Adam Mayer has rendered a great service to the workers’ movement in Nigeria and internationally. He shows that rather than being a foreign imposition, Marxism, a political guide to action, was very much part and parcel of the resistance to both colonial exploitation and to the predatory bourgeois classes that inherited power after independence.
Nigeria is a creation of colonialism and imperialism, a country cobbled together by the British in 1914 to render it easier to exploit. Monetisation of the economy and the destruction of peasant livelihoods created a working class that flocked to the colonial enclave economy to earn the money to pay the taxes imposed by the colonialists. Resistance began virtually immediately.
In 1943 a group of young men based in Lagos sent a telegram to Stalin congratulating him and the Russian people on their defeat of the invading fascist horde. In response, the Soviets sent pamphlets and books on Marxism to the young men.
In 1945 workers went on strike for an indefinite period of time for what was then called Cost Of Living Alliance. It was this strike that defenestrated the colonial government, making independence inevitable.
Some aspects of the book are rib-ticklingly funny: in the late 1950s a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) addressing an audience in Nigeria recommended assassinating Nigerian bourgeois leaders to push the struggle for socialism forward. The collective response of Nigerian comrades gathered at the conference was that since the CPGB had not assassinated Churchill, they had no intention of assassinating their leaders.
The strengths of the book lie in the forensic manner in which Mayer analyses key Marxist thinkers. He shows how they wielded the tools of Marxism to understand the reality of Nigeria and to create an alternative for working people to struggle for.
There is a detailed section on the exploits of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, mother of musician Fela Kuti. FRK, as she was popularly known, mobilised ordinary women to force a reigning monarch to flee for his life.
However, the book does have some flaws. Mayer fails to indicate that the Marxism that Nigerian radicals came into contact with in the 1930s and 1940s was no longer the powerful body of work that emphasised the self-emancipation of the working class. Due to the Stalinist ascendancy in the USSR, it had become the ideology of a ruling class that utilised it to justify all the twists and turns of its privileged existence.
Socialism was no longer about workers’ power but had become a form of “economic development” that showed the way for poor peripheral capitalist countries to catch up with the West. No wonder that it appealed so much to the elites of such countries and no wonder the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in 1989 caused a crisis of conscience among such activists.
These flaws aside, I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to know more about workers’ struggles and socialism in Africa’s most populous country.