How to fight for democracy

The events of May Day 1998 in Nigeria and lessons from Ola Oni on fighting for democracy in multi-ethnic societies.

Image credit Carsten ten Brink via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As a young student-activist at Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria, I came in contact with many left and liberal activist organizations. For anyone who knew the left culture in universities generally, there existed many tendencies arguing for different means to achieve the same goal: a social revolution. At Ife, I had the opportunity to relate with both student activists and activist lecturers from many groups. Everyone had an argument and a story to tell, but one name was consistently mentioned as a source of inspiration: Comrade Ola Oni.

Oni was renowned as an activist, librarian, and lecturer, who turned his home in Ibadan into a hotbed of the intellectual debate that characterized the struggle for democracy in Nigeria during the military regimes. In fact, it is impossible to narrate the history of Nigeria’s struggle for democracy without mentioning Oni. As a teacher, he offered a counter-education to the innately biased university curriculum of the authoritarian period.

Sadly, activists of my generation cannot meet his bright mind except through his works. Thus, I was elated when I found a digital archive of Oni’s documents. What struck me as I began to delve into this extensive collection was Oni’s alternative class analyses to capitalist economics, and his unrelenting insistence on the use of political education to achieve real democracy. The archive is meant to preserve the intellectual heritage of prominent Nigerian activists, and it is not only a step in the right direction but also an important connection of the thread of our struggles for human dignity (political and economic) over time. In this respect, the events leading up to the May Day protest of 1998 in Ibadan—a crucial event in the struggle against the Sani Abacha regime—are significant for our present moment.

Before this event, Ola Oni was known as a rallying figure for left-leaning activists in Ibadan and had played roles in the Social Democratic Party (SDP). He was active not just in struggles on the streets, but also in political parties and organizations, and as a writer. Incidentally, Ibadan was the hub of Yoruba nationalist activism from the days of Adegoke Adelabu’s struggle to lead the western region. Adelabu was a popular radical nationalist politician from Ibadan who became the opposition leader of the Regional Assembly of the Western region around the period of Nigeria’s independence. Activists like Oni, who had clarity about the economic alternative to the classist capitalist system, had to contend with the exploitation of tribal sentiment by capitalist politicians such as Arisekola Alao, the Ibadan-based billionaire and Islamic leader, and Lamidi Adedibu, the respected Ibadan powerbroker and political godfather, who both gave their support to the Abacha regime. Interestingly, the prominent Yoruba nationalist politicians who opposed Abacha were either in jail or in exile by May Day, 1998. In their absence, Oni led the Yoruba nationalist movement against Abacha’s attempt to transition from military to civilian dictatorship, bringing ideological clarity to the movement.

Of particular interest was how Oni managed that position without pandering to tribal identity politics. I wanted to learn more about how to fight for democracy in a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria without falling for tribalism. While looking through the digital archive I found a press release by the southwestern zone of United Action for Democracy (UAD), part of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) based in Ibadan. While NADECO was the wider coalition of all politicians campaigning for democracy against the Abacha regime, UAD was a smaller group of intellectuals and human rights activists in that struggle.

The press release was meant to rally the Yoruba people of the southwestern region to rise up and fight the authoritarianism of Abacha’s regime. Although it was addressed to the people of the southwestern states and highlighted the important campaign against the June 12, 1993 annulment of the presidential election won by Moshood Abiola, it also made sure to advocate for a united country free from ethnic divisions exploited by dictators. This was despite the fact that the June 12 struggle was regarded by some in the southwest as a tribal struggle for the mandate of the Yoruba people that belonged to Abiola but was stolen by Abacha.

Strikingly, the press release primarily highlighted economic issues, such as low wages, increases in fuel prices, retrenchment of workers, a failing educational system, underfunded hospitals, and privatization, among others. However, it did raise issues important to particular ethnic groups, such as the regime’s murder of key leaders Kudirat Abiola and Ken Saro Wiwa, its detention of human rights fighters Beko Ransom Kuti and Kunle Ajibade, and its incarceration of political opponents MKO Abiola, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Olu Falae.

