PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria — It was a milestone event when Trans-Africa, the Washington-based African American lobby group, decided this spring to mobilize public opposition in America and Europe to Nigeria's military dictatorship and for a return to democracy in Africa's most populous nation. It is the first time that the group has challenged a black African government, and in doing so has struck at the root of Africa's disastrous failure over the centuries.
It may, on the face of it, appear as though TransAfrica is challenging Nigeria's current military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha. This is not necessarily so. Abacha is only a manifestation of a trend. Military rulers in Nigeria have arrested and tortured their opponents, no matter their station in life, gagged the press, suppressed labor unions, dismissed all democratic structures, ruined the national economy, institutionalized graft and corruption and, lately, unleashed a genocidal campaign of terror against the unarmed Ogoni people in the country's vital oil-producing delta region. In brief, military rule has displayed the ugliest manifestation of African masochism, crudity and primitivity, and to that extent deserves to be destroyed.
But more fundamentally, TransAfrica is challenging the African militarism that was responsible for the Atlantic slave trade and did so much, in the service of European capitalism, to destroy African societies. In that notorious trade, it took but a few armed men to decimate African society and peoples and cart away whole populations to be sold for peanuts.
Similarly, in modern times, African military dictators have held down vibrantsocieties and rendered them more readily vulnerable to neocolonial exploitation. Nigeria is a case in point.
In the 35 years of Nigerian independence, the military has ruled for 25. Military dictators posing as "saviors" have succeeded in reducing the nation to beggardom in spite of an abundance of natural resources. The people have been reduced to intolerable levels of poverty, their cultures retrograded and their lives imperiled. In those years, a vibrant economy dependent on agriculture has been ruined and the country forced to depend almost entirely on crude oil exports.
The main beneficiaries of this process of dehumanization have been Western multinational oil companies, headed by Royal Dutch Shell, who have become indispensable to the military dictators. Royal Dutch Shell and the others have found in military dictators willing tools and allies who brutally suppress dissenting citizens and ethnic groups and allow the oil companies to devastate the environment in their greed for high profit. Indeed, Nigerian military dictators have been no more than middlemen in a modern slave trade, which is more destructive than the Atlantic slave trade because the remorseless devastation of the environment is omnicidal in its effect.
Therefore TransAfrica strikes the right chord when it proposes an international boycott of Nigerian oil. Some may feel, and have argued, that this is too drastic, and that it will be enough to stress human rights or discourage business cooperation. No! Nigerian oil is what sustains the Nigerian military dictators, enabling them to survive even though they collect no taxes and misgovern in every sense of the word. It has enabled the military to distort Nigerian federalism and procures for them the arms and ammunition with which they hold the Nigerian people in thrall and so destroy all possibility of democratization. It affords them friends in the international community in government and business circles. It also maintains the clique of Nigerians, the comprador class, who cooperate with the military to demean the citizenry. Oil has stopped the Nigerian citizen from working and thinking, which is of great advantage to military dictatorship.
The oil boycott must remain the central plank of the TransAfrica campaign. Its success will break the cruel alliance of the Nigerian military and multinational oil companies, give the Nigerian environment a greater chance of survival and force all Nigerians to the ways of dialogue and democracy.
The TransAfrica campaign is, to my mind, a way of enabling the African American to get back at the historic injustice perpetrated on his ancestors and at the same time ensure that it does not repeat itself cyclically. It deserves support throughout the world.