The Nigerian and the Lenin Prize

Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph was a prominent left nationalist in Nigeria’s struggle for independence. Then he was forgotten. How do we commemorate him?

A street scene in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos. Very few people in Nigeria remember or know about Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph, a businessman and nationalist politician (Photo: Satanoid, via Flickr CC.)

In May 1966, the politician, businessman, and writer Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph became the first Nigerian ever to receive the Lenin Peace Prize. The prize, which named its first winner in 1950, was originally named the Stalin Prize 1950 to 1955, but was changed to the Lenin Prize two years after Stalin’s death following a period of de-Stalinization. Its last recipient was Nelson Mandela in 1990. In addition to Mandela and Curtis Joseph, a number of prominent Africans and members of the African diaspora have won the prize, among them Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Bram Fischer, Sékou Touré, Kwame Nkrumah, Modibo Keita, Ben Bella, Jean Martin Cisse, Sam Nujoma, Samora Machel, Agostino Neto, Abd al-Rahman al-Khamisi, and Julius Nyerere. Curtis Joseph is not the only Nigerian to be awarded the prize. In 1971, the Lenin Prize was awarded to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the activist whose children include the musician Fela and the doctors and activists Beko and Olikoye (the latter of whom also served as Nigeria’s health minister). But unlike Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who is now remembered as a feminist and nationalist in Nigeria, Curtis Joseph has been largely forgotten.

Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph died in December 2006, and November 8th of last year marked the centenary of his birth. But barring a commemorative event held in his memory at the 22nd Lagos Book and Art Festival on November 10th, 2020, fourteen whole years have passed since his death—years in which Nigerians have not done much to remember, honor, or celebrate this unsung hero.

How do we commemorate someone effectively unknown to history? It is usually the case in Nigeria that those who credit her independence to nationalist leaders like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and Ahmadu Bello have no clue whatsoever who militant nationalists like Nduka Eze, Kola Balogun, and Raji Abdallah are. The reason for this is pretty simple: many Nigerians are totally unaware of the roles these people played during the struggle for independence from the mid-1940s to early 1950s. Even more, average Nigerians are completely oblivious to the existence of a Nigerian left. This in part explains why the story of Curtis Joseph, a member of the Nigerian left, remains largely untold.

Curtis Joseph was born in 1920 in Benin City, where both his father and mother had roots. His father, Joseph, was a peasant farmer, and his mother, Mary, a petty trader. Curtis Joseph grew up in Ikare, in the present day state of Ondo, where he started schooling under the West Indian educationist Reverend Lackland A. Lennon in 1928. He later attended schools in Oshogbo, the present-day state of Osun, and in Owo, the present-day Ondo. Curtis Joseph’s Yoruba middle name, Ayodele, was given to him by members of the Ikare community. In protest against the already rising wave of tribalism in those days, he later exchanged his surname for his father’s baptismal name.

His family fell on hard times, and at 15, barely out of school, Curtis Joseph went to work as a shop assistant. Not long after, he was hired in the Agricultural Produce Section by the United African Company (UAC), a prominent British trading company in West Africa. Ikare was a trading point for the cocoa produced in its surrounding areas.

Drawing on a salary of 15 shillings monthly, Curtis Joseph enrolled for correspondence courses in politics, philosophy, journalism, and commerce. In 1944, he resigned his job, but returned to take up another post for UAC in Okitipupa, or present-day Ondo state. Unfortunately,  it is difficult to say with any certainty what prompted this resignation.

Two years later, in 1946, the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), a political party led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was ushered into Okitipupa by Curtis Joseph during its countrywide effort to marshal a nationalist opposition to the Richard constitution. The NCNC’s opposition to this constitution was not only on the grounds that it introduced regionalism into the colonial administration and politics in Nigeria, but also because it made no provision for Nigerians to participate in running their own affairs. Curtis Joseph also helped raise money to enable the party to send a protest delegation to the Colonial Office in London.

In 1947, while still working at UAC, he used a pen name to write about the NCNC. His bosses at the UAC were not pleased, and this may have contributed to him leaving the UAC in 1951. The UAC, working through the Association of West African Merchants, wanted to increase its political influence as Britain was decolonizing Nigeria.

But Curtis Joseph’s reasons for quitting had more to do with UAC’s poor treatment of its senior African employees. At about the same time, starting in 1948, the UAC had pursued a policy of sponsoring its politically ambitious Nigerian employees for elections. Curtis Joseph, however, would not be persuaded by friends to stand for election in Benin during the first general elections of 1951. Instead, for his independence of mind, he chose to set up a small trading business that could help secure his bread and butter and enable him to write for free for the West African Pilot (Azikiwe’s newspaper) and other media.

This is also around the time that he was exposed to left-wing ideas. Though he had encountered Marxist literature by the mid-forties, his embrace of it would happen between 1951 and 1961, mainly because of his political and business activities. In this period, as Curtis Joseph realized that it had become necessary for Nigerians to build a solid front to fight against foreign monopolies, he increasingly resolved to leave the UAC. These events directly contradict the claim that Curtis Joseph had become a Marxian radical by 1944, which was made by Adam Mayer in his book, Naija Marxisms: Revolutionary Thought in Nigeria.

