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For comrade James Crentsil

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When my mobile telephone rang around 4.00 am on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, I knew, before checking it, what news I would receive: the death, at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH), of James Kolawole Kwame Crentsil, popularly known as Comrade James Crentsil in and outside Calabar and in and outside the Nigerian Socialist Movement. He died at the age of 63, a unique member of the set of classical “cadres” or “foot-soldiers” of the post-Civil War Calabar socialist formation. The general and particular meanings of these key defining terms –“cadre”, “foot-soldier”, “classical” and “unique” – will become implicitly clear in the course of this composite but brief tribute to Comrade James Crentsil and, through him, to the Calabar Group of Socialists and the Nigerian Left, both of which he served with uncommon faith and exemplary dedication for more than 35 years. Like most of us, the surviving members of the Old Guard of the Nigerian Left, Comrade James Crentsil, though younger than our average age, had been aging and ailing for quite some time, long before the present pandemic.

Students of history of modern revolutions will recall that at the beginning of the 20th century, a fierce debate on party formation arose in the communities of exiled Marxist revolutionaries in Europe, particularly the Russian exiles in central and western Europe. The debate was around the most appropriate type of organization that was demanded by the socialist revolution that was generally believed to be fast approaching. The serious choice was between a “mass party” and a “cadre party” – a military-type formation, in concept and in operation. Of course, these were approximations because there were “cadres” in mass parties and mass participants in cadre party activities. But we are talking of essences, rules and methods.

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Another crucial debate was on the first step in the socialist revolution and the exact theoretical characterization of that first step. This twin-disagreement was the main dividing line between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in the Russian Marxist revolutionary movement. Be that as it may, it was the Bolsheviks, the faction led by Vladimir Lenin, which advocated cadre-party formation and actually formed one, that won the debate through its leadership of the 1917 Socialist Revolution.

In a cadre-party every member, male or female, young or old, high or low, was a “cadre” or a “foot-soldier” or at least had a definite action-based assignment – in addition to the general responsibilities of party membership. The Calabar Group of Socialists (CGS) formed in August 1977 – just like the Anti-Poverty Movement of Nigeria (APMON) and the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Nigeria (REMLON) which I mentioned in my tribute to BJ and KK in January 2020 – was a grand-heir of this aspect of Leninism. In its development through the decades the Calabar Group of Socialists had to shed some of its original attributes. But it retained some, and partly retained a particular one: the cadreship (or “foot-soldiery”) phenomenon. Our departed compatriot, Comrade James Crentsil, was an eloquent statement and unique symbol of that phenomenon.

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Put simply and directly: For more than 35 years and with his base in Calabar, Comrade James Crentsil remained a consistent, selfless, frontline and indeed unique “cadre” and “foot-soldier” of the Nigerian Left and the Calabar Group of Socialists. He was unique in the sense that at least in the last decade of his life he remained virtually alone in the role our history had placed him and which he neither regretted nor betrayed.

Comrade James Crentsil was not a foundation member of the Calabar Group of Socialists. The foundation members of the group included Eskor Toyo, Ebony Okpa, Bene Madunagu, Bassey Ekpo Bassey, Assim Ita and myself. James Crentsil was admitted in the first half of the 1980s in one of the big waves of mobilization and admission that characterized the first decade of the group’s existence. The waves included the “Ali Must Go” students’ protest of 1978, the celebration of Zimbabwe’s independence (1980), the May 1981 general strike, the formation of the National Democratic Movement (against fascism) (1981), with Comrade Dipo Fashina as a prominent frontline mobiliser and organizer, the National Political Debate (1986), the formation of the Cross River State-based Directorate for Literacy (DL) and Calabar-based Citizens for Community Action (CCA) (1987), and the formation of the Labour Party (1989).

At the time Comrade James Crentsil came into the Nigerian Socialist Movement through the Calabar Group of Socialists the latter had transformed from a unitary formation governed by the Leninist principle of “democratic centralism” to a formation resembling Yugoslavia’s ruling revolutionary party under Comrade President Broz Tito. Students of the history of socialist revolutions will recall that the structure of the Yugoslav party – for better or for worse – reflected (or was reflected by) Yugoslavia’s federalism and federal state structure. The transformation of the Calabar Group, a product of its own “earth-shaking” internal struggle between late 1977 and early 1978, was in two directions – partly resembling the Yugoslav experiment: a shift from “unitarism” to “federalism” and a significant relaxation of the categorical demands on cadres and “foot-soldiers”.

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The uniqueness of Comrade James Crentsil in this transformation was, first, that he chose to be and remain a cadre of the Calabar Group of Socialists as a whole rather than that of one or a combination of some of the various micro-tendencies and sub-formations of the Group; and, secondly, that he also chose to remain a cadre or “foot-soldier” in the original Leninist sense of complete integration of labour for personal material sustenance and unpaid work as “cadre” or “foot-soldier” of the revolutionary movement. In this integration the latter was dominant; the latter took precedence over the former.

I shall return to the attribute sketched above because that was Comrade James’ defining character as a revolutionary socialist. But, in the meantime, I propose that just as the Nigerian Left and, following it, the Calabar Group of Socialists had “organic intellectuals” in the sense of Antonio Gramsci – a phenomenon younger Leftists justifiably celebrate – the Nigerian Left and Calabar Group of Socialists also had “organic grassroots leaders” of whom Comrade James Crentsil was a shining example. Thus, Comrade James Crentsil’s workshop as a printer in Calabar became a special, but popular operational headquarters of all tendencies and sub-formations of the Calabar Group of Socialists and all spheres of our popular-democratic struggle in which the “grassroots” were involved. And Comrade James himself remained the physical controller of this headquarters from the late 1980s until he died in Mid-April 2020.

When I returned to Calabar from The Guardian, Lagos in September 1994, I noticed that some of the older comrades, including my spouse, Bene and Bassey Ekpo Bassey referred to, and hailed Comrade James Crentsil as “Baba Isale”, a Yourba sociocultural term which I may give a modern political translation: “grassroots leader” or “grassroots godfather”. Rather than ask for explanation, I decided to watch and see. I knew, to begin with, that the comrades could not simply be alluding to Comrade James’ Lagos-Ghana mixed parental origin. Such allusion to national or ethnic origins would be strange in the Calabar Group of Socialists and stranger still in older comrades. It did not take long for me to confirm that the name “Baba Isale” given to James by members of the Old Guard referred to his stature and role as one of our most respected and effective grassroots mobilisers in Calabar.

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