He not only came all the way from Oxford University in the UK to attend the last Marxism Conference in Nigeria from November 1st to 4th, 2018, he also presented a paper. And presented a paper on a sensitive issue in radical politics in Nigeria – the Entryist option of radicalising democracy! The pragmatist in Entryism and the disaster that each such attempt in the history of radical politics in Nigeria have been makes the topic sensitive.
But beyond the muted controversy around his paper, there are other features about him: if it is not a very young Nigerian who is about to obtain a PhD in International Development from a global front row university, it must then be the identity complexity about him – Idoma parents with Hausa-Fulani identity traces, growing up in Jos and then getting into meeting and mixing with the phalanx of identities in the UK setting. But he likes the fluidity because it enables him to share in the collective experience of the multiple of identities in a place such as the UK – Igbos, Yorubas, Hausas, Blacks, and Africans. In fact, he draws from thinkers such as the African-American writer, James Baldwin on that and is particularly fond of the Fanonist idea of ‘double consciousness’ that comes with being identified as a Black in Europe.
All these made Intervention to go for him. What is published below is a combination of the initial verbal chat in Keffi, the subsequent whatsapp exchanges, a short telephone conversation and the email segment that brought the interview to a close. One hopes these scraps form a coherent conversation between two people with very fluid commitments.
You came to the Marxism Conference in Keffi. What is your overarching impression of it at the end of the day?
The conference was a fantastic start. I learnt a tremendous amount and made some valuable relationships (including with you!). There is much we can build upon. I have written a summary of my experience of the conference for a website called ‘Africa is A Country’. I would be happy to send it to you once it is published.
Intervention would rather want to be the first to publish. How about that?
Ans: Ah, I have already committed to sending it to AfricaIsACountry! But I am happy to repost it to Intervention after it is published.
What is your sense of the key difference between the debate on Marxism in Europe and Africa at this point?
Embarrassingly, I am just discovering that there is a Marxist debate in Africa! This was one of the things I most enjoyed learning at the Marxist conference in Keffi. I am very keen to read Feminist Africa and other radical journals based in Africa. I think the most exciting thing about the debate in Europe is that one generation has succeeded in passing it on to another one — so the so called ‘millennial’ generation has embraced the Left in Europe and America. Bridging this generational gap is one of the most urgent tasks for the Left in Africa, in my view. Our young people just want to be entrepreneurs or fundamentalists, and this is terribly worrisome.
Marxism has been contested but what is your assessment of the potentials of any of the contending ‘grand narratives’ to establish itself as a binding theory and practice of reality?
Personally, I think theorists like Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau who advocate for radical democracy have been the most perceptive lately. I think they take post-structuralism seriously, without abandoning the Marxian idea that progressive politics is about the struggle for equality.
I think it would not be a terrible statement to say the Laclau and Mouffe have set the boundaries of Marxism for this century but I am surprised about your answer because the leading attackers on post-Marxism are, one way or the other, all Oxford linked.
Their ideas are by no means perfect, but I have found their prescription of Left-wing populism an inspiring one as well as a good description of the reasons why young people have recently been reinvigorated politically by figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
From your encounter with Marxism in Keffi, do you see us domesticating post-Marxism in Nigeria in a way that can respond to the crisis of false sense of entrepreneurship and fundamentalism which you mentioned earlier on?
I think there is much potential to stage a Left-wing populist project in Nigeria, particularly if it bridges the generational divide between millennials and the former student activists of Generation X and Y. The first attempt to bridge this generational divide was one of the great accomplishments of the Keffi conference, in my view.
Doesn’t hybridity make nonsense of a lot of what we knew before?
If hybridity is understood as bridging Marxism with other theoretical schools, I believe it is not only important but essential. The 20th century taught us that Marxists do not have a monopoly over knowledge. This is why the Soviet Union was outmanoeuvred by the U.S. and ultimately collapsed under the weight of authoritarian statism. Liberal thinkers (such as Isaiah Berlin) and even communitarian scholars such as Oakshot have also given us some powerful and correct ideas. In the realm of economy policy making in particular, the left has a lot to learn, having been out of power in most of the world for almost 3 decades.
What one hasn’t been able to come to terms with is the degree to which the ‘critical turn’ has developed in the US. That is a place we thought the social sciences are all about defending the status quo. You just mentioned Oakshot. He is not a radical but very scholarly.
I think many good things have happened in American academia in the past couple of decades, including the development of subaltern studies and other branches of critical theory which focus on the developing world. Ramzig Keucheyan’s book, The Left Hemisphere, does a good job of mapping the terrain of Critical Theory, particularly in America.
So, why did you focus on Entryism or would one be guilty of abstracting Entryism from your paper at the Keffi Marxism conference?
