Friday, December 11, 2015

In Class With Professor Eskor Toyo

By Biko Agozino

When I last saw Baba Eskor Toyo in June 2015 I was overcome with emotion after I saw the giant wheelchair-bound following a stroke several years earlier. I visited him with Comrade Alofoje Unuigboje and we massaged his feet and thanked the family and especially the young David and Eskor’s medical doctor son and his daughter for taking good care of him. We felt that he recognized our presence by moving his foot up and down and we hoped that he would recover but sadly he could not say a word to us. We told him that the people were waiting for him to come and offer moral and intellectual leadership and that he should get well soon. So sad to hear that he finally joined the ancestors on December 7, 2015 at the young age of 86 years. What a huge loss to the world robbed of his poetry, politics and pedagogy.

I encountered the legendary Comrade Eskor Toyo as a freshman in the University of Calabar where I heard him give one of his trademark electrifying speeches to the campus community. Later, I went into his office where he was Dean of Social Science and introduced myself. He asked how he could help me and I asked him to explain the theory of the dialectical processes of the negation of the negation to me. ‘Go away’, he thundered. ‘Go and read in the library and stop asking me lazy questions!’ I left with embarrassment and a promise to myself that I would excel in my studies so well that the great Eskor would take notice of me some day.

And it came to pass that after my compulsory national service, I was employed by the University of Calabar as a Graduate Assistant. Then I encountered Eskor again as he ran weekly literacy classes under a cashew tree in the poor sections of Calabar Municipality. Soon Bassey Ekpo Bassey nominated me to serve as the Director of Administration at the Directorate for Literacy and Eskor approved as the Chairman. Soon afterwards, Eskor appointed me as the Associate Editor of Massline, our free literacy journal which he edited. Secretaries typed the journal on manual typewriters and we cyclostyled the prints with the message that there was no copyrights protection against copying and sharing the contents. One change that I suggested to Eskor was made to the Motto of the journal from ‘The People of This Land Have Suffered Enough: Their Chains Must Fall’ to ‘We People of This Land Have Suffered Enough: Let Us Break the Chains’.

Along with Bassey Ekpo Bassey, Princewill Alozie, Akpan Ekpo, Bene Madunagu, Edwin Madunagu, Yakubu Ochefu, and Okonete Ekanem I worked with Comrade Eskor to organize public enlightenment lectures and weekly literacy classes now located in one of the branch offices of a trade union. We mounted a successful campaign to elect Bassey as the Chairman of Calabar Municipal Council but the Military Governor canceled the elections for some reason. The elections were repeated and Bassey won by a bigger margin. He entered office and immediately abolished school fees, built more classrooms, established medium-sized industries for cooperatives to run, established neighborhood councils, and abolished refuse-collection fees. Finally, the Directorate for Literacy spearheaded a National Workshop for the Nigerian Labor Conference in Calabar with now ancestral legends like Mokwugo Okoye, Festus Iyayi, Ola Oni, S.G. Ikoku, and Paschal Bafyau, among many others in attendance. An all-night meeting was held by the elders in the home of Bassey and it was agreed at that meeting to join the push for the formation of the Labour Party across the country in partnership with the NLC. However, I was reprimanded for forgetting to buy kolanuts to keep everybody awake during the all night meeting.

One senior comrade with whom I was sent across the country with two others to mobilize support for the Labor Party followed up by sending a note on ‘Clarifications’ in which he and three other signatories, including one based abroad, alleged that some people were plotting to exclude them from the Labour Party. Eskor advised us to ignore such a note because it could lead to sectarianism and splits if we pursue it. However I drafted a response that Comrades Princewill Alozie, Akpan Ekpo and myself discussed and signed as ‘Clarifications of the Clarifications’ and I took my first ever airplane flight to hand-deliver the response to the office of the comrade with the approval of Eskor and Bassey.

Our response was simply that we saw the Labour Party as the mass party advocated by Eskor in The Third Republic and the Working Class, with room for all those committed to democratically seeking power for the progressive transformation of the country. In my naivety, I believed that the matter was closed but a meeting was later called by the comrade in which I was accused of being the one trying to exclude him from the new party. I was stunned because the reason why I washed my hands and took a lump of food when I found the host eating with some of our guests was because I felt like I was among family and did not need an invitation to the table even though I was not hungry. I was always the one defending the ideas of the person who now suspected me of plotting to exclude him from the party. How could anyone suspect me, a lowly Assistant Secretary of the Cross River State branch of the party, of having that much power to exclude anyone from the party? Perhaps I had more power than I realized but I was not interested in witch-hunts. Eskor backed me at the meeting and urged all to focus on the coming national launching of the party for which he and Bassey had been teaching us new party songs, some of which I now realize were borrowed from the Civil Rights Movement in the US.

