The Nigerian State and the National Question: A genuine Marxist approach

Like a hydra-headed monster, once again, ethnic tension has risen to near boiling point, threatening to tear Nigeria apart. This time around, it is the renewed call for secession of the South Eastern region (the Igbos) from Nigeria by the “Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB)” to form the Republic of Biafra, that is haunting the nation. Similar agitation for Biafra in the late sixties eventually led to three years of civil war from 1967 to 1970, in which over two million men, women and children perished.

Army clampdown on Kanu

Nnamdi Kanu Franklin PaulmilkyNnamdi Kanu: photo credit Franklin PaulmilkyThe secessionist calls this time around are being led by one Nnamdi Kanu. Recently, the Nigerian government in a show of force, named “Operation Python”, apparently to forewarn any group daring to challenge the power of the Nigerian state, deployed army troops to Abia state, Nanmdi Kanu’s home state. The military parade went right up to the residential compound of Kanu, obviously to provoke a reaction and prepare the ground to crush him once and for all.

The army achieved its initial aim. Kanu and his followers were not only provoked, they were humiliated right inside their own land. Kanu eventually went into hiding and his followers were humiliated. It will take a while to forget such an experience. Some were forced to drink water from the mud and were seen rolling around on the wet muddy ground, while serious brutalization by the army continued unabated.

As could be expected, this has generated mixed reactions, especially among the Nigerian left. The argument has been couched in legalistic terms, on whether the Nigerian Government’s action, mostly centred on the blatant intimidation of Kanu and his supporters, was “legal” or not. Some, who even unashamedly call themselves Marxists, actually thought that with a little protest and pressure, a bourgeois state can stop being a state, i.e. armed bodies of men in defence of private property. These gentlemen and ladies have actually been taken in by the word Democracy and believe that Bourgeois democracy is democracy for the majority, instead of what it really is: “Democracy of the Minority against the majority”. To expect the State to do away with the use of force to enforce the rule of the minority over the overwhelming majority is actually to expect the Lion to start eating grass.

For as long as the power remains in the hands of a bourgeois elite, the state will be its tool and it will be used to defend the interests of the bourgeois class in power. We condemn the military operations in the South-East, but we must go beyond that and offer the workers and poor a way out of what could become a catastrophe.

The agitation of IPOB

What precisely does IPOB agitation mean? The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) led by Nnamdi Kanu is a separatist organization that wants a number of states in south-east Nigeria, made up mainly of people from the Igbo ethnic group, to break away from Nigeria and form the independent nation of Biafra.

This renewed agitation is rooted in the inability of the Nigerian ruling elite to advance Nigerian society forward. The economy is currently in a terrible mess. Unemployment has skyrocketed, and the Naira has been haemorrhaging for some time now, with no end in sight. Many existing factories are closing down and no new ones are being built. The power problem remains unresolved, while 110 million Nigerians are said to be living below the poverty level.

In these conditions, naturally, the issue of security has taken the front seat, with kidnappings of schoolchildren for ransom and sometimes even for rituals, becoming much more rampant now. In this kind of scenario, even an ordinary bigoted and narrow-minded nonentity can easily mobilize the ever increasing lumpen, de-classed and even criminal elements in society under the banner of nationalism and self-determination. Although, it should be noted that in the current instance, genuinely confused but honest Nigerians can also easily be carried away by the rhetoric of Nationalism. The reason for this is that no way out is being offered by the Labour leaders, who continue to hang on to the coattails of the ruling elite.

IPOB agitation began after the assumption of power by the APC-led Buhari regime. And Buhari is from the North of Nigeria. It is also worth remembering that Kanu was once a staunch public advocate of the unity of Nigeria. In 2012, during the administration of former president Goodluck Jonathan – who is from the south-south region of the country – Kanu joined others in clamouring for peace and unity in the fight against Boko Haram. He saw no reason to criticise Jonathan’s regime or to raise the Biafra agitation. This, among other things, casts serious doubt on the sincerity and the genuineness of the Kanu-led IPOB agitation.

