Calibrated as a quasi-feudal petro-state, the history of Nigeria could be told as a story of post-colonial capitalism. Yet there has always been a strong current of resistance from the left, a current that has largely been erased from most tellings of the country’s history. From the country’s multifaceted struggle for emancipation from the wrangles of oppressive British colonialism, to the inter-class rifts led by its labor unions against the brute political establishment (both military and civilian), the Nigerian left has played a pivotal role in informing as well as influencing these struggles with Marxist analyses, and decentralized Socialist style organizing.
Electoral Politics, Feminism and Unionism
Left-wing politics in electoral, unionist and activist spaces in Nigeria took the center-stage particularly from the 1930s. A proto-Marxist workers union, the African Workers Union of Nigeria, was founded in 1931 by Frank Macaulay – the son of Nigeria’s foremost nationalist and a member of the elite professional bourgeoisie in colonial Nigeria, making him well suited within such colonial society to lead the union mostly due to his education and position. The first Marxist party in Nigeria was the Talakawa Party (Talakawa means ‘commoners’ in Nigeria’s widest spoken indigenous language, Hausa) founded by Amanke Okafor in 1945. Other mainstream Marxist political movements like the Freedom Movement, the Nigeria Convention People’s party, the People’s Committee for Independence and ‘The League’ followed suit in formation between 1951 and 1952. The Communist Party of Nigeria (CPN) was founded by a core team of the Nigerian Youth Congress in 1960, before getting banned by decree in 1963 by Nigeria’s military head of state, Aguiyi Ironsi. Led by heterodox Marxian economics thinker, Eskor Toyo, the Socialist Workers’ and Farmers’ Party (SWAFP) was established in 1963, three years after independence from Britain. Leaving SWAFP in 1964, Eskor Toyo joined forces with legendary Nigerian labor leader, Michael Imoudu, to set up a Trotskyist Labor Party that same year at the height of the 1964 General Strike.
The Nigerian economy is at best a programmed state-capitalist economy. It is not a planned one. Planning does not consist in merely drawing up a programme on paper and paying people in a government ‘planning’ office. – Eskor Toyo
Perhaps the most popular left-wing politician in Nigeria’s history till date is Aminu Kano. A staunch socialist, he founded the Northern Elements Progressive Union in 1950 to among many other things, resist British colonialism in northern Nigeria and thereafter, participate in electoral politics in that region. Well known for distributing Marxist pamphlets to the people, Aminu Kano believed in heavily taxing the wealthy, supported the campaign for women’s equality in northern Nigeria and was strongly polemical towards the colonial backing of the feudal ruling elite in the northern province. His biggest motivation was using politics to make northern Nigerian society just and equal. He also believed in the sanctity of free speech, diversity of thought and opinions as well as the importance of pro-people political parties being resolutely anti-establishment;
“All political parties are the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the talakawa (commoners) is diametrically opposed to the interest of all of the elite class, a political party seeking the emancipation of the talakawa must naturally be hostile to the party of the oppressors.” – Mallam Aminu Kano
Nigerian feminism was fully birthed by Funmilayo Ransome Kuti in the 1940s. A legendary Marxist organizer, suffragist, feminist, educator and grassroots politician, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti helped found the Abeokuta Women’s Union in 1946 and the National Women’s Union in Nigeria in 1952 where she led suffragist campaigns for women’s right to vote, mass literacy outreaches for market women and support for more representation of women in politics/governance. Espousing beliefs in a number of Socialist precepts, her anti-monarchical stance would particularly prove effective when she forced the Alake of Egbaland in Abeokuta (The paramount king of the Egba Yorubas) to temporarily abdicate in 1949 thanks to her organizational efforts in leading over 10,000 women in anti-monarchical protests due to taxes imposed on women by the monarch. Prior to the protests against taxation, the women in Abeokuta opined that since they had no representation in the colonial government overseeing Abeokuta town, it was ridiculous for them to be paying taxes separately from what men paid. The protests were borne out of the need for the women to redress their dwindling socio-economic incomes and return to the pre colonial socio-political framework that had room for women representatives in Abeokuta and other surrounding towns’ leadership structures like the Ìyál’ọ́ja which means the ‘leader of the market women’ in Yoruba and the Erelu which is the highest attainable leadership position for women in Yoruba societies.
“As for the charges against me, I am unconcerned. I am beyond their timid lying morality and so I am beyond caring.” – Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti bridged the gap between market women and peasant women farmers and the small number of women in the professional elite class in the country. At that particular time, Western Nigeria (the region where Abeokuta is located) was so stratified that there was no middle class, only a peasant class and a minority elite class comprising professionals, teachers, clerics, workers in the colonial government and members of the royal institutions. Heavily patriarchal, most of the women involved in economic activities were the market women and peasant farmers, thus, uniting the market women with the very small number of western educated Abeokuta women was pivotal in challenging the colonial and male-controlled structures bedeviling the women – the crux of Funmilayo Kuti’s feminism. This was also the case for other regions of Nigeria. She was most importantly the first Nigerian to join an international communist organization, the Women’s International Democratic Federation in 1947, before going on to receive the Lenin Peace Prize in 1970.
Nigeria’ first fully feminist organization, Women in Nigeria (WIN), was founded in 1982 as a follow through from the maiden Women in Nigeria conference held in Zaria that same year. Prominent among its founding members were popular Socialists and Marxist thinkers, Bene Madunagu and Molara Ogundipe-Leslie. Another Marxist thinker, Ifi Amadiume, adopted Friedrich Engels’ concepts on the origin of the family to extensively dissect family frameworks throughout Nigeria – in Ifi Amadiume’s pioneering works; African Patriarchal Foundations – The Igbo case and Male Daughters, Female Husbands, she adopted Engels’ concepts of the Consanguine, Punaluan and Pairing family structures as theoretical frameworks to argue that prior to colonialism, Igbo societies weren’t monogamies and that they also had matriarchal elements. Her contributions to gender studies and queer theory is globally recognized, a testament to the rich intellectual contributions of Nigeria’s feminist left to understanding the world we live in.