Notwithstanding the prevailing feeling that Abacha, a military dictator from Kano, was a tribal imposition by the Northern region, the press release did not omit the names of political opponents from the north that were murdered by the regime, including Shehu Yaradua. Shehu Sani, another activist from the north who was detained for fighting for human rights, was also referenced between Ransome-Kuti and Ajibade in the press release. Sultan Ibrahim Dasuki, who was incarcerated as a political opponent within the ruling class, had his name sandwiched between the names of Obasanjo and Falae. This was intentional, and meant to ensure that those radicalized by the struggle of Yoruba nationalist leaders saw that the struggle for democracy was not about ethnicity at all.

In the list contained in the press release issues such as “active promotion of tribalism in national policies … fratricide (Ijaw, Itsekiri/Warri, Ife-Modakeke, Jukun-Tiv, etc … oppression of Ogoni people and other minorities,” were raised in the same breath. The vital thing to note here is that the oppressions of ethnic minorities were condemned, but without encouraging identity politics.

The press release also challenged the Yorubas to resist, to value their honor and integrity as true sons and daughters of Oduduwa (the leader of all the deities in the Yorba traditional religion); to recall courageous political leaders of the Yoruba people such as Kudirat Abiola, Moremi, Kurunmi, Ogedengbe, and Bashorun Ogunmola. Yet it was asking them to fight for ten cardinal demands, which included the convening of an independent national conference to restructure the Nigerian federation into equal, autonomous republics within a united Nigeria—representative of ethnic nationalities, popular mass organizations and pro-democracy movements.

This demand was made to eliminate a situation in which the natural resources were concentrated in the federal government or such that federal power was monopolized by one ethnic group. The UAD wanted an end to all forms of domination, oppression, and discrimination as a condition for the emergence of a truly united, democratic, multi-ethnic Nigeria. Here was the dialectical mind of Oni at work: recognizing the importance of cultural and historical differences, while acknowledging the need to draw strength from unity; referencing Yoruba history of resistance to the enslavement of Afonja (a dictatorial military leader of the Old Oyo empire) in the 19th century, while appealing to the history of how Ibadan stopped their own enslavement more than 100 years ago in Osogbo.

Oni laid the foundation of his arguments on the largely economic common goals and aspirations of all Nigerians. He also tried to show that oppression by Abacha was shared across all ethnic groups; even Abacha’s own people tasted the oppression pudding. Oni demonstrated that it was possible to fight against ethnic oppression without pandering to ethnic identity politics of division and essential differences. He exemplified how to fight against ethnic domination inclusively without conceding to the social stagnation generated by tribal hostility.

Oni showed that where we are going is not limited by where we are coming from. Our history should not be a prison, rather a launching pad toward a better future. Just as there are mistakes in our individual past, our history and culture can also have their errors. With a critical lens, we can take the good and leave out the bad. This means that the rich Yoruba history should not lead to separatist agitations that will exclude us from co-existing with other ethnic nationalities in a diverse federation.

Another press release in the archive showed that Oni was not just a man of theory but one of action. For example, he wrote to the mass media conveying the resolutions of the inaugural convention of the UAD: to mobilize the people of the southwestern states to rally in peaceful demonstrations for a free and civil democracy and against the enslavement and suffering embodied in the Abacha regime; and to mobilize and organize a counter-demonstration to the pro-Abacha rally planned for April 13 1998. It was this mobilization that culminated in the May Day UAD protest two weeks later. Rather than protest for the Yoruba nation or for Nigeria’s separation, the youth rallied against Arisekola Alao and Lamida Adedibu, leading supporters of Abacha in the southwest. Oni was arrested alongside the likes of Bola Ige, Lam Adesina, and others for his part in the May Day protest.

Between 1997 and 1999, Nigeria’s democracy was at a crossroads. While NADECO chieftains such as Bola Tinubu (Nigeria’s current president-elect) were giving interviews in London claiming “I don’t believe in one Nigeria,” Oni was keeping the movement for democracy alive and united on the ground in Nigeria.

In the wake of the controversial and contested 2023 general election, it is important for civil society and activist organizations to use lessons from the Oni period to guide the approach to the struggle for democracy, especially in the wake of heightened ethnic division in the country. At the core of any approach is that the cultural and historical heritage of ethnic groups must not be sacrificed on the altar of national unity, but rather used as an instrument to motivate different ethnic nationalities into democratic struggles that unite us.

Further Reading

Good influence

It is unfair to expect coherent politics from Naira Marley or his fans, the Marlians. We should, instead, chastise the Nigerian state for stifling its people and keeping its young perpetually waiting.