By Ike Okonta
The 1993 presidential election and General Ibrahim Babangida’s subsequent ‘stepping aside’ from power is the finest hour of the Nigerian Left. There had been significant political victories in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s but the 1993 victory was the culmination of a trajectory that began with Babangida’s ascension to power. The Left had vigorously campaigned against the Babangida junta right from August 1985 when it seized power from General Muhammadu Buhari in a palace coup. It made it clear that the palace coup was not a political movement forward for the Nigerian people but the continuation of a military dictatorship designed to further marginalize and impoverish them. The Left called on popular movements to continue their campaign of resistance.
When General Babangida inaugurated a public debate to determine what manner of economic system Nigeria should adopt, the Left was on hand to guide the Nigerian people. It asked them to vote for socialism and they obliged. Members of the Political Bureau, carefully selected by the junta beforehand to teleguide the debate and make sure it maneuvered the Nigerian people to opt for untrammelled market forces, were shocked when the latter instead called for increased state participation in the national economy and increased social benefits for the poor who constituted the overwhelming majority. The people were to further emphasize their left-of-the centre position when, in the course of the junta-guided debate whether Nigeria should accept a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the basket of harsh conditions it came with, the former asked for the loan to be rejected forthwith.
The Nigerian Left gave the Babangida junta no breathing space. When it became clear that the political transition programme designed by Babangida to usher in democratic government was in fact designed to perpetuate the Generals in power, the Left mobilized the people to resist this devious stratagem. With the likes of Bamidele Aturu, Chima U bani and Emmanuel Ezeazu in the lead, the Left birthed Campaign For Democracy (CD) in 1991, a pressure group composed of several NGOs, trade unions, student organisations and associations of artisans and market women that galvanized the Nigerian people to take to the barricades and insist that the political transition programme be concluded forthwith to culminate in democratic elections.
The campaign to realize democracy proved long and bloody. Even when General Babangida was eventually forced to step aside on 28 August 19993, the Left did not relent. It turned its fire on Ernest Shonekan who had been quickly shoed-in to continue the absurd political rigmarole where Babangida left off. The Left declared Shonekan’s so called Interim National Government as illegitimate and called on the Nigerian people to reject it; they obliged. When General Sani Abacha, Babangida’s side-kick kicked away the Interim National Government in November 1993 and assumed power as dictator, the Left was waiting for him. The General who loved dark spectacles and looting the national treasury did not have it easy until he died in August 1998.
There is therefore no debate when I state that the democratic government Nigerians have been enjoying since 1999 is the handiwork of the Nigerian Left, many of whose members paid the supreme price in the bruising and bloody struggle to institute popular democracy in the country. The tragedy though, is that when it came to the hour when power was to be handed over to the new set of politicians in Abuja’s Eagle Square that May morning in 1999, members of the Nigerian Left were not in the arena. They had insisted that the National Question and such other important matters as a truly peoples’ Constitution be thrashed out before elections could be conducted. When the administration of interim Head of State General Abdulsalaam Abubakar insisted that time was of the essence and that the National Question would be resolved in due course and that elections must take place, members of the Nigerian Left chose to opt out. The Nigerian bourgeoisie fielded candidates in the subsequent elections and political power was handed to it in May 1999.
There is still a raging debate within the Left whether the decision to opt out of the elections in 1999 was a wise one. There are some who insist that power abhors a vacuum and that the Left should have moved to participate in the election and capture power while postponing the issues it wanted addressed to another day. I have argued with some of my comrades that choosing to leave the field wide open for the same set of politicians who have looted and destroyed Nigeria since independence in October 1960 is not a wise step. I have further argued that the present strategy of the Nigerian Left opting to remain on the sidelines election after election is a foolish strategy and should be corrected forthwith.
The forthcoming 2023 elections present the Nigerian Left another opportunity to present its case to the Nigerian people. In a recent essay to welcome the new year, the foremost Marxist and journalist Edwin Madunagu made a powerful case for the establishment of a Left political party and the drafting of a ‘Peoples Manifesto for The Nigerian Left.’ I welcome this call. However, the 2023 elections are only 12 months away and it will take a minimum of three years to establish a left-of-the-centre political party and properly introduce it to the Nigerian people. What I suggest is that members of the Left scan the political landscape for candidates whose manifestoes are sympathetic to a Left position and pitch camp with them. This is a temporary tactical strategy, designed to enable members of the Nigerian Left get used again to the cut and thrust of traditional Nigerian politics with a view to positioning themselves post-2023 when they can strike out with a wholly new political party.
The present atmosphere of despair and apathy evident in the camp of the Nigerian Left must be done away with forthwith. The past twenty-two years of Fourth Republic democracy have shown that Nigeria’s ruling class has absolutely no solutions for the country’s economic, social and political problems. Indeed, ordinary Nigerians are looking to the Nigerian Left, which in any case made the present democratic regime possible, to come to their rescue.
*Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He lives in Abuja.