Capitalism in Nigeria, and a call for unity of the proletariat!

Statistically, 1 in 5 Nigerian children will die before the age of five. The bulk of this mortality rate can be attributed to preventable illness—tetanus, malaria, nutritional deficiencies [1]. One of the leading causes of death in Nigeria is diarrheal disease [2], which is unsurprising considering 30% of people have no access to clean drinking water, and over 70% are subject to inadequate sanitation conditions [3]. Yet, it feels strange to say this country has poor infrastructure, seeing as it currently has over 150 oil fields and over 1400 active oil wells [4]. In fact, Nigeria is the largest crude oil producer in Africa, and in 2010, Nigeria was the fourth largest petroleum supplier to the United States [5]

The petroleum industry in Nigeria provides 65% of the Nigerian federal budget, and the industry is the source of 95% of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings. The top four petroleum extractors in Nigeria are Exxon Mobile (American), Chevron (American), Statoil (Norwegian), and Shell (Dutch). Other significant extractors include Addax Petroleum and Nexen Inc, both Chinese companies  [4]

While the most significant companies are actually American (US) or European, they do not abide by the environmental standards typical to those regions. For example, 80% of all wastewater coming from Nigerian industrial facilities receives no form of treatment whatsoever [5], and while 4m litres of oil are spilled annually in the United States (note: the US has surpassed Nigeria in gas and oil extraction), 40m litres are spilled in just the Niger Delta region of Nigeria annually [6]

Spills in the Niger Delta have gone unaddressed for decades (e.g. plans for clean up have been highly politicized, resulting in delays and inaction). The extent of spills and the lack of clean-up has led to severe soil and water contamination within the area. Life expectancy in the Niger Delta is 10 years below the national average, with national Nigerian life expectancy already being one of the lowest globally. Further, a high proportion of those residing in the Niger Delta rely on fishing and farming for work, so contamination has led to widespread unemployment and hunger—you can’t grow plants in polluted soil and fish can’t live in polluted waters. As noted in The Guardian, “multinational oil companies operate to severe double standards. While efforts are made to clean up spills in the US, Scotland or Norway, oil is left to flow unabated in Nigeria.” [6] It’s interesting that this article specifically cites the US and Norway, seeing as, of the top three petroleum companies in Nigeria, two are American and the other is Norwegian. Beyond contamination leading to hunger and loss of work, people who live in oil-rich regions are often forced from their homes for these profiting companies:

“A new report, The Human Cost of a Megacity: Forced Evictions of the Urban Poor in Lagos, details repeated forced evictions of the Otodo-Gbame and Ilubirin communities [in Nigeria] carried out since March 2016 without any consultation, adequate notice, compensation or alternative housing being offered to those affected. Some evictees drowned as they fled police gunfire, while at least one was shot dead.” [7] 

Was Nigeria always this way?

The country  known today as Nigeria was once divided into several different regions. Before contact with imperialist Europeans, the communal people of these regions had their own economic systems, where we the people provided the labor needed to feed one another, without the need for profiting capitalists at the very top. Families would rely on the food they grew or the fish they caught, and we maintained the farmlands and the waterways, as we understood that the sustainability of these resources was fundamental to life. We could organize our societies free from the influence of commercialism, giving us an easy connection to the products of our labor. Without oil industries poisoning the land, our bushes were green and our waters were abundant with fish. 

There are at least 250 different documented ethnic groups and tribes in Nigeria today, reminding us of the various cultural communal regions that once existed here. We existed in relative peace with one another and with the ecosystem:

“Separate villages had differences in customs and culture, although there were similarities as well.  Within a specific Igbo community government was often similar to democracy. […] Leadership was not hereditary.  High ranking men who held titles were not considered kings but rather helped run assemblies. Although these men presided over assemblies, everyone had a chance to speak and offer an opinion.  […] Igbo communities traded with each other although the economy was primarily based off of subsistence farming of crops such as yams. […] Hard work was valued so even the wealthiest participated in farming.  […] All of this would change with the arrival of British colonizers and Christian missionaries.” [8]       

The changes that brought on the Nigeria we know today were instigated by the British industrial revolution, an event that would ultimately poison every aspect of human society, regardless of geographic location. Capitalism was on a destructive mission to conquer and colonize, and us Nigerian people were not to be excluded from such damaging goals. We were indoctrinated into the world capitalist orbit, and the corruption, injustices, and constant social disorder it brought on…these problems continue to weigh heavily on us today. 

