How the left can rescue Nigeria

The last 20 years of liberal democracy in Nigeria have been marred by crises. The next election should be the Left's target.

Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari on a visit to Benin in October 2018. Image via office of the President of Benin via Flickr (CC).

On May 29, 2019, the Nigerian state will roll out the drum to celebrate two important milestones: first, the inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari, who just won re-election through a keenly contested presidential election. That coincides with the 20th anniversary of the transition from military authoritarianism to liberal democratic practice in Nigeria.

The last 20 years of liberal democratic practice in Nigeria have been marred by economic, social and political crises. The country has witnessed oil-induced insurgency in the Niger Delta as a result of many years of neglect. It has also been bedeviled by the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast of the country, the resurgence of agitation for the revival of a defunct Biafran republic in the east of the country, incessant cases of kidnappings for ransom and the constant clashes across the country between farmers and herders. Added to these crisis/conflicts are the overall instability in the economic and political space, with the majority of Nigerians becoming worse off with each succeeding political regime.

While many analysts would ascribe the precarious economic conditions of Nigerians to whichever political regime is in office, you hardly see or read any analyst postulate about the economic and political system that constantly produces a form of conflict under which each succeeding regime thrives. What is prevalent is a system where the elite often organize themselves months before elections in order to determine who gets to continue the plunder of the commonwealth. The last presidential election held in February is no different.

The February 2019 election, contested by over 70 political parties, marked the fifth time presidential elections have been conducted since 1999 and the fourth time in the current republic by a civilian administration. The election was largely determined by an elite coalition that cut across all the ethnic groups in the country. These elite have a shared interest that is completely at variance with the aspirations of a majority of Nigerians. The specific interest of these elites at every election cycle is to strategize about which platform best serves their personal interest and the interest of their groups.

In the last two electoral cycles—2015 and 2019—the interest of these elite groups seems to have been served by the All Peoples Congress or APC (Buhari was its presidential candidate), which for all intent and purposes cannot be called a political party. The APC and other elite organized “political parties” (for example, the Peoples Democratic Party or PDP, All Peoples Grand Alliance or APGA) are at best associations of friends with shared interests. The shared interests are mainly the sustenance of members of their groups in power in order to continue to partake in the sharing of Nigeria’s commonwealth at the detriment of the masses.

This practice is embodied by the ease with which these elites move from one party to the other during periods of election. The best way to understand this point is to look at the membership of these “political parties” in the last ten to twenty years. A cursory look will show that same individuals keep traversing all the “political parties” looking for the best platform within which to realize their political ambition. For example, the presidential candidate of the PDP was once a leading member of the APC before decamping to the PDP. The current senate president, Bukola Saraki started as a PDP member, decamped to the APC in 2014 only to return to the PDP few months before the last election. Such practice of constantly shifting back and forth in-between “political parties” is what defined a system where political parties are not anchored on any idea of governance that benefits the people.

Many of the political parties in Nigeria today lacks a clear-cut political manifesto. The only manifesto the elite members have is a tokenistic neoliberal economic policy that takes from the poor to give to the rich. How else can you explain the statement credited to two former presidents, Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, that during their time, Nigeria produced more billionaires some of whom are listed in the Forbes list of world’s richest people. Of course, many of the so-called billionaires produced were those that the regimes in power sold Nigeria’s commonwealth to at a giveaway price—e.g. oil, gas, state owned enterprises and other natural resources.

The question then becomes, what hope for the majority of Nigerians who are yearning for genuine change? The simple answer to this question is the fact that the current socio-economic and political crisis that the Nigerian elite have brought upon the nation becomes an important moment that can be used to bring about the desired change by Nigerians. It has become absolutely clear that the Nigerian elite are incapable of governing the country; it explains why there is so much crisis and conflict in Nigeria. The inability of the Nigerian elite to resolve all the socio-economic and political crisis of the Nigerian state presents the broadly defined Nigerian left with the opportunity to craft an alternative platform that could help transform the state from its present predicament to a hopeful and result-oriented nation-state.

One important lesson learned from the 2019 presidential election is the fact that if there is proper organization, the progressives/left can win elections in Nigeria and redirect the political and economic structure and organization of the Nigerian state in ways that work for the majority of the population. Some of the candidates with a left/progressive tradition—Omoyele Sowore, Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim and Tope Fasua—showed clearly how the landscape of politics in Nigeria can be changed if the left or progressives are united. The time is now for such unity. In 2023, there will be another election cycle, which is why it becomes an imperative for the left to begin to craft an agenda that emphasizes coalition building across a three-dimensional political organizing platform. A three-dimensional political organizing that is based on a people’s manifesto centered on making life better for every Nigerian.

The first dimension is to move away from the mode of NGO politics, whereby all progressive-minded people in Nigeria are turned into election observers rather than participants. As we have seen in the last two decades of liberal democratic practice in Nigeria, many of Nigeria’s best minds—particularly those from the left—have shied away from contesting for power by becoming advocates of NGOs under the precarious notion of being “non-partisan.” At this historical moment, the left and other progressives in Nigeria must shake-off the toga of non-partisanship to become actively partisan in rescuing Nigeria from the predicament of retarded growth.

The second dimension is to begin organizing now and not wait until 2023 when the marauding elite will have gotten together again to determine the future of the country. This form of organizing should be based on a common agenda—to rescue Nigeria—and the agenda must be clearly defined in ways that set the left and other progressives apart from the current elite. If it is about taking power from the elite, then there has to be a program that clearly defines how the new coalition will rule differently from those that have been at the helm since 1960. A breadth of fresh air will suggest concrete programs that uplift the masses.

The third dimension will be a complete shift from rigidity to flexibility in ways that emphasize compromise and constructive engagement within a broad coalition. The landscape of politics is changing globally and anti-democratic forces across the world seem to be tapping into people’s disillusionment with the current situation. The left and all progressives can seize the moment by pointing out correctly two of the devastating effects of neoliberal economic and political practices of the last three decades—the largest transfer of wealth to fewer people in generations and the complete political disenfranchisement of the people. It is this economic and political disempowerment of the people that some elites and “ultra-nationalists” are tapping into to continue the same ruination that those elite have been part of for generations. As the “ultra-nationalists” use economic and political nationalism in ways that divide populations in places like the United States and Europe, the elite in Nigeria use religion and ethnicity as tools that divide and turn Nigerians against each other. Today, a majority of Nigerians seem to blame those who do not belong to their own religious or ethnic group as the force behind their unfortunate economic predicament. This ethnic and religious divide takes attention away from the real and present danger that the people are daily confronted with—economic and political practices that create social inequality. The Left are in a better position to mobilize the people’s anger against these neoliberal economic policies to the advantage of the majority of the people.

Finally, the gains made by left leaning (broadly defined) groups and candidates made during the 2019 presidential elections must be consolidated if real progress is to be made in Nigeria. The pathway towards consolidation of these gains revolves around some level of flexibility in political organizing. A flexibility that combines the dexterity of existing Marxist-leaning individuals and groups with individuals and groups who identify as social democrats is needed to form a broad coalition with a common agenda—to rescue Nigeria through a democratic process from the marauding elites who are bent on using religion and ethnicity to stay in power and plunder Nigeria’s commonwealth. These individuals—Marxist, socialists, social democrats and progressives—currently exist within and outside the two major political parties—PDP and APC.

While we don’t know what will happen over the next several years, there is no doubting the fact that 2023 presents the left and other progressives with a clear opportunity to take power.

Further Reading

How the Nigerian Left imploded

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How to Govern Nigeria

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–Djuna Barnes (quoted in James Baldwin, “Princes and Powers,” 1956)

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