Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country by far, may not have a political profile to match its size. But it has a powerful tradition of socialist theory and practice that deserves to be better understood by the international left. That tradition has helped shape the best features of Nigeria’s contemporary political scene.
Ngeria has never had a political profile in Western countries to match its size. It has the largest African population by far: according to some estimates, it may be as high as 200 million people, which would be almost twice as many as its nearest rival, Ethiopia. The country also has the continent’s largest economy (although it barely makes the top twenty for GDP per capita)
It casts a huge cultural shadow, with a film industry second only to Bollywood in terms of output, and world-renowned authors such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Buchi Emecheta — not to mention musicians like Fela Kuti. Its soccer team is a familiar presence at the World Cup. Yet Nigeria’s political leaders and movements haven’t won the same renown.
Unlike Algeria in the north, Kenya in the east, or Angola in the south, Nigeria didn’t go through a violent, protracted struggle before winning its independence from European rule in 1960. The Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba is still a celebrated figure more than half a century after his death, but few people outside Nigeria now remember Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the country’s first prime minister, who, like Lumumba, was ousted and killed in a military coup, the first of many.
Nor were any of Nigeria’s military rulers as infamous as Lumumba’s nemesis Mobutu Sese Seko — not even the last uniformed dictator to hold power, Sani Abacha. Although the failed war of secession in Biafra attracted the world’s attention in the late 1960s, it hasn’t lingered in the memory to the same extent as long-running internal conflicts in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, or South Africa.
Since 1999, Nigeria has been living through by far the longest period of uninterrupted civilian rule in the post-colonial era. But the country is now facing acute and systemic failures as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down its borders, devalued its oil on the global market, and is beginning to put pressure on its fragile health system, budget, and state sector. Even in good times, Nigeria’s political economy is that of a neocolonial basket case. The country’s executive still has a deeply authoritarian cast, and Muhammadu Buhari, the current president, has an autocratic track record of his own, having ruled as military head of state — the victor in a coup — from 1983 to 1985.
Ethnic tension is never entirely off the agenda in Nigerian politics, but a series of recent episodes has underlined the complexity of inter-communal coexistence in the country: a conflict of pastoralists and farmers that has displaced 250,000 people in the Middle Belt, allegedly with federal connivance; a Boko Haram resurgence in the North (perhaps ditto); the widespread bunkering of oil in the Niger Delta, which has been ongoing since the early 2000s; kidnapping and highway robbery now increasingly rampant, from Port Harcourt in the South to Kaduna in the North; and last but not least, a reactivated Biafran secessionist movement — Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) — with violence occasionally flaring up in the Igbo Southeast.