By Obi Nwakanma
I think the most tragic story in the history of Nigerian politics, is the story of Nigeria’s political left, which has very routinely been outplayed, out-resourced, and out maneuvered by the right, and whose bulk is routinely absorbed, in the process of national power, by the political capacity of the right. It did not begin today. It began in 1940 with the split in the National Youth Movement, often described as the first platform of nationalist organizing in Nigeria.
By 1938, the NYM had defeated Herbert Macaulay’s once entrenched NNDP in the Lagos City Council elections, a lot of it from the wide campaigns led on its behalf by Nnamdi Azikiwe who had just recently relocated from Accra where he was editing the African Morning Post, to Lagos, where he established his own newspaper, the West African Pilot in 1937. Nigerians must remember that in that colonial era, only Lagos and Calabar, the then two major cities of the South, had organized political activity for any form of representational politics in Nigeria. But in 1940, the NYM spinned into a crisis. It was really silly politics, in hindsight, although it lingers. The facts of the NYM crisis are, that in 1940, Dr. Abayomi, one of those elected to the Legislative council proceeded for specialist training in Ophthalmology in the UK, and his seat fell vacant. In a bid to replace him, the NYM sought candidates to field, and the split happened between those who supported Ernest Ikoli, an Ijo “Lagos-boy,” old Kings College boy, and editor of the Daily Express in the city, and those who supported Sam Akinsanya, an Ijebu migrant to Lagos. It is significant that in those years, an Ijebu was considered a “migrant” to Lagos, and therefore unfit to stand elections in Lagos. Nnamdi Azikiwe and those he mobilized to support him argued that an Ijebu or any member of a political party living in Lagos had all the rights to stand elections and be voted in Lagos.
The NYM split on that score, and never recovered its initial capacity as the platform for organizing nationalist politics. In any case, Azikiwe resigned from NYM, and for a period between 1940 and 1942, there was a hiatus to nationalist political organizing. But in 1942, he organized a group of Nigerians under the Nigerian Reconstruction Group, NRG, and sought to build a coalition of groups and organizations to engage with anti-colonial politics. Azikiwe’s group reached out to the remaining bulk of people in the NYM, as a means of creating a National Front, and indeed requested the NYM to lead it. The NYM showed profound reluctance, no doubt as a result of its history with Zik, and the growing antipathy marked by personality clashes that increasingly made rapprochement difficult. However, under the auspices of a new organization called the Nigerian Youth Council, and a body of students, organized under the Students Union of Nigeria, led by young men like B.B. Bamgbose, J.A. Malafa, Adewale Fashanu, Ogomegbunam Dafe, and Olubunmi Thomas, all former students of Fela’s father, the Reverend Isreal Ransome-Kuti, a rally was held in the Ojokoro estate compound of the Lagos Lawyer, E.J. Alex-Taylor. That rally was addressed by Herbert Macaulay, I.O. Ransome-Kuti, Akinola Maja, Rotimi Williams, Stella Marke, and Zik himself, and resolutions were taken, to construct a National front to demand self-government. But as usual with the so-called “progressive left”, it was all declaration, no action.
After waiting for six months, the students now impatient with the inertia, under the auspices of the Nigerian Union of Students, published their famous memoranda, which reflected the basis of the demands for decolonization in West Africa. I have taken much of this narrative from Azikiwe’s published speeches, but we must also understand, that the archives reveal to us that the battle to grant political independence to the colonies had been won between 1943 and 1947, following a process of transnational organizing, that linked the struggles of Africans in the global North, and Africans in the homeland, fighting for the fundamental rights of self-determination. And an exhausted Britain, following the end and economic outcomes of WW II, with Europe in shambles, and under pressure from a transcendent United States, finally bowed, and the terms of the Atlantic treaty renegotiated, to accommodate the African nationalist demands from agitations led by the “Zik of Africa” – from West Africa. By 1947, the colonial office sent Sir Arthur Richards to manage the transition to home rule, and finagle the process to protect British interests.
The question was no longer whether, but how to conduct that process of home rule; and how to manage its outcomes. The Nationalists organizing under the NCNC yet again sought a coalition of so-called “progressives” to challenge some of the “obnoxious” aspects of Richard’s politics, the frame of which was to create political divisions, and “Pakistanize” Nigeria, after the Indian model. They failed again, because of political chicanery and short-sightedness. The sum of my narrative is that the Nigerian left was outmaneuvered at the end of decolonization. They did all the work, but many factors, including in-fighting, sabotage, the lack of organizational discipline, and frankly, an inability to connect their street creds to political action, led to the loss of political power to the right, sanctioned by the Brits, which backed them to protect their interests. The nationalists left their flanks wide open, and after the 1959 elections, the Nationalist party was forced, in spite of winning the plurality of the votes nation-wide by significant margins, to either participate in a national government as coalition partners, or watch Nigeria slip into indeterminacy.
It was one of the most obvious programs of gerrymandering ever known to man. Nigeria did slip into indeterminacy, in the end; the political calculus swung even as that “convenient alliance” frayed, and the left was once more worsted, and it led eventually to January 15, 1966. Again, at the end of the military era in 1999, the Nigerian left had its best opportunity to organize, field candidates for elections, and direct the ship of state. The military was politically weak, and their right-wing partners were disorganized, but they had the kind of resources that the left took for granted: a ground operation, through a series of local interests – the new warrant chiefs and traditional rulers (always, historically agents and collaborators with colonialism, and agents of governments against the common interest of people); oligopolists; business moguls whose only business is government; and their wannabe marionettes whom they fielded and backed with long-accumulated resources. But the left was in a powerful moral position, and had the potential for creating mass movements, and establishing its own ground operations. They frittered that opportunity in 1998.
Nigeria’s politics has long been overdetermined by a liberal bind: many so-called “progressives” actually hold right-wing views, and there is no clear ideological framework to build a contemporary nationalist coalition, just like the NCNC built. Now, that’s what fascinates me about the new group led by Olisa Agbakoba – the Nigerian Intervention Movement. Agbakoba, Pat Utomi, Donald Duke, Frank Nweke Jnr., Datti Baba-Ahmed, Jahlil Tafawa-Balewa, Rabiu Isyaku Rabiu, Issa Aremu, Wale Okuniyi, and the likes, are said to be its moving spirits, and their goal is interventionist. “It is a movement, not a political party,” declared Olisa Agbakoba. And that is precisely the problem. No one can actually say that these gentlemen are “radicals of the left,” or that they represent anything, but a centrist liberal agenda or ideology. But they do represent a new, possible face of regeneration, and a political alternative for Nigeria, and that is, if they should seek to widen their coalition that should include women, particularly the likes of Aisha Waziri Umar, who is leading what they are calling the “Revive Nigeria Group”.
What the NIM must do is to broaden itself as a national network of groups, and rise from the dead end of liberal politics. Learn from the past of leftist organizing, use the Azikiwe model, and avoid its pitfalls, and challenge the current political order programmatically. And for Agbakoba, all movements are political, and if the NIM cannot build up its base enough to seek power, and enough to stop hollow declarations, then it is a waste of time. Nigeria needs an alternative political and ideological framework, and a new, properly organized party to challenge current occupants of power. It needs a fundamental generation shift, and perhaps the NIM, building a possible new national coalition might provide that challenge.