Friday, October 22, 2010

Walter Rodney's Spirit Lives on in West Africa

There is so much optimism in the air. The media is dominated by news on the soccer World Cup which will kick off this week in South Africa. Everywhere there are people brimming with excitement and reflecting on the chances of their favourite team and or star players. Young persons are energised by the preparations of many of the teams, and I am sure that readers will be following this international event that will take place in Africa for the first time. I believe that this spirit of optimism in the air will bear fruit and we wish all the teams well, but in the spirit of revolutionary Pan-Africanism, I hope that the teams from Africa and Brazil will take a leaf out of Usain Bolt's book and deliver in this international arena.

This week, however, I want to comment on the spirit of Walter Rodney that I have encountered among the youth in West Africa. I have been in West Africa for the past two weeks and I have been participating in groundings with those youths who want to remember the life and work of Walter Rodney. Walter Rodney was assassinated on 13 June 1980. 13 June 2010 will be 30 years since his assassination. During the month of June there will be many celebrations to commemorate his life and work. On Sunday 13 June, there will be celebrations in the United Kingdom and Guyana. Other celebrations will take place at different venues across the world. I have been in Nigeria participating in groundings with young people and I want to use this postcard to share the excitement in the society associated with the view that Nigeria is on the verge of profound change.


I arrived in Nigeria for meetings and before I could embark on the work of sharing with the youth, I made a pilgrimage to Funtua, Katsina State, to visit the community of Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem and to deliver my personal solidarity with his family in Nigeria. I visited the school that he started, the Hauwa Memorial College (named after his mother) and grounded with the students who are dedicated to hard work and following the traditions that Tajudeen established for the school. I met with those workers who are carrying out the work, both as teachers and staff of the college and as workers involved in the PADEAP (Pan-African Development, Education and Advocacy Programme).

The PADEAP was founded in 1997 by Tajudeen as a strategic centre for the ‘coordination of advocacy and development education initiatives'. Despite the encumbrance of working within the context of struggling around the impossible MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), the young activists in PADEAP were using spaces to force bureaucrats to pay attention to the needs of the people. One young man told me that Tajudeen was his mentor and that his task was to organise the youth for political change all across northern Nigeria. When one sees up front what Tajudeen was trying to do in Katsina, one gets a real sense of the multidimensional nature of his life. Whether it was his work in the context of the CDD (Centre for Democracy and Development), his vision of working across religious lines or his commitment to the oppressed, one could see the legacies of Tajudeen as one encountered various parts of his Nigerian networks. I visited his family at the family compound in Funtua, and in a subsequent communication I will share the sense of the commitment of those who are carrying on the work of Tajudeen. The connections between Walter Rodney and Tajudeen flowed in every grounding as I reminded those who were participating in the discussions that Tajudeen was an active participant in the 25th anniversary celebrations in Guyana in 2005.

From the moment I arrived in the society, discussions focused on the future of democratic participation in light of the elevation of Goodluck Jonathan to the presidency. Newspapers and commentators were speculating about whether he will run in 2011 to become the elected president, and whether the ruling PDP (People's Democratic Party) will stick to the principle of zoning (that is the reservation of the leadership of the party for a candidate from the north and south in alternate periods)? These discussions in the media are also accompanied by stories of outrageous cases of fraud, corruption and graft. One story of how a highly placed security official acquired over US$1 billion illegally made it possible to better understand the extortion racket of the police at checkpoints all around the country. The Nigerian bourgeoisie is a formidable lot, and the question was being raised of whether Jonathan will be hostage to the class of looters. How long will his luck last? When will Nigerians enjoy electricity and basic amenities? Can there be free-and-fair elections?

Today, there was one answer (on the question of elections) with the appointment of Professor Attahiru Jega to be the chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Professor Jega, who is vice-chancellor of Bayero University of Kano, will host the Walter Rodney groundings at his university on Thursday 10 June. He was a former president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities in the 1990s. He was uncompromising in his opposition to militarism and dictatorship, and there was excitement in the air as activists looked forward to a new era of political engagement in Nigeria. Abubakar Momoh, one of the principal organisers of the Nigerian groundings, who hosted the Walter Rodney groundings at Lagos State University, commented that Jega was beyond corruption and that the progressive forces would rally to ensure that the political culture is slowly weaned from its corrosive past. In interviews with international journalists, who were calling every minute, Momoh stressed the fact that Jega will use the powers of the Nigerian electoral act to clean up the system of ghost electors and will be accountable to the people of Nigeria. It was his view that it was the popular calls for free-and-fair elections from below that pushed the Council of Ministers to appoint Jega.


Our first major groundings took place at the University of Port Harcourt. This was the school that was the space for Claude Ake and radical activists in the era of democratic rule. The university was closed because of an incident a few days earlier when two students of the university lost their lives over an argument about 1,000 naira. It was in connection with this killing that one learnt first-hand of the role of cults on university campuses all across Nigeria. The groundings organised by the Academic Staff Union of the University of Port Harcourt and Social Action drew over 350 students and faculty to an auditorium where the celebration of the life of Walter Rodney went on for over four hours. Members of the faculty reminded the students of the days when it was mandatory for students of the University of Port Harcourt to read the text, 'How Europe Underdeveloped Africa'. This reminder was also to use the past democratic struggles to bring to the fore that the rot in Nigerian politics cannot be overturned without the active mobilisation of the students.

