It is hard to think of another country that has fought longer and harder for democracy and human rights than Nigeria. Through the days of military tyranny, resistance could reasonably expect to be met with arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment, or summary disappearance. And, despite the end of the military regime, many Nigerians continue to live under rule of arms.
Political oppression was a daily reality for those who fought for an end to military repression in Nigeria. A few campaigners stand out, Ken Saro-Wiwa who achieved international prominence in his struggle for the Ogoni people is the most recognised. There are, however, a range of others, on whose shoulders Saro-Wiwa stands in international prominence and memory. Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the human rights crusader is known by many as Nigerias Nelson Mandela. Another figure is the trade unionist and socialist Femi Aborisade. Femi is a rarity in Nigeria. He has a national profile not because he is the CEO of an oil company or because he has managed to hoist himself up the state machine, but through his ceaseless work as a campaigner for democracy and trade union rights.
Despite the fact that Nigeria is a major oil producing country the majority of the population live in terrible poverty. As Femi has written of his own childhood "As a child from a poor peasant family, I did not start primary education until I was eight years old and I had to work for 3 years after primary school and before I could start secondary school." His experience is representative. Indeed, the situation has deteriorated since his youth- many parents simply cannot afford to send their children to school any more.
Femi became active in the late 1970s. He was an Education Officer in the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in the 1980s and he edited the well-known Labour Militant, a publication that built up great respect amongst trade unionist across the region. He was imprisoned in 1988 and for nine months in 1989, when he produced special editions of the paper denouncing the military junta and the repression of the NLC.
"I went through the Nigerian prison and detention system for a total of 24 months within a 13-year period between 1988 and 2001. I didnt know when it would end," Femi explains. "The political detainee is usually held without trial for an indefinite period. No wonder, many activists withdraw from active political life or are compelled to embark on self-exile either on the basis of previous direct experience or as a result of lessons drawn from the experiences of others."
Femi was also a leading figure in the pro-democracy movement that toppled the regime of Babangida - who seems to be making a comeback- in 1993. He was the National Secretary of the Joint Action Committee of Nigeria (JACON), which organised and unified Nigerian resistance to the military. Again he was detained repeatedly throughout this period. In 1996 for example he was held for ten months without trial in appalling conditions "I was kept in crowded cells or kept in solitary confinement without access to radio, newspapers, lawyers or even fellow prisoners and detainees. I was starved. I had to bang on the iron door of the cell to be allowed to go to the toilet. At times, I was ignored and was compelled to use the cell as my toilet. I was deliberately denied medical care. The intention is to either kill you or make you die in stages." He was held for opposing the so-called transition programme of the Abacha regime.
In 1994 along with Chief Gani, Femi helped form the National Conscience Party. Imagine the circumstances: The military had recently outlawed the formation of parties and had ruled that immediate imprisonment would follow anyone who dared to do otherwise. The act itself represented an extraordinary defiance to the regime. The party was formed to campaign against the annulment of the general election on 12 June 1993, arguing, like many in Nigerians at the time, that the civilian winner of the election should be sworn in as president. It developed a programme based on the access of the poor to social service, education and heath care, as a fundamental human right. The party has gone on to oppose privatisation and it has argued that the companies already in private hands must be renationalised. Femi Aborisade is the National General Secretary of the NCP.
What happened next? The Abacha regime collapsed after the death of its leader. The appointment of his second in command Abubakar, who led the country back to civilian rule, marked what many thought was a turning point for the country. In the elections that were held in 1999 a civilian leader was elected in Nigeria for the first time in almost twenty years. Obasanjo was elected to widespread international and national acclaim. The hope was that his regime would bring about much needed reforms to a country crippled by economic stagnation, mass poverty and political corruption. The visit by Bill Clinton, the then President of the USA, in May 2000 symbolised Nigerias return to international acceptability. Nigeria was reborn.