Nigerian unions fought against British neo-imperialism in the early years of Nigeria’s independence using Soviet style student-led organizing. A prominent example is the dismantling of the chances of the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact to get signed – a neo-imperialist arrangement that would enable airfields in Lagos and Kano with the harbors of Lagos and Port Harcourt be used by British Troops with utter ease. Campaigns led by the National University Students’ Union together with the National Youth Congress forced the Tafawa Balewa government not to sign the pact in 1962.
Away with Anglo-Balewa Pact’, ‘Down with Colonial Mentality’, and ‘Keep us out of NATO’ – Student Union Placards, 1960
Unionism in Nigeria became a victim to some of the most brutal attacks on unionism anywhere on the African continent from the 1970s till the late 1990s. The consolidation of military rule post-1960s saw a rise in concerted efforts to first weed off all the radical elements in labour, student and women unions across Nigeria and subsequently, outlaw unionism in its entirety. The Nigerian postcolonial bourgeois class, particularly led by its military establishment, were frightened by the huge influence the Nigerian left had on unions in Nigeria and thus, saw them as existential threats to the survival of their privileged class status amidst the gross inequality they manufactured.
In 1971, the Yakubu Gowon dictatorial regime banned labor leader, Michael Imoudu, from participating in any labor activity – the same year that staunch Marxist unionist, Samuel Bassey was abducted and detained for close to two years by the regime. The use of decrees to reshuffle the organizational structures of the major worker and trade unions in order to water down their effectiveness in worker mobilization for better labor conditions was a tool devastatingly used by the military era of Nigeria’s formulation. For example, in 1978, the Obasanjo regime signed a decree unifying all labor/worker organizations into a single set up, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). This proved to be devastating as it weakened the labor movement in the country – together with Obasanjo’s brute expulsion of the key radical leaders of the movement who were largely left leaning like Michael Imoudu and Samuel Bassey. Subsequent decrees from the Muhammadu Buhari dictatorship and the Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB) dictatorship stopped essential services’ personnel, teachers and the university academe (e.g. the ASUU – Academic Staff Union of Universities), students and oil workers from forming unions.
A further dilution of Nigeria’s left was caused by the forceful appointment of Nigerian leftist politicians to serve on government boards and in the military government’s cabinet. This particular modus operandi was characteristic of IBB, who ruled Nigeria from 1985 to 1993. Nigerian dictatorships from 1966 up till 1999 were ruthlessly anti-socialist. With the fall of the iron curtain of Eastern European Socialism culminating in the abrupt end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, the left in Nigeria immediately felt the impact, and subsequently continued its steep decline.
Rubble and Hopes
Today, there is not much to write about the Nigerian left. Most Socialist leaning Nigerians as with the Marxist thought espousers of the same ilk are either closeted or severely limited to the fourth estate. The most prominent Nigerian Socialist in the country’s dwindling print media space is Edwin Madunagu – he is allowed to pen his Socialist views on a column dedicated to his stead by the Guardian Nigeria and has recently published a thinkpiece in the Sundiata Post. His lifelong Socialist partner, prominent Marxist thinker and pioneer feminist, Bene Madunagu continues to teach at the University of Calabar. Marxist Feminists like Ifi Amadiume and Amina Mama have since made the diaspora their home – a legacy of IBB’s economically dire dictatorship that saw a mass ‘brain drain’ of Nigerian professionals and academics including some of the most influential leftist voices (mostly fleeing from the Nigerian military overt anti-Socialism).
The Guardian Nigeria, Sahara Reporters, This Day and the Daily Punch occasionally allow for leftist commentary and analyses on their platform. In mainstream Nigerian politics, while there is almost no sign of ideological underpinnings to political party frameworks and electioneering, there are occasional whispers of Socialist sentiments mostly echoed by intellectually vacuous charlatans at best.
In analyzing Edwin Madunagu’s recent think-piece, he proposed that in order for the people of Nigeria to reverse the decline of the country, they don’t need to, ‘in the first instance’, look beyond “the present Constitution, the Federal Republic of Nigeria Laws, and reports of Nigerian state-appointed Commissions of Inquiry and Constitutional Conferences from 1999 till date, i.e. since the start of the current Fourth Republic”.
However, I argue that Nigeria’s salvation is now beyond the capacity of the political and socio-economic bourgeois class in Nigeria – I further add that while Nigeria’s proletariat population still have the capacity to salvage Nigeria’s decline, they will need to adopt socialist ideological underpinnings as they strive to collectively organize with Nigeria’s disadvantaged and marginalized populations through mass political education outreach, poverty alleviation assistance, and livelihood assistance. Nevertheless, I concur with the main point, that the Nigerian left must stand on a unified platform hinged on Socialist ideals and propped by popular people power, but do not hold out hope for his positions on expecting the Nigerian bourgeois class to play a role in Nigeria’s rescue mission. The fight is ours, and ours only.
A lot of rebuilding and grassroots conscientization like the grassroots work the Peoples Power Assemblies and Black Lives Matter actively do is needed if the left in Africa’s most populous nation is to ever attempt resurging back into national prominence and start organizing for better human conditions in the country at the very least, or push for an anti-establishment revolution, at most.
Basil Abia is the author of the forthcoming book: AFTER THE REVOLUTION, WHAT NEXT? He currently offers his services as a development research support consultant in Nigeria.