Is there a Left in Nigeria?

Most contemporary observers of Nigerian politics would be surprised to learn that the Left has been a significant part of the country’s postcolonial history.

Nowadays, the Left includes various groups, ranging from NGOs to pro-democracy and anti-government groups, but my use of the term is restricted to a particular historical process that shaped the establishment, formation and cooperation of different organizations with allegiance to a Marxism-Leninist forms of political economy in post-colonial Nigeria.

Nigeria’s political independence is often credited to nationalist leaders, such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Sir Ahmadu Bello. In the process, commentators minimize the heroic role played by the Labor movement (led by Chief Imoudu), the Zikist movement (led by Chief Mokwugo Okoye) and other Left organizations.

The general strike of 1945 marked the beginning of the struggle that end in the termination of colonial rule in Nigeria in 1960. The Left remained a power after independence, as well. In 1960 for example, protest against a British request to set up a permanent British military base in Nigeria was organized by leftist students and workers, preventing Nigeria from becoming a military outpost of a dying British empire.

This robust Left tradition would continue from independence through the periods of military rule in Nigeria. However, three events in the late 1980s and early 1990s spelled the fate of the Left in Nigeria.

General Ibrahim Babangida came to power in a military coup in 1985, ousting General Muhammadu Buhari, who had overthrown a short-lived elected government (the same Buhari who is the country’s current democratically elected president). In 1986 Babangida, presenting himself as a reformer, appointed the Cookey Commission to chart Nigeria’s political future. The commission—composed of leading leftists–advocated for, among other things: social justice, a return to democracy, and a socialist state. The military rejected most of the recommendations, particularly the one that proposed transition to a socialist state. Babangida also pushed through an IMF loan that the Left vehemently opposed.

Babangida then intensified his repression of the Left. At Amadu Bello University, the military ordered all Marxist books burned and dismissed professors associated with Marxism, such as Festus Iyayi (University of Benin), Toye Olorode and Idowu Awopteu (both of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife). Patrick Wilmot (born in Jamaica), who taught at Ahmadu Bello, was deported to the UK.

Yet the Left ­­persisted. In the early 1990s, leftists formed a coalition – the National Consultative Forum – to develop a new constitution, establish an interim government, and a timetable to chart the end of military rule and run elections. When the military responded by arresting coalition leaders at the launch, Leftists regrouped as the Campaign for Democracy. Babangida called for elections to elect a civilian in 1993, then annulled the result; he eventually left office later that year. Unfortunately, his successor Sani Abacha proved even more ruthless. Without a viable path to power, leaders on the left were imprisoned, lost their jobs; over time, many conformed to the neoliberal system instituted by the military regime.

This begs the question: given this history of activism despite the odds, why is the Left invisible in contemporary Nigerian politics? In addition to its confrontations with the state, the Left’s fate has been shaped by internal debates about whether change is best promoted through revolution or liberal democracy. This debate has been polarizing and has allowed political and business elites to consolidate power in the post-military era. Unable to articulate a clear political plan, many erstwhile Leftists have gravitated to limited reform agenda of most NGOs:  constructive engagement with the state, as opposed to structural change in the socioeconomic and political life of Nigeria. Working with NGOs has transformed Leftists into state partners, no longer interested in taking power but in sharing it. Non-governmental organizations in Nigeria advocate for surface level change in state practices, rather than radical transformation of the state to popular participatory and people-centric democracy. The NGO invasion of trade unions exemplifies this trend. They are content to have their right to protest price hikes preserved as subsidies drop. The Occupy Nigeria movement met a similar fate. Meanwhile, brilliant organizers die mysteriously: For example, in 2005, Chima Ubani was the victim of a suspicious accident on his way to mobilize one such protest.

Nothing describes the current state of the Left better than the participation of those few who represent it in government. These include: Labaran Maku, who was deputy governor in Nassarawa State and later became former President Goodluck Jonathan’s Information Minister; Kayode Fayemi, who was Governor of Ekiti State and is now Minister of Solid Minerals; and Uche Onyeagocha, who became a member of the House of Representatives (the lower house of the national assembly). All are avowed leftwingers, but rely on a political system whose agenda is dictated by the same elite that have turned Nigeria’s state and public resources into private property.

It is the Left’s reluctance to contest power that has given us the present system. While some of today’s elite were hobnobbing with the brutal Abacha regime, on June 4th, 1998 in Benin City, left leaders such as Ubani, Bamidele Aturu, Emma Ezeazu, Salihu Lukman, Dr. Abayomi Ferreira, Uche Onyeagocha and others from across the country, launched The manifesto and Democratic Alternative accompanied by a manifesto that challenged the Abacha regime. The DA, in alliance with the United Action for Democracy, was later at the forefront of the fight against Abacha. When the latter died in 1998 and the present transition to civilian rule was initiated by the Abdulsalami regime, the Democratic Alternative applied and registered as a fully fledged political party, and at a convention in Port Harcourt later that year, declared to sponsor candidates at all levels for elective office. Their ambitions were foiled, however, by lack of funds, the commercialization of the electoral system and the absence of consensus about the nature of political participation by all Left organizations.

The question is: wither the Left in Nigeria? Can the Left perform its historical role by organizing and reshaping the politics of Nigeria for the good of its citizens? At this critical moment the Left has the opportunity to redeem itself by organizing and re-engaging. The Nigerian people are frustrated by the lack of leadership from elite politicians. They want change, but not the kind of change promised by the Buhari administration. Rather, an alternative vision of what Nigeria might be.

This is the moment for left-leaning political parties to cultivate new alliances, and build consensus around issues that are germane to Nigerians – the comatose economy, education, health and jobs. It is time to break the elite stranglehold on politics and shake off the embrace of the current system. The Left’s finest days are yet to come.

Omolade Adunbi

Omolade Adunbi, an anthropologist, teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is author of Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria.

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