How Nigeria’s Left Helped Shape the Country’s History

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country by far, may not have a political profile to match its size. But it has a powerful tradition of socialist theory and practice that deserves to be better understood by the international left. That tradition has helped shape the best features of Nigeria’s contemporary political scene.

Lagos, Nigeria, 1967. (Keystone / Getty Images)

Nigeria has never had a political profile in Western countries to match its size. It has the largest African population by far: according to some estimates, it may be as high as 200 million people, which would be almost twice as many as its nearest rival, Ethiopia. The country also has the continent’s largest economy (although it barely makes the top twenty for GDP per capita).

It casts a huge cultural shadow, with a film industry second only to Bollywood in terms of output, and world-renowned authors such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Buchi Emecheta — not to mention musicians like Fela Kuti. Its soccer team is a familiar presence at the World Cup. Yet Nigeria’s political leaders and movements haven’t won the same renown.

Unlike Algeria in the north, Kenya in the east, or Angola in the south, Nigeria didn’t go through a violent, protracted struggle before winning its independence from European rule in 1960. The Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba is still a celebrated figure more than half a century after his death, but few people outside Nigeria now remember Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the country’s first prime minister, who, like Lumumba, was ousted and killed in a military coup, the first of many.

Nor were any of Nigeria’s military rulers as infamous as Lumumba’s nemesis Mobutu Sese Seko — not even the last uniformed dictator to hold power, Sani Abacha. Although the failed war of secession in Biafra attracted the world’s attention in the late 1960s, it hasn’t lingered in the memory to the same extent as long-running internal conflicts in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, or South Africa.

Since 1999, Nigeria has been living through by far the longest period of uninterrupted civilian rule in the post-colonial era. But the country is now facing acute and systemic failures as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down its borders, devalued its oil on the global market, and is beginning to put pressure on its fragile health system, budget, and state sector. Even in good times, Nigeria’s political economy is that of a neocolonial basket case. The country’s executive still has a deeply authoritarian cast, and Muhammadu Buhari, the current president, has an autocratic track record of his own, having ruled as military head of state — the victor in a coup — from 1983 to 1985.

Ethnic tension is never entirely off the agenda in Nigerian politics, but a series of recent episodes has underlined the complexity of inter-communal coexistence in the country: a conflict of pastoralists and farmers that has displaced 250,000 people in the Middle Belt, allegedly with federal connivance; a Boko Haram resurgence in the North (perhaps ditto); the widespread bunkering of oil in the Niger Delta, which has been ongoing since the early 2000s; kidnapping and highway robbery now increasingly rampant, from Port Harcourt in the South to Kaduna in the North; and last but not least, a reactivated Biafran secessionist movement — Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) — with violence occasionally flaring up in the Igbo Southeast.

Sources of Vitality

But this is not the whole picture. Whatever might be said about Nigeria as a polity, Nigerians as people have core strengths that also count: democratic and cooperative instincts, and cultural pride. Signs of health include the unapologetic celebration of African creativity that is Nollywood — brushed aside and ridiculed as “bad taste” just a few years ago, but now a defining presence on Netflix — and the various genres of Nigerian pop music, along with “domesticated” versions of every major global religion, including Shia Islam and home grown (Igbo) Judaism.

We can also point to a press that is incredibly vibrant and of a rebellious stamp, a surprisingly independent judiciary, and even the continuation of the faltering Fourth Republic itself since 1999. And while the secret service, the army, and the police may not display democratic instincts, the country’s robust labor movement certainly does.

More importantly, perhaps, than any of the above is the fact that day-to-day relations between rich and poor in Nigeria are of a fundamentally different nature than in the West: these separate universes do meet there; business executives do sometimes eat rice with their guards in the latter’s quarters. Of course, there is still class struggle in Nigeria, as evidenced by constant strikes and the occasional general strike (the last ones in 2012 over the removal of the fuel subsidy, and May 2016). But the selfless sharing of food has always been the social norm, and not merely in the face of a pandemic: people in employment simply share food, time, love, and other resources with their relations, students, neighbors, or the elderly as a matter of course, in a way that puts the Global North to shame.

