A glimpse at Nigeria’s little known revolutionary left

A women's march in Port Harcourt as part of Nigeria's Occupy movement in 2012.
December 1, 2017

Naija Marxisms: Revolutionary Thought in Nigeria
By Adam Mayer
Pluto Press, 2016

Adam Mayer’s book on Marxist currents in Nigeria is what it says on the cover — a rich history of Marxist and revolutionary thought and struggles that are little known outside the West African nation.

This is a history of Marxism in Nigeria, which as Mayer explains, is “written from a somewhat unusual perspective of a young Eastern European historian who experienced sub-optimal ‘really existing socialism’ in its Indian summer, but whose life came to be defined by the barbarity of the region’s new capitalism that turned his country into a rather soulless semi-periphery and its inhabitants into a disgruntled and under-represented new poor”.

The perspective of its Hungarian expatriate academic author is one of the books’ strengths. Mayer has no illusions in the dominant 20th century forms of Marxism. But he understands why even the distorted, Stalinist form of socialism presented ordinary people in the colonised and neo-colonial countries with an attractive alternative to capitalism.

This is important in the history of the Nigerian labour, feminist and socialist movements, which were influenced by the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies from the 1940s until their implosion in 1989. As Mayer points out, however, Nigerian Marxism was always heterodox and even the more pro-Moscow socialists were not without scepticism.

The book’s title refers to “Marxisms” in the plural, and it details several, often competing schools of Marxism in Nigeria. This is double-edged: Nigerian Marxism gained a richness from such pluralism, but a lack of unity plagued the Nigerian left (as in so many other places).

The shock waves from the implosion of Eastern European socialism were felt in Nigeria. These were amplified by the International Monetary Fund-imposed deindustrialisation that, at the same time, devastated the Nigerian working class.

Some of the most well-known Nigerian Marxists and labour leaders abandoned socialism. Some went so far to the right as to champion one of the competing ethnic chauvinisms that are the violent bedrock of Nigeria’s mainstream politics.

However, others did not and new socialist forces have emerged. One of Mayer’s motivations is to refute the Eurocentric “truism” that 1989 finished Marxism as an ideology. In the introduction, he points out that outside Europe — from Nepal to Venezuela — it is very much on the rise.

In telling the history of Nigerian Marxism — of the overlapping anti-imperialist, feminist and labour movements — Mayer tells the history of Nigeria itself. It can be a depressing story — a chapter outlining this history is aptly titled “The Descent”.

Nigeria’s present situation is characterised by violent ethnic and religious conflict, rampant criminality at every level of society and dysfunctional or non-existent public services. This is a society where the most ambitious migrate, so there are more Nigerian doctors in the US than in Nigeria.

Mayer explains this is no accident. It is the deliberate result of colonial and imperialist policies.

Nigeria is not a “developing” country. From the slave trade of the 15th to 19th centuries, through British colonial rule, to the IMF-imposed “structural adjustment programs” (SAPs) of recent decades, the West has systematically and deliberately underdeveloped the country.

Related to this is the colonial imposition of regressive social forms. Under British rule, indirect rule in Nigeria’s north set feudal structures in stone. Direct rule in the south, however, created feudal structures where they had not previously existed.

This process continues today: Mayer documents how in the 21st century, new “royal families” are proliferating in parts of the south-east where the traditional social structure were leaderless village communities.

Nigerian royalty, old and new, typically command armies of thugs, and are linked to criminal gangs and criminal politicians.

Along with feudal hierarchies, underdevelopment and an economy based on the plunder of the country’s resources by foreign corporations, the British bequeathed to independent Nigeria a political system based on ethnic, religious and regional antagonisms.

This led on to a post-independence history of endless military coups. In 1967, an attempt at succession by the south-east (Biafra) resulted in a brutal civil war that killed 1-2 million people. Nigeria’s ruling class is also so tied to imperialist capitalism, and alienated from its own country, that wealthy Nigerians spend most of their lives abroad.

The discovery of oil in the early 1970s only exacerbated this situation. The reigning military regime in 1985 allowed Nigeria to be the testing ground for SAPs, leading to the country’s total deindustrialisation.

