Why I’ll keep talking to South Africans about race

While Nigeria's class divide is not between rich whites and poor blacks, it still has a lot in common with postapartheid South Africa.

Image from Burna Boy's "Dangote" video.

A short while back, the Zimbabwean-South African writer Panashe Chigumadzi wrote on this site that she was no longer talking to Nigerians about race, because while she believed “that my Nigerian sisters have the ability to engage racial politics meaningfully, … a significant number choose not to. And when they choose not to engage meaningfully they usually choose to do it loudly.” She ended with the challenge: “Since you will not be quiet my Nigerian brothers and sisters, Giants of Africa, bolekaja! Come down from your glass house and let’s fight! Come down and let’s fight about this thing we call race.”

It just so happened that in mid-March 2019, right after Nigeria’s presidential elections, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate, was asked by American literary theorist Henry Louis Gates to compare Nigeria to South Africa, where there was a clear “class divide” between rich and poor blacks. Soyinka responded: “They are probably on the same level. The difference in Nigeria, of course, is that it’s not marked by race, so it’s not really as apparently agonizing as in the case of South Africa. We created—as in South Africa—a new class of millionaires from the military ranks and their collaborators in civil society.”

Nigeria’s recent presidential elections confirmed Soyinka’s observation. Muhammadu Buhari who retained the presidency on the All Progressives Congress (APC) ticket is a former military general. His main opponent, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), is a rich businessman who served as the country’s first vice president after the return of democracy in 1999. Buhari, on one side, claims that most of his wealth is in cattle; this is highly disputed. On the other side, Atiku’s wealth is rumored to surpass that of Aliko Dangote, the supposed richest black African man if you count what is on the books. (It was also rumored that Atiku was barred from entering the US over his business dealings.) When elephant’s battled, what became of the grass? Nigeria also now has more poor people in it than does any other country in the world.

I realize that these facts, on their own, explain nothing. This is because when we think of Nigerian politics, we tend to do so bearing an exoticist “Heart of Darkness” lens; in a way, Nigeria has long shared only a slightly lessened level of scorn than did Joseph Conrad’s version of the Congo.

When you read that Nigeria’s election is about class, did you not ask yourself what about rigging? What about tribalism? What about violence? Drawing liberally from Achille Mbembe, I think one could define the exoticization of Africa as a process by which Europe came to associate the continent with everything that Europe, through the eyes of Hegel, imagined to be bad. It is this Hegelian alchemy, let’s call it, that has shaped the West’s poisoned encounter with Africa since scientific racism was born amidst the enlightenment. But as the saying goes, the real alchemy consists in being able to turn the supposed gold you’ve created back again into what it was initially.

We could keep fighting about this thing we call race—but isn’t it time we also started fighting about this thing we call class? This is, firstly, an essay about what Nigerians are thinking about. Secondly, it is an essay about what the world is thinking about when it thinks about Nigeria. Thirdly, it is an essay about why both Nigerians and other Africans should be thinking about race and class more often. It is also, fourthly, an essay about rigging, about tribalism, and about violence. And, finally, it is an essay that offers an ideological explanation for Nigeria’s 2019 election.

The rigging explanation

The opposition alleges that the elections were outrightly rigged. Shortly after the results were announced Atiku Abubakar and the PDP filed a petition challenging the news of their loss. The opposition party has gone to court asking that Atiku be declared president or, failing that, for the election to be re-run. But Atiku’s chances of victory are slim. A legal challenge from Atiku was always expected, and the judiciary both tilts in favor of this ruling party, and typically weighs the burden of proof more heavily on the opposition.

Observer missions from the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) noted serious procedural issues with the presidential election (late opening and lack of essential materials, for instance) and decried the violence that occurred in some areas. However, neither has raised doubts about the validity of the results.

Losers have challenged the results at other points in Nigerian history. Buhari, before he defeated Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, thrice challenged his defeats in the courts—and lost. This is one of the interesting paradoxes at the heart of liberal democracy, the courts tend to defend the status quo (except at the Nigerian state elections, the courts are getting much bolder, it appears).

The tribalism explanation

A second wave of explanations have focused on the ethno-nationalist appeals of the main candidates to explain Buhari’s victory.

The fact that both presidential candidates are northern Muslims limited the regional and religious tensions which have affected previous elections. Yet, tribe was only hidden in this election, not absent. The promise that a Yoruba candidate would succeed the ailing septuagenarian president elect was mobilized by the APC to tease Yoruba voters.

The PDP likewise appealed to Igbo voters by nominating an Igbo businessman and wealthy former south-eastern governor, Peter Obi, as vice presidential candidate next to Atiku. In the north, questions of Islamic piety also shaped how voters chose between seemingly devout Buhari on the one hand, and Atiku who is perceived to be corrupt and about whom many unfavorable rumors abound. Implicitly, and as usual in Nigerian politics, the election results reflected an ethno-communal orientation, pitting one group with overlapping identities, against another such group. Nigeria is no stranger to identity politics.

