The NEPU Example



It is an irony of Nigeria’s history that while today’s political parties are bereft of ideologies and articulated programmes, an ideologically sophisticated party was formed in Kano 70 years ago.

On August 8, 1950, the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) was born. It was the culmination of the efforts by some leftist elements, among whom were Bello Ijumu, Raji Abdallah and the poet, Sa’ad Zungur.

The Sawaba Declaration issued following the radical party’s proclamation was essentially a manifesto for social justice, equity and freedom for the poor and oppressed. The programme of the party on the women question was clear. Just imagine what happened in 1950! Yet in 2020 gender issues are still prevalent in the society. Gambo Sawaba emerged as a female leading light of the party. The party fought for human dignity and struggled against colonialism.

A precursor to NEPU was the Northern Elements Progressive Association (NEPA), formed by radical elements, but was disbanded in 1949. The radical elements who later formed NEPU maintained the same ideological focus.

Mallam Aminu Kano, who later joined the organisation and became its leader and symbol, defined the class character of NEPU as that of the talakawa, the poor. That distinguished the party from the conservative Northern Peoples Congress (NPC).

To commemorate the birthday of NEPU last Saturday, Mambaya House, the Aminu Kano Centre for Democratic Studies, Bayero University, Kano, organised a well-attended webinar.

The theme of the webinar was “Party Ideology and Supremacy: The Example of NEPU.”

One of the weakest points in the chain of Nigeria’s current experiment with liberal democracy is the crucial institution of the political party. That could roughly be the summary of the highly enlightening discussions that took place at the virtual meeting.

Neither are the political parties defined by ideologies nor are they supreme in organisational terms.

According the notable political scientist and public intellectual, Professor Jibrin Ibrahim, who moderated the forum, the takeaway from the history of NEPU “is that parties in the past stood for something.” For example, NEPU had a clear ideology. Another factor identified by Jibrin was that of a committed and visionary leadership.

To a large extent, the context for the formation of a party would help in defining the purpose of the party. So was the case of NEPU, according to one of the panellists, Dr. Kabiru Muhammad. The socio-economic environment of the 1940s was evidently oppressive. For instance, there was the imposition of heavy taxes on the people by the colonialists. So, according to Muhammad, the motivation for the formation of the party was not personal ambition or seeking fortunes. It was meant to be a platform to fight colonialism and win socio-economic rights for the poor people. Marginalisation was not defined in ethnic or regional terms; the focus was how to put an end to the class-based marginalisation of the talakawas.

The partisans who formed the party, of course, made immense sacrifices in pursuing their cause. Some were detained by the colonial authorities. Others were driven into exile. One of them trekked from Kano to Ringim, a distance of over 100 kilometres to protest. The party activists drew inspiration from the mixture of experiences of political struggles in India and Kenya. The historic General Strike of 1945 led by Michael Imoudu and his comrades and the national protests triggered by the 1949 killings of the Enugu coal miners by the colonial police provided a lot of impetus for political action.

Radical politics, as a matter of mission and vision, was a logical reaction to the condition of the people in those days. The ideology of the party was derived from the material condition of the people.

Another panellist, Dr. Saidu Ahmadu Dukawa of the Bayero University, examined party supremacy in the parliamentary system of the First Republic as different from the presidential system which Nigeria has constitutionally adopted since the Second Republic. In the parliamentary system, the party leader is first a member of parliament. The leader of the majority party in parliament forms the government unlike the practice in the presidential system.

Yet, Dukawa made a distinction between party supremacy and party dictatorship. In a healthy regime of party supremacy, members are committed, first and foremost, to the party ideology. They are driven by its mission and vision. The disciple maintained in the party is basically derived from this commitment.

The leadership itself was driven by vision and not by “political entrepreneurship” as Prof. Pat Utomi put it at the webinar.

Besides, to deepen democracy the political parties should be democratic in their internal regimes. After all, an undemocratic organisation cannot lead a nation on the democratic path. The democratic content of the parties should be critically examined because they are important institutions of democracy,.

In 1966, NEPU was one of the dozens of parties proscribed by the military government of General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. In the course of the transition to civil rule in the late 1970s, the out-going military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo made the rule that no party with the name or emblem of the parties of the First Republic should be registered. The parties were also required to be national character.

So, the successor party to NEPU in the Second Republic became the People’s Redemption Party (PRP). It was led by Mallam Aminu Kano. But unlike NEPU, the leadership of PRP comprised of radical and progressive elements from different parts of Nigeria.

The radical tendency of NEPU continued in the governments formed by the PRP in Kano and Kaduna. The two governors elected in 1979 – Abubakar Rimi and Balarabe Musa- pursued pro-people programmes. They abolished jangali “cattle tax” and declared May 1 public holiday in 1980 in solidarity with labour, a year before the federal government of President Shehu Shagari followed in their footsteps.

The conservative politicians of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in the Kaduna State House of Assembly could not tolerate the radical content of Balarabe Musa’s government. They impeached him.

Rimi attracted progressive elements from other parts of Nigeria to Kano to be part of his government. The feat achieved by the Kano state government in the education sector under Rimi was acknowledged by the UNESCO.

Besides, the PRP engