This piece is driven by the two overriding factors that we confront in the aftermath of the #EndSARS demonstrations. The first factor is, of course, the killings of unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate and other places in the country. For now and in this piece, all I wish to say on this factor is that until full accounting and restitution are made by the government for these crimes, we should never rest. This may – or will – take time. But if we persist, if we follow the dictates of reason, justice and common human decency, then those who were slaughtered would not have died in vain.
The second factor pertains to how #EndSARS demonstrations and protests were crushed by the government on the pretext provided by widespread acts of looting and destruction of public and private properties and assets in Lagos and many other cities across the country. Compatriots, let us not pretend that we don’t not know or care that the government has used – and is still using – the admittedly horrific scale of the looting and destruction not only to crush EndSARS, but also to give notice that henceforth, only the most timid and “correct” protests and demonstrations will be allowed, at least under the present administration of Muhammadu Buhari.
On this score, it can be said that the “villain”, the culprit is the band or horde of looters, arsonists and destroyers who infiltrated and highjacked the EndSARS demonstrations. In other words, and in plain language, this means that to the government and many ordinary citizens, the blame goes squarely to the “area boys”, the lumpenproletariat. But this is too simple. And it ignores one of the most fundamental aspects of the violence and the criminality of the lumpen, this being the fact that just as this violence, this volatility, can be utterly negative, it can also be positively directed toward socially beneficial ends. This is the issue that I address in this piece through the example provided by the life of the man to whom this piece is dedicated, Tony Engurube.
It is nearly three decades now that Tony Engurube died. Tony was one of the few full-time revolutionaries that I have ever met in this country of ours. He was the Chairman of the Anti-Poverty Movement of Nigeria (APMON), an organization whose magazine, “The People’s Cause” I became the Editor when I returned to the country in 1976 after the conclusion of my postgraduate studies in the United States. Beyond his chairmanship of APMON, Tony was well-known in the Nigerian Left as perhaps one of the country’s most effective organizers of the masses for protests and demonstrations, even as he also worked tirelessly to achieve mass support for workers’ strikes and acts of Go-Slow or Sit-Down civil disobedience.
Tony was a well-educated man. He had a Master’s degree in Economics from one of the prominent Swedish universities. But his education, his higher learning, was more than the conventional one of mere certification. This is because while studying in Sweden, Tony had been very active in radical students’ groups and working class organizations; and he had done a lot of travelling in many European countries, as a result of this becoming very knowledgeable about the revolutionary traditions of the masses in Europe, especially with regard to Europe’s relationship to its former colonies in Africa, South America and Asia.
Thus, wherever he went in Europe, the ultimate question Tony posed was this: what is the level of the support of radical, progressive students and workers and their organizations for the antiimperialist struggles of the masses in the Third World? This meant that while Tony was not indifferent to the support of European liberal intellectuals and humanitarian organizations for Third World countries, what mattered most to him was the support, the solidarity of the European masses themselves as expressed in the pressure that they placed on their governments and communities to be just and fair in their dealings with the poor countries of the global South.
I invoke Tony’s imperishable memory here because almost more than any person I have ever met, he had a greater understanding, a greater grasp of the topic of the discussion in this piece. And what is this topic? It is this: how a revolutionary, a progressive can and should connect the interests of the proletariat, the wage-earners, to the interests of the non-wage-earing poor, the lumpenproletariat. In other words, and this is absolutely crucial, unlike most Marxists – of which he was himself an adherent – he made no distinction between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat; rather, to him all forms and levels of dispossession, exploitation and immiseration in capitalist societies were connected and indissociable, especially in the underdeveloped capitalisms of the Third World. Before addressing this central issue for this piece, permit me to give a short profile of Tony’s life as what I am calling here a revolutionary tribune of the lumpenproletariat.
Like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the music superstar and solid upper middle-class political activist who made his abode in one the high-density neighborhoods of Mushin, Tony lived in one of the poorest quarters of Surulere. This was not only a matter of deliberate choice, it was also a question of principle, ideological-ethical principle: only by living close to or with them can you be an effective supporter of the masses. Indeed, at a more profound level, Tony believed that in Nigeria as in most Third World countries, there are no hard boundaries between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat since they live in the same physical spaces and socio-cultural communities. He did not exactly go so far as to make it a distinct aspect of his ideas and beliefs as a Marxist, but I think that deep down, Tony felt that in the shantytowns and slums of our country and other countries of the Third World, the community spirit and ethos were dominated, not by the proletariat proper, but by the “area boys”, the lumpen.
