An introduction to ‘Naija Marxisms’

Taken from Adam Mayer’s book, ‘Naija Marxisms’, we have an introduction to Nigerian Marxism. “Long gone are the days when Marxism meant imported pamphlets and a rootless foreign ideology”, Mayer’s book chronicles the development of Marxist thought in Nigeria and its influence on  party politics and the political economy; Nigeria has produced Marxist thinkers of vital importance in most fields of political and human inquiry. This extract offers you lucky blog readers an introduction to the books key themes: 

This book, the first monographic study of Nigerian Marxism, had to be written sooner or later. It is reasonable to ask, however, why exactly a Hungarian researcher should have undertaken the task. Indeed, it is – or it should be – humbling to write on a history that is not one’s own. However, without trying to gloss over the occupy-nigeriaobvious difficulties of being a foreigner (and someone who does not hail from a Commonwealth country at that), there may be some advantages resulting from my standpoint. I spent my formative years in socialist Hungary. Linkages between Eastern Europe and the Nigerian socialist movement abounded from the 1940s until 1989. Some authors discussed below were actually schooled in Eastern Europe: Eskor Toyo studied economics in Poland, and even had a book published in Polish. Labour leader Michael Imoudu, Tunji Otegbeye, Wahab Goodluck, socialist feminist Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and others travelled regularly to Moscow for conferences and for funds to support the socialist movement and labour initiatives, including strikes. The Eastern Europe–Marxist Nigeria link has been recognised and partly documented by the eminent Nigerian historian Hakeem Tijani (whose eminence is matched by his allegiance to the political status quo), but the connection is still awaiting a historian to unearth the exact details in the Russian language in Moscow. At the same time, to reduce Nigerian Marxism to an acolyte movement, funded by Eastern Europeans would be a very erroneous proposition. Even Tunji Otegbeye, leader of the Moscow-sanctioned Marxist party (Socialist Workers’ and Farmers’ Party), made frivolous remarks about the land of the Soviets in his books, not to mention heterodox thinkers such as Niyi Oniororo or Edwin Madunagu, who condemned Soviet leaders nearly as often as they did Americans. Two Nigerian Marxists, Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph and Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti were the recipients of the Lenin Peace Prize along with Nasser, Nehru, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, Salvador Allende, Pablo Picasso and Nelson Mandela – a sign that the USSR recognised the potential of the Nigerian Marxist movement. I devote a chapter to the international links of the Nigerian Marxist movement: mainly British, East European, Ghanaian, and South African. Indeed, the multifaceted nature of the Nigerian left’s international links reminds us that there is more to the international flow of ideas than the metropole–colony relationship.

Through the essays, articles, treatises, analytical tomes and pamphlets written by Nigerian Marxists, a subaltern of sorts spoke, and she spoke with the voice of a Black Jacobin. Most of their aims stood for radical equality in the vein of veritable levellers. Although one could claim to be, say, a Marxist labour organiser in the 1970s if one had read only the classics of Marxism, it was inevitably of interest for leftists to get acquainted with Marxian takes on issues that more directly concerned their own lives. The tomes discussed in this volume were printed in editions of thousands, often reprinted just months after their first publication. Northern Nigerians such as Yusufu Bala Usman were read and appreciated in the South; Southern Igbos such as Madunagu were inspirations in the North as well as their home constituencies; men read feminists such as Ogundipe-Leslie; women read rugged labour-oriented organisers such as Oniororo. Some, like Imoudu, had the most obvious working-class pedigrees, others were second-generation literates (or, like Ransome-Kuti, fourth-generation literates) but their focus was the same: liberation for ordinary Nigerians. In more than one way, the authors I deal with all belong, many out of choice, to the subaltern class in neocolonial Nigeria.