The ideological explanation

But the candidates also advanced rival economic policies. The APC campaigned to increase state intervention in the economy through increased taxation, investing in infrastructure, agriculture and social protection. The PDP candidate, a self-avowed fan of Margaret Thatcher, promised to free float the national currency and privatize state industries. On the surface it appeared that a left/right divide had formed between the parties, with the APC on the left and the PDP on the right. But in reality, both parties are in agreement on the basic centrist credo that there is no alternative to neoliberalal globalization. Both parties are economically centrist. They view the ultimate aim of government to be that of encouraging foreign investment and steering a capitalist economy towards growth amid permanent conditions of fiscal austerity. They also tend to deny the importance of the left/right divide altogether, preferring World-Bank style buzzwords like “good-governance.” This is an economically centrist position and aside from neoliberal capitalism there exists many alternative ways of imagining how we allocate resources in a community.

The two parties also mobilized populist organizational strategies to energize a nation-wide network of party supporters that extends down to the neighborhood level—this is the main reason why both parties far surpassed the strength of leftist candidates such as Omoyele Sowore. Though definitions of populism often focus on the charisma of individual leaders, populism also involves the construction of organizational structures that can bridge class divides and build a mass following. Both the APC and the PDP have done so, but few other Nigerian parties have successfully followed suit. The PDP and the APC are in this way populist parties. Thus, while ideology played a role in the election, it would be incorrect to say that the two major parties were ideologically opposed; they both share centrist-rightwing populist ideology, that mobilizes based on tribe and “good governance.”


Interestingly, the APC won a substantial majority amongst the poorest voters in northern Nigeria, the demographic referred to in Hausa as the talakawa. The average annual income per capita in the APC-controlled states is $1,353, excluding Lagos, an economic outlier in Nigeria. Among this demographic, Buhari’s agricultural subsidies which halved the price of fertilizers, and his anti-graft war which promised to check the corruption of the wealthy political establishment, remain extremely popular.

Buhari won the largest margins in Nigeria’s most unequal states according to Oxford’s Multi-dimensional Poverty Index. Borno state, the state most ravaged by Boko Haram, also has the highest level of inequality in Nigeria.

On the other hand, PDP states accounted for an average income per capita of $2,585. Southern PDP states with a higher proportion of “middle class” voters, also boasted the lowest turnouts. In fact, the low national voter turnout average of 35% hides a huge North (41%) and South (27%) divide. In Akwa Ibom state for instance, only 50 percent of 2015 voters showed up at the polls this time, while turnout was fairly high though also less than 2015 in pro APC northern states.

Considering both turnout and the final outcome, the election can be viewed as the triumph of the northern talakawa over Nigeria’s southern middle class, a point which has also been made about the 2015 election.

Class denoting terms like talakawa, will be lost on many middle class and southern Nigerians, as well as many Africanist political scientists.

This notwithstanding the irony of the outcome is that Nigeria’s electorate, at least the minority which bothered to turnout to vote, has chosen between two sides of the same economic and political coin. This is what London School of Economics economist Thankdika Mkandawire has termed “voting without choosing” in a “choiceless” neoliberal democracy.

Race and Violence

But Chigumadzi is right and Soyinka is wrong. There is also a race component to Nigeria’s elections. Race is woven into the fabric of Nigerian political anxieties: the north has long feared that the stronger British colonial influence on the south is a reason for distrust; the south has always feared that Islam and the northern aristocratic tradition, which were respected and cultivated by the British, have turned the north into a ticking timebomb. The ticking timebomb is a frequent trope deployed by southern media to describe the northern states. Just as it is a trope often used by the development community, to describe Nigeria.

Race is woven into the fabric of the Nigerian economy. Nigeria, like South Africa, has a white dominated economy. The highest profiting companies in Nigeria, what do the boards and shareholders of the highest profiting companies in Nigeria look like? Not like Dangote.

Nigeria runs a system of racialized crony capitalism, as does South Africa. Teni’s lyrics in “Case” tell the story of Nigeria’s hopeful working poor in 2018. She says, “my papa no be Dangote, or Adeleke, but we go dey ok.” So Panashe adds a dimension to Teni. Because while class sentiments are woven into our politics, I agree with Panashe; we also need to pay attention to race.

A joke I once heard: A white researcher and a Nigerian researcher walk into a bar in Nigeria …

Race is also woven into how we report about violence in Nigerian elections. Violence does occur, I hasten to add. This is a consequence of the fact that rightwing populism is one of the pillars of Nigerian political mobilization. If you cultivate us/them divisions until they are deep enough, people will tend to turn violent. This is particularly true when those people feel like they are economically vulnerable and have very little to lose. Close to 300 people were killed after Nigeria’s election this year. And race is written into the fact that you probably never heard that. As is class, since these people were working class and rural, rather than middle-class and urban.

This is why we need both a race and a class-conscious conception of African society and politics. But this requires us to take a de-exoticized and populist perspective on our own societies in Southern Africa and in Nigeria.

Further Reading

Exile, Return, Home?

Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.