You’re correct, Entryism was precisely my focus – it was even in the title of my presentation — “The Case for Entryism”. I focused on Entryism because my empirical field research into Nigerian party organs has led me to believe that Nigeria’s political elite have several blind-spots within the mainstream parties, which an organized left can exploit. I argue that our existing parties could be transformed into radical fronts if the left staged a take-over from the bottom-up. But this would require both a democratic decision about what party to enter (LP, APC, PDP, etc) and much coordination and organization. Such democratic coordination might only be possible after the Nigeria left has constituted itself under an organizational umbrella.
How far did you consider that previous records of Entryism have not been very encouraging and that if such has been the case at a time the left was much, much clearer, then Entryism could be very problematic now when everyone is fuzzy, ideologically, organisationally and even on questions of models?
I have read about past attempts the Left has made to engage with mainstream political parties. I think one weakness of such attempts was that they often adopted a ‘top-down’ approach, trying to field individual candidates, rather than the ‘bottom-up’ approach of seeking to build a popular base at the grassroots level first. That being said, I think the actual experience of electoral strategizing could be a great way to unite the organisational and ideological identity of the Left in Nigeria. Sometimes you have to learn by doing.
This question is in relation to the observation on geopolitics of knowledge that you mentioned and which one of the elderly professors also drew your attention to at the conference. Doesn’t the study of Nigeria pose a challenge for European universities?
This depends on how we study Nigeria (whether from Europe or from Nigeria). If we study Nigeria as Fanon studied Algeria — in order to develop new theories for how the whole world should move forward, I think this could really challenge Europe. But if we study Nigeria, using analytical tools that idealize Europe, then studying Nigeria in Europe will only serve to deepen the already very Eurocentric orientation of academia.
I thought you were going to mention Edward Said since one could say that Fanon unconsciously benefited from his perspective
I am certainly a fan of Said (my namesake)! But it is true that my work on African politics has given me much more exposure to Fanon, a political theorist, relative to my exposure to Said who is more so situated in literary criticism.
You might have heard about the principle of rotation of power in Nigerian politics. Have you ever reflected on it in terms of problems it might have solved and problems it might have created or is creating?
I think about this a lot due to my research into Nigerian political parties. As you know, the idea of zoning is a very powerful one in Nigerian parties. One good thing it does is that spreads federal resources more evenly across the geography of the country, since each region will get their ‘chance to rule’. To an extent, it also helps limit the extent to which people make demands for inclusion on tribal grounds. Of course zoning does not eliminate this problem entirely, since we still frequently hear cries that this or that tribe is ‘marginalized’. This is where the Left could play a very critical role in Nigerian politics — by reframing marginalization in class and not tribal terms. The poor and working people are the most marginalized tribe in Nigeria — how about if we ‘zoned’ power to the poor?
Let’s briefly look at that in relation to this old question. Can democracy and development go together?
I think the more important question is what is the alternative? Are we really willing to bear the moral cost that comes with dictatorship? Moreover, Nigeria (and much of Africa) has already tried dictatorship and colonization and neither of those really achieved much development — they only brought untold amounts of human suffering. The west showed us that with slave labour, environmental degradation, and colonization, you can accomplish development. Africa’s destiny is to prove that it is possible to develop without brutality.
One question we still haven’t been able to answer is the question of the very nature of the African power elite. A colleague at the Lagos State University came up last week with the notion of calling the Nigerian component of the African elite an ‘irredeemable elite’. How far would you go with that?
I think every elite strives to hold on to power – there is of course nothing new about this and Nigeria’s elite are in this sense, nothing special. The idea is not to redeem them but to replace them with more progressive leaders drawn from common people.
Irredeemable there is saying they haven’t even been able to discharge their basic elite responsibility. Their Chinese counterpart, for example, concluded that it is not possible or it is not advisable to bypass capitalism. So, they looked the other way in terms of labour regimes, conditions of work, corruption and primitive accumulation and now, they have performed.
I can’t claim to know very much about economic development, (as I have tended to focus on institutions). I am of course aware that the Chinese model of state entrepreneurialism has had some obvious attraction for many African countries. However, taking Nigeria for instance, I think our development is likely to be quite different form the Chinese one, given our state’s lack of experience running highly centralized and profitable public enterprises, as witnessed in China. Moreover, it seems that opportunities in the service economy, for instance in IT and data driven jobs, can be exploited in Nigeria as they are in places like Kenya. Obviously, it is well known that Nigerians know how to exploit the internet! There is much opportunity there that has yet to be fully tapped. I think part of what radical politics can accomplish in Nigeria is to shift the priorities of our state – for instance, from paying massive subventions to our so-called representatives to making serious investments in social welfare, particularly in education.
Beyond the state, I also think that one thing that might work particularly well in the African context where there is already a long history of this, is the strengthening of the culture of worker or farmer owned cooperative societies. I think socialism need not necessarily be state centric and that the private sector can also be much more democratized. Here models such as the Cooperation Jackson (a collective of worker-owned cooperative businesses in America) might provide more a useful model.
You are scheduled to obtain your PhD in s short while. What happens next?
God-willing! I will begin a job in Lagos for a political risk consulting firm while continuing to publish academically and stay active in academia and political organizing in Nigeria.