In all of Kanu’s speeches and utterances, he has not once said a word about the oppressive nature of the system of capitalism that has made life very difficult for the mass majority of Nigerians, including the Easterners. Instead of rousing all the oppressed Nigerians across all the ethnic divides against their common oppressors, that is, Buhari and Jonathan among others, as a step toward the radical transformation of society, Kanu’s speeches are mostly characterized by arrogance, hate, bigotry, abuse and even outright curses on other ethnic groups. He has also incited attacks against non-Igbos, in particular Hausas in the south-east. This can only lead to tit-for-tat attacks on Igbos in the north with the danger of so-called “ethnic cleansing” in different parts of Nigeria.

All this, as can be expected, tends to repel most people from the other regions, but also the advanced layers of the Easterners themselves.

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For the unity of all the oppressed of Nigeria

As long as a tiny minority of people still controls the economic resources of the country as against the mass majority of the people, mass poverty and unemployment will still persist. Even the actualization of the so called “Republic of Biafra” would solve nothing fundamental on a capitalist basis. This is the lesson of south Sudan.

The genuine solution to the problems of Easterners does not lie in seceding from Nigeria in a bloody conflagration but in uniting with all oppressed Nigerians to wage a revolutionary war against their common oppressors with a view to wresting power from them. But in achieving this, we must understand the obstacle presented by the State machinery: the army, the police and all the state paraphernalia. This brings us to the question: What is a Marxist analysis of the state?

The Role of the State

Biafran solidarity protest LondonBiafran solidarity protest in LondonMarxists are not pacifists and we do not see the state as an impartial arbiter standing above society. The fundamental essence of every state, with its “armed bodies of men”, police, courts and other trappings, is that it serves the interests of one class in society, in this particular case the capitalist class. Some naively thought that the fundamental objective of the state under a Military-Police Dictatorship is different from a Bourgeois democratic state, but this is far from the truth. There may be differences of form, but the character of the state remains the same, be it a Military Dictatorship or a Bourgeois democratic regime.

This is even more reason why the recent outcry about the legality or the illegality of the Nigerian state in deploying the army to Nnamdi Kanu’s home town in the South East as a show of force to crush the activities of IPOB and the subsequent banning of their activities, is too simplistic with little or no understanding of the workings of the state.

For a minority to lord its will over the overwhelming majority in a society, a powerful and monstrous terror machine is inevitable and this is the State in its essence. Under the former President Obasanjo regime, i.e. in a period of “bourgeois democracy”, the Odi community, a community in the oil rich South-South, was almost wiped out by the Nigerian army; many lives were lost, mainly children, the elderly and women. In 2012, the Nigerian Army was rolled out to crush peaceful demonstrations of Nigerians against the anti-worker policies of the former president Jonathan regime. Examples abound in Nigeria where the state has demonstrated the fact that it is an instrument of violence and an organ of class rule.

A Bourgeois state will not cease to be such through the mere condemnation of its actions, but can only be overthrown by the revolutionary movement of the Nigerian working class in alliance with the mass majority of Nigerian poor, as well as the rank-and file members of the Army and the police who will naturally come to the side of people when they see the determination in them to change society. This is because they are not totally immune to the developments in society in which they live. The histories of all revolutions confirm this.

The method being used by the Kanu–led IPOB, insulting widely with an arrogant tone all the other ethnic groups, will eventually strengthen the state rather than weaken it.

Therefore, once again on the right of self-determination, the IPOB and the left in Nigeria, what is the correct Marxist position on this question?

Right of Self-determination and the Marxist Interpretation

The question of the right to self-determination is a concrete question. There is no one-fits-all position that can be applied to all national questions. It depends on the concrete circumstances.

The question of the right of self-determination has now once again come to the fore in Nigeria. The petty-bourgeois nationalists agitating for secession have advanced this democratic right as a justification for their call.

