Interviewer: Sam, you played a very important role in the ‘Awareness League’, which was a Nigerian anarchist organization that flourished in the 1990s. Can you tell us a bit about how it grew and how it declined?
Sam: It’s a little nostalgic for me these days, talking about the Awareness League, because the Awareness League was a romantic idea. When we entered the universities in the early 80s, what we encountered was socialist groups, socialist teaching, Marxist teaching especially. And we became attracted to Marxism, in the sense that it preached the coming of a new dawn in society, and by extension, the African continent.
We were really enthralled by the perspectives of Marxism, and the abiding, thorough critique of capitalism that Marx and Marxist literature embodied. It did not take much time before we defined ourselves as Marxists on campus, and this continued until we left the universities. When I was leaving university I wrote a thesis in my final year on the political economy of Nigeria’s external debt crisis then, and in the thesis, it might interest you to know, I employed the Marxist framework, as my tool of analysis. Where Marx was talking about the economy as providing the axis around which the further movement in society revolved, whether it was politics, or culture. I also talked about the tendency of capitalism towards crisis. These were ideas that enthralled us. Also the ideas of revolution. Marx said that the history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggle, and talked about the revolution being the midwife of a new society, giving birth to a new one.
Usually in Nigeria, after your graduation from university, you are obliged to take part in a mandatory one year service. So I was posted to the old Oyo state with its capital at Ibadan, for the mandatory one year national service. It was there that I met a couple of socialist-minded young men like myself, and we started organising and talking about Marxism, socialism, leftist resistance. We identified ourselves essentially as a leftist organization. In the course of that, some of us started subscribing to ‘The Torch’ newspaper, published in New York. It was there we started gleaning for the first time, the initial ideas of anarchism. That was how, gradually, when we finished our national service, some of us who were living in the south-east, started thinking about an enduring platform. Because socialism even then was entering a serious crisis. The crisis of the Soviet empire was brewing. It was not long thereafter that communism collapsed in Europe. And it was in the midst of this crisis that we started increasingly vacilating towards anarchism. Subsequently, Awareness League was born, and the rest is history.
The Awareness League first of all, derived its lifeblood from the resistance against military rule in Nigeria. The continuation of military rule acted as a spore. It was one of the inclusions that continued to give oxygen to our existence then as Awareness League. It is on record that between the late 1980s and the late 1990s, Nigeria witnessed the toughest anti-military struggle. Awareness League joined forces with other anti-military groups in resisting military rule in Nigeria. It was in the process of coming into touch with a lot of anarcho-syndicalist groups around the world, in Europe and America , that I and my friend decided to intellectualise the the subject of anarchism by producing a book, which you very well know.
The struggle against military rule ended with the coming of civilian rule in 1999. I would say that the antagonism of not only the Awareness League but all the civil society, community-based groups, and leftist organizations in the country, virtually evaporated. Because the military was a uniting factor, I would say, in the sense that every person – whether you were anarchist, Marxist, leftist, socialist – saw in the military a common enemy to be resisted, to be opposed, to be overthrown if possible. With the coming of civilian government, we did not have that kind of common enemy any longer. Because some of the groups, some individuals from these groups, now started gravitating towards bourgeois politics. But let me say that for the most part, the problem was not individuals gravitating towards bourgeois politics, it was really that the civil society groups, the leftist groups and organizations, were not prepared for the consequences of [civilian] rule. We did not analyze in a serious sense what would be the consequences of the end of military rule and the coming of civilian rule, in the place of the military. We took it for granted that it would be business as usual. But as it happened, the end of military rule singularly signaled the end of most of these community-based, civil-society-based groups. Most of these groups, including the Awareness League, fragmented.
By the dawn of the new millennium, we were just a few individuals left, trying to grapple with the reality of social existence and political developments in our country. Some of our members have had to go back to school, taking up teaching appointments at some universities, some are grappling with the realities of survival and existence in our kind of society. I personally have been having health challenges – it’s not something I want to broadcast – but I’ve been having some health challenges. Between 2007 and 2009, I had serious health challenges. For me, I find that it is impossible to recreate Awareness League in the circumstances that we find ourselves in today.
So perhaps, I said to myself, we cannot recreate Awareness League, but we must maintain some form of interaction among ourselves, we must continue to interact with others in civil society. We must continue to engage, even with those in power, in some form of call to account. And we must devise more realistic ways of being relevant in society and trying to make a difference in our respective communities and in society at large.
So I have since then, gone into trying to join hands with some people in trying to create a non-governmental organisation known as Tropical Watch. Concerned essentially with issues of sustainable development and environment, including climate change. In the process also we have been drawn into some anti-corruption fights, anti-corruption struggles in our society. Because we find that one of the greatest threats to sustainable development is corruption. Corruption makes it impossible for resources to be allocated in a judicial, transparent manner. Such that all sectors of the economy, all sectors of the society, would benefit. It is corruption that makes it impossible for governments to check uncontrolled logging in different communities for instance. It is corruption that makes it impossible for contacts awarded for road construction, for provision of water, for sanitation and things like that to be exhibited. In so far as corruption exists, it is impossible to create a harmonious balance between resource utilization and the existence of our environment and societies. So these are some of the things that I personally, in conjunction with some other friends and like-minded individuals, have been trying to create.
But it has not been easy. Because, like I told you, what happened to Awareness League is not unique – it happened to every single other civil society group, every other organic social organization in the country that took part in the anti-military struggle. I’ll give you another example, one of the largest NGOs in Nigeria over the past 15-20 years, has been the Civil Liberties Organisation. It was a body dedicated to fighting for human rights, constitutional rule, and fighting against police violence and all forms of violence against civilians, women and children. The Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) grew in leaps and bounds so that they had offices in all different parts of Nigeria. But I can tell you: in the past seven or eight years, the CLO has almost been dead. Actually, what we are seeing is more or less a ghost, because there is no state in Nigeria where their office is functional any longer. The man who used to be the zonal director here in Enugu has virtually been left to fend for himself. They haven’t paid the rent on their office in the past five years. So what I’m trying to say is that what happened to Awareness League is what happened most other organizations. Even Tropical Watch is still trying to find its feet.