Segun Sango – an appreciation

2013 April - Segun addressing a rally against trade union leaders calling off protest

Segun Sango (7 May 1958 – 23 May 2022) – founding member and General Secretary of the Democratic Socialist Movement, the CWI in Nigeria

Many of the obituaries for and reminiscences of Segun Sango have centred on his personal qualities, abilities and confident lifelong dedication to fighting for a socialist future.

Certainly meeting Segun Sango, often popularly referred to as SS, for the first time in 1985, one was rapidly impressed by his wide knowledge, international outlook, willingness to listen, draw conclusions but also, most decisively, his determination to fight to achieve the goal of building a force, a party, that could end capitalism and liberate Nigerians from oppression and the ills of underdevelopment.

These qualities never left him.

Segun Sango’s comrades have referred to the key role that he played in building the Democratic Socialist Movement, the Nigerian section of the CWI, from 1985 until 2016, when ill health forced him to increasingly step back from frontline political activity. In those three decades, Segun helped build what became the largest Marxist organisation in Nigeria but also helped develop new generations of activists which meant that, when he was unable to continue his own activity, the DSM did not cease its work.

Segun Sango speaking at a DSM National Committee meeting April 2014
Segun Sango speaking at a DSM National Committee meeting April 2014

Segun Sango, was, above all, a revolutionary, whose Marxist viewpoint was the key to both understanding what was happening and a guide to action. Amongst the founders of the CWI in Nigeria, he played a key role in helping the clarification of ideas and methods while starting to build a team which could develop what was initially a very small group.

Building a sizeable, genuinely revolutionary organisation that is active in struggle is not simple, especially in neo-colonial countries. Segun took on that task when, with a handful of others in 1985, they decided to build a section of the Committee for a Workers’ International in Nigeria.

Like the other founders of the CWI in Nigeria, Segun had already been politically active for some time. It was a tense period, Nigeria was again under military rule. While studying at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Segun was part of a student grouping which had secured the election of one of their number, and fellow founder of the CWI in Nigeria, Lanre Arogundade, as President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) in 1984/85. During his NANS Presidency, Lanre led protests against economic attacks and repression by the then Buhari-led military government which resulted in NANS being banned.

At that time, the socialist movement in Nigeria was, as in many countries, heavily influenced by the ideas of Stalinism, in particular, its ‘stages theory’, and emphasis on building ‘progressive’ multi-class alliances, whose programme was limited to working within capitalism. Its appeal was based on opposition to imperialism, the failures and regular crises of capitalism, and the misapprehension that the leaders of the Soviet Union, China etc. stood in the tradition of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The successes of planned economies developing the Soviet Union, China, Cuba etc. stood in contrast to plight of many neo-colonial countries and appeared to justify the authority of the Stalinists who declared that these regimes were socialist. The CWI, while agreeing that these countries were then not capitalist, argued that as there was no workers’ democracy within them, and that they were ruled by a bureaucratic elite, they could not be regarded as socialist, a position Segun understood. This understanding made it possible to see why these regimes collapsed after 1989 and capitalism was restored in these countries, which was not the result of any ‘failure’ of socialism.

Already before he met the CWI, Segun, not being convinced by Stalinist ideas, had started to move towards genuine Marxism, i.e. Trotskyism, after reading Trotsky’s articles written during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Trotsky’s analysis of what fascism was, his arguments for a “United Front” against fascism, and for a revolutionary programme, all had an impact on Segun against the background of the crisis that had led to the overthrow of the Second Republic and the return of military rule at the end of 1983.

In mid-1985, material written by the CWI started to circulate in an organised way in Nigeria and this prepared the ground for the first direct discussions in Nigeria between the CWI and Nigerian activists in late 1985. Segun was one of those who rapidly became firmly in agreement with the CWI’s analysis, programme and methods. This alignment was not just in relation to challenge of building independent working class organisations with clear socialist programmes, it was also on international questions. These discussions resulted in the November 1985 formation of a CWI group, which agreed to work towards building a section of the CWI. In 1986, the group became formally affiliated to the CWI and in the following year a full CWI section.

Initially, the comrades who joined the CWI were also members of the small Socialist Workers, Poor Farmers and Youth Party (SWFYP), led by the well-known socialist Ola Oni, and had encouraged it to begin the regular production of a paper, Workers Vanguard, in 1986. There were discussions between Ola Oni and the CWI, but while Ola was sympathetic to many of the CWI positions, he was unwilling to draw all the conclusions on what needed to be done in Nigeria. After a time, this led to a political separation of the ways between CWI comrades and rest of the SWFYP and the CWI comrades founded the Labour Militant paper in 1987.

But this was just a starting point. Building a revolutionary organisation is not just a matter of shouting a few slogans and issuing some material. Above all, it is a question of building a living organisation, with teams of individual thinkers, able to discuss and act collectively, that can sink roots amongst working people to be then in a position to struggle to win majority support for its programme. This is a challenge in all circumstances, but the challenge is bigger when faced with the sometimes chaotic conditions of life in neo-colonial countries and sometimes, as in the first 13 years of CWI activity in Nigeria, being politically active under military rule.

This meant that the CWI comrades in Nigeria, from almost the beginning of their work, faced obstacles both from both the state, opponents within the trade union apparatus and on many university and college campuses.

Segun Sango speaking at the 2014 Congress of the Joint Action Front

Especially during military rule, there was surveillance and harassment. Femi Aborishade, the first full time worker for Labour Militant, the first public name of the CWI in Nigeria, took on this role after being sacked by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and later spent much of 1989 in detention under the Babangida regime. At the same time, in the late 1980s, male and female CWI comrades in the Nigeria Union of Railwaymen were hounded by their union leaders, scared of facing opposition within the union. Then in 1989, trade union leaders were instrumental in preventing the short lived Nigerian Labour Party holding a Lagos state conference because they feared Labour Militant’s influence and the possibility of even it winning a majority for its ideas at such a conference.

The upheavals and mass protests after military’s annulment of MKO Abiola’s victory in the June 12 presidential election, saw Labour Militant play a significant role in the opposition. In the run-up to the vote, Labour Militant did not support either of the two millionaires which the military allowed to stand, and argued the case for fully democratic elections and an independent party of labour. But Babangida’s cancelation of the election result changed the entire situation, setting off a whole period of struggle in which more people participated than had voted in the election. ‘Labour Militant’ played a part particularly by arguing for independent working class action to defeat the military and allow Abiola to become president. This approach was an example of how Segun and CWI comrades were able to react to a changed situation and draw conclusions. Labour Militant held that a capitalist democracy is preferable to a pro-capitalist military regime, while also saying that Labour must not enter into a political alliance with Abiola or join his government as Labour should stand for a workers’ and poor people’s government overthrowing capitalism rather than participating in trying to run it.

During the period of military rule, the CWI comrades in Nigeria worked in a semi-open way until July 1998, when, on Segun’s initiative, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), was launched as an open organisation, just after the death of Abacha, the military dictator. During the period of semi-illegality, the CWI in Nigeria was identified mainly by the name of its newspaper, Labour Militant (1987-1994) later named Militant (1994-1998).

The fairly rapid growth of Labour Militant and Militant was not just because of the objective situation, especially during the growing opposition to military rule and the attractiveness of the CWI’s programme; it was also the result of team work and one of Segun’s strength’s was his ability to build teams. Not teams of ‘yes’ men and women, but genuine teams,  where different talents came together to build something bigger than the parts. As someone who followed sport, above all football, Segun was very aware of this.

Segun was always giving people an opportunity to develop. For a long time, different DSM comrades would sleep at the main DSM office, sometimes because they were homeless or because they had just come to Lagos. Segun saw this as an opportunity to get to know these comrades, discuss with them and give them the chance politically develop through discussion and activity. Often these comrades would be invited to attend the DSM’s EC as visitors.

Generally, Segun wanted to see what roles different people could play. At the same time, he usually had a clear assessment of people’s strengths and weaknesses. Clearly he was not somebody who could be taken in by appearances or words; sometimes he would suddenly sum up someone in a few words or a sentence, at most.

But he was not vindictive. Often he would try to defuse petty jealousies and rivalries, believing that time and experience would resolve things. He was very aware of the necessity of avoiding what he saw as unnecessary conflicts. In a country like Nigeria, the question of international visits could provoke conflicts. While numbers of DSM comrades travelled to meetings or speaking tours in different countries, Segun, as general secretary, began to regularly attend meetings of the CWI leadership. In 1998, in a situation where there was some pressure for different comrades to attend CWI leadership meetings, Segun proposed that Rotimi Ewebiyi, the then National Organiser and editor of the DSM’s paper, who had been attending CWI meetings as a visitor, would not be formally elected as a member of the CWI’s International Executive in order to allow another member of the DSM EC to stand. I argued against because of Rotimi’s key political and organisational role, but both Segun and Rotimi said it was necessary to prevent an unnecessary dispute, with Segun adding that, in reality, it would make no difference. This is how it turned out. The comrade who was elected to the CWI leadership stopped political activity before the end of his term of office and Rotimi was elected to the CWI leadership at its 2002 World Congress, but this experience showed how travel to meetings was a political matter.

Segun’s ability to help build an organisation that can replenish and refresh its leadership was seen after the tragic unexpected illness and death of Rotimi, in 2004, and was shown again after Segun was forced by ill-health to withdraw from day to day activity in 2016.