As quoted below, Alan Woods and Ted Grant remind us of Lenin’s position on this question:

“That Lenin defended the right of nations to self-determination is an ABC proposition for a Marxist. But after ABC there are more letters in the alphabet, and a schoolchild who constantly repeated ‘ABC’ would not be thought to be particularly intelligent. Dialectics, as Lenin explained many times, deals with phenomena in an all-sided way. To abstract a single element in a complex equation, and to counterpose it to all the other elements, is a childish misuse of dialectics, known to the history of philosophy as sophism. Such abuses lead to errors of the crassest type in logic. In politics, and particularly the politics of the national question, they lead directly to the defence of reactionary nationalism and the abandonment of socialism. The national question is a minefield, the crossing of which demands a reliable compass. The moment you depart just one centimetre from a class position, you are lost. Thus, many of those who today try to cite Lenin's defence of the right to self-determination fall into the trap of capitulating to the insistent pressure of petty bourgeois nationalism which is just the opposite of Lenin's position. Let him speak for himself:
"We are not in favour of preserving small nations at all costs;" he wrote, "other conditions being equal, we positively favour centralisation and oppose the philistine ideal of federal relationships." (LCW, The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination, January-February 1916, vol. 22.) Lenin did not in every case support the right of small nations to self-determination. As he carefully explains, other things being equal, we always support larger national units against smaller, and centralisation, on a democratic basis, against decentralisation. But all other conditions are not necessarily equal. The fact of national oppression of one nation by another obliges the proletariat and its organisations to fight against national oppression and defend the right of nations to self-determination.
The right of nations to self-determination is a democratic demand and Marxists support it, as we support any other democratic demand. But the support for democratic demands in general has never been considered by Marxists as some kind of Categorical Imperative. Such demands are always subordinate to the interests of the working class and the struggle for socialism, as Lenin clearly explains: "In practice, the proletariat can retain its political independence only by subordinating its struggle for all democratic demands, not excluding the demand for a republic, to its revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie." (Marxism and the National Question)

Shamefully, many on the left have completely forgotten the precious lessons of the past, and have also helped the secessionists to echo this slogan. The Right to Self Determination is taken by them as categorical imperative, that is, it is a demand to be advanced every time, everywhere and under all circumstances. Some of them have read Lenin on this question but, unfortunately, they have not really understood what he wrote. He always stressed that the national question and the right to self-determination is subordinate to the interests of the working class as a whole, and it is with this consideration in mind that Marxists should approach the question of IPOB today.

It was under the slogan of self-determination that the barbaric war in the Balkans was waged in the 80’s and the civil war in Nigeria was waged with over 2 million lives lost. The demand for the right of self-determination is not a general formula, applicable under all circumstances. It has to be concretely applied and in the concrete context we are confronted with.

The aim of Lenin when the Bolsheviks advanced this slogan was not to divide the working class along national lines, but rather to unite them. The slogan achieved its objective in Russia. It led to the coming together of all nationalities to wage war against the common enemy (the Tsar) and after the successful revolution many oppressed nationalities agreed to form a Union with Russia

The lessons of Yugoslavia

However, what did this slogan lead to in the Balkans, where the “right of self-determination” was raised to push a reactionary agenda? It led to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, without any benefit to the workers of the various republics and with a completely reactionary outcome. Back then also, many left groups played with the slogan of self-determination without looking at the concrete situation.

The question of which nationalities are being oppressed and by what nationality is a complicated question in Nigeria. There are over two hundred and fifty small ethnic groups, often sharing the same territory and intermixed with each other, and whose voices are not even heard outside, and they have always been pawns in the hands of the bourgeoisies from bigger ethnic groups close to them. The three major ethnic groups (Yorubas, Hausa-Fulani and Igbos) have been playing the victims of oppression one after the other without much evidence to back it up.

Furthermore, the situation has become much more complicated with the migration of different ethnic groups to other areas. For example, over 10 million Igbos live in the North, with over 3 million estimated to be living in Kano alone. There are almost 10 million in Lagos in the South-West alone. In the same way, millions of Yorubas have also settled in the North for several decades, many never returning to their historical base. There have been inter-marriages and many combined business setups.

