the account of that solidarity support. And that informed why student demonstrations were banned since then at all campuses. And if you look through, all through the struggles, the police and the military were always out at every protest was repressed. That has been the order for any dissent you see against the unpopular policies of the government all will be challenged. On September 16, the Joint Action Front was also arrested because it had become the order of the police that protest should be declared an illegal gathering. That is what they tried to demonstrate. So repression cannot be quantified in terms of whether there is more repression under the military or civilian rule. As a matter of fact, they are much more repressions you see in the context of the civilian era because there were protests between 2000 and 2005. At one of the protests, I think that was in June, that lasted seven days, right in front of, close to the Nigerian Labor Congress. People were killed in fact one of the corpses was brought to the premises of the Nigerian Labor Congress. So it’s like the philosophy of policing is violence. That is what it has been. And that is why the actions of October had to have that national psychology in terms of the responses that enough of this. But much more beyond that is that people can now link the acts of the police, their aggressions of violence on the people, to the rot and the depth of the crisis in the economy. The crisis of failures of political leadership. The crisis of the irresponsibility of the state. Most importantly, right from the positions of the IMF, World Bank and the structural adjustment programs that are in every way unconstitutional because the Nigerian Constitution is very clear, section 16, talks in terms of the objective of government is due to ensure the happiness of the citizen, you see, and conduct the economy in such a way that wealth is not concentrated in a few hands at the expense of the majority. So in 2007, ?? was being asked about his greatest achievement and it was said that his hope was to make a true billionaire out of Nigeria as part of the economic objective. So you can imagine the aspect of looting, the aspect of underdevelopment of the country is a philosophy that has been espoused in line with the neoliberal agenda. None of them are different. It is the same policies that they have implemented and the same policies that is deepening the crisis politically, economically and in every phase of life in Nigeria. And that is why that fighting the policing system, the violent policing system, is just a manifestation, is just a reaction, to the deep-seated problems that we have in our country.
MF: Right and in fact the new constitution in 1999, if I understand correctly, required that the economy be developed in a way that would create greater economic equality.
AA: As a matter of fact, neoliberal policies is unknown to the Nigerian Constitution because it is clear that government shall manage the major sectors of the economy. The oil industry is a major sector of the Nigerian economy. The electricity industry is a major sector of the Nigerian economy. And it is as clear as day in the constitution. You see running a program of privatization, monetization, deregulation is not in our constitution. The objective is very clear in terms of what governments should do about the economy. So everything that have been run on the basis of privatization is unacceptable to the Nigerian Constitution.
MF: Can you talk a little bit about the current repression against the protesters? I understand that there have been murders, arrests. Now, the government is stopping access to money for people involved in the protests and trying to control social media. Can you talk about some of that?
AA: Yeah, what is happening currently is expected with our experience in the struggle. If you look at the conduct of the struggle itself and the responses of the state because in the first place the government or its agents were at no time in support of that protest. They are against it. So the fact that you have some governors, some agents of the government, tried to commend the protest is to profile the protests for the purpose of their violent interventions. That is the point, you see because in Nigeria already there are three categories of youth, you have the ideological youth, those youths who have been part of the struggle in the student movement and those youth that the government has used as their agents in the student movement to repress and deny independent unionism. So those categories of youth are youth who for every protest of the working people of the poor people who they have always been involved and make their demands about what should be the current direction of Nigeria, what should be the political direction of Nigeria. So you have those youth. You have the other categories of youth that government ha criminalized from time to time both inside the student movement and outside the student movement. They are the youth that they are used to commit violence at elections. They are the youth that have become vulnerable for hostage-taking, brigandage that take place in the country. Then you have the new generation of youth that I call the Twitter Generation who have become who have become victims of police harassment and violence. They are like those who are in the leadership of the End SARS protests. So these other categories of youth that the government has used to foment violence were the category of youth that were first introduced after a week of the End SARS protests to attack those other two categories of youth. They are the ones used to create confusion and destabilize that movement . And the same youth are the ones used after the violence of October 20 by the military to move them in the streets into looting, into attack and destruction of private property. So used by one class against the other as to discredit the criminal act. That’s exactly what happened,.
MF: Right. It’s a common tactic.
AA: Yeah. So the government is now reeling out its true portrait and that is why all those processions, expressions that have been done by the youth. The government was busy using its intelligence and doing infiltrators into that movement to assess information about those who play a critical role in that uprising. So it is those who play a critical role in that uprising that are now subject for that victimization. That is what is happening. The government is not truly revealing its character as a repressive, vindictive and irresponsible government who want to kill its youth for expressing their dissent.
MF: Can you talk about some of the connections between the United States’ police and military and the Nigerian police and military? What is that relationship?