After the disappointment of spending five years trying to pool resources with others for the purpose of building the solid front he envisioned, Curtis Joseph proceeded in 1956 to set up his own firm, Nigeria Import & Export Agency Ltd. His trading company, then located in what is today the Akowonjo area of Lagos, started exporting crushed bones, scrap metals, and shea nuts. In building his company, Curtis Joseph had decided to challenge the monopoly of British merchant capital in Nigeria himself.

In 1951, a 30-year-old Curtis Joseph joined the World Council of Peace (WCP) after reading about it in a magazine. He became the first Nigerian to gain membership in the organization. His strong belief in world peace—perhaps seeded when he had read the entire Bible as a teenager—stirred his interest in the activities of the WCP. Equally strongly, he held that Marxism-Leninism was the only ideology capable of birthing a just and peaceful world. Soon after establishing contact with the Soviet Weekly and drawing on his WCP affiliation, Curtis Joseph set up a bookshop through which he sold and distributed imported pamphlets and books about Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet Union.

This book enterprise—which was mostly unprofitable—caused tongues to wag his way. It was one major reason for his constant run-ins with the Police Special Branch, which had been formed on the heels of the ban placed on the Zikist movement in 1950 and at the height of the Cold War. Of course, another factor was his membership in the WCP, which, according to a declassified report released by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2015, was said to have been an international front funded and controlled by the Soviet Union for the purpose of carrying out overt forms of “active measures.”

The Zikist movement, which came into existence in February 1946, was the brainchild of four young radical journalists: Kolawole Balogun, M.C.K. Ajuluchukwu, Abiodun Aloba, and Nduka Eze. The movement at the time was initially formed to protect and defend the life of Azikiwe, who towards the end of the General Strike of 1945 alleged that the colonial government planned to assassinate him. By November of 1949, about five months before the colonial government’s ban and one year after its open lecture titled, “The Age of Positive Action,” the left-leaning Zikist movement was already organizing rallies, protests, and demonstrations in Enugu, Lagos, and other cities in the wake of the Iva Valley Massacre.

The ordeal of Mokwugo Okoye—who, as the secretary general of the Zikist movement, was jailed for almost three years for possessing “revolutionary pamphlets”—best illustrates the radical ferment of those times. Before his sentencing, Okoye refused to make a plea and instead insisted—just as Zikists Raji Abdallah and Osita Agunwa did in November of 1948—that his case with the colonial government was between Nigeria and Britain. He worsened the situation by describing the African judge as “a symbol of imperialist machinery.” Okoye’s arrest in 1950 came after Chukwuma Ugokwe’s failed attempt to assassinate Sir Hugh Foot, who was then chief secretary for the colonial government.

In May of 1950, just one month after the colonial government declared the Zikist movement an “unlawful society,” Nduka Eze, M.C.K. Ajuluchukwu, and other “free” Zikists launched the Freedom Movement. But as the specific Zikist tendency within the Nigerian radical movement had begun to wane in 1951, some of its members decided to join other political formations. While people like Mokwugo Okoye, Osita Agunwa, and Kola Balogun remained in the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (which the Zikists were the radical wing of), others like Nduka Eze, S.G. Ikoku, and Raji Abdallah jumped ship. Curtis Joseph, who for his part had been a member of the NCNC since the 1940s, left bourgeois party politics in 1958. He was not a Zikist.

In the early 1950s, alongside other Nigerian socialists like Gogo Chu Nzeribe, Tanko Yakassai, M.O. Johnson, and J.B.K. Thomas, Curtis Joseph initiated a Marxist-Leninist discussion group that culminated in the formation of the left-leaning Nigerian People’s Party (NPP) in 1961. At that time, Curtis Joseph and his peers believed that the dismal state of the nation demanded a major regrouping of what then remained of the Nigerian left. Due to the provisions of the Macpherson constitution, the situation in Nigeria was such that the Nigerian feudalists (Sir Ahmadu Bello and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa) and their bourgeoisie counterparts   (Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe), both of whom had taken over from the British colonialists, were engaged in a bitter struggle to consolidate power at the center and in the regions.

Specifically, it was the power tussles between the Northern People’s Congress, Action Group, and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens in the Northern, Western, and Eastern regions of Nigeria—all of which were waged at the expense of the masses—that necessitated the formation of the NPP. Ideologically, the NPP was opposed to regionalism and favored a unitary system of governance. It reasoned that without vast transformation aimed at changing the lives of its great masses of people, Nigeria would remain “backward, economically dependent and politically docile.” To effect the desired change, the NPP pledged to stage an obdurate fight against capitalism.