A Brief History: colonialism, oil, and civil war.

Petroleum production has actually been declining in Nigeria; nonetheless, Nigeria has been a major (typically, top 10) exporter of gas and oil since the 1970s [9]. With petroleum being such a lucrative industry, it may be hard to understand why the country of Nigeria has the highest population of people in extreme poverty—86.9 million (June 2018). To clarify, Nigeria has the highest population of people in extreme poverty, not merely the highestest proportional population. For comparison, India has the second largest population of people in extreme poverty—71.5 million. Yet the overall population of Nigeria at this time (2018) was less than 200 million, while India’s population exceeded 1.3 billion. Proportionally, 46.7% of people in Nigeria lived in extreme poverty in 2018 [10]. Also in 2018, Nigeria’s oil revenue hit $26 billion in only seven months [11]! What is going on here? 

Much of this extreme inequality comes down to rampant corruption within the Nigerian government, a government established after a multitude of military coups and an all-out civil war beginning in the late 1960s. Which, to anyone familiar with US foreign policy and the concept of shock capitalism (see The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein) and the long historical relationship between the US government and foreign military coups, this may be setting off some alarm bells. Does this corruption have anything to do with US-style intervention? Well, in 2012, the Journal of American History (Vol. 99, Issue 1, Pages 155-165) published a piece on the Nigerian Civil War, noting the role of US involvement:

“New evidence reveals that a tax battle waged by U.S. oil companies contributed to the regional and ethnic tensions leading to the outbreak of war. In the prewar oil boom period in Nigeria, U.S. independent oil companies undertook intensive lobbying and propaganda campaigns to convince Nigerians that newly imposed Libyan-style tax laws would force them out of business. In turn, they argued, the regions where they operated, as well as the ethnic groups inhabiting them, would be relegated to perpetual poverty. This campaign thus exacerbated ethnic tensions, falsely heightening the stakes over which the war was to be fought.” [12]

Beyond this, we know from declassified documents that British military forces took interest in the civil war for similar reasons: “our direct interests are trade and investment, including an important stake by Shell/BP in the eastern Region.” Further, Commonwealth Minister George Thomas wrote in August 1967, 

“The sole immediate British interest in Nigeria is that the Nigerian economy should be brought back to a condition in which our substantial trade and investment in the country can be further developed, and particularly so we can regain access to important oil installations.” [13]

Shock capitalism is when companies use “shock” events to push through neoconservative policies or governance that would not normally ever be agreed upon democratically. The lack of political stability during a civil war provided the environment needed to push through a corrupt, highly militant government—particularly, one that would benefit Western oil companies. This needs to be made clear: Western commercial industry, as well as Western military forces, are why the current Nigerian government is corrupt in a way that benefits US and European industry. Under our current capitalist system, regions like this need to exist, making it all the more inappropriate that capitalists frame philanthropy and foreign aid (e.g. more intervention) as the only viable solution to extreme poverty in Africa. 

National Debt and Foreign Aid

Like many countries in the global south, Nigeria is a country being kept in a state of under-development because it benefits global oligarchs, be they American, European, Russian, Chinese, or even Nigerian. Capitalism requires foreign resource and labor extraction (e.g. outward expansion). This requires dependent nation-states, which requires such nation-states lack an independent system of production, so that they must rely on foreign countries. This is often justified further with claims of owing a debt, that is, these nation-states are said to “owe” foreign powers for colonial development and the continued relationship of forced dependence. Typically, paying this “debt” is an insurmountable task, thanks to privatization, deregulation, concessions, etc. From the start, the debt was never meant to be paid off, as is typical of debt in general (see Debt by David Gaeber, as well as the eloquent critique of Graber’s approach in Jacobin by Mike Beggs, or the classic analysis of capitalist economy, Capital by Karl Marx). Rather, debt is an excuse for continued exploitation of labor and resources, effectively enslaving residents of the nation-state into a type of perpetual indentured servitude. 

