Without any doubt, this incident is a terrible human tragedy of tremendous proportions. According to media reports, not less than 600 victims have been confirmed dead, many of them children, while almost 1000 people are still missing. In reality, the figures could be higher. Also, thousands have been rendered homeless. Most of these innocent victims are ordinary working class people, women, youth and children.
We in the DSM holds the visionless, short-sighted and self-centred Nigerian capitalist ruling class and successive Nigerian capitalist governments, including the present Obasanjo regime, responsible for this colossal tragedy. According to the commander of the 9th Mechanised Brigade based at the Ikeja Cantonment, Brigadier-General George Emdin, the massive explosions must have been caused by overheating in the army armoury located within the cantonment. He went on to confirm that the armoury had long been due for upgrading and maintenance. Other sources claim that the massive explosions were triggered by a fire outbreak at the market located within the barracks. Also, it is being insinuated that the incident was sabotage. Whichever of these be the actual cause, what is not in doubt is that the incident is a product of complete negligence and utter planlessness by the military authorities and successive administrations.
As usual, the different segments of the ruling class are trading blames over who bears responsibility for the incidence. For instance, a member of the Senate Committee on defence (army), Senator Saidu Dansadau (APP), blames the executive. According to him "government neglected the recommendation of the Senate Committee on Defence regarding the Ikeja Cantonment.
"The committee had visited various military installations in the country consequent upon which it recommended proper funding for the military and its installations with specific reference to the Ikeja Cantonment. If the government had heeded the advice of the committee, the armoury at the Ikeja Cantonment would not have gone up in flames".
On his own part, a member of the House of Representatives Committee on defence, Adokiye Young Harry, promised that his committee "will do something to ensure life to the military. We might increase allocation to the Defence Ministry in this year’s budget". (Vanguard 29/1/02). But merely hiking defence allocation would not solve the problem.
The DSM notes that for over four decades, billions of naira of public funds had been expended supposedly for the country’s defence, both during civil rule and the era of military dictatorship. Tragically, these huge defence budgets have not translated into enhancement of the country’s military facilities or improvement of the living standards and working conditions of rank-and-file soldiers and police. On the contrary, the country’s military facilities are reported to be in deplorable conditions, a situation which the explosion of the Ikeja Cantonment armoury now seems to confirm.
The country’s ex-soldiers are being owed several months in pensions and gratuities, a situation which has forced some of the to set up a camp at the main entrance of the National Assembly at Abuja in order to draw public attention to their deplorable plight. Also, the rank-and-file of the police, from the rank of inspector downwards, have commenced a strike over unpaid allowances, lack of promotion and other grievances.
Like in the other sectors of the Nigerian economy and society, the huge defence budgets have only gone to enrich a small capitalist minority, senior military and police officers, their civilian counterparts in the ruling elite, defence contractors, arms suppliers and multinational corporations, to the detriment of the welfare and safety of the larger society in general and rank-and-file of the armed forces and their families in particular. Thus, while the members of the ruling elite lives in opulence, owning palatial mansions across the country and riding in the most expensive cars, the working masses wallow in abject poverty and insecurity, victims of poor wages, retrenchment, unemployment, commercialisation of social services like education and health, fuel price hike, privatisation of public assets and other anti-poor neo-liberal capitalist policies.
Through corruption and the continuation of these IMF, World Bank-backed, pro-rich policies in the past two and a half years of their tenure, the Obasanjo regime, state and local governments and the three registered parties have proved incapable of ameliorating the country’s socio-economic crises, with massive unemployment and grinding poverty. This is what lies basically behind the persistence of ethnic and religious riots, political violence, assassinations and the turning of the country into a land of ceaseless disasters, a situation that is gradually and dangerously eroding the confidence of the masses in civil rule.
To reverse this dangerous and hopeless trend, the working people need to struggle to replace the neo-colonial capitalist system, the source of mass poverty and insecurity, with a democratic socialist system in which the basic needs and security of the masses will be primary goal for the running of the economy and administration of society. Under this system, the wealthy and resources of society currently monopolized by a rich few local elite and the imperialist multinational corporations will be put into collective public ownership and democratically managed and controlled by elected representatives of the working people. To achieve this objective, workers and youth must, as a matter of urgency, build a mass working people’s party with a socialist programme whose goal would be the formation of a workers’ and poor peasants’ government.
The Defence Minister, General T.Y. Danjuma (retired) has been quoted as saying that the government would have to relocate the armoury. But the question is: why does it take this avoidable tragedy before the defence establishment could recognise the need for relocation? Why has the ammunition dump not been relocated since the area became densely populated? In the first instance, why locate an armoury of heavy weapons in a barrack where soldiers and their families live? Equally condemnable is the callous insensitivity of President Obasanjo to the plight of the victims of the explosions. Rather than showing understanding and sympathy with a crowd of victims who had asked him to enter the barracks to directly assess the damages, he reportedly rebuked them saying "shut up. I took the opportunity of being here to see what could be done I don’t need to be here".. (Vanguard, 29th January, 2002). This inhuman, haughty and arrogant attitude has become the characteristic of the Obasanjo presidency as typified by the military reprisals in Odi and Zaki Biam which left hundreds of innocent civilians dead, his unrelenting and baseless invectives against university lecturers, to cite just three examples.
To prevent a recurrence of this type of tragedy, the working people, trade unions, students unions, the NLC and NANS should demand:
- An independent panel of inquiry into the entire incident to prevent a cover-up. No trust in the General Ogomudia board of inquiry.
- Full compensation for the victims and their families
- Relocation of ammunition dumps and sensitive military installations from residential, commercial and industrial areas.
- Immediate payment of the pensions and gratuities of military pensioners.
- The right for rank-and-file of the armed forces, police, custom, immigration and prison services to belong to trade unions and to embark on industrial action in defence of their interests.
- Democratic management and control of military and police units and formations by elected representatives of the rank-and-file.
- A genuine multi-party democracy with the right of every individual and group to organise political parties without registration by the government. The right to stand for elections as independent candidates.