Sylvester Odion-Akhaine is a professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University, (LASU). An ideologue of the defunct National Association of Nigerian Students, (NANS), he obtained his PhD from the Royal Holloway, one of the dozen or so universities that make up the University of London. He spreads himself between activism, academia and politics, virtually making a success in each, if his publications are anything to go by, including his Nigeria version of Robert Kaplan’s hugely successful but geopolitically minded The Coming Anarchy. Intervention’s piece, The Missing Voice of Radicals in the Contest of Meaning Over ‘Fulanisation’ in Nigeria attracted a reaction from him in a conversation which graduated into an interview. It was no longer clear at the end of the interview which might be a greater trouble with Left politics in contemporary Nigeria between orthodox and neo-Marxists on the one hand and between Marxists and post-Marxist position on the other. The interview is run below in accordance with the right of reply from whoever has a contrary position to everything ever published in this platform.
Prof Akhaine does not agree with Intervention that it has been a case of missing voice of the radical Left in the contestation rocking Nigeria about ‘Fulanisation’, saying that he had argued the notion of a state-nation thesis that would have enriched Intervention’s analysis if there had been a reference to it. He was asked to restate the kernel of the thesis.
He says the kernel of his argument in the June 2019 keynote address, titled “The Nigerian Troubadour: Nationhood or Statehood” is that a country based on common citizenship that the founding fathers of Nigeria set out to build has been subverted. Although etched in symbols and state practices such as the National Anthem, the flag, Akhaine says these are now shadows of themselves because the necessary recognition for diversity in a multinational Nigeria is not there. What, in his analysis, is there is how, along the line, one nationality is dominating the rest and subverting the nationhood project. In other words, Nigeria is now a state-nation, his name for the phenomenon in which a minority nationality has assumed control of the material forces the state, essentially the security forces. He goes on to argue how this minority, “by the fact of that dominance, has mainstreamed its own identity over the rest in terms of leveraging on that control”. He adds how this phenomenon is such that the minority nationality he has in mind no longer pretends about its control and which is what he says has accentuated the identity question in the country. He says this with particular reference to the ability of Left inclined actors and observers to analyse the crisis in terms of primary contradictions because secondary contradictions, (Marxist codification of the categories of ethnicity, religion, region, etc) have become the primary contradiction. His argument is that for Nigeria now, to deal with the primary contradiction which is basically the class question, the secondary contradiction has to be dealt with first.
He does not disagree with the notion of primary contradiction but he thinks the secondary contradiction is the more urgent contradiction the country is confronting. He buttresses this, using the statement of senior citizens such as Chief Obasanjo, General Danjuma, General Ogomudia that he recalls Intervention mentioning, the agitations of platforms such as IPOB and OPC and the campaign for restructuring.
When asked if he would say this is the standard Left opinion, Prof Akhaine says it cannot be said so but that Lenin did say that where the national question has become a threat, it has to be resolved before the class question. To that extent, he doesn’t believe his state-nation argument is contradictory of orthodox Marxism. He adds the proviso to this which is that, in resolving the national question in such circumstance, it should be that the working class emerges at the top of control of the state. So, he doesn’t believe the Left can pose the class question in clear terms and he exemplifies the heritage in this regard with Odia Ofeimun’s interpretation of Ola Oni’s Akpakpo Omo’Odua. (Comrade Ola Oni is the late front ranker in Marxism informed radicalism in Nigeria but who, in the evening of his life, formed a revolutionary platform around a tribal platform as named above). Akhaine’s recollection of Ofeimun’s interpretation of that is that it was not degeneration but what we might call contextual creativity. The professor’s contention is that there is no alternative to such course of action “if our country which is multinational is taken over by a state-nation”
He provides an interesting illustration of the complications at work. It is what he said he observed when he was detained in Birnin Kebbi during the Abacha regime. The general reference to him, he told Intervention, was: this is one of those who want to take over from us. The word ‘us’ here tells a story. The story is the how the guards and the warders who are underdogs in class terms feel they are part of the people in power in identity terms. If the experience in detention in Birnin Kebbi is too distant, he has another one. He swears that, in Lagos today, if a Yoruba man and a Hausa-Fulani man were arrested by the police for minor offences, the Yorubaman is likely to be kept behind the counter while the Hausa-Fulani is likely to be asked to go. And, according to him, until Governor Nyesome Wike of Rivers made allegations against a certain military officer, that officer was a likely to the incumbent Chief of Army Staff.
