Laboring at a crossroads

Nigeria’s Labor Party lost its way when it abandoned socialism for social democracy. Still, it remains essential for the labor movement to be organized under a party of its own.

Occupy, Lagos, Nigeria, political, rally, Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota, 2012. Image credit Temi Kogbe via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed.

In 2022, the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the central labor union organizations in Nigeria, announced their intention to participate in the 2023 general elections through their political wing, the Labor Party. This decision was influenced by the growing politicization of workers and youth, particularly after the #EndSARS movement, and their dissatisfaction with the established political parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressive Congress (APC). From the vantage point of 2022, few would have predicted what has now become apparent in hindsight: that the 2023 election would dramatically demobilize this growing radicalization of Nigerian workers and youth. 

The signs of this demobilization became evident during the party primaries in 2023. When Peter Obi, a former PDP vice presidential candidate, joined the Labor Party, it was seen by many as a revitalization of the election. However, discerning observers noticed a different trend unfolding. Indeed, many young labor activists who initially placed hopes in the Labor party were disheartened by the uncontested primary victory of a neoliberal billionaire who had previously spent a scandalous fortune purchasing the presidential nomination form in the PDP. While Obi gained ground among a layer of civil society and a cohort of young social media activists (as well as an influential section of the Christian right wing), this did little to dissuade a large share of more discerning workers. 

Given the party’s impressive performance, gaining 25% of the vote in the (albeit historically low turnout) election—and that it now seems like a viable challenger in mainstream politics—it seems reasonable to wonder whether it might still present an opening for change-seeking Nigerians. Yet the window of opportunity for progressive-minded Nigerians to intervene in the Labor Party had closed long before the 2023 election cycle.

The fate of the Labor Party was determined from its inception in 1989. The NLC conference held in Calabar and Lagos that year marked a shift away from the core values associated with the NLC in the mid-1980s, such as socialism, anti-imperialism, anti-privatization, and national sovereignty. The party’s endorsement of social democracy practically marked an abandonment of these principles.

More concretely, despite being a party formed by the trade unions, its nomination forms remained unaffordable to people of working-class background, selling as high as 30 million naira (about USD 38,000). This meant that only rich politicians from the ruling class could run under the party’s banner, excluding working-class participation. The leadership of the trade unions also avoided mobilizing their members into the party, fearing it would give the party a specific class character. Consequently, many state councils of the trade unions supported the ruling parties, the APC and the PDP.

As a result, the Labor Party became hospitable to ruling-class politicians such as Obi. The party now champions neoliberal policies even more fervently than the established parties. Its members in the National Assembly have failed to represent the interests of the Nigerian people and have instead supported wasteful spending, the plundering of public wealth, and attacks on public education.

Within the broad labor movement, two divergent views exist regarding engagement with the Labor Party. Some believe that the party can still be rescued from the grip of powerful neoliberal interests, but their efforts have met with limited success. Many socialists and radicals who attempted to influence the party were purged when Obi and his Obidient Movement assumed control.

Ayo Ademiluyi, a socialist who won the Labor Party House Of Representatives primary in Eti Osa constituency in Lagos was dispossessed of his ticket, and the slot handed over to a different candidate who had not participated in the primaries but had been committed to the neoliberal interests in the party. The Lagos State chairperson, who had been sympathetic toward left elements, was also removed abruptly. It was this coup at the center that made it easy to purge and isolate socialists, and radicals within the party, the bulk of whom were organized in Lagos.

The second view is championed by radical civil society members and elements of the broader labor movement. Since 2002, they have attempted to establish political parties aligned with the core values of the mid-80s NLC. These efforts like the National Conscience Party in 2003, and the Socialist Party of Nigeria had mimicked historic initiatives such as those of the Socialist Workers and Farmers Party, and Socialist Working People’s Party. The most recent of these efforts is the establishment of the African Action Congress by the Take It Back Movement, and leading revolutionary activist, Omoyele Sowore who ran under the platform as president in 2019, and 2023 respectively campaigning strictly on revolutionary programs. Yet, this too was not sufficient to dislodge the hegemony of Nigeria’s rapacious ruling class.

There are many reasons why these radical parties find it very challenging to win over a significant population of workers, and youths. An important one is that the traditional organizing base of left politicking—the National Association of Nigerian Students, the trade unions, and informal working-class associations—has been hijacked by ruling-class interests. A related problem is the inability of left-oriented political parties to muster the capital and human resources needed to organize for political power. 

Nevertheless, it remains essential for the labor movement and others seeking change to be organized under a party of their own. Such a party must have a strong foundation within the ranks of workers, ordinary Nigerians, communities, workplaces, and campuses. If the oppressed and working people of Nigeria are to look to the trade unions for leadership in this endeavor, the trade unions must recommit themselves to the values of the NLC, as they were in the mid-1980s.

Further Reading