October 2, 2022

Why Did the Western Left Ignore Occupy Nigeria? – Dissent

  • November 29, 2021
  • 15 min read
Why Did the Western Left Ignore Occupy Nigeria? – Dissent

With millions of participants flooding the streets of Nigerian cities and towns, it was the largest Occupy movement in the world. Yet ten years later, little has been written about Occupy Nigeria.
This article is part of a series on the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.
On New Year’s Day 2012, the Nigerian government announced the end of a fuel subsidy that had artificially deflated the cost of oil in Africa’s largest country. The government’s actions were timed to take advantage of the fact that many Nigerians had returned to their villages to celebrate the holidays. But its efforts to stymie popular outrage failed. Stranded far from their places of work as fuel prices more than doubled, angry Nigerians took to the streets. In a matter of days, the protests became the largest in Nigerian history, reaching almost every corner of the country.
This is not only the story of an African uprising. Occupy Nigeria, as the two-week movement that rattled the Nigerian government became known, was part of a wave of global Occupy protests inspired by the takeover of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan in 2011. With millions of participants flooding the streets of Lagos, Abuja, Kano, and other Nigerian cities and towns, it was the largest Occupy movement in the world. Yet ten years later, little has been written about Occupy Nigeria—or the many other African uprisings that have taken place over the last decade. Instead, it is common to treat these protests as part of the general turmoil afflicting African countries, unworthy of global attention or respect. Even on the left, progressive African movements are ignored or treated as curiosities rather than meaningful political actors.
Consider Y’en a Marre, a Senegalese collective that led mass protests against President Abdoulaye Wade’s attempt to rewrite the constitution in the fall of 2011, which led him to abandon his effort to seek a third term in 2012. Y’en a Marre has built a wide network across Senegal and the region, remaining potent and well-organized almost a decade after it first rose to prominence. But a number of leading left publications in the United States, including Dissent and Monthly Review, haven’t mentioned the movement once. Alternet and the New Left Review offered exactly one essay each that references the movement, as did Jacobin (written by yours truly).
Certain countries on the continent, for specific historical or political reasons, do garner greater interest from the Western left—most notably North African countries, especially during the so-called Arab Spring. The overwhelming tendency has been to reinforce the colonial division between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, treating them as disconnected from one another. The main exception is South Africa, which generates attention for its history of racial division (often viewed in parallel to the U.S. legacy of segregation) and its robust tradition of social movements—including the Rhodes Must Fall and #FeesMustFall movements of 2015 and 2016, in which young people challenged racist iconography and economic marginalization in ways that resonated with contemporaneous movements in the United States. Here too, colonial legacies and false narratives about South African exceptionalism reinforce the idea that the country is not part of the “real” Africa.
Africa’s other fifty countries are teeming with dynamic and vibrant movements filled with brave young activists: feminist and anti-police brutality movements in Nigeria, climate change activists in Northern Uganda, pro-democracy movements in eastern Congo, revolutionaries in Sudan, and many other ordinary people fighting against oppressive political and economic systems. Why are they met with silence in the Global North?
Racism is always an important factor when we’re discussing—or not discussing—Africa. In left spaces, racism rarely takes the form of explicit bias, but its subtle, more subconscious forms do their share of work in reinforcing the continent’s marginalization. In addition to these biases on the left, I think it’s worth raising two other explanations for the ongoing exclusion of African social movements from Western left discourse. I offer them not as an excuse, but rather to try to move the conversation forward.
First, there remains a vast gap between those who see the state as a potentially liberating force and those for whom the state has almost always been a predatory actor. It is unsurprising that the Western left imagination is dominated by African politics of the 1960s and ’70s, a period in which several African states—including Tanzania under Julius Nyerere, Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, and Algeria under Ahmed Ben Bella—became darlings of socialists around the world. With a handful of exceptions in the 1980s or ’90s, including Thomas Sankara’s reign in Burkina Faso and certain elements of the Apartheid-era African National Congress in South Africa, there have been few wins at the state level for African leftists in more recent decades, especially in comparison to Asia or Latin America. African leaders today are almost uniformly committed to neoliberal paradigms that relegate citizens to a problem to be solved rather than a constituency to be served. Given the abject failure of governments to improve ordinary people’s lives, most African popular movements view the state with suspicion and fear rather than as a vehicle for emancipation. To Western leftists who pursue state power, African social movements’ lack of interest in capturing the state can appear befuddling.
Second, and related to the above, while most contemporary African social movements are deeply concerned with questions of poverty, they rarely adopt a Marxist program to pursue their strategic objectives. Occupy Nigeria’s dramatic rise and quick fall demonstrate the limits of overtly class-based appeals. (While organized labor was initially at the forefront of the movement, it struggled to connect with the informal workers who formed the bulk of the protesters and eventually engaged in secret negotiations with the government that many considered a betrayal.)
This does not mean that Africans reject class analysis. They consistently question a global economic system that has turned both rich and poor countries across the continent into some of the most unequal in the world. Yet even the most economically marginalized typically call for a more equitable distribution of resources rather than overthrowing capitalism altogether. The decline of a revolutionary Pan-Africanism among ordinary Africans despite the continued appeal of its cultural forms suggests that while the ground is still fertile, progressive intellectuals and movements across the continent are not receiving the support required to challenge the global neoliberal offensive. This raises a serious question for the international left: where does Africa fit in to its imagined post-capitalist future? The fact that China, which despite its capitalist turn remains the most prominent alternative to the neocolonial relations that have devastated African economies, treats Africa as little more than a site for extraction and consumption makes it harder to argue that a socialist world order would actually produce a meaningful improvement in the lives of ordinary Africans.
The best traditions on the left have long been rooted in the real movement of history. But when it comes to Africa, a continent that will soon be home to a quarter of all humanity, there have been precious few attempts to grapple with the realities that structure social movements and popular politics. This is indefensible. Africa is central to the global battle against climate change and inequality, and to the broader struggle for basic human dignity. An international program that fails to incorporate a grounded understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of African social movements will inevitably reinforce the logic of apartheid.
Zachariah Mampilly is the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at CUNY and the cofounder of the Program on African Social Research. You can find him on Twitter @Ras_Karya.
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Austin Frerick, who launched a bid for Iowa’s third congressional district on an antimonopoly platform, dropped out when party leaders made it clear that they preferred his better-funded opponents. Photo courtesy of Austin Frerick.
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Common migration routes from East Africa to Europe. Route information adapted from the International Organization for Migration, August 2015, by Colin Kinniburgh. Countries party to the Khartoum process are shaded in orange (note: not all shown on this map).
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A drawing made for the author by a five-year-old girl in detention at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas (Courtesy of Nara Milanich)
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The cover of L’antinorm, published by the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action (FHAR), February 1973. The subtitle reads “Workers of the world, stroke yourselves!”
Jair Bolsonaro, at a debate about violence against women in Brazil’s chamber of deputies, September 2016. Photo by Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil.
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The front page of the Canard, February 28, 2018. Courtesy of Le Canard enchaîné.
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Bundle of $10 bags of heroin. Photo by Fernando Montero Castrillo.
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Courtesy of Robert Greene
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[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015
The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  
Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.
Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.
Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

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Armed group of the Menshevik People’s Guard, 1920. Courtesy of Eric Lee.
Eleven-year-old Liza Greenberg, daughter of David and Suzanne Nossel. Photo by Todd Gitlin.
Protest against neoliberalism in Colombia, 2013

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