How the Nigerian Left imploded

Image credit Goya Bauwens via Flickr.

In the history of democratic transitions in Africa – whether from military, one-party, civilian or multi-party rule – Nigeria’s experience presents an interesting dimension. First, the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida handpicked the parties that would contest the first democratic elections on June 12th, 1993 after many years of dictatorship. Second, with the exception of Algeria (where the election of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was annulled by the military in 1991), Nigeria was the only other African country at that time to have her democratic election annulled by the military almost two weeks after elections. Finally, while it took blood and sweat to put down the FIS in Algeria, the parties in Nigeria simply folded their mats and went home, offering no challenge to the military dictatorship.

The political crisis triggered by this resulted in the formation of the Campaign for Democracy (CD), probably the most viable umbrella pro-democracy group in Nigeria at that time. The CD stepped into the political void left by the two elite parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC). It was the CD that publicly challenged the annulment of the June 12th election. The CD was also the key actor in the campaign of Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the winner of that election.

This period brought my generation of the Nigerian Left into active contestation for political spaces in Nigeria’s democratic project.

I revisit those fateful events in a new book, June 12 Election: Campaign for Democracy & the Implosion of the Nigerian Left, published here in Nigeria.

One of the key conclusions of the book is that while the CD’s eventual fate was dependent on external factors, internal contradictions hastened its decline. These contradictions include issues of perspective, and the political tendencies of the collaborating groups (particularly the left groups). On the politics of tendencies, two left groups that participated in the CD were the Socialist Congress of Nigeria (SC) and Socialist Revolutionary Vanguard (SRV) and in the course of their work, the SRV sided with the right wing within the CD. For instance, on the issue of whether Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti (one of Fela’s brothers) would remain the president of the CD, the SRV sided with the rightwing group of Ransome Kuti.

Also at issue was the Expanded Secretariat. Though a loose structure, the secretariat was like a war council which because of the nature of the CD became an organ that allowed a large percentage of cadres to be part of the CD. Some of the cadres did not belong to the main left groups that functioned in the background of the CD. Although originally not an established structure within the CD, the secretariat attracted cadres such Chima Ubani and Abiodun Aremu. who impacted the work of the CD during this period. But the secretariat became a problem as it could not be pigeon-holed into the bureaucratic structure of the CD. A good example of this was the sanctioning of neighborhood rallies in September 1993. The CD leadership did not approve of these rallies, believing they would jeopardize the rapprochement between the military leadership and Chief M.K.O. Abiola towards a negotiated restoration of his mandate.

Quite decisive in the decline of the Left, was the emergent human rights philosophy of the late 1980s, the advent of which affected the traditional mode of most left groups fronting as NGO’s. Groups like the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) and Committee for Defense of Human Rights (CDHR tended to accommodate persons from the left and the right within their structures. Cadres working in these organizations took on board right wing thoughts and practices. They were expected to or assumed they had to tow the lines of donor organizations. Also, crucially, during this period, the CD leadership extended little favors to some cadres – such as foreign trips to western countries for training – which blurred their interpretation of the interplay of forces at work within the Nigerian political spectrum.

The collapse of the CD had long-term effects on the prospects of the Nigerian left and impaired its capacity to be active in political transition initiated by the General Abdulsalam Abubakar in 1998-1999. Here again, Nigerian politics achieved a first, as it became the only time a pro-democratic group that championed and struggled for the end to military rule found itself unable to be part of the power process at the restoration of democratic rule.

In summary, the book examined the impact of the pro-democracy movement on the Nigerian Left, particularly between 1990 and 1999. This period had a profound effect on the fate of left groupings in contemporary Nigeria. As a result of the acrimonies of the period in question, there is a deepened mutual suspicion among the members of the left groups in Nigeria. It is such that as we write, it is difficult to find a credible left political party or tendency within or outside the existing mainstream political structure in Nigeria.

Onyeisi Chiemeke

Onyeisi Chiemeke is the author of June 12 Election: Campaign for Democracy & the Implosion of the Nigerian Left.

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