Naija MarxismsCapitalist Nigeria is a crime against its own people, say Naija Marxists, with convincing force. The ostentatious Nigerian leadership of the 1980s was one of the first, globally, to introduce structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), ostensibly to revive the country’s ailing economy. SAPs in the end deindustrialised Nigeria, forced upon it the worst kind of militarisation of politics, sucked the blood out of its veins and turned it into a barren land of no production, no middle class, few medical doctors (more Nigerian medical doctors practise in the US than in Nigeria!), no oil refineries (four of these stand idle while compradors re-import refined petrol!), two hours of electricity a day for most people, very little indoor and no outdoor plumbing, no operational water towers (except in Calabar), no sewage system to speak of, and cities filled with filth that would startle even Engels.

It is not hard to see why a Nigerian academic friend of mine, who had studied in socialist Hungary in the 1980s but who had no socialist political leanings whatsoever, once said over coffee: ‘What Nigeria needs is a touch of communism.’ For Nigeria today is a sad parody of democracy, a petro state where indecent individualism reigns supreme; a country where every driver uses high beams after dusk, effectively blinding each other, and maiming and even killing innocent bystanders. What is possibly the most dangerous country on earth not involved in a conventional war, however, is full of talented, warmhearted, open people, people who deserve better from their leaders and honest analysis from their intellectual class. The authors I discuss in this book appear to me to represent that kind of honesty: their voice has not been bought, their reasoning, along with their sympathetic hearts, is evident to all those who care to read them. They offer hope that in Nigeria the status quo might one day be overcome.

Everyone knows that Nigeria is famous for fraudulent emails and internet scams. What is less known is that this fraud is the fifth biggest sector of the Nigerian economy. What is central here is that, as David Harvey warns, ‘a serious case can be made that the extralegal forms are fundamental rather than peripheral to capitalism (the three largest sectors of global foreign trade are in drugs, illegal guns, and human trafficking)’. When we discuss Nigeria, we have to understand that it is Western companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Agip, Chevron, Julius Berger, Standard Chartered Bank and others that make money there on a daily basis; in conjunction that is, with Nigeria’s predatory elite.

Nigeria shows to the naked eye that accumulation is indeed oft by dispossession. In Yola where I lived, on the local hills (lovingly nicknamed Beverly Hills, rather aptly too as we shall see), a shining new development was crowding out local mud huts in an extralegal way. Anyone who had no written title deed to a given area was promptly evicted by the governor. Fulani herdsmen rarely had title deeds for their huts to hand. As the property was on the top of a hill in a major flood-prone region, its commercial value was very high and still rising. Accumulation by dispossession in Nigeria is not something one reads about in left-leaning periodicals but something one observes as a matter of indisputable fact right in front of one’s gate. That is the reason why I believe that learning about Nigeria not only tells us about Nigeria but, equally importantly, it tells us about ourselves, about the 21st century, about global capitalism.[…]

Generally, we can say that the ruling classes of Nigeria, the common enemy of the Marxist thinker, are effectively an illustration of David Harvey’s pessimistic dictums. They have successfully privatised profits and socialised risks. Wages are repressed to extremes in the country (when there are wages paid at all, that is), prices unbelievably high. I have been offered in Yola a living turkey for $100, and this did not surprise as a boney backyard chicken goes for $25. At the highest socioeconomic level, privatisation of parastatal companies finished the job of dispossession. That came with democracy in the post-1999 scenario, celebrated in the West as a return to good governance and decency. Thievery, fraud and robbery are rampant in today’s ‘democratic’ state, as in Central Europe during the Thirty Years War, and traditional systems that had once put limitations on ostentatious personal consumption and greed have been made to look ridiculous by the mainstream media. Indeed, when someone with a conscience is confronted with Nigeria, he/she is forced to think like a radical. […]

nigerian-youth-congressThis book was 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 disgruntled and under-represented new poor, including the author. Only thanks to scholarships in Italy, Japan and American universities in Kyrgyzstan and Bulgaria, was I later able to work in international NGOs in the global South (Afghanistan) and then at American universities in Nigeria and in Thailand. My method has been to treat the history of ideas, including socialist ideas, at the intersection of speculative and empirical fields. I find it impossible to discuss workers’ self-government without directly referring back to Yugoslavia’s practical experience with this method, to Giovanni Arrighi’s findings on the Chinese experience with workers’ self-government,52 to Venezuelan attempts at meaningful democratisation, and even to British workers’ cooperatives or to Herend Porcelain’s unique workers’ ownership structure system when I read some of today’s speculative Marxist literature on the subject – but I also find that mainstream histories of both Eastern Europe and of the South often neglect the importance of ideas produced in those regions themselves, and I find that wanting too; in fact I find it to be shallow empiricism. Political history and the history of ideas should ideally be discussed together, and putting the ‘historical’ back into ‘historical materialism’ may be one of the most important tasks for today’s socialists.

