The death of Nigerian progressive politics?

Published on Pambazuka News, by Ike Okonta, March 17, 2011.

Two weeks before Nigeria’s election, Ike Okonta takes aim at progressive politics in Nigeria – or the lack thereof. He traces the crisis back to the rule of General Ibrahim Babangida in the 1980s, when universities were devastated by economic policy … //

… The new regime of corrupt and self-serving editors unable to meaningfully analyse the policy platforms of the various political parties has its root in the ‘great transformation’ that the industry underwent in the wake of the Babangida cyclone in the late 1980s.

Elsewhere, the indigenous publishing houses and the local branches of international publishing, unable to walk the tightrope of importing raw material with scarce foreign exchange and selling their books locally at prices they knew the now vanishing middle class couldn’t afford, shut shop one after the other. 

Where these firms went, city bookshops followed. The other side of SAP was, of course, corruption in high places. As public library budgets were routinely embezzled by high officials, weed and darkness overtook these former citadels of light. Massive flight of university teachers back to Europe and North America where the bulk of them had trained in the 1960s and 1970s rounded the circle.

It was this herd-like flight abroad that sounded the death-knell of progressive politics in Nigeria. Nature, as the trite saying goes, abhors a vacuum. What Nigeria’s brightest minds vacated, the dim-witted and grasping quickly filled. That Nigeria’s universities, even the ‘best’ of them, today are more noted for the large number of Mercedes Benz cars in the garages of the professors than for the Nobel Prizes they win annually speak to the caliber of the ‘academics’ who now hold sway in our former centres of light. Nigerian academics in the West are prospering, but the same cannot be said of their counterparts at home.

My area of training is the humanities and social sciences – the policy sciences broadly construed. The last major book produced by a Nigerian academic living in Nigeria that the world took notice of since 1993, when Babangida quit, is Claude Ake’s ‘Democracy and Development in Africa’. So what are the rest of our ‘professors’ in their gilded towers doing?

I too was part of this unthinking ‘African flight’. It was a colossal strategic error on the part of the Nigerian progressive intellectual class. For it left unsupported the political re-flowering that the likes of Bamidele Aturu and the now deceased Ubani Chima were nurturing into being using the platform of the Democratic Alternative, a broad left of the centre political party that emerged a year after Babangida fell from power. These days, the only meaningful progressive politics you get in the country are the writings of Edwin Madunagu, Jibo Ibrahim and Biodun Jeyifo in the newspapers. Even so their columns (with the possible exception of Jibo’s) are still entombed in Marxist straitjackets and are redolent of yesterday’s ideological battles – battles that the global political left lost in the early 1980s following the rise of neo-liberalism.

Should we then go ahead and call in the undertakers? Is it over and done with for progressive politics in Nigeria even as the three political parties that claim the mantle refuse to come together and share a common policy and political platform? These and related questions will be the subject of another essay when the election results come in two weeks from now and the dust, hopefully, would have settled. (full long text).

(Dr Okonta is an Abuja-based writer and academic. His is currently an Open Society Fellow and a visiting scholar at Columbia University. Okonta’s latest book is ‘When Citizens Revolt: Nigerian Elites, Big Oil and the Ogoni Struggle for Self-determination’).

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