Segun was decisive. Sometimes, especially in bigger meetings, Segun could appear to be only partially involved, people who didn’t know him might have thought that he wasn’t listening. But that surface impression would disappear when he spoke, as he showed that he not only had been closely following what was happening but also able to make his points very clearly.

Segun not only accumulated knowledge and experience, internationally and nationally, but was always looking for ways to build the DSM and support for its programme. He certainly was not a routinist and always willing to consider initiatives. Thus, right from its launch, Segun saw the potential of the National Conscience Party (NCP), as it attracted radical layers amongst the youth and working class despite not being a working class based party. The DSM’s activity in the NCP was not a step away its drive to establish workers’ party, something summed up in the 2013 collection of articles, entitled, “DSM and the Struggle for a Working Peoples’ Political Alternative”. Rather it was a successful attempt to engage with radicalising layers which resulted in the DSM enjoying significant growth in the early 2000s, when it became the CWI’s second biggest national section.

The CWI comrades’ activity in the NCP, between its launch in 1994 and 2007, also demonstrated Segun’s ability and feel for mass work, especially after he took over the chairmanship of the Lagos NCP from the first chair who went on to leave the NCP. The DSM had been deeply involved in the launch of NCP and another DSM comrade, Adewale Barshar, was Secretary and the main organiser of the Lagos NCP before he had to move outside Lagos for work. Others can better describe the activity of the Lagos NCP but it was due to activities of Segun and all DSM comrades in the party that allowed it to score the NCP’s best electoral results in 2003. Then the NCP officially won, despite rigging, 14% of the votes in the Ifako-Ijaiye, Lagos, federal constituency and 9% in the Lagos West senatorial district.

After the right-wing capture of the NCP and prevention of DSM comrades standing as duly selected NCP candidates in the 2007 elections, the DSM looked, for a time, to try to build the Labour Party, founded in 2002, into a genuine workers’ party. This step, despite having some potential, did not work out largely because the then leadership of the Labour Party, especially in Lagos, made it almost impossible for workers to join the party clearly fearing a repeat of what happened in 1989 when CWI comrades gathered big support amongst the Lagos membership of the previous Nigerian Labour Party.

Faced with this situation Segun, in 2012, proposed that the DSM launch and approach others to get involved with the project of forming the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN), as a broad party of socialists that would both campaign independently and continue to call upon Labour to initiate the formation of a genuine, democratic working peoples’ party. Again the history of the struggle to form and register the SPN and the  campaign which the SPN undertook has been well documented elsewhere.

When abroad,  Segun sometimes expressed anger that the Nigerian ruling class was not able, despite the country’s huge riches, to develop Nigeria’s infrastructure just to the level of what exists in the imperialist countries. In particular, suffering the effects of travelling around Lagos, he wished Lagos could have the equivalent of London’s underground railway system, but, at the same time, he had no doubts about the class oppression, poverty and underlying instability in Britain and the other imperialist countries. Thus, having no expectations that capitalism could develop Nigeria or provide a better life for humanity, Segun was absolutely determined to build a socialist force that could change society and looked for every opportunity to advance that goal. In seeking to do this, Segun sought to bring together different talents and give them space both to develop and contribute to building the forces of Marxism. This enthusiasm and arguments convinced many, not just in Nigeria but also in the US and European countries in which he had the opportunity to visit.

Like many others, Segun was under surveillance and suffered harassment, especially during military rule, although he always fervently argued back. Segun was fortunate that Abacha’s sudden death in 1998 saw him released from detention, as it was clear from his initial interrogation that the SSS security service had a good picture of his activities.

No-one could doubt the force of Segun’s ideas nor his determination and dedication, in good times and bad. In his teens, he suffered a bad motor accident which left him with a damaged leg that never fully healed and sometimes put him in significant pain. But this accident also changed his life in other ways, as well. He told me that, while initially recovering from the accident, he was forced to lie still for many months and during this time he thought about what he wanted to do with his life and came to the decision to fight for change. Initially he was attracted to Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and helped distribute the ‘Nigerian Tribune’ before moving leftwards to Marxism.

Preparing for socialist revolution was Segun’s life’s work, but he was not one sided, in any way. Discussing with Segun was not limited but could cover a wide range of topics. He had a wide knowledge of British literature, generally devoured novels and followed sport, particularly football. Music was also something vital, not only following Fela musically but also he saw music in its wider cultural and political setting. It was noteworthy that when, in his older years, he went to the Shrine, the Lagos venue run by Fela’s children, he was always personally greeted by some of the younger people there, particularly those who clearly came from a more working class background.

Segun was, in many ways, a rounded individual. Like all of us, he was not without flaws, but his determination to fight for a programme, to build an organisation and above all advance the cause of the working class and poor, to end backwardness and utilise all resources and technique in the interests of humanity were the hallmarks of his life.

What the CWI comrades are building today in Nigeria is strongly based on his legacy and is a testament to his life and the international movement he was part of.

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