In these conditions, any move to secede on a capitalist basis would lead to unimaginable butchery, or “ethnic cleansing” as it is politely referred to. And the end result would be either a bloody war to hold Nigeria together or equally bloody secessions like in Yugoslavia, with reactionary regimes on all sides.

We ask, what would be progressive in such a result in Nigeria? How would the interests of the Nigerian workers and poor be defended in such a scenario? This is also true of the Igbos. How would the Igbo worker or peasant be better off under a Kanu-led government in any future Biafra?

The problem lies in the fact that Nigeria today is in the hands of a backward, weak and inept ruling capitalist class which is running a backward capitalist economy.

In these conditions, the hope of a peaceful secession on a decent gentlemanly-agreement basis is out of the question. It will always end up in barbarism.

Oil is pivotal in all this, as it is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy. It was no accident that even the unsuccessful Biafra republic (during the 1967 Biafra secession) annexed the South-South despite the claim of defending the right of self-determination. The South-South is not Igbo territory, so it would have exchanged the oppression of the wider Nigerian elite for oppression at the hands of an Igbo elite. The Igbos from oppressed would have become the oppressors, as has often been seen in history in such cases.

As it was then, so it is now. The Nigerian ruling elite will go to any extent to retain control of the oil region and it is obvious they have all agreed on this across the length and breadth of the country.

What should be done?

Marxists defend the right of self-determination, but we have to be concrete and look at the real conditions on the ground. Today, on a capitalist basis, the Igbos, or any other ethnic group within Nigeria, will not achieve what they desire – an end to poverty, for jobs, healthcare, housing, etc. – simply be seceding from the Federation. A real sustainable solution to the incessant ethnic tensions in Nigeria is to cut deep into the social base upon which these so called ethnic militants grow their support. It is a movement of lumpenised, declassed, frustrated and sometimes criminal elements in society. For as long as Nigeria remains under-developed with rising unemployment and growing poverty, the social base of the bigoted and hate-promoting ethnic militants will continue to grow.

Only through massive development of the economy and the hope of a better future for the youth, will the swarm of youths currently being attracted towards this movement be won over to a genuine progressive and united solidarity movement.

Unfortunately, the inept capitalist ruling elite cannot, under the capitalist system, develop Nigeria on the large scale required. Therefore, the hope of a truly united, strong and prosperous Nigeria is tied intimately to the task of the revolutionary overthrow of the current crop of ruling elite across all the ethnic groups. The overthrow of the ruling elite and its capitalist system will pave the way for the building of modern, industrialized Nigeria along the Socialist path.

In such a context, all the peoples of Nigeria, all the ethnic groups could achieve self-rule or autonomy, depending on the situation in each state that makes up Nigeria, but within a federation of all the working peoples, where the rights of every group, whether national, linguistic or religious, would be guaranteed.

For this to come about, the Nigerian Labour leaders would have to play a very different role than the one they have played so far. There was a time when the NLC (Nigerian Labour Congress) leaders were loved by the masses. When they called general strikes in defence of the workers and poor, there was an enthusiastic response across all the ethnic divisions. Workers in the north, the south-west, the south and the east all responded in the hope of changing things.

The problem is that nothing has changed. Too many times the Labour leaders have compromised, leaving the workers, the youth and the poor with no hope. It is in these conditions that movements to secede can grow, where we see local bourgeois elites, for their own greedy reasons, promoting “self-determination”. We too are for self-determination, but we are for the self-determination of the Igbo workers and peasants, in the same way that we are for the self-determination of the Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani workers and peasants, the Ijaw workers and peasants, and so on. Only by coming together, can the different ethnic groups achieve genuine freedom.

A Democratic Socialist Federation of Nigeria, with the rights of all ethnic groups recognised and defended, would be a shining example for other struggling backward countries across Africa and it would be the basis upon which a Democratic Socialist Federation of Africa could be ultimately built.

Forward to the Nigerian Socialist Revolution

Forward to the Democratic Socialist Federation of Nigeria


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