By Biodun Jeyifo
The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in several ways; the point however, is to change it. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” [11th thesis]
The news of his death came to me from Eddie Madunagu through a terse text message that got to me at about 4 a.m. in the morning: “BJ, Baba Omojola is dead.” Incidentally, I had just gone to bed having been at work most of the night. I was tired, I was sleepy, but the news made me sit bolt upright.
I had a mind to call Eddie right away, but the thoughts, the images of encounters with Baba over the decades and years flooded my mind, my psyche and I willingly submitted myself to them. For this reason, instead of calling Eddie I sent him a brief text message saying “A terrible loss. He never looked his age. He seemed deathless, he seemed indestructible!”
Having sent this message to Eddie, I resumed my sad, brooding and introspective thoughts about Baba and what his life, thoughts and deeds had meant to the revolutionary struggles against injustice and inequality in our country, our continent and our world. After about an hour, I drifted to sleep and for this reason, it wasn’t until about five hours later that I was finally able to call Eddie and share with him the deep sense of loss and mourning that I think each of us felt both personally and as members of a generation of which Baba Omojola was both a beacon, a pathfinder and an organizer-extraordinaire.
Before ideology, doctrine, principle and organisation all of which mattered a great deal to him, Baba was a person who it was a privilege and a delight to meet and to know. For one thing, nature and/or genetics were very kind to him in that for almost all of his adult years, he looked considerably younger than his real age. I used to tease him and joke with him to reveal to me the secret of the “ajidewe” (magical potion or elixir of eternal youthfulness) that made him always look so much younger than his age.
At a deeper level, the perpetual youthfulness that he exuded in body and spirit never left him. Indeed, it took some time for me and members of my generation who entered the movement of leftist, socialist activist politics in our country in the late 1960s to appreciate the fact that Baba was older than us, both in age and in the movement!
While we were yet to figuratively cut our milk teeth in Marxism and the workers’ and farmers’ struggles, Baba had been there with legendary figures like Pa Imoudou, Tunji Otegbeye, Eskor Toyo, Mokwugo Okoye and Raj Abdalla. He had personally and directly participated in international currents of the worldwide anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist revolutions that we had only read about in books. And yet in spite of this rich background of experience and education, Baba was a profoundly humble, unassuming and approachable man.
He was hospitableness and generosity personified. He hosted, often at his own expense, innumerable public and private, open and secret, legal and extra-legal meetings of the Left. He was one of a few, if indeed not the only one, who could call a meeting of all the factions and tendencies of the Nigerian Left in the 70s and 80s and every group would respond positively to the call.
And yet, Baba was ardent and passionate in ideology, doctrine and organisation. Anyone who knows anything at all about Marxism and socialism in their incarnations as revolutionary movements and organizations knows that this means factionalism and divisiveness often on an extraordinarily bitter and self-defeating scale.
Perhaps unknown to the Nigerian state and unknown also to the generality of Nigerians, Marxists and socialists in the country in the 60s, 70s and 80s were divided and spilt along the fault lines of this constant and perpetual factionalism of the Left in nearly all countries of the world. Baba taught all of us in the Left in Nigeria an invaluable lesson in the necessity of overcoming this historic and normative organizational disease of the Left. What do I mean by this?
Baba Omojola was a member of the Third International, the controlling formation of all Trotskyite-Marxist movements and comrades in the world. He was the Editor of a publication known as “Mass Line”, the most prominent Marxist journal in the country at the time. In the journal, Baba and his comrades stuck to the Trotskyite line and everyone on the Left knew this. But beyond mandatorily holding on to the official doctrinal line, Baba opened the pages of the journal to debates with other factions, other tendencies of the Left in the country, something to which Trotskyites in other parts of the world are not usually predisposed.
The upshot of this was the fact that while ideology and doctrine definitely meant a great deal to Baba, it meant a great deal more to him to bring living, breathing, suffering and struggling human beings together whatever ideas they profess as long as they were willing to contribute to the great struggles for the betterment of society in general and the lot of the most oppressed in particular.
The three major All Socialist Meetings of the 70s at which virtually all the groups and individuals on the Left in the country were represented were convened by him. [It was while I was driving back from Kano at the second of these meetings that I had an accident at Kontangora that nearly took my life in 1976] Nobody, absolutely nobody was more dedicated than Baba to creating a viable and strong political party of the Left that would contain all factions and tendencies.
Look into every single attempt to found such a party in our country and you will find that Baba was there as a moving spirit. He never tired, he never relented, he never gave up on the attempt. And when that effort failed, he went into parties and organizations that were bourgeois in social location but liberal and egalitarian in ideology and orientation. If revolution did not seem to be coming as passionately as he wanted it to, he looked to evolution, to gradual, incremental steps by which the same goals could be achieved. He was a radical and progressive humanist for all seasons.
It is against this background that we must assess the popular view on the Left that in his last decades and years and especially after the nullification of the June 12, 1993 electoral victory of M.K.O. Abiola and the Social Democratic Party, Baba subordinated the class struggle to the national question. What this means is, simply, that he became an “ethno-nationalist” for whom the fate of the Yoruba “nation” within Nigeria was of more importance than the common fate of the oppressed of all the ethnic, regional and religious communities in the country.
The fact that he was such a prominent figure in PRONACO definitely added much fuel to this view for among all the major progressive groups in the country, PRONACO it is which is totally and unapologetically committed to the “national question”, to the cause of parity and true federalism among all the federating ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. Beyond PRONACO, even Leftists and socialists of his generation like the late Ola Oni and Bala Usman, among so many others, are also said to have taken this route of the primacy of the national question over class struggle.
In my humble opinion, I think that the matter is a little more complicated in the case of Baba Omojola. I think to the very end, he kept all possible avenues to progress, justice and equality in our country and our continent open. We know, for instance, that in recent years PRONACO was not the only organization and forum in which he was active. He was a member of the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) and contributed to debates that informed its periodic bulletins on the state of the country and its working peoples across the length and breadth of the land.
Baba Omojola was born into and came of age in the colonial age of imperialism. He saw with great clarity that not everyone, not every group in colonial Nigeria and Africa suffered under foreign rule; he saw in fact that some of the colonized benefited from it.
He saw that colonialism drew much of its force and hegemonic authority from capitalism, just as slavery had also been closely aligned to capitalism in its mercantilist phase. That’s what led him to Marxism and socialism. In the postcolonial and neocolonial Nigeria and Africa of his middle-aged years, he saw that capitalism in his homeland had evolved worldwide to a different stage and had regressed in his country and continent into a new form of cannibalistic predatoriness.
Correspondingly, his Trotskyite Marxism and socialism became more heterodox, more flexible. In his last years and decades under neoliberal global capitalism in its rise and fall, he saw his country and continent taking one step forward and two or three steps backward. On the very last day of his time with us here, he was still struggling, still trying to work out how best to proceed with head unbowed and spirit undaunted. We will miss him dearly but we take great comfort in the knowledge that he was here.