A few more words on Tony and I shall proceed to the topic of which I am making his life an illustration. To understand what drove Tony, one must appreciate the depth of his passion for justice and dignity for the truly dispossessed and excluded of our country, our continent and the world. He was tireless in his to-ing and fro-ing between Lagos Mainland and the Island, often by foot when the buses and “Molues” were, for one reason or another, off the roads. When he rode the buses and other forms of public transportation, he engaged the other commuters in endless discussions about the state of things in the country. And he knew and was knowledgeable about every trade union leader, every stalwart of student unionism, every titan among the “area boys”.
In about the two decades of his return from studies abroad before his death, I don’t think there was any mass-action protest and demonstration in Lagos in which Tony did not play an important role. If there were “explosive” or incendiary anti-government or anti-exploitation leaflets, handbills or posters to be secretly distributed, Tony knew how to have the task done. And he was indomitable in his belief, his hope that the exploited and the marginalized would prevail at the end, not because he was a naïve, romantic idealist but because he believed passionately that you can always start again, even from the worst defeats and setbacks. And this is why my mind dwells so long on his life and example at this moment when we are still trying to make sense of what comes next in the aftermath of the impasse that has overtaken the #EndSARS demonstrations.
I do not wish to idolize Tony Engurube. And neither do I wish to imply that he was unique. Far from that, it is how he seemed to have embodied something essential about places like Mushin and Agege in Lagos, or Soweto and Guguletu in South Africa, or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. In all these places – and a thousand others like them – you will find a spirit of defiance of the pretensions and the claims of natural privilege and authority of places and neighborhoods where the wealthy and the powerful live, the Victoria and Banana Islands of this world. If I was to put a more definitive cast on this spirit, I would describe it as the power of the Multitude, with a capital “M”. No social group in modern capitalist societies embodies this spirit more than the lumpenproletariat. Unfortunately, this Multitude with a capital M is often misrecognized as mobs, or the Mob.
This misrecognition is implicit in the Marxist-influenced OED definition of lumpenproletariat: “the rabble, the poorest of the working class who make little or no contribution to the workers’ cause”. Indeed, the German word, Lumpen, means ragged, tattered clothing. Applied to the French word, proletariat (from the Latin, proletarius) to give us the word lumpenproletariat, it means the proletariat in its fallen, ignoble state. This is why in classical Marxist theory, the proletariat was/is considered, with powerful and sophisticated theorizing, to be the true bioreports force for revolutionary change in modern capitalist societies. On this account, the Paris Commune of 1871, was the last great intervention of the Mob in modern revolutionary history and partly for this reason, it was profoundly anarchistic and it lasted for only a few months.
In the light of 20th century revisions of Marxist theory, this ambiguity or misrecognition of the lumpen has been subjected to both revisionary critique and praxis, especially on the basis of anti-colonial and postcolonial revolutions in Africa, Asia and South America where lumpen elements played huge roles in mass movements and uprisings. For instance, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa rode to victory on the backs of mass revolts in the shanty towns, even as the ANC continued to formally exalt the leading role of the trade unions and the proletariat. Frantz Fanon in Algeria went so far as to propose that rehabilitation of the criminal, alienated lumpen individuals and groups was indispensable for the success of the Algerian anti-colonial revolution. Closer to home, can it be contested that the role of the Multitudes in the June 12, 1993 movement was the single most decisive social force among all the social formations that participated in the event?
And then, there is this fact: the term lumpen has been attached to other classes and groups like the bourgeoisie and even the military to give us terms like the lumpen-bourgeoisie and lumpen-militariat. Ragged, tattered formations of the bourgeoisie and the military top brass? Yes! Think of the sheer number of rich people in our country who did not make their wealth from legitimate and productive activities like the traditional bourgeoisie who made their wealth from manufacturing, commerce and speculations in money and stocks. For the lumpen-militariat, think of the massive de-professionalization that began with the vast expansion of the armed forces during the civil war and the magnification of this deterioration in the coups and counter-coups that led to a very rapid turnover of the officer corps of the Nigerian armed forces. When the late Kenyan political scientist, Ali Mazrui, coined the term, lumpen-militariat, he did not have the Nigerian army in mind; he was thinking primarily of figures like Idi Amin of Uganda and Master Sergeant Doe of Liberia. But what he had in mind could as well be applied to the “officers and gentlemen” of the Nigerian army who are known to routinely steal monies meant to purchase arms and munitions intended for the war against the Boko Haram.
In conclusion, I say forget the lumpen-bourgeoisie and the lumpen-militariat. Think only of the lumpenproletariat. If you don’t, its volatility, its alienation, its criminality even, will be turned against us. As it happened in the derailment of the #EndSARS demonstrations. The Nigerian Left, please take note.
Biodun Jeyifo, [email protected]