The few Western guidebooks that deal with Nigeria call its people “natural capitalists.” However, similar publications also note the striking power and importance of the country’s trade unions, which is exceptional for the region. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has been a bastion of workers’ rights since the late 1970s, and enjoyed a monopoly as an umbrella organization for decades. Sani Abacha’s government halted its operations with an outright ban for a five-year period in the 1990s.

In the field of gender relations, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the world’s best known mainstream feminists, the country’s South has retained female traditional chieftaincy structures (especially in Lagos and Yorubaland), and Nigeria’s own brand of socialist-feminism has had an assertive political presence going back as far as 1946.

A Human Rights Tradition

Nigeria has also developed a vibrant human-rights tradition in the last three decades, represented by figures such as Gani Fawehinmi, Tunji Braithwaite, and Femi Falana that does not derive from the usual NGO sources of inspiration. It emerged at a time when NGOs were banned and human-rights fighters were at risk of losing life and limb under the Abacha regime. In Nigeria today, even Leninist politicians — yes, those exist! — are wary of propagating solutions that run contrary to human-rights sensibilities.

The same goes for women’s rights: the NLC has a 30 percent quota for women, and the socialist-feminists are part and parcel of the Nigerian left. Indeed, there are reasons to think that the Western-style, patriarchal status quo has only existed in Nigeria — especially in the South — since the 1920s, and that Nigerian women enjoyed more political and personal power even before colonialism than in the West (this was the opinion of Buchi Emecheta, the author of Second-Class Citizen, a novel that shed light on the lives of first-generation African immigrants in London).

These democratic and human-rights traditions are strongest among those who opposed Abacha’s rule, such as Omoyele Sowore, the founder of Sahara Reporters, and a victim of President Buhari’s illegal persecution in late 2019. Sowore, a fighter for press freedom, was the only radical-left candidate in the 2019 presidential election — and was also detained for advocating revolution.

There is a palpable radical hegemony in a number of cultural fields. Erhabor Emokpae’s The Last Supper — an oil painting in the modern style from the early 1960s — is the most radical critique of Christianity that I’ve ever come across, while the politically liberal artist and critic Olu Oguibe has recently shocked Europe with his Monument for strangers and refugees, exhibited in Kassel.

Oguibe’s obelisk, with its four sides featuring a poignant quote from the Book of Matthew (“I was a stranger and you took me in”) in English, German, Turkish, and Arabic, originally appeared for the Documenta 14 art fair in 2017, in the central square of this medium-sized German town. Its radical assertion of the full humanity of refugees and rooting of pro-refugee action in Western Europe’s dominant moral paradigm was too much for the local right-wing audience to bear. They managed to remove the statue from its intended location in the city’s main artery, reducing its visual and spatial effect.

Marxism in Nigeria

Nigeria possesses a splendid Marxist tradition, stretching back to the 1930s. It was not one of those sub-Saharan countries that experimented with scientific socialism of the East European variety (such as Madagascar, Somalia, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, or Congo-Brazzaville). The Nigerian authorities spent years opposing the inauguration of a Soviet Embassy in Lagos, and put up bureaucratic obstacles for those students who wanted to study in Communist states. With 1976’s Adebiyi Tribunal, they stepped up repressive measures against Marxists in the trade unions, and constrained even non-Marxist union activity.

None of this could prevent Nigeria from developing one of the most authentic African schools of Marxism outside South Africa. Frank Macaulay — son of Herbert Macaulay, known as the father of Nigerian nationalism — was the country’s first documented Marxist, soon followed by a number of labor activists (Nduka Eze, Mayirue Kolagbodi, Gogo Chu Nzeribe, Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph, and to some extent the union leader Michael Imoudu).

Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti — known as FRK, and mother of the famous singer Fela — set up the first politically conscious women’s organization under British rule, transforming the social character of a ladies’ club in Abeokuta by admitting market women. These market women kept FRK’s socialist-feminist leanings grounded in local reality, even as she went on to forge ties with Communist women’s organizations based in the Eastern Bloc. FRK died in 1978 after soldiers raided her son’s home in Lagos — a focus for political activism against the military government — and threw her out of a window.

The 1960s brought Nigeria its independence from Britain, soon followed by the declaration of a republic in 1963. Along with the likes of Michael Imoudu and FRK, dominant figures on its radical scene included the trade-union leader Wahab Goodluck, founding president of the Nigeria Labour Congress, and the politician Tunji Otegbeye, who helped establish the pro-Soviet Socialist Workers’ and Farmers’ Party of Nigeria (SWAFP).

The dichotomy in Nigeria’s labor movement between dockworkers and port workers — the former more oppressed and radical, the latter constituting a better-paid, better-positioned “labor aristocracy” — acquired an international dimension, with a divide between pro-Western and radical unions. Some future heroes of the Nigerian left studied in the Eastern Bloc, such as the Marxist scholar Eskor Toyo, who was influenced by Trotsky and Mao alike, and became an economics professor at Calabar University after returning to his home country.

Nigerian Marxism benefited from a kind of benign neglect: the USSR generally focused on economic cooperation with the existing Nigerian rulers — although it did sponsor a Marxist-Leninist party in the country for a time in the early 1960s — and China was disengaging from the Global South. While there was still some financial help available, from the Soviets in particular, Nigerian Marxists were subject to much less “comradely scrutiny” than their counterparts elsewhere in Africa, especially in the People’s Republics.

In this context, a subculture full of debate and criticism took shape: stimulating and sometimes maddening, but with its own distinct rituals, rites of passage, visual attributes (beards being one of them), and comrades who stretched the limits of radicalism in all directions. Their experiments included a rural commune in 1976–77, with the participation of figures such as Edwin Madunagu and Biodun Jeyifo.

Regional Divisions

Nigeria’s borders are the product of colonial artifice, even more so than most West African states. Britain only amalgamated the colony from widely divergent constituent parts in 1914. Since then, a meaningful Nigerian identity has taken shape, but that identity is still contested by many.

The state has always had a sharp regional division between North and South, dating back to the colonial period. To describe the North as feudal is not simply an extrapolation from the region’s political economy. In fact, the North was — and is — feudal by law.

Feudal customary law, along with common law and sharia, remains a legal source in Nigeria to this day. In the North, this means the persistence of emirs — such as the influential Emir of Kano — court ranks, and royals. Ownership structures are feudal, royal civil lists still exist, and legal distinctions separate the nobility from the commoners. Radical leanings in this part of Nigeria have therefore traditionally taken the form of anti-feudal politics: examples include Mallam Aminu Kano’s Northern Elements Progressive Union, formed in the 1950s, or the historian Yusufu Bala Usman.

Elsewhere, the unsuccessful 1967–1970 war for Biafran statehood fought by Igbos in the Southeast attracted the support of Igbo radical intellectuals. They included Chinua Achebe — who also later became a vice president of the anti-feudal People’s Redemption Party in the early 1980s — and Ikenna Nzimiro, the best-known Marxist anthropologist of the era. Nzimiro was a top functionary of the breakaway state. He later argued that the true character of this conflict was not interethnic but intraclass, as two segments of the elite fought for access to resources: the Northerners (known as federals) and the Igbo bourgeoisie (of which Nzimiro was a critical member).

The Biafran cataclysm ended with the wise offer of an amnesty to the secessionists from the military ruler Yakubu Gowon in 1970. However, Igbos still feel slighted by the structure of Nigeria’s federation to the present day. Since the mid-2010s, there has been an increase in pro-Biafran political activism, especially abroad but also in the Southeast, with Nnamdi Kanu as its most prominent leader: it’s notable that Omoyele Sowore’s detention came right after he had met with Kanu in 2019.