Sometime in 1961, Curtis Joseph attended his first WCP conference in Helsinki, Finland. The following year, as founder of the Nigerian Council for Peace (NCP), he led the Nigerian WCP delegation to the Moscow Conference for peace and disarmament. In his capacity as founder and president of the NCP, he was elected a member of the WCP Presidential Committee at the Geneva Conference in 1965. By May of 1966, the month that the NCP was banned by the military regime of General Aguiyi-Ironsi, Curtis Joseph had become the first of only two Nigerians to be awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize. His medal, presented to him at the Kremlin by Dmitri Skobeltsyn, was more for the work he put into the struggle for world peace, and less for his campaign “for trade with the USSR,” as Mayer claims in Naija Marxisms.

Mayer regrettably fails to cite his source, but the aforementioned CIA report does affirm that the WCP was an international Soviet front established in April of 1949 in protest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Regardless of the rationale for his award, it is true that after the visit to the International Trade Fair in Brussels where he established initial contact with Soviet trade organizations, Curtis Joseph came back to Nigeria in 1958 to lead the charge for trade with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. That campaign, which resulted in a trade agreement between Nigeria and the Soviet Union in 1963, is what most likely secured him the Gold Medal and Ribbon award from the Czechoslovak Society for Foreign Relations in 1965.

In his extensive travels, Curtis Joseph cultivated contacts with many business organizations all over the world. Coupled with his conviction that the monopoly cartels had to be fought, this meant that the campaign for competitive trade he led piqued the annoyance of British merchant firms. His push for fair trade clashed with the interests of Licensed Buying Agents (LBAs) such as the UAC, which by 1945 was “largely representative of European business in Nigeria.”

The interests of these LBAs were secured by the colonial government’s Marketing Boards, which were initially established for cocoa in 1947 and subsequently sustained under the Macpherson constitution in the interests of British merchant capital. Despite the justifications given by the colonial government for the setup of these boards, their actual operation ensured that LBAs were able to buy produce from farmers for prices lower than those fixed by the marketing boards. This practice, in turn, ensured that marketing boards accumulated huge trading surpluses which they then handed over to the (colonial) government. It is this mode of surplus extraction (estimated at 276.8 million British pounds), practiced beyond the period between 1947 and 1960, that Curtis Joseph’s agitation threatened.

As the Nigerian Civil War raged on from 1967 to 1970, Curtis Joseph was mostly invested in editing and publishing the New World, a Marxist-oriented magazine. As a Marxist critical of tribalism, he stood firmly against the divisions within the Nigerian left along ethnic and ideological lines. For example, in 1969, he voluntarily withdrew from his position as a member of the WCP Presidential Committee following altercations between members of the Biafran and Nigerian delegation to the Berlin Conference on the Civil War.

The story, in a nutshell, has it that delegates of both factions actually came to blows on the streets of Berlin because members of the “Nigerian” delegation held that comrades in support of secession were not Marxists—or even socialists, for that matter. In an unpublished essay shared with the writer, Marxist-Leninist mathematician and journalist Edwin Madunagu recalls how sometime in 1988, Curtis Joseph intervened in a major tiff between himself and the late Ola Oni. Comrade Oni, attacking Madunagu for his criticism of “Nigerian leftists for breaking into factions behind the ‘war-lords’ during the Civil War,” insisted that Nigerian Marxists had a duty to oppose the imperialist tribal designs used to divide the country. Madunagu’s offending piece had been published in his Thursday column for The Guardian in April 1988 under the title, “Nigerian Leftists and the Lessons of History.”

Curtis Joseph intervened by writing a letter to the editor of The Guardian providing partial support for Madunagu’s position while also noting the irreversibility of armed struggle, thus bridging the divide between Nigerian Marxists and socialists. He then wrote that for true Marxists, it was only possible to avert the war before the first shot was fired. So as far as he was concerned, the opportunity to prevent the war had been missed “because ethnic and Leftist opportunism blurred their reasoning.”

Years later, Madunagu would suggest that Nigeria’s failure “to honor” his dear Curtis Joseph reflects “the abysmal state of our self-knowledge.” While Madunagu’s general observation can be put down to the fact that history is hardly being taught in schools today, it is more attributable to the fact that the Nigerian left has done very little to tell the story of its own struggle before and after independence. This explains why very little about the struggles of people like Samuel Goomsu Ikoku, Asuquo Ita (Eskor Toyo), Ikenna Nzimiro, Tunji Otegbeye, and Margaret Ekpo are known to the Nigerian public. And it is precisely why far less is known about the activities of political parties such as the United Working People’s Party, the Socialist Workers and Farmers Party, the Nigerian Labour Party, or an organization like the Nigerian Youth Congress.

Remembering, honoring and celebrating Curtis Joseph will require more than the erection of a statue in Benin City, for instance. It would require, for those who are so persuaded, that we undertake the type of work that looks to point out why the kind of country he had imagined never materialized. The type of work that looks to show today how the Nigerian elite keep on wallowing in the privileges of their colonial masters. In other words, the type of work that calls attention to the fact that the NPP’s evergreen 1961 manifesto—which surmised that “an indigenous Nigerian capitalist and feudal class” had emerged “as the virtual successor to the British colonialists”—is still very much correct sixty years later.


Further Reading