These faculty members drew attention to the need for a renewed engagement of the life and work of Rodney. The groundings in Port Harcourt were of particular interest to me because of the intensity of the struggles in the Niger Delta. In the evening there was a select groundings with activists who wanted to examine the relevance of the life and work of Walter Rodney for the contemporary struggles in the Niger Delta. There were over 30 activists from various study groups in the area, including those who supported the call for armed action by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). There were spirited and often heated exchanges on the question of bearing arms to achieve political goals in this period. Young activists who identified themselves as coming from the ‘Creeks’ made the case for armed struggle to achieve their goal of emancipation. One group called these activists ‘criminals’ who were colluding with political careerists to carry out kidnappings and other forms of struggle to raise money. Reference was made to the big shots from the Creeks who were making money from ‘bunkering’ and other activities to accumulate capital. More than one person in the grounding stated that the movement has degenerated since the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa by the military. They wanted those outside the Niger Delta to make a distinction between the intellectuals who wrote the press releases on ‘Emancipation’ and the real relationships between the militants and the poor people in the areas destroyed by the oil companies.

There was a third position by those who believe that there needs to be intensive political work in the Niger Delta and that the people must write their own history to tell the stories so that the younger generations could learn of the past struggles and be able to grasp the differences in the different phases of the struggle. Here one militant called on those present to learn from Walter Rodney, who was a historian and history maker. I used the occasion to make short references to the past experiences of militants such as Jonas Savimbi and Charles Taylor. I was not satisfied that all other forms of political and ideological struggles had been exhausted and urged the activists to continue the work.

The ideological discussion on the future forms of politics and economics were equally vibrant. Worker activists and those coming from a clear Marxist position wanted an explicit statement on class struggle and termed Ubuntu a romantic notion. This side of the discussion was calling for the rapid industrialisation of Nigerian society so that Nigeria could advance to socialism. The question of power was continuously posed and it was the view of some that the left and progressive forces must fight to win power in the state. The activists in these discussions knew Walter Rodney; what they were not fully aware of was Rodney’s philosophy of self-emancipation and his work among the working peoples of Guyana, especially his work in the ranks of the Working People’s Alliance. I shared the small pamphlet of Eusi Kwayana with these worker activists. These exchanges exposed the lie of the former government official who had commented at a CDD seminar in Abuja that young people were not reading Walter Rodney and were not engaged in discussions about revolutionary change inside Nigeria. These activists were equally clear about their opposition to external mischief, especially the advanced civilian and non-civilian advocates for the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) who are pretending to support the people of the Niger Delta.


The spirited discussions on the life and work of Walter Rodney continued at the Rivers State University of Education. At that institution, over 500 students and faculty turned out to celebrate the life of Walter Rodney. Chris Akani, a lecturer from that University whom I had met at the reggae conferences in Jamaica, was proud of the fact that this lecture on Walter Rodney was the first major public lecture organised by the university since the status of the institution was upgraded. A university band, university dancers and other sections of the university participated in a five-hour lecture, dance, discussion and reflection on the role of Walter Rodney as an educator. Inevitably, there was one question that occurred in both meetings: why were we still reflecting on the role of Europe in the underdevelopment of Africa? Was Walter Rodney still relevant? Why was the Nigerian government unable to deliver electricity, water and sanitation to the people? The wealth of the society and the natural resources were contrasted with the extreme exploitation of the people.

The free flow of ideas in these groundings reflected one other struggle to claim democratic spaces in society. The fact that the Academic Staff Union organised both groundings in Port Harcourt was one indication that the staff union was not simply struggling for better pay and better working conditions, but that these struggles cannot be separated from the ideological transformation of the society. This point was stressed by the officials of the Academic Staff Union on both occasions. It was in these discussions where the ideas of Walter Rodney on the role of history, education and politics were discussed with gusto.


If the groundings in Cross River State were vigorous and exhilarating, the spirit of Walter Rodney was alive in the major rally held at Lagos State University. Organised by Abuibukar Momoh, this grounding brought out more than 1,000 staff and students of the university. The hunger for the ideas of Walter Rodney was evident as the students bought up the books, pamphlets and posters of Walter Rodney. This was another marathon session where the spirit of Walter Rodney was very much alive. The students called on each other to rededicate themselves to following the example of Walter Rodney. As in Cross Rivers State, the event ended with the singing of the Bob Marley song, 'One love'.

These groundings reminded me that there were tough and dedicated activists in Nigeria. If one gets daunted by the obstacles for political work – the massive traffic hold-up, the electricity white-outs, the potholes and the insecurity – one would be demobilised, but the courage and tenacity of the Nigerian youth showed that the people are steeled for change. It is my view that when the change comes to Nigeria, it will be like a tidal wave washing away the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.