Political Drama, Economic Decline

The 1970s and 1980s brought a sequence of coups and military administrations: Murtala Muhammad ousted Gowon in 1975, only to be assassinated the following year in the course of a failed putsch. Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded Muhammad as head of state until 1979, when he handed over power to a civilian government; Obasanjo would become president again from 1999 to 2007, having been democratically elected this time.

The Second Republic of 1979–1983 saw governors who came from Nigeria’s Marxist movement hold office in two Northern states: Muhammadu Abubakar Rimi in Kano and Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa in Kaduna. Both were elected on the socialist platform of the People’s Redemption Party, and their short-lived administrations took action against feudal taxes and dues.

Another coup brought Muhammadu Buhari to power in 1983, before he was displaced in turn by Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida in 1985. The most recent coup d’état took place in 1993, after the victory of Moshood Abiola in long-delayed presidential elections: the military govenrment headed by Sani Abacha imprisoned Abiola and kept a tight grip on power until Abacha’s death in 1998.

While these actors disputed control of the Nigerian state, the oil boom of the 1970s created spectacular riches and made Nigeria the envy of Africa for a decade, with new roads and street lighting, luxury consumption, and a nouveau riche ethos. The boom also facilitated foreign travel, a flowering of the arts — including Nigerian rock music — and an exciting literary scene.

In the early 1980s, the oil slump gave way to a massive economic downturn: Buhari launched a voluntarist “fight against indiscipline” campaign, accompanied by fiscal austerity, not to mention the arrest and detention of many Nigerian radicals. His successor, Babangida (known as IBB), continued in this vein, with neoliberal economic policies that made him a darling of the International Monetary Fund but destroyed Nigeria’s fledgling import-substitution industries and impoverished the middle class, while he and his cronies enriched themselves fabulously.

Intellectual Radicalization

Against this backdrop, a batch of novels by Marxist authors appeared in the 1980s. Festus Iyayi, who had studied in the Soviet Union, published three important books, Violence, The Contract, and Heroes, whose style bore some resemblance to God’s Bits of Wood, the seminal work of Senegalese writer and film director Ousmane Sembene.

Ifeoma Okoye’s Behind the Clouds and Men Without Ears also appeared in the early 1980s. They focused on the emptiness of the showy, invented traditions enabled by oil money, even before the crash. Buchi Emecheta had already published Second-Class Citizen in the mid-1970s, about the fate of Nigerians who emigrated to the UK, supplying an account with an immediacy and power that recalls Malcolm X.

This was just part of a wider intellectual culture. With the number of university students rising, Nigeria’s student population grew ever more restless. A mighty wave of student revolts, with many heroes who gave their lives for the cause, started with the killing of Kunle Adepeju in 1971, and continued through the next two decades and beyond. Student radicalism came to dominate the universities: first Ibadan, then Nsukka, before spreading further.

The early nationalists who had demanded sovereignty for Nigeria were students such as Mokwugo Okoye, inspired by Indian independence as much as by Mao and the USSR. The new generation drew support from radical professors like Yusufu Bala Usman, who taught them to expose the efforts of a comprador elite to continue its racket by fueling religious and ethnic tensions. The economist Bade Onimode focused on the colonial destruction of Kano’s cloth industry, an act of sabotage on a par with Britain’s strangling of Indian textile manufacturing. Onimode’s magnum opus, Imperialism and Underdevelopment in Nigeria (1982), remains the best economic analysis of Nigeria’s predicament, and would certainly merit a reprint today.