However, this is not ultimately a depressing book, as it focuses on resistance. Mayer documents many instances ignored or misunderstood by most Western historians, such as the 1929-30 “Women's War”. Women market traders rose up against British-imposed taxes and the reduction of women’s status by the colonial administration and Christian missionaries. The British responded with a massacre of unarmed women.

Mayer traces the history of Nigerian trade unionism from the 1920s and radical nationalism from the 1940s. He describes efforts to build socialist and labour parties both open and underground.

He examines the foreign influences on the Nigerian left. As well as the Soviet Union, South Africa’s anti-Apartheid movement had an impact, as did the revolutionary movements of Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola.

Interestingly, he notes that as a reaction against the pervasive British and US influence on Nigerian bourgeois culture, the left tended not to look for inspiration in the British and US left, but were more influenced by Marxist intellectual currents from continental Europe – Western as well as Eastern. An exception is the influence of African-American Marxist feminist Angela Davies on left feminist currents in Nigeria.

Mayer documents some innovative revolutionary experiments that are little known even in Nigeria, such as the rural communes in the 1970s that existed in remote areas under the radar of military regimes. He also traces the post-1989 development of the Nigerian left.

For many Nigerian Marxists today, there is an emphasis on creating popular democracy, in part inspired by Venezuela’s push for “21st century socialism”. This replaces the earlier emphasis on state-controlled industrialisation, in great part inspired by the Soviet Union.

Trotskyism is also influential in today’s Nigerian left — two of the main parties are, for better or worse, affiliated to London-based Trotskyist Internationals.

In 2011, as in many other countries around the world, an “Occupy” movement developed in Nigeria inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US. Mayer notes that the Nigerian version was a lot more Marxist-influenced than its Western equivalents.

Much of the book is taken up by portraits of leading Nigerian Marxists. These include Michael Imoudu, a labour leader from the 1940s onward. Mayer notes Imoudu never used his position as “labour leader number one” to leave behind his humble working class origins “to acquire the markers of elite standing — an appealing quality in a labour leader”.

Tunji Otegbeye, the most pro-Moscow of Nigeria's Marxists, on the other hand, disdained Imoudu for his inability to speak English.

Yusufu Bala Usman was a noted historian — a Marxist from an aristocratic background who railed against the colonial influence of English culture in impeccable English.

Both Otegbeye and Bala Usman moved to the ethnic chauvinist right after 1989.

On the other hand, Niyi Oniororo, known for his uncompromising stance and often vulgar delivery (“conspicuously devoid of political correctness, by 21st century Western standards”), remained committed to socialism, although he “died an embittered man”.

Remaining committed to socialism with a more positive stance than Oniororo is Edwin Madunagu, a veteran Marxist with a Trotskyist inclination, although not a member of either of the Nigerian Trotskyist parties. A mathematician by trade, he is also a prolific journalist and organiser.

Influenced by his Marxist feminist wife, Bene Madunagu, he also runs an NGO that teaches young men gender awareness. Bene and Edwin Madunagu were also leaders of an underground rural commune in the 1970s.

Mayer spent four days interviewing Madunagu and examining his personal library: much of the material for the book was derived from this. The author’s admiration for his subject is also palpable.

Other Nigerian Marxists are profiled in the books. One of the better known ones is Lenin Peace Prize winner, educator and pioneering feminist Olufunmilayo Ransom-Kuti — although she is probably less well-known than her son, Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti.

Although not a Marxist, Fela Kuti’s pro-poor and anti-tyranny lyrics did not go down well with the military dictatorship of Olusegun Obasanjo. It is unclear whether it was the musician son or the activist mother that prompted Obasanjo to send 1000 soldiers to raid their compound in February 1977.

Soldiers dragged Olufunmilayo Ransom-Kuti, then aged 77, by the hair and threw her out of an upstairs window. She never recovered and died the next year. Mayer quotes Fela Kuti’s powerful lyrics about his mother's murder.

As well as introducing readers to left-wing Nigerian trade unionists, feminists and intellectuals, and providing a sharp introduction to Nigerian politics and history, Naija Marxisms is also a textbook on socialism for 21st century in the Third World — the “periphery” that encompasses 80% of humanity.

It makes a forceful and highly evidenced-based case that the urban and rural poor of the increasingly deindustrialised nations — consigned by imperialism to being reservoirs of human and natural resources — are a proletariat with revolutionary agency.

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