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Class, Marxism and the Nigerian predicament

By Tunji Olaopa 

The issue of RevolutionNow has resurfaced to rekindle the relevance of class analysis in understanding the Nigerian predicament of late. Indeed, there was a time in Nigerian scholarship when Marxism was the most critical intellectual and revolutionary idea and ideology for analyzing the Nigerian situation. From Mokwugo Okoye to Balarabe Musa, from Molara Ogundipe-Leslie to Eskor Toyo, from Akin Oyebode to Biodun Jeyifo, from Bade Onimode to Bala Usman, and from Edwin Madunagu to Claude Ake, there were writers, activists, scholars and intellectuals who were convinced about the capacity of Marxism as an analytical and radical framework for understanding and transforming situations of oppression and social injustice.

The individual works and activism of these scholars and intellectuals were supplemented by evolution and activities of the workers’ movement, led by the Nigerian Labour Congress, and the Nigerian youth movement instigated by the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS, then the National Union of Nigerian Students, NUNS).

Only few people will not remember the famous “Ali Must Go” student protest of 1978 during the Obasanjo military regime. Briefly: NUNS had organised and coordinated a series of protests that hinged around the increase in school fees, but that served as a platform for other popular-democratic demands, especially the improvement of the quality of life of Nigerians. The protest took off from the University of Lagos, and spread to other universities at Ife, Calabar, Zaria, Ibadan, Benin, Jos, Maiduguri, Nsukka and Kano. On the second day of the peaceful protests, the army and the police had intervened, and students had been killed. And then the protest blossomed into a full-blown national incident with a slogan that demanded the resignation of Colonel Ahmadu Ali, the then Federal Commissioner for Education. This situation is also apposite because the military dispensation in Nigeria spelt doom for the Nigerian Left and its Marxist activism.

The Nigerian, and indeed African, postcolonial situation lends itself appropriately to a Marxist analysis. And this is essentially because of the capitalist basis of colonialism. In scholarship, colonialism is taken to have engendered a dependency situation within which the political economy of the capitalist and colonial nations, especially Britain, led to an economic dependency of the colonised. The logic of dependency is simple; the wealthy states of Europe colonised the poor state of Africa in order to facilitate the economic development of the European states, and the impoverishment of the African states. Africa supplies the raw materials while Europe produces the industrial goods. Thus, dependency speaks to the indirectly proportional development of the two—the development of the European states is simultaneous with the underdevelopment of the periphery states of Africa.

Marxism is oriented on a class understanding of human history. For Karl Marx, the machine of historical evolution is the oppression of one class by another powerful one until the latter is undermined by the dynamics of its oppressive instrument. Thus, history is filled with the account of classes at war—slaves and slave-owners, serfs and lords, proletariats and bourgeoisie. Marx predicted that history would end when communism initiated the classless society through the proletarian revolution. This revolution had not happened. Capitalism seemed to hold more allure for the workers. Even in Nigeria, only Edwin Madunagu represents the public face of the Nigerian Left. Marxist analysis and understanding of the Nigerian predicament seem to have lost steam with the disappearance of the civil society movement. But does this tell us anything about the futility of Marxism?

Like capitalism, Marxism has also gone through various iterations that we should call “neo-Marxism.” And this attests to the continuing relevance of neo-liberal capitalism as a fundamental site of global injustice and inequality, global unemployment and poverty, welfare deficit in significant proportions, and so on.

There is a way global inequality dynamics cascade down into the political economy of the Nigerian state and society. By virtue of the colonial calculation and the postcolonial neoliberal capitalist hegemony, Nigeria, with the rest of Africa, has been drawn into the global capitalist system. And to function, capitalism requires elements of the global and national economies that are a willing instrument in facilitating the imperatives of capital. On the global level, there are multinational organisations; and at the national level, there are the political, economic and the bureaucratic classes. One way or the other, we arrive at Marx’s clash of class status between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat all over again. In Nigeria, the political class—in cahoots with their bureaucratic collaborators—are arrayed against the helpless masses. And in this conflict, power becomes a fundamental component. For Claude Ake, “Power is everything, and those who control the coercive resources use it freely to promote their interests.” This statement is reminiscent of Marx’s understanding of the state as a coalition of the ruling class organised for its own interest.

Whatever analytical framework we might deploy in understanding Nigeria’s postcolonial dynamics, from ethnicity to religion; Nigeria is a class society. It is made up of the extremely rich and the extremely impoverished, with a few stragglers in between. In this power play, the interests of the business, political and bureaucratic classes are intertwined in ways that undermine whatever interest the masses of Nigerians may have. This inevitably leads to the use of state power and positions for prebendal purposes. The real democratic objective of the state—the transformation of the quality of life of the people—is subordinated to the selfish whims of the few political elites who are more than willing to substitute their interest for the development of the society. In Marxist and neo-Marxist terms, the civil society constitutes a significant site of resistance. From the labour organisations to the student movement and religious entities, the civil society becomes a formidable intervening force that stands between the state and the people.

There is no doubt that the civil society framework in Nigeria—the fundamental site of the Nigerian Left—has been crippled and co-opted by the enormous power of the Nigerian political class. The labour union led by the likes of Pa Michael Imoudu is no more. The student activism of the days of Segun Okeowo and correlate youth vanguards have long been taken over by crass opportunists. Religious organisations are colluding in opiating the masses with theologies that are complicit in oppressing Nigerians. There are scarcely any significant social movements on the landscape of the Nigerian Left. With the near-disappearance of civil society, the idea of a social contract between the government and the governed becomes grievously endangered. Those who are entrusted with political power become converted into the logic of primitive accumulation, while those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the entrusted power are pauperised.

It is in this regard that the idea of the common patrimony as a “national cake” becomes really graphic. At the feast of carving out a portion of this sumptuous cake, the masses of Nigerians become stunned bystanders who are dazzled daily by the dizzying news of billions stolen from the national treasury, and the vulgar display of obscene wealth.

And to make matters worse, the political-business-bureaucratic elites and their foreign business partners further weaken the national economy by facilitating capital flight either to Europe or to their private accounts and business ventures in foreign lands. Nigeria therefore becomes the cash cow milked progressively by class interest. No one will doubt therefore the level of inequality, in terms of wealth and income, that the Nigerian situation has generated. We have a situation in which less than five per cent of the population owns more than 80 per cent of Nigeria’s wealth in per capita terms. To use a contemporary political science terminology, we can say that to all intents and purposes, the elites have captured the Nigerian state.

This leads to a final point of the reflection: how does a revolution find its way into the lexicon of Nigerian political economy? The idea of a revolution is central to Marxism. One indication is sufficient—the alarming youth unemployment statistics. One of the frightening lessons of the Arab Spring is that modern technologies and a rising youth unemployment are a terrible combination. By the second quarter of 2020, the unemployment rates among young Nigerians had risen from 29.7 per cent to 34.9 per cent. This means that 13.9 million Nigerian youths have no significant work to do. This translates into an army of frustrated persons whose energies thereby become a security risk, rather than a highly productive factor.

Olaopa is a professor of Public Administration at the NIPSS, Kuru, Jos, Plateau State

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