A radical electoral alternative in Nigeria stutters

Omoyele Sowore was the presidential hope of Nigeria's more active left. He fared abysmally. What next for progressive electoral politics in Nigeria?

Image Credit Omoyele Sowore via Twitter.

Omoyele Sowore, the most leftwing candidate in Nigeria’s just concluded presidential election, did not even manage to come third. President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) secured re-election with 15.2 million votes, against 11.3 million for Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Sowore’s African Action Congress (AAC), in contrast, gained only 33,000 votes, finishing seventh place.

It was an abysmal performance for a candidate backed by some of Nigeria’s most active radical groups, including the Joint Action Front (JAF), the Campaign for Workers and Youth’s Alternative (CWA), and the newly registered Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN).

Sowore has built a reputation which appeals to a certain strata of Nigeria’s youth population. He first came to prominence when, as a member of student union movements, he helped fight against campus-cultism—that is the violent often male co-fraternities organization that have a toxic presence on university campuses (not entirely unlike American frat culture). After being beaten by cultists and arrested on several occasions, Sowore relocated to the United States, where he now lectures in Modern African History at the City University of New York and Post-Colonial African History at the School of Art, New York. He also started an investigative media outlet known as Sahara Reporters, which has become popular in Nigeria for exposing corruption cases, and has turned Sowore into a respected opposition figure. What Sowore still lacks is a national organizational structure which can turn his fandom into votes in neighborhoods polling stations across the country.

In Nigeria, only the APC and the PDP can boast of such nation-wide organizational density. In the 2019 election, both main parties campaigned on center-right populist platforms, mobilizing based on ethnic nationalisms and on slightly differing versions of neo-liberal governance. This ideological fusion has dominated Nigeria’s electoral politics since the start of its Fourth Democratic Republic in 1999. In 2015, the APC, on a platform of “change”, became the first victorious opposition party in Nigeria’s history when its candidate, retired General Muhammadu Buhari, defeated incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan. However, Buhari “change” looked very similar to the economic strategy and political message during the previous 16 years of PDP rule.

In fact, as I argue in my thesis, this remarkable ideological convergence between both major parties has been misidentified by many analysts to suggest the absence of ideology in Nigerian politics. Part of the reason for this miscalculation lies in the fact that African politics, even in Africa’s new democracies, is still generally understood through the prisms of primal tribal ties, or patronage links, a stereotype which Africa-focused social scientists have termed “neo-patrimonialism.”

This stereotype appears to be affirmed each election cycle when we hear of clashes between rival party supporters, and of election results triggering bouts of communal violence, as occurred after the 2011 election when as many as 800 people were killed in election related violence.

The current election cycle also witnessed both pre-election and election day casualties recorded across Nigeria’s turbulent middle-belt states and oil-producing Niger-Delta. This electoral cycle has been more peaceful that recent ones, with the fact that both Buhari and Atiku are northern Muslims reducing the religious and regional tensions that have characterized previous presidential polls. However, localized violence was witnessed in the key battleground states of Lagos, Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Enugu, Anambra, Nasarawa and Kogi states. By mobilizing tensions across the length of Nigerian society, its two main parties have once again managed to retain control of the Presidency and of the majority of National Assembly (parliamentary) seats.

Without a national wide organizational structure that extends down to the neighborhood level, Sowore was ultimately unable to meaningfully confront the main parties of government.  However, despite his failure to unseat the two hegemons, Sowore’s seventh place performance – particularly in a crowded field of over seventy political parties—is nonetheless the best electoral performance Nigeria’s fledgling anti-capitalist fringe has achieved since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999.

For Nigeria’s political left, the past two decades have been marked by retreat. The Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC), the umbrella body for national unions, has faced a crisis of legitimacy, typified by the NLC’s ultimate capitulation to the Jonathan government’s new petroleum price during the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests against the removal of a fuel subsidy. The intellectual and artistic left have largely lost contact with each other, an unfortunate departure from the scene in the 1970s, back when Fela Kuti and his full band used to play at Marxist conferences, hosted by students, academics, and public intellectuals.

Electorally, the absence of the left has created a political void which the main political parties, the APC and the PDP have happily filled. Feelings of marginalization and exclusion held by rural and working-class citizens have been mobilized by demagogues through populist organizations fueled by ethno-nationalist sentiments. It is a story that resonates with that of Brexit and of the victory of Donald Trump, though the “arrival” of a politically viable right-wing populist movement is often narrated from a Eurocentric perspective, failing to notice the long-standing dominance of such movements elsewhere in the world, particularly in Africa. Rather than thought of as exotic, Nigeria’s democracy is best understood through this same ideological frame. Moreover, to do so would only be to access Nigeria’s two main candidates by their own standards; Atiku Abubaker, the PDP candidate and the more articulate of the two, recently described himself as a centrist as well as a “big fan” of Margaret Thatcher’s privatization drive.

Shortly after Buhari’s victory was declared, the opposition PDP announced that it had rejected the “sham” results and would challenge them in court. Though election management has often been fraudulent in Nigeria, it is clear that Buhari’s slightly more mass-oriented policies was part of what won him support overwhelming amongst the talakawa, the largely Muslim northern-Nigerian working masses who are also Nigeria’s most populous voting-block. Ultimately this constituency proved to be more decisive than did Atiku middle-class southern supporters for whom the privatization of state industries is a sensible idea.

Thus, a major contribution of this election has been to both shed a light on the dominance of the two centrists parties and to awaken a measure of class consciousness in Nigeria, if one that is also clocked in ethno-regional identities. The election and the mixed success of Sowore have also provided the fledgling left with a useful reminder of the harsh realities of electoral politics without being devastating enough to crush its spirit.

Given the relatively moribund state of the Nigerian left—with the exception of a few recent stirrings—Sowore’s national media recognition, as well as the fact that he was amongst the top-ten candidates, is a milestone in the development of a radical electoral alternative. What remains to be seen is what direction this momentum will have taken by the end of Nigeria’s new electoral cycle.

Further Reading