Marxism in Nigeria

Naija Marxisms:

Revolutionary Thought in Nigeria

Adam Mayer begins Naija Marxisms by directly addressing what the book is not: neither a history of Nigeria or the rich legacy of social and workers’ movements there, nor a theoretical contribution to the questions of Nigerian capitalist development and resistance to it—although Mayer provides introductory chapters that cover both topics and provide some context for what follows, and these questions are woven deeply into the work of the authors Mayer discusses. Instead, Mayer has produced a fascinating intellectual survey of Nigerian or Naija (to use the colloquial term for Nigerian) Marxism that allows the subjects to speak for themselves, and brings to light a rich and varied history of political thought and resistance that is startling not only for the contribution it continues to have on Nigerian political life and resistance, but all the more so for its near-invisibility outside the country.

While even non-Marxist histories of South Africa, Egypt, or Ghana are forced to confront the influence of various strands of Marxism in the development of both political and intellectual life and resistance in those countries, the work of Nigerian Marxists is virtually unknown outside of the country, despite the fact

that Marxism has had an unparalleled importance to the development of political resistance and a critical intellectual tradition.  

As Mayer describes throughout the book, the Marxist tradition has had in the past, and continues to have, a profound influence on intellectual and social resistance in Nigeria, despite the pessimism of much of the global Left in the ability of “grand narratives” to influence mass social movements. Individual Marxists have made crucial contributions (often at great personal sacrifice) to the development of resistance. Together with a broader political tradition, this provides the theoretical foundations for many of the social movements, from the Nigerian workers’ movement to the Occupy Nigeria movement that grew out of resistance to the reduction of fuel subsidies in 2012, as well as the Nigerian feminist movement. And yet when those movements are written about in the West (when they are written about at all) there is rarely any mention made of the influence of Nigerian Marxism.

The heart of Mayer’s book provides an overview of the work of Niyi Oniororo, Ikenna Nzimiro, Yusufu Bala Usman, Mokwugo Okoye, Eskor Toyo, Edwin Madunagu, Bade Onimode, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and Gambo Sawaba, along with the work of a handful of collectives and publications. That none of these names are well known in the West exemplifies the importance of Mayer’s work. Together they represent a wide cross section of traditions, from Trotskyism to Stalinism to Marxist-feminism, along with numerous heterodox interpretations in between. What is welcome about Mayer’s book is that he provides space for the writers to speak for themselves, giving some access to work that is maddeningly difficult to find, and giving readers a taste for the depth, breadth, and wit of the Nigerian Marxist tradition.

The format inevitably gives the book a somewhat disjointed quality, but three broad themes continually weave themselves through all the work discussed. First is the attempt by the Nigerian Marxist tradition to document and understand the continued development of capitalism in the country: a process of combined and uneven development that would make Trotsky’s head spin. Few places on Earth combine in such concentrated form crass petrodollar-fueled individualism and consumerism with shocking poverty and underdevelopment. The nation’s capital, Lagos, with its large-scale urban development rising side by side with one of the world’s largest slums, built quite literally on top of the trash-filled lagoon that forms the geographic and metaphorical heart of the city, is only the most obvious example of the extreme contradictions of capitalist development in the country. Mayer shows the rich contribution Marxism has made to understanding the complexity and contradictions of that process and how they lay the foundations for resistance.

Second is both an intellectual and practical interest in the development of that resistance. Mayer and the writers he covers show the crucial links between the Marxist tradition and the formation of the Nigerian workers’ movement, including the Nigerian Labor Congress, as well the Nigerian student movement, and a nascent feminist movement. They point a way forward, both in theoretical as well as practical terms, for how these movements, which admittedly are minority movements within the country, can combine and influence wider movements of the rural and urban poor. They also touch (albeit with tantalizing briefness) on critiques of alternate traditions, both nationalist and religious—including the current ongoing conflict in the north of Nigeria with the Islamist-influenced Boko Haram.

Third, to a lesser degree that Mayer acknowledges, is a look at Marxism’s influence in developing an intellectual and cultural resistance, giving a taste of its influence in the writings and poetry of Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie as well as the music of Fela Kuti.

The book provides an important point of departure for future work to make the writings and activism of Nigeria’s Marxist tradition more widely known in the West. But even in this short book, Mayer provides two important correctives to much of the current discussion of the African radical tradition. First, through the work of Nigerian Marxists themselves, Mayer shows that Marxism was never a “foreign” ideology. Even when it was connected with international tendencies, it had a rich tradition and gained widespread influence because it provided a compelling explanation both for the current condition of Nigeria as well as a means for understanding how it could be transformed into something better for the working and oppressed peoples of the country. Readers of this journal may take issue with Mayer’s relatively uncritical approach to the Stalinist and Maoist influences within the Nigerian tradition, but the broad reach of the writers also provides context and criticism from the militants themselves.

Second, and finally, Mayer provides a welcome overview of Marxism’s continued relevance, both at a theoretical level as well as a practical one, in building resistance to capitalism in the twenty-first century. As he writes,

Nigerian Marxism was the single most effective alternative worldview that informed not only the Nigerian labour movement but academia and the public at large, including voices in feminist historiography, political economy and even literature. In my view, Naija Marxisms have produced so many excellent works and made such an important imprint on the Nigerian imagination that it is negligent to keep ignoring their history.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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