Madunagu on the National Question

Kayode Komolafe

Edwin Madunagu, The National Question, Kayode Komolafe,

By Kayode Komolafe

The theme to explore in the virtual conference to mark the 75th birthday of Comrade Eddie Madunagu is deliberately framed as “Progressive Politics as the Answer to the National Question: Problems and Prospects.”

The conference, billed for May 15, 2021, the birthday of Madunagu, practically commenced as soon the topic was tabled a few weeks ago in a WhatsApp group of about 190 members comprising comrades, friends, former students, admirers and well-wishers of the Marxist revolutionary.
From the tone and tenor of the vigorous debates grounded in highly informed and divergent perspectives, it seems that, perhaps, nothing could be more apt than the age-old dialectics of class and nation. The manner in which the various ideological categories in theme were contested amplifies the huge topicality of the National Question.

In fact, the debate on the National Question, especially on the Left in Nigeria, is reminiscent of the position of a scholar, Narihiko Ito, who once posed the question: “Is the National Question an Aporia to Humanity”? Now, philosophers talk of an aporia when a theoretical question is so laden with internal contradictions that the resolution of the question would seem irresolvable. But there is no doubt about the urgency of the National Question.

By the way, contrary to the distortion now prevalent in the everyday political chats about the various problems of Nigeria, the National Question (not all questions associated with the problems of Nigeria) is specifically a Marxist category for issues of national and ethnic oppression and exploitation. This oppression is distinguishable from class oppression and exploitation, which constitutes the primary basis of class struggle.

However, as a phraseology the categorical National Question has been so diluted that even climate change is classified as “one of the national questions.”

Significantly, Madunagu has devoted lot of time and intellectual energy to clarifications and elucidation on the National Question. He has engaged in theoretical formulation while making practical suggestions as answers to the question.

While the discussions towards Madunagu’s birthday continued, the tragic losses of Comrade Odumakin, the spokesman of Afenifere, and Comrade Innocent Chukwuma of the CLEEN Foundation, happened. In a tribute to Odumakin, who was the spokesman of the Yoruba ethnic organisation, Afenifere, Comrade Tony Iyare sought to justify the choice of championing ethnic causes by some elements of the Left.

He contrasted the ethnic champions with those who “romanticise class analysis and the primacy of primary contradictions…” To make his point , Iyare invoked names of some great comrades as Marxists who at a point in the revolutionary struggle opted to be immersed in the “the struggles of their people.” Iyare listed the following exceptionally committed comrades to support his argument: Ola oni, Baba Omojola, Edwin Madunagu and G.G. Darah.

To be sure, it is a gross defamation of Madunagu’s ideological character for Iyare to include his name in this group. Nothing in the revolutionary politics of Madunagu in the last 45 years could warrant this ideological scandal. What Iyare has done to Madunagu is nothing short of ideological violence! One thing that is indisputable about Madunagu’s revolutionary politics is the primacy of class struggle.

Yes, Madunagu has been cautioning the Left in Nigeria not to deny the reality of the National Question. However, for Madunagu, the resolution of the ethnic question doesn’t lie in the politics of the factions of the ruling. He has proposed a popular-democratic solution based on the struggles for a humane and just social order. So, the fact of the matter is that Madunagu continues to assert the primacy of class in dealing with the levels of contradictions in the society. And this is no romanticism. Madunagu has never been an ethnic champion in theory and practice.

It is , therefore, grossly unfair to distort Madunagu’s argument to justify the otherwise legitimate positions of other comrades. Whereas it is evident that the other three great comrades like many others at a conjuncture seemed to have been convinced about the primacy of the ethnic question in the politics of Nigeria. But Madunagu’s ideological position which is quite unambiguous from his prodigious writings on Marxism and the National Question is quite distinguishable from those of other comrades including Oni, Omojola and Darah. Attempts will be made to further demonstrate this point in this reflection.
Sadly, Comrades Oni and Omojola are no more to continue with the debate. Right from their heroic youth, they made remarkable sacrifices to advance the struggles of the working people in their lifetime. Thankfully, Darah is still very much active in the debate and this is reflected in his approving response to the Iyare piece on Facebook. As Madunagu himself pointed out recently, the deeply intellectual exchanges between Darah and the late Bala Usman some years ago constitute a reference point in the debate on the National Question. In that debate Darah accused Usman of professing a theory of “political geology.” This riposte was provoked by Usman’s postulation that the fossil deposits in the Niger Delta from which crude oil derived were formed from debris washed down by River Niger and others to the delta region.

It is important for the Left to rigorously examine this trend of comrades becoming militant ideologues of ethnic causes on the basis of the argument that in the present Nigerian condition, the primary contradiction is defined by ethnic oppression. The approach of the Left to the National Question has been somewhat been problematic. But things have not always crystalised this way. Time was when an element of the Left would feel more scandalised being falsely accused of ethnic chauvinism than being called a thief. Marxists and socialists used to strain themselves that their position on national issues were not coterminous with those of the ethnic factions of the ruling class. Not anymore! Today it is a badge of honour for some on the Left to demonise people of different ethic groups other than own including even the wretched of the earth in the enemy ethnic groups.

Since Iyare mentioned Oni, we may as well indulge in some historical reminders. When Oni died 20 years ago, it was extremely sad that comrades watched his funeral in Ibadan passively from distance as different “ Yoruba self-determination groups” took the centre state. He was buried as “ Olori Apapo Egbe Omo Oodua” (the president of the federation Yoruba ethnic organisations) and not as Comrade Oni, that inimitable fighter of proletarian causes who inspired generations of Nigerian Marxists and socialists. The one- time proletarian internationalist had turned an ethnic champion. Even now, Oni’s memorial is marked by the Yoruba self-determination groups and hardly by Nigerian Marxists and socialists.

