The Great Ife Students’ Union Building (Ken Saro Wiwa Building) means different things to many people. While to some it is a place that has produced heroes and legends, to others it is the bedrock of students’ militancy; to others still, it is a house for thugs, rogues and ‘professional’ students. Whatever it may mean to anyone is a matter of perception. For those, like me, who have served the Union in one capacity or the other, at one time or the other, it is a centre for political consciousness, analyses and education.
In front of that building once stood a newspaper vendor, Abe Igi (under a tree), where different people go to read the papers (usually for free) and, in turn, analyse, discuss and argue over topical issues making the news for long hours that one begins to wonder if these people ever attended lectures. (I must confess I learnt more politics from that location than I did in the classroom, studying for a degree in Political Science in the university). It was at this place that I met the strangest person in my life!
Comrade Tony Uchendu was a young man one would ordinarily prefer to avoid. His appearance was austere; his stature could be described as below average. His ideas and opinions were either strange or bizarre. He professed communism and his deep knowledge of Marxism particularly thrilled me. But how would anyone be aware of this, except you came close to him? But I had never met anyone calling himself a Stalinist before then.
In addition to lending me Isaac Duetscher’s Stalin: A Political Biography some day after our first meeting, he requested that I attend the meeting of his group, The Eagle Network, a group I was largely unaware of in the Campus. I was reluctant to read the book he offered me (all I knew about Joseph Stalin then were from books on the history and politics of the Soviet Union), just as I was to attend the meeting. After hesitating for several days, I decided to honour the invitation, in the hope that there wouldn’t be any political or social consequence for attending the meeting of a strange, largely clandestine, and an unknown group, and at night! It was at this meeting that I heard a shocking message about democracy.
Noticing my hesitations, Comrade Tony allayed my fears: the group sprang up from the Black Nationalists’ Movement (BNM). I told him that I only knew the Movement as a political ideological group to which the governor of Osun State, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola belonged to as a student of The Polytechnic, Ibadan. Then we discussed aspects of my university dissertation on “The Effects of Party Politics on Nigeria’s Democratic Experience” (which I dedicated to Ogbeni ). On seeing my work, he oppugned all my ideas about democracy and told me that all Nigeria needed was Stalin’s sort of leadership, not democracy.
It is now over 54 years that our colonial masters left us. It is also 16 years since the soldiers went back to their barracks, handing over power to politicians or ‘democrats’. And Nigeria is gradually moving towards having an equal number of years for both military and civilian regimes. The ‘democrats’ may disagree with the points I will be making subsequently.
A lot of people are deliberately ignorant of the fact that two of modern history’s most celebrated dictators are products of a democratic process. Benito Mussolini (Italy) and Adolf Hitler (Germany) were elected under the Fasci di Combattimento or Fascist Party and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party or the Nazi Party respectively in 1922 and 1933, in addition to countless others. We must equally concede that elections have also produced geniuses and near-saints like Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, Julius Nyerere, Sam Mbakwe, Lateef Jakande, Sule Lamido and the likes, just as it has produced rogues and despots, with Robert Mugabe being a good case of this.
Also, anyone who has studied American history would know that democracy is just a style of leadership, not a system as we may think. Franklin D. Roosevelt is a good example of this tendency. Many remember him today as, perhaps, the most loved American president. Few remember the ‘Court Packing’ and attempts to flush out all his opponents from the Congress during the 1938 midterm election using his influence in the Democratic Party. All these he did to force the New Deal Program through the throat of Americans. Few still remember he is called the lion and the fox: two creatures known for ruthlessness and craftiness.
We have equally been told that democracy is built on institutions, and not men. In fact, President Obama made the point clearly on his visit to Ghana in 2009 that Africa needs strong institutions and not men. If I am on the same page with these people, the word ‘institution’ is to be taken literarily as an organisation that has a particular purpose. This may mean courts, parliaments, bureaucracies, political parties, and electoral bodies, etc. If those are examples of institutions, then we have them in excess in Nigeria. To fight corruption alone, we have the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC), the Code of Conduct Bureau, National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), State Security Service (SSS), the Police, etc. Have the existence of these bodies reduced corruption in Nigeria?
It is on that note that I found another meaning of the word in Oxford Dictionary as: a person who is well known because s/he has been on a job for a long time. In the United States’ Federal Reserve Board we can mention institutions like William M. Martin Jr., who served as chairman between 1951 and 1970 under five different administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Also we have Allan Greenspan, who was appointed chairman in 1987 and served four different Presidents, including Bill Clinton, even though he himself was a Republican. These are institutions per excellence. And these we need.
When I hear people talk of ‘institutions’, they say it as though they will be manned by robots or X-Men. Judges can be bribed, influenced or intimidated; security agencies can be compromised; and other institutions can be deliberately underfunded (all these we recently witnessed in Nigeria). The reason for all these is that these institutions are manned by weak men. Weak men cannot rise above partisanship, tribalism, nepotism, ethnicity or religious bigotry. This is where I agree with my Stalinist friend!
Irrespective of what the West wants us to believe about Stalin: he was responsible for the deaths of an untold number of Soviet citizens through starvation and the ‘concentration’ camps. He murdered many, if not all, of his opponents and supporters (including the respected Leon Trosky, one of the leaders of October 1917 revolution); and unleashed terror on many through the notorious and dreaded KGB (the Secret Police). Yet, we need such a leader to bring ‘discipline’ back into our cultural lexicon as a country. For those who do not know, it was Stalin who mechanised Soviet’s agriculture; turned around its education, leading to the education of several rural farmers; laid the foundation of Soviet’s industrialisation, and development of nuclear power capability, which compelled Americans to treat Russians as equals in international politics. He was equally responsible for Soviet’s victory over Adolf Hitler’s Nazi army. All these came at great costs. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and other great reformers have been dwarfed by the giant form of the Man of Steel. If we remove Stalin’s contribution to Russia’s history what is left? There is always a price to pay for making progress.
As a developing nation, we need leaders to guide and inspire our people into political, social, economic, cultural and spiritual vitality, revival and activities. History is not in want of such leaders: Napoleon Bonaparte (France), Charles De Gaulle (France), Lee Kwan Yew (Singapore), Jossip Bros “Tito” (Yugoslavia), Major-General Park Clung (South Korea), Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Turkey), Fidel Castro (Cuba) and people of such ilk. These might not be the people’s first choice of ‘democrats’, but the huge developments they brought to their societies are still reference points of progress in those spaces.
Comrade Tony, I later learnt, was shot by the men of the Nigerian Police during a 2012 nationwide demonstration and strike, hence I was unable to return his book on Stalin. During my little stay with him, I knew him to have so many ambitions. I also knew of his unconditional love for Stalin. When I looked at the book again recently, I saw the words: “If I ever meet you, Stalin,” written by the Comrade at the back of the book, “I will give you a kiss.” As against what his appearance portrayed, he was just 26 years old when he was shot. I hope he is has gotten to kiss Stalin by now.