If things were as they seemed, there would be no need for social science. Graze the surface, and Nigeria's new truth looks rather like the old. The government has remained under the rule of corrupt and conservative forces while demonstrators and campaigners have found that they face the same repression that met them in the days of the military. Femi reminds us of the character of political power in Nigeria "The recent termination of military dictatorship on May 29, 1999 ... has not heralded fundamental change. Power is still held by forces that actively collaborated to strengthen military dictatorship. There has been a change in the military uniform to civilian dresses on the part of those ruling society, but there is no change in policy."
In an anti-privatisation campaign in Osun State this year Femi was one of many demonstrators arrested and beaten up. "On 17 February, 2001, I was one of the leaders of a mass demonstration in Osun State, one of the states of the Federation. I have never been so brutalized. I was mercilessly beaten up, my clothes torn and I was tear-gassed at close range in the police station. When I challenged the police that they had no right to attack suspects without prosecution in the court of law, the police officers retorted, 'You are guilty before us. Before us here, you are guilty.'"
Today the state sanctions through silence the assassination of activists and unionists. Trade unionists have faced repeated attacks, including the attempted murder of the trade unionist Dr. Oyebade. He was dismissed from his work as the Principal Administration Officer in Osun State for his involvement in trade union work. He led workers on a prolonged strike for an improvement to the minimum wage.
Femi has faced similar threats. Employed in 1993 to work as a lecturer at the Polytechnic in Ibadan, Femi's work was always highly regarded and he has continued to produce original research on the labour movement and globalisation. But in December last year he received a letter stating that his work was no longer required on the grounds that the Polytechnic was being restructured and reorganised. The Polytechnics own procedures for dismissal were not followed, a committee to investigate the dismissal was not established as stipulated by the college authorities and his dismissal went unanswered.
The decision to remove him was, transparently, a political one. Femi has been a persistent and trenchant critic of those who run Oyo State, the Alliance for Democracy. In August 2000 the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) helped to organise a strike to demand an increase in wages to match the nationally approved wage structure for tertiary institutions. Femi was key to organising that strike and as a leading campaigner in Nigeria he was a source of inspiration to others on the strike.
Within a few days of the strike being called, students independently held a huge and popular demonstration in support of the strike's demands. Police attacked the demonstration. The government alleged in the aftermath that students had destroyed state property. The Governor of the State personally denounced the students who he claimed had been led astray by leftwing and Marxist lecturers. A Commission of Inquiry was set up, making the recommendation that radical lecturers and students must be flushed out of the Polytechnic of Ibadan. Femis dismissal followed the publication of the report.
Despite the Polytechnics claim that his dismissal was simply a question of restructuring, another report by a Visitation Panel recommended that more lecturers be employed in Femis old department, the Department of Business and Public Administration. Legal action has been taken but the reality is that the judiciary is not independent of the executive arm of the government; the government employs and pays the judges. Still Femi is determined to take his case through the courts.
Femi's suffering is that of his nation. Nigeria has undergone a political transition to a democratic government - a civilian regime - for which activists and campaigners like Femi have spent their lives fighting. It is in these circumstances that those campaigning for real democracy find themselves. The perplexing paradox that haunts Nigeria today is that everything has changed yet everything stays the same. Multi-National Companies still act with impunity in the oil rich south supported by a national government that claims it is committed to democracy and equality. Bluntly, "the civilian government in Nigeria has proved to be more intolerant than military dictatorship. Throughout the era of military dictatorship, I did not hide the fact that I was teaching in a state-owned institution whenever I was arrested and detained. But, not once did they contemplate sacking me for my political convictions and political activities."
The international campaign calling for the reinstatement of Femi Aborisade is a crucial fight. It is a way of supporting the continued struggle for democratic rights in Nigeria while expressing our solidarity with a person who, in his relentless battle for the working class and poor of Nigeria, is a lesson for us all. It is a terrible indictment of the current government that one of its most remarkable individuals has been forced onto the breadline.
What can you do? The campaign, Justice for Femi, needs your support. There is an international petition that has many signatures from people around the world and it has appeared in several Nigeria newspapers. If you would like to become involved in the campaign, make a contribution and sign the petition then contact firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07759 220157.