If capital needs you for labor, they need you alive. If automation or another region provides that labor, they don’t. In the case of Nigeria, exploitation primarily boils down to environmental resource-extraction. It is therefore unsurprising that we see such high rates of mortality here. It’s also worth emphasizing that without socialist reconstruction of Nigeria, poverty, unemployment, and a high death toll will persist.

Call to Action

Considering the failure to adequately distribute resources under a capitalist economic system, socialism is the only truly viable solution here. For our Nigerian masses we need to go beyond fiscal federalism, or the ethnic nationalities’ restructuring agenda driven by acquisitive interests of capitalism (that is, creating new territories of capitalist exploitation). Socialism has the potential to restructure our material existence. What to restructure, if we have a proper understanding of Ernesto Che Guevara and Cabral’s contributions to Humanity, is our ideological and material relations between the few exploiters and the majority exploited—the haves and the have-not!

If socialism is to replace our cruel capitalist system, we need a mass movement. We need the mass mobilization and organization of all suffering people. We need to spread class consciousness and socialist ideas. We cannot rest idly and expect change.  

Thus, we assert, wherever we are, we need to prioritize fighting injustice. We need to remain wary of false liberal solutions that seek only to prolong the viability of capitalism. This requires unity and organisation of the exploited social classes. The more Nigeria and other African nation-states embrace prescriptions of capitalism, the more we can expect economic insecurity,  as well as ethnic and religious divisiveness.

The present challenge is to arouse the consciousness of the masses, of the exploited people. We need to convey the harms of capitalism, and the alternative of socialism. That is, our primary goal must be to teach the working people and the poor masses the connection between their material conditions and the economic system (capitalism) dictating our social and political systems. Ideological posturing is not enough here, we need organization and concrete goals.

In regards to our goal of education, we need to connect the material realities people experience to the political. We, the proletariat of Nigeria—working people, unemployed, students and youth, academics, women, traders, farmers, professionals, etc.—we must unite against this oppressive and anti-nature system. Beyond this, we must have solidarity with the other working classes of the world—workers of the world, unite! 


Today, our environment has been destroyed from crude oil exploration. We can no longer farm or fish, and we are blocked access to the wealth capitalists “earn” from these crude oil sales that are ultimately destroying our previous ways of life. Our ecosystem in the Niger delta has been destroyed, we are dying from cancerous diseases, and the oppressive nature of this system silences us from speaking out against it. Our hope is that through Unite4Action, we can be given a platform to speak out against the harsh oppression we face. Only through solidarity with one another and fellow workers of the world, can we change this unfair system allowing the very few with extreme wealth to dictate production and distribution. While capitalism is destroying conditions all over the world, conditions are exceptionally dire in Nigeria, as we outlined at the start of this article (e.g. ecological destruction, mass hunger and disease, violent authorities forcing families from their homes, extreme poverty). In Nigeria, our goal is to spread community support for democratic socialist ideas. If you are interested in this initiative, (1) you can support Unite4Action-Nigeria by helping us purchase organizing materials, (2) if you’re in Nigeria and would like to aid with on-the-ground organizing, email, (3) email or comment suggestions/proposals for organizing—we’re in the early stages of building Unite4Action, and we’d love to have more teams involved.

Beyond this initiative by Unite4Action-Nigeria, we’re interested in pushing for socialism in other ways. To contact us about getting involved with Unite4Action (note, we’re open to new ideas!), or to access links to other socialist organizations, see our page LINKS AND MORE, for international political parties like Socialist Resurgence. Solidarity forever, comrades!


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