Less than two decades before died, he had a memorable encounter with another great comrade of his generation, Ikenna Nzimiro, at the “Marx and Africa” conference held for a week at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The conference, which was convened to mark the centenary of the death of Karl Marx in March 1983, attracted the participation of comrades from all over Nigeria and other countries. The session on the National Question was an unforgettably heated one. Nzimiro presented a paper on the role of the Left in Biafra. While admitting that factions of the ruling class took control of things on both the federal and Biafran sides, Nzimiro explained that it became imperative for Marxists and socialists in Biafra to inject some ideological content into the agenda of secession. In particular, he pointed to the “Ahiara Declaration” as a document notably influenced by the Marxists in Biafra. Many years later Chinua Achebe acknowledged this fact in his last book, “There was a Country.” But at the conference, Oni and some other Marxists would have none of Nzimiro’s ideological points and explanation. Oni roared that Marxists should not rationalise secession to the applause of those who shared his Nigerian nationalism at the time. After Oni had emerged an ethnic champion, It would have been interesting to witness a meeting between the two comrades in which Oni could have explained his ideological epiphany to Nzimiro.

This attempt to defend the Madunagu clear position on the Nation Question is borne out of a study of his revolutionary career. Perhaps, Madunagu’s baptism into the politics of the National Question was as a mathematics student at the University of Ibadan. In fact, this happened at the pre-Marxian stage of his life. He had sought to be elected the national secretary of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS). The Nigerian civil was raging at the time. Imagine a Madunagu who wanted to lead Nigerian students in 1968! And the parents of this audacious contestant were from Nnobi, a few kilometres from Nnewi, the hometown of General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Head of State of Biafra. He was, of course, stoutly opposed because of his Igbo identity. A fellow student activist, Biodun Jeyifo, who would later become Madunagu’s life-long comrade and collaborator, supported the man branded as a Biafran. He lost the election, but the lessons learnt became useful in later years when Madunagu and Jeyifo had become revolutionary Marxists.

In of one the ideological sessions of the Democratic Action Committee (DACOM) in 1980, a Marxist cell in which Madunagu inspired generations of cadres in Calabar, this revolutionary Marxist slated the category National Question for debate. The group also had as members non-Nigerian comrades who were committed to the struggles of the working peoples as proletarian internationalists. In retrospect now, it is clear why Madunagu had to labour to convince younger comrades that while class struggle remained the primary duty, it would be a grave political error for Marxists to ignore the National Question in theory and in praxis. Madunagu has been consistent with this formulation of his position since that time. He often refers to experience of European Marxists on the neglect of the National Question, as reported by Horace Davis, the author of “Towards a Marxist Theory of Nationalism.”

When factions of the bourgeoisie mismanage the National Question, the poor people bear the brunt of the destructive violence that often follows the conflict.
For some time now, Madunagu has been sending notes in his column to the Nigerian Left on the popular-democratic solution to the National Question. For instance, on April 13, 2018, in one of his occasional reminders on what is to be done about the National Question he gave a recap of his position inter alia: “The aim here is to summarise my current position on the question of the geopolitical restructuring of Nigeria. I say “current” because as far as I can remember, I started thinking seriously—and then debating and writing—about restructuring from 1986 as a member of the Political Bureau.

“Today, 32 years later, I am still thinking and writing on the subject. The present piece is implicitly a draft memo on this important political subject to the Nigerian Left. And, for the avoidance of doubt, the category “Nigerian Left” means the aggregate of socialism and popular democracy in Nigeria today.

“What I consider my current aggregate position on restructuring of Nigeria is constituted by several propositions articulated and refined over a fairly long period of time. For the purpose of this piece the propositions can be grouped under the following five broad headings: The impossibility of purely ethnic separation; redeployment and redistribution of national resources; levels of exercise of power and responsibility; principles of triple balancing; and popular-democratic restructuring at a glance. The propositions are not of the same status. Some of them are issues which the Nigerian Left should struggle to have inserted in the Constitution of Nigeria, while others are those that the Left should insert in its programmes, manifestoes and occasional platforms. I shall now take the groups of propositions one after the other…”
The tendency of some on the Left to accord the ethnic question the primacy of purpose poses a categorical challenge. That is the challenge of developing a coherent theory to illuminate the Left’s path in the identity politics in Nigeria. The ideas popularised by Madunagu in the last few decades would prove constructive in this regard.

The National Question is as old as Marxism itself. Marx himself was implicated in the neglect of the National Question in his younger days. He said infamously that some nationalities were “non-historic.” The error would seem to be corrected in later years when he supported the struggle against colonialism. Lenin was more explicit about his ideological position. Lenin encouraged communist parties to support the struggles of American blacks and Irish in their struggle for racial justice and national identity respectively. Lenin had important debates with his comrades including Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky who were not enamoured of nationalism.

As the topic of the Madunagu birthday conference suggests the problems and prospects of ideas to resolve the National question are relevant today. What is needed is what Lenin calls “the concrete analysis of the concrete situation.”

Indubitably, the thing that unites the people of Nigeria is their worsening poverty in which no part is exempted on the basis of ethnicity. There is no ethnic solution the problems of hunger, ignorance and disease. The factions of the ruing class also belong to the various ethnic groups. No ethnic faction of the Nigerian ruling class has the historical capacity to execute a national democratic revolution. The task of the transformation of the social order, therefore, remains that of the working people organised for the purpose. In such a condition of mass misery, the class question cannot but be primary.

That should reinforce the option of popular-democratic struggles (not ethnic profiling and demonisation) as Madunagu posits.

*Kayode Komolafe is the Deputy Managing Director of Thisday