Southern radical epistemologies are celebrated today by thinkers such as Ramon Grosfoguel, but Eastern Europe’s new role as a bona fide capitalist semi-periphery has so far mostly nurtured fascists of various persuasions, occultists and ‘perennialists’; so much so that Eastern Europe today seems like an empty shell, an epistemological no-man’s- land – still unable to digest that its 1989 revolts have been stolen from the people. Eastern European art, especially writers like Pelevin and Krasznahorkai, and the films of Bela Tarr provide a glimpse into the post-apocalyptic psychology of most sensitive Eastern Europeans. That said, despair in the long run might preferably be overcome, not just savoured. My wildest hope is that radical Nigerian voices, including Marxist ones, among many other catalysts, may have a role in fostering socialist thinking in newly subjugated capitalist regions such as mine. Beyond that, of course, I hope that an exposition of the history of Marxist thought may be useful to the Nigerian movement itself, and that it may be interesting to the general reader.

The definition of Marxism in this book is intentionally wide and inclusive. It is not even posited as a necessary antithesis to conservatism (in my view, capitalism conserves very few things of value). I choose caution when considering Mokwugo Okoye’s way of discussing traditional African village life with nostalgia, or discussing the work of Niyi Oniororo, also a Marxist, who treated cultural conservatism with the disdain of a Maoist cultural revolutionary. I also do not enter the debate on whether Marxism should allow space for religion in a way that would be unconventional for 19th century Marxists. Bade Onimode became religious as he aged, Tunji Otegbeye maintained his nonchalant silence on the subject to his death, the labour leader Michael Imoudu sported juju regalia all his life, and Edwin Madunagu is an agnostic with respect for all religions, animist or monotheist. I have not yet come across doctrinaire atheism among Nigerian Marxist thinkers, but rather compassionate analyses of why religions can so effectively be manipulated in the soulless ordinary people inhabit in that country.


If this book sparked your interest, please check the Pluto Press website for other similar titles. If you need a gentle nudge in the right direction, we recommend:

Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism by Steve Wright

Offering a critical and historical exploration of the tendency’s emergence in postwar Italy, Storming Heaven moves beyond the crisis of traditional analytical frameworks on the left, and assesses the strengths and limitations of autonomist marxism as first developed by Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, Sergio Bologna and others.

The Threat of Liberation: Imperialism and Revolution in Zanzibar by Amrit Wilson

Through photographs, declassified US and British documents, and interviews Amrit Wilson paints a compelling picture of Zanzibar in the midst of decolonisation.

Contesting Transformations: Popular Resistance in Twenty-First Century South Africa edited by: Marcelle C. Dawson and Luke Sinwell

An edited collection that critically surveys acts of resistance in post-apartheid South Africa.

We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism by Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen

We Make Our Own History responds to new visions of a future beyond neoliberalism by reclaiming Marxism as a theory born from activist experience and practice. It is a marked break with established social movement theory, and with forms of Marxism that treat the practice of social movement organising as an unproblematic process.

Just Work? Migrant Workers’ Struggles Today by Aziz Choudry and Mondli Hlatshwayo

Just Work? offers a vast range of original, grass-roots perspectives on global migrant labour organising in the twenty-first century.

The Making of an African Working Class: Politics, Law, and Cultural Protest in the Manual Workers’ Union of Botswana by Pnina Werbner

An exploration of the formation of a distinctive working class identity among low-paid manual workers in Botswana.


Naija Marxisms is available to buy from Pluto Press here


Adam Mayer is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Webster University, Thailand. Formerly he served with international NGOs in Afghanistan, before teaching Politics at American University of Nigeria, Yola.



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