One of the greatest lessons that I learned from Eskor Toyo is that politics is learned in practice and not from textbooks as he made clear in his ‘Open Letter to the Nigerian Left’ in the Review of African Political Economy urging support for the Peoples Redemption Party of which he was a national leader during the second republic, rather than remain arm-chair theorists comfortable enough to criticize a hero like Bala Mohammed who was murdered on the streets by what the police called a ‘cooperative mob’, according to Bala Usman, while mobilizing the peasantry and poor workers but without any arrests.

Another important lesson was his emphasis of class analysis in a country like Nigeria. Contrary to the commonsensical assumption that ethnicity and religious identity were the greatest problems hindering the development of any country, Professor Eskor Toyo once gave a talk to the Directorate for Literacy in which he argued that class oppression is the gravest problem facing Nigeria, not sectarianism nor tribalism (serious as these may be). A few weeks later, workers in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, invited him to come and address them on a similar theme but he could not go and he sent me to go and represent him.

When I got there, the workers did not waste time before challenging me to explain what Eskor meant when he said that ethnicity was less important than class identity in Nigeria. I started sweating because I had not reflected clearly on the Toyo thesis. Then I answered by using the problem-posing learning style of Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed: I asked the workers if they were all of the Ibibio ethnic identity. They nodded. I asked them if they were all Christians and most of them nodded. Then I asked if they shared their religious and ethnic identities with the Obong of Uyo or chief of the city and again they affirmed. So I asked them if the Obong has ever invited them to dinner at his palace and they said, never. Well, I concluded, Moshood Abiola identified with the Yoruba ethnicity and with the Muslim religion but the Obong of Uyo who was Ibibibio and Christian invited Abiola as a class ally, feted him at the palace, gave him free land allocation and gave him a traditional chieftaincy title - Ada Idaha ke Brutu (or one of those outstanding in the land). The workers roared with laughter and told me that the people called that title by a different name - Ana Inaha ke Brutu. When I failed to laugh along, they translated that it roughly means, those who sleep around on the land!

One question that I would like to ask Eskor, especially now that mass demonstrations for Biafra are being reported, is a clarification of his stance in apparent support of the genocidal federal government during the Nigerian - Biafra conflict as he made clear in his 1967 book, The Working Class and the Nigerian Crisis, in which he rejected the appeals to ethnicity by the regional ruling class elements, questioned the warning by Ojukwu to foreign investors to avoid the country,  and rejected the coup and the counter coup that entrenched reactionary militarism in the country. Later, in 1970, he published an article in the Journal of African Marxists on the struggle against Portuguese invasion of independent Guinea under the influence of imperialism and those that Eskor called the ‘Ojukwus of Guinea’ who were bent on breaking up their country in the interest of neocolonialism but without any evidence of a pogrom in Guinea similar to the one that led to the civil war in Nigeria.

Throughout his life, I am not sure that Eskor spoke or wrote to condemn the genocide that was targeted at the Igbo in Nigeria the way he condemned the murder of Bala Muhamed, perhaps because he correctly believed that the Biafra conflict was class-based and not tribal or ethnic the same way that Walter Rodney did in How Europe Underdeveleped Africa, pages 228-229. Edwin Madunagu and Wole Soyinka have been calling on the Nigerian Left to address the opportunism of many leftists during the civil war and it would have been great to hear Eskor call for reparative justice from his principled position that we should not let the few rich destroy the poor masses, as Hebert Ekwe-Ekwe, another giant who taught us at Calabar, has been clamoring in books like Biafra Revisited and Readings from Reading or as Achebe did in There Was A Country. Perhaps, the great Eskor Toyo fell into the pitfalls of national consciousness that Frantz Fanon warned against or else he would not have seen the struggle for freedom as separate struggles within the boundaries of colonized African states instead of engaging in a mobilization of the African masses for the Peoples Republic of Africa as advocated by Kwame Nkrumah and many others to allow Africans to move and settle wherever they choose for a brighter tomorrow.

Eskor may have answered some of the above questions when he asked us to write chapters on the Political Manipulation of Religion: Case Studies which he edited and published for the Mass Mobilization Agency of the military government as a warning to Nigeria in the 1980s but without mentioning Nigeria. He also edited a collection of our essays on Political Practice in Nigeria. He truly believed that only lethargy was keeping our intellectuals from fulfilling the historic tasks of mobilizing the people to change the country for the better. Thank you Baba Toyo for exemplary leadership: Forward ever, backward never! Organize! Do not agonize