AA: Yeah. There is a neo-colonial relationship right from independence about the Nigerian military and Britain and the United States because most of the security forces are trained at either the US or Britain or at the recommendations of the US military establishment. So that is clear because shortly after Independence the first step to make Nigerian military outposts of Britain was taken and Nigeria was to be committed to sign the Anglo-defense pact in 1961. It took the Nigerian students, national students, to protest, you see, it moved to the day National Assembly, to put a stop to that legislation and stop Nigeria from being a military outpost of Britain. So this whole thing is about the African command that the US has now imposed on Africa, first from the point of Gulf of Guinea because the whole idea of that discussion was to make Nigeria play a central role, you see, in the African command as a puppet of the US. You see and there are resistance to that, which not entirely succeeded because our level of military pact, military relationship, Nigeria has some covert and possibly overt arrangement with the United States of America. As of today, we have the first industrial corporations in Nigeria. Twenty five percent of the Nigerian budget are going to security. There is no single arm that that defense industrial corporation has produced. So almost everything that is needed in terms of security, gadgets, arms and ammunitions have been imported. The implication being that 25% of Nigerian budget goes into capital flight every year right from the Obasanjo regime to this current regime. Secondly, you see, and that is question that everyone was asked: how come a military and the former military head of State who rejected taking IMF between 84 and 85 could now accept IMF conditionality. How come the agreement between Buhari and President Trump on Boko Haram, on fighting the insurgency? So these are all relationships that draw out of the same coercive impositions of militarism also that we are experiencing in Nigeria. And that is why the political economy of the war against Boko Haram is more from capital flight, more from exploitations because the issues in that territory goes beyond an armed fight. It is not an armed fight. It is political, social and economic issues and requires political, social and economic solutions. Imagine all young Nigerians of age 5 to 21 in the four walls of the school whether the primary, the secondary and at the tertiary level. Imagine what their philosophy about life will be. There will be no Nigerian child hawking things on the road. They ill be no Nigerian child rendered homeless on the road because they will be in the four walls of the primary, secondary, the universities and the polytechnics you see and their world outlook definitely will change and will not be available as machinery to recruit. You see for Boko Haram or any other disorder that you have in the country. So instead of putting those resources to arms and ammunitions, those social resources will be channeled for social and economic development. Imagine that Nigerian resources are used for public interest. So that is the issue. So you cannot end Boko Haram when you are disconnected in terms of national planning, economic planning, political planning. The majority of the young ones you see have now instituted a philosophy of suffering, a philosophy of begging, a philosophy of being available as vulnerable materials for creating social disorders and crisis in the country. That is exactly what is happening. Those who profit from the crisis when you pursue a program of social and human economic development. So that the context and that’s why we insist that the question to resolve in Nigeria is not about elections. The first question to resolve in Nigeria is who controls the economy and for what purpose. Because when you determine the economy for public interest, you can determine the kind of parliament that we should have. whether we just need a 50 member parliament, not a parliament that is available for the purpose of looting and mismanaging the resources of the country. Who can determine the kind of political system that we want to run and what is more primary to us. The university lecturers have been on strike since February now. Many are without several months, five months, eight months salaries. The major issues of adequate funding of the universities is not addressed. So there is no way a country can make progress. So it is ready to run a military program, a program of looting into the pockets of a few. The universities have signed an agreement with the federal government since 2009, eleven years ago. The signed agreement is $1.3 trillion Naira is to revamp over 74 universities across the country to get them to have up-to-date facilities. That is the essence of that fund. As we speak now 20% of that agreement eleven years running has not been implemented. So how do you move forward in such a country? Yet, you have a country that we invest for turnaround maintainers into the power sector about three hundred billion naira. And that serves the same turnaround power sector. Four hundred billion. And as of today you again have invested for things you claim you privatized 1.7 trillion. So who is deceiving who? That is the challenge because the electrical resources have now become an avenue to loot the country, to ruin the country. And that is why it is more primary than the challenge to end SARS today is that the young ones needs to define clearly that the problems in the country goes beyond end SARS. The answers they should be talking about is to end that government, is to define public interests in government, is to reflect a clear agenda of transforming the society on the part of human development. That is the challenge. And so that is why I said elections are not primary because they will always rig the election. They will always loot the money for running the election. So because the public fund has become an avenue for looting and to further sustain yourself in power because once you have looted the resources you create an instrument of violence to force yourself into offices. So that is what is happening.
MF: Thank you. So finally, can you just say to our listeners is there something in the United States that we can be doing to show solidarity or to support the Nigerian struggle?
AA: Yeah, I think the first major thing about solidarity between Nigerians and the people of the US is to first understand that we have some common problem. Common problem in the sense that there is a difference, like I tell people, between the American establishment that I stamp racist and the American people, the American are great people, you see. So for Nigerians who always thinks about everything is settled in America, they will also be able to understand that the way you have repression here, there’s much more also repressions in America. There’s also much more suffering in America and that the Americans who have to struggle to survive, to have the kind of freedom, the kind of leverages that they’re having. And I think that is the first thing. You see, that first is exchanges in terms of correct information as against the disinformation order to say about the reality of the American people. It’s very important. So that exchanges is important. Two, there is a need for change in our level of political education and to see the international dimensions of the struggle because our struggle in Nigeria is meaningless if you are not concerned about the fate of our pan-African brothers across the world, you are not concerned about the working class people across the world, because the interests of the working class in Washington, the same interest in Cuba, it is same interest in Nigeria. So our struggle will be meaningful if Cuba is under blockade, when Venezuela is under a blockade, if Nicaragua is being harassed by the United States of America how can we not lend our voice into that? Our concern is about the new humanity, you see that’s the lesson that the people in America who is suffering, the exploited people in America, are the same exploited people that we have in Nigeria, you have everywhere in Africa. And that there is the unity, you see, at the level of those who are being exploited, have been oppressed to fight the common enemy that happen across our several nation-state has to move forward. So that is the kind of solidarity that we expect, you see, beyond that because when you talk in terms of support, there has been much more support into Africa to de-ideologize Africa in the name of funding, in the name of non-governmental organizational work that are not addressing the fundamental basis of our under-development, the fundamental basis of our suffering. So much more the kind of support that is required is how to develop our capacity as humans, to think as universal humans, to fight together as humans, to liberate the humans in Nigeria, the humans in Africa and humans all over the world. I think for us that has much more impact that you can make. Material resources are meaningless in the absence of a qualitative human resources. So the kind of support we want is how do we do some kind of changes that can develop us as humans so to be able to overcome some of those challenges that we are having.