This campus radicalism only died off in the mid 1990s, when circumstances favored the appearance of cults on campuses. The historian Stephen Ellis has depicted these cults as the breeding ground of political parties. For Richard Brodie, they define the nature of Nigeria’s bourgeoisie (which he calls “the cultist bourgeoisie”). The Nigerian state certainly enabled the ethnicist, secretive, criminal-minded cults to root out student activists from university campuses with gusto, including a series of assassinations. This continued even after the coming of civilian rule in 1999.


Nigerian radicalism faced many other challenges. Better-organized movements based on ethnicity came forward as alternative channels for political action, alongside the growth of “orthodox” Islam in the North. The Northern countryside had been semi-animist at independence and was only Islamized in a meaningful sense from the 1960s on, with the Gumi family of religious scholars playing a central role, and Saudi financial backing for such efforts.

Meanwhile, new, more radical forms of Protestantism began to flourish in the South, including Pentecostal faiths. “Born Again” movements sprang up, led by savvy televangelists. The onslaught on Nigeria’s genuine cultural traditions has been so intense that authentic traditional art — of the shrines — is now often frowned upon as a manifestation of paganism.

Apart from a brief democratic interlude, Nigeria’s 1990s were characterized by a nightmarish descent into poverty and pariah status on the international stage, while the army mismanaged affairs of state and intellectuals fled the country in droves. It was during this period that many Nigerian Marxist luminaries ended up in the United States, especially literary critics such as Biodun Jeyifo, Tejumola Olaniyan, and Akin Adesokan. They retained their radicalism in the US environment — a notable feat in itself. Another example is Biko Agozino, a criminologist whose 2014 article,The Africana paradigm in Capital,” demolished the myth that Marxism was a Eurocentric ideology incompatible with African pride.

Some Nigerian radicals followed the same path as ex-Communists in Eastern Europe or Central Asia, rebranding themselves as champions of their respective ethnic causes. This volte face had roots going back much further: a push for “entryism” into Nigeria’s dominant ethnic-based parties began as early as the 1960s, and military governments — especially those of IBB and Sani Abacha — found support from renegade radicals who were willing to abandon their cause. They rarely exercised any positive influence over what was happening under these successive military administrations, but some certainly managed to soil their radical credentials in the process.

However, there was also a qualitatively new phenomenon: the global collapse of “grand narratives,” which prompted the Marxist dramatist Femi Osofisan to declare that his generation had been “warriors of a failed utopia.” Many former radicals were disillusioned and no longer saw any alternative to neoliberalism.

Humility and Persistence

What resuscitated an ailing left was the experience of military dictatorship, economic hardship, and a new sensitivity to the dignity of man in the turbulent and dangerous 1990s. The humility of Nigerian Marxist thinkers had always been more palpable than in cultures where not knowing counts as a sin. Doctrinaire thinking of all sorts is rare, even with all the boisterous drama of left-wing organizing, including the abortive efforts to set up a proper labor party — the defining project of the Nigerian left for the last three decades. This kind of humility could serve as a model for Marxist theorizing and radical practice everywhere.

Since the transition to civilian rule in 1999, Nigerian democracy has been dominated by godfatherism, privatization, voter intimidation, ethnic shenanigans, and elaborate structures of exclusion, such as the “indigeneity” rules that discriminate against members of minority communities who are supposed to have originated elsewhere (Muslims in the South, Christians in the North, rural communities, etc).

But there are still well-connected Marxist forces such as Segun Sango’s Democratic Socialist Movement, labor organizers with an international profile like Baba Aye, and ongoing fights to improve the position of workers. Even religious circles have produced genuinely radical, emancipatory currents: the Catholic bishop of Sokoto, Matthew Kukah, and the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, which works for peaceful coexistence between Northern Muslims and Christians, are cases in point.

Life is very difficult in Nigeria at the best of times, and even more so in the face of a global pandemic. For Westerners, the difficulties of life today are just a taste of what things were already like for most people around the world. The kind of optimism that Nigerians show in the face of extreme, grueling adversity is an example to draw upon. Without selflessness and humility, there can be no changing of Nigeria, and certainly no changing of the world.