[OPINION] Class suicide and radical empathy: Tinubu’s putative transformation – Jideofor Adibe

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Tuesday, 16 January 2024 12:42

[OPINION] Class suicide and radical empathy: Tinubu’s putative transformation - Jideofor Adibe

IT was Amilcar Cabral, the revolutionary socialist leader of the national liberation movement in Guinea-Bissau who formulated the theory of class suicide. He explained it as the act of dying to the privileged class of one’s birth or circumstance by sacrificing one’s own advantages in favour of full identification with the oppressed.

For Marxists who bought into Cabral’s class suicide theory, their argument is that revolution in periphery nations can only come from a ‘petty-bourgeois’ (roughly, middle class) leadership which then dissolves itself (or commits class suicide) by consciously identifying fully with the working class and peasants who are unable to carry out a revolution by themselves.

There are several examples in history of leaders who abandoned their privileged backgrounds or existence to consciously work for the society’s underclass. Instances here include Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao) who was the son of a wealthy farmer but who ended up leading the Chinese communist revolution and Biblical Moses who was raised as a prince of Egypt in Pharaoh’s house but who abandoned his life of luxury to lead his people, the Israelites, out of their bondage in ancient Egypt. 

The above is another way of saying that power (and the wealth that comes with it in the developing countries) can radicalise an otherwise conservative leader just as it can also de-radicalise a previously radical person. For instance, given the numerous controversies that dogged Bola Tinubu during the campaigns, not even his most ardent supporters marketed his candidacy on the basis of any anti-corruption credentials.

Rather they focused on marketing his assumed skills in identifying talents and in supposedly being the father of modern Lagos.

Just as power can transform an otherwise conservative or colourless leader, so can a populist, respected system critic or social radical also be de-radicalised by societal dynamics. We have, for instance, seen journalists, labour leaders (including those famous for wearing cheap khaki caps as their own badges of identification with the masses) and well-regarded anti-establishment public intellectuals become haughty system defenders once they get elected or appointed to a political office.

Such people can also be said to have committed class suicide by exhibiting one of the negative features of the petty bourgeois class in Marxist literature:  their inherent instability – often a tendency to transform themselves into the bourgeois class proper. 

Tinubu started on a very wobbly note. His ‘subsidy is gone’ statement, in retrospect, does not seem to have been backed by rigorous reflection on its possible unintended consequences with a view to putting in place measures to contain them. He shortly afterwards announced the flotation of the Naira, which again seemed not to have benefitted from rigorous interrogation.

One of the consequences was an astronomical jump in the price of fuel and a collapse in the value of the Naira, leading to hyperinflationary pressures and a level of hardship unseen in the annals of the country’s history. Since then the government seems to have been trying one headline- hugging policy announcement after another, without much success until it hit luck on January 2, 2023 when it announced that Halima Shehu has been suspended as the Chief Executive Officer of the National Social Investment Programme Agency allegedly for diverting N44bn from the coffers of NSIPA without presidential approval.

Subsequently a memo whereby Betta Edu, the now suspended Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, asked Oluwatoyin Madein, the Accountant General of the Federation to transfer N585m to the private account of an accountant in the ministry, Bridget Oniyelu, began making the rounds.

Following public outcry, President Bola Tinubu suspended Edu and asked the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to probe the finances of the ministry. Umar-Farouq, who served as a minister under former President Muhammadu Buhari, was also under the searchlight over alleged N37.1bn money laundering. All the four programmes administered by NSIPA –  N-Power Programme, Conditional Cash Transfer Programme, Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme and Home Grown School Feeding Programme were subsequently suspended for a period of six weeks in the first instance

Revelations of embezzlement of public funds by public officials have always excited Nigerians – just as revelations of sexual escapades of public officials do in the West.

Largely because the move was against officials appointed by Tinubu himself (apart from Umar-Farouk who served under Buhari), there was no room to suspect vendetta or ethnic witch-hunting, bolstering the legitimacy of the moves. Tinubu so much captured the public imagination with the moves that even his most ardent critics were conceding decisiveness and evidence of being in control to him – especially compared with his rather sleepy predecessor. 

Seeing that he had got the public where he wanted them, Tinubu moved again. As if in response to the constant criticisms that his government is not making any sacrifices in terms of cutting down on the cost of governance, he directed a slash in the size of official delegations for foreign and domestic trips by up to 60 percent.

According to the directive, for foreign trips, Tinubu’s delegation will now be capped at 20 people, down from 50 previously, while that of the First Lady’s entourage abroad is restricted to just five members, a reduction by more than 60 %. For the vice president, the foreign delegation will be limited to five, same for his wife. For domestic trips within Nigeria, the president’s delegation is now capped at 25, the first lady at 10, the vice president at 15 and his wife at 10 members.

Tinubu, a wealthy political figure, has always been known for his imperial proclivity – he loves to travel in long convoys and to be surrounded by a huge crowd of hangers-on. To cut down on the size of his entourage may not mean much to many people but for someone who has revelled in huge entourages at least since becoming the godfather of Lagos politics, that downsizing is a radical move. When this is added to the move against Betta Edu and others, it logically leads to a very fundamental question of whether Tinubu is now in the throes of committing class suicide.

Committing class suicide in a country like Nigeria is a double edged sword: you can receive a deafening applause from the social classes below but this could also put the leader committing the class suicide in opposition to his key support base – his own group of people who knew him and identified with him for who he was before embarking on the class suicide and who may fear for who he may become after the class suicide is committed. The truth is that who the leader becomes after the class suicide is committed may pose an existential threat to the social class and group to which he originally belonged, including the conditions for the social reproduction of those groups.  

Additionally, committing one act of class suicide often leads to demands for more by the ‘down-pressed’ classes in a bid to appropriate the leader fully to their side in what they hope will be a fight for finish with those perceived as their social class enemies. This may lead to endless agitations and could get to a point where the leader loses control of the process – as happened with Mikhail Gorbachev when he introduced his Glasnost and Perestroika reforms in the former Soviet Union – to the applause of the West. Once the leader loses control of the process (as happened to Gorbachev) and the radical reforms acquire a life of their own, the leader trying to commit class suicide becomes despised by both the under classes that initially applauded his moves and his original support base/social group which feels betrayed by him. 

In a society like ours with deep fault lines, there are primordial consequences for any leader embarking on a class suicide. For Tinubu, those accusing him of cornering choice political appointments to his Yoruba in-group will sooner than later ask him to address that ‘lop-sidedness’ “if he wants them to take him serious” while any serious move on Yoruba office holders will also generate criticisms from the ethnic in- group for not protecting his own now that it is their ‘turn’. 

As Tinubu embarks on what seems to be a journey of class suicide, two crucial questions beg for answers: Can he go the whole hog?  And can he pay the price? This is where he also needs the ‘radical empathy’ of those hailing him for his latest moves.

•Adibe is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nasarawa State University, Keffi.

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