It was predictable for him to conclude from these examples that “there is a conscious attempt to entrench practices”. And to follow that up with the question to his interviewer: if you are living in a country where your nationality is being oppressed, what do you do as a leftist”. His question, in turn, prompted the interviewer to ask Prof Akhaine if he can see the Left front adopting his analysis as a common position for a common front.
On that, it is best to allow him speak in his own words, his words being “when a discourse assume dominant position and as the crisis deepens, the conversation will begin to crystalise”. He says there are those still hooked to traditional interpretation as well as those who have shifted. That there are Fulani scholars who are opposed to domination and nationalities being oppressed.
His next question was whether he doesn’t see any implications in the framing of the crisis in terms of Fulani domination since discourses tend to reproduce themselves, thereby constituting the reality invoked. His response is that there is nothing to fear “even from a scholarly view”. He adds that “we have to muddle through discourses. In a national emergency, we have to engage in discourses with a view to finding solutions. I must tell you, Comrade, that’s the reality. Even in resolving crisis, we have to construct reality”.
Is that to suggest there are no models of how to move the nation from the cross-road? Prof Akhaine has one. He thinks the only way to resolve the situation is for the nation to borrow the model the student movement of the 1980s perfected. Leadership of NANS rotated from one zone to another. The only way to reverse the current situation from what he calls ‘point of no return’ is for Nigeria to borrow that practice from the student movement and this so as to, first, sort out the question of the structure of the state. What he means by this is to arrange Nigeria’s diversity along a federal structure and in such a way that leadership at the centre takes into cognizance the component nationalities and other identities within the state. Additionally, he wants the system itself to mainstream state principles that has merit as the main driver. “It is my opinion that if we move this way, we can resolve the situation”, he insists.
Is he seeing a conflict containment mechanism peculiar to the ruling class in the current situation? Disorganized as the power elite in Nigeria is, he says, they do not go above brinkmanship in confronting each other, safely returning to the status quo as if nothing happens. His second line of analysis in responding to the question is how every such system has people within it who would want the status quo to remain just as there are always those who would push for reform so as to save the common interest of that class. In other words, he doesn’t dismiss the possibility of the emergence of an arrangement in which when the president is Hausa-Fulani, the Chief of Army Staff, for instance, is Berom or Tiv and the person heading the ports authority is Yoruba because that is the country side the port is domiciled. “You cannot have a situation in a multi-ethnic country in which one single nationality dominates key state institutions without rotating it. Once that is the case, it gives room for festering of identity consciousness”, he concludes.
Reminded how Obasanjo did exactly what he was saying by ensuring no dominant ethnic group became a service chief and by ensuring someone from every axis of Nigeria in the economic management team, etc but without that solving the problem as Obasanjo was also accused of favouring Yorubas, Prof Akhaine said Intervention’s reference to Obasanjo is a very good example of guaranteeing belongingness. He asserts that there were two problems with Obasanjo’s practice of it. The first is that Obasanjo didn’t go deep enough. The second is that the level Obasanjo reached has been reversed by the state-nation he has in mind. And, by his analysis, it has now reached a level whereby the Chief of Army Staff can take a university to his village and is followed by other service chiefs. His argument here is that there must be better ways of organizing a nation, pointing out how warfare is no longer about huge universities because, “today, wars are fought on computers before boots match on the ground”. He adds that to his list of the state-nation taking the country for granted. In stretching this further, he maintains that if Ortom, (governor of Benue State) had not dramatised killings in Benue State in January 2018, the rest of the country would not have known what is happening, that being his own way of saying that insecurity has gone out of control.
Intervention posed the following question to Prof Akhaine: In every discourse, there are two voices. They could be more. One is usually the dominant voice that is well heard. The other is the absent voice that is marginalized or excluded. Are you being mindful of that in this state-nation narrative”. His answer is that the absent voice will be drawn into the fray in the context of the dominant discourse.
The follow-up to that is whether he can sense a decidedly Left intervention, given the fluidity of the situation. How the Left will frame the crisis is not clear, he says. “We need a more nuanced understanding of the crisis, something different from the orthodox”, he adds. Stretching the argument, Akhaine says “In Europe and Latin America, they have been more successful in framing the crisis and which has pushed Left forces to the centres of power”
Reminded how he could be interpreted to mean that Left in Nigeria might be having some problems, he retorts by saying that the Left in Africa and especially Nigeria have been a victim of the end of polarity and the dominance of neoliberal practices. “We have not had rigorous ideological debates and circles” is his verdict.
Might this crisis force a return of that? He thinks so, citing the Second Summit of pro-democracy forces that he said took place in Lagos recently and for which the question of how to save the country was the key concern.