Today, I offer a short tribute to our great comrade, friend and compatriot Yima Sen, who was buried last weekend. Yima was an elegant person, soft spoken, polite, open to dialogue and always ready for a debate. He was also always firm and clear in his progressive beliefs, ideologically sharp, deeply cultured in Marxist theory and always ready to engage not just in theoretical postulations but grounding evolving struggles in theory and practice that serve to elucidate the best pathway to progress. It is this life-long engagement in theory and practice, in seeking deeper understanding of on-going struggles and in active commitment to organizing both at the level of cadres, leadership well-versed in theory, and grassroots organisations that I believe his life and work deserves the recognition we are gathered to provide today.
Comrade Yima Sen lived a life that was totally committed to leaving society better than he found it. He was a humanist in the sense that he deeply believed in improving the conditions of the lives and livelihoods of all members of the community. He was a nationalist who was committed to making Nigeria a great country by seeking to unleash its potential for greatness. He was an internationalist who believed that global forces for good and evil cohabited the Globe and we should always seek to advance global forces for progress worldwide. Yima Sen had his O-Levels at Bristol College Gboko and his A-Levels at Boys High School Gindiri before proceeding to the University of Lagos for his first degree. He had his graduate studies at the University of Southern California (USC) Los Angeles, (MA) and PhD at the University of Amsterdam specializing in mass communications ending his career as a Professor of Communication at Baze University Abuja.
Yima Sen was not a closet Marxist with disdain for what some might call bourgeois politics. He believed that every political opportunity should be taken and gateways to advance the progressive agenda seized. Essentially, political praxis for him meant taking every path that could lead to progress but resisting incorporation into the world of bourgeois politics in which power is the only thing that matters rather than the good that power could be used for. He had the opportunity to access power early in life and could have chosen the path of retrograde bourgeois politics centred on primitive accumulation and a life of self-aggrandizement. He was one of the youngest officials who served as Special Assistant to the President in the Second Republic, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Subsequently, he was also a presidential adviser during the Obasanjo Presidency, working with then Vice President Atiku Abubakar. At the international level, he had served at the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, in Lagos and Nairobi. For him, these opportunities were occasions to push the progressive agenda at the policy level in his life long struggle to leave the world as a better place than he found it.
For Yima Sen, what matters is enlightened citizenship because it defines the constitutive elements of the democratic state and spells out the relationship between state power and the masses. For him, the progressive intellectual must seek to provide substance to the relationship between the State and the citizen beyond what is offered by the bourgeois State, which is formal citizenship without much content. He strongly believed citizenship should mean not only the erosion of the arbitrary use (misuse) of state power but also the movement away from what has been called “pro-forma democracy”, in which “formal citizens” are directed by bourgeois parties to limit democracy to the ritual of elections every four or five years while the form of rule remains authoritarian and anti-people. His belief was always the imperative of providing content to citizenship so that the mass of the people can impose their agenda on the ruling class. It was for this reason that he was always focused on grassroots politics. For him, the construction of citizenship is an important task which requires the continuous struggle against the privileges certain classes and groups enjoy because of their control of resources and/or power.
Last year, Yima and myself were engaged in a project to engage young persons from Kano, Kaduna, Benue and Plateau on the farmer-herder crisis that had created so much violence. He was concerned that young people were being sucked into conspiracy theories whose purpose was to retain them at the level of self-destructive activism and challenged them to always seek for facts rather than simply acting on assumptions. He stressed the importance of self-defence but drew their attention to ulterior motives of politicians who have been active in propagating fake news to serve their immediate political objectives of manipulating them into killing each other rather than collectively understanding whose real interests are being served. At every point in his political career, Comrade Yima Sen has always stood by the mantra of taking peoples’ rights seriously. He did that at three levels.
Yima was opposed to oppression at all levels. As someone grounded in radical politics, he was totally opposed to the monopoly and misuse of power by a minority over a majority. He believed for example that those called the minority in Nigerian politics are demographically the manipulated minority and his engagement in the Middle Belt Forum and the Northern Elders Forum was based on this position. It was also for this reason that he placed premium importance on engaging with and identifying with his Tiv heritage. He believed that the authoritarian State has existed to create conditions for minorities to monopolize power and at all times, citizens must engage in resolute struggles to monitor and push back the frontiers of authoritarianism.
Throughout his life, Yima as a radical intellectual and activist stood up against exploitation, understood as unequal exchange in relations of production and in the market and monopoly of resources. His life was the struggle for a more equitable distribution of socially created wealth, that is, socialism. He was deeply engaged in various attempts to establish socialist platforms that would create a Nigeria where the exploitation of the masses would not be the main purpose of governance.
Yima Sen was also resolutely opposed to all forms of discrimination – unequal rights and treatment on the basis of an incident of birth such as gender, religion, caste, language or ethnic group. He was for example a founding member of Women in Nigeria and fought against all forms of gender discrimination.
Yima Sen’s vision of the political life of a progressive was to always advocate for the deepening of rights – the liberty of the person, freedom of speech, thought, movement, assembly, association and faith i. e. the maintenance of human rights and the rule of law and the empowerment of women, youth, peasants, ethnic and religious minorities and other subordinate groups.
To always defend political rights – the right to participate in political activity, voting and competition for political office. These rights, he believed, are enhanced by the pluralism of political organisations, political parties, mass media, trades unions and professional organisations.
Finally, to always advocate for social and economic rights, in particular, the right to economic welfare and security (health, education, living wage etc) – this must include the prevention of the monopoly of public resources by any minority.
As we celebrate the life of this great radical and progressive, we must strive to emphasise that some people live a life of service to the community rather than self-service. Today, we live in a society where the focus of life is personal wealth at terrible cost to the larger community. Yima’s life tells us that a different approach is possible and is indeed preferable. My wish is for us to take this message to the younger generation. It is worthy to live a life of service to the community. The community is here understood in all its ramifications – the local community, the zone, the region and the Nation. If we can be all these, we must also complete it by being Pan Africanists committed to a more equal world that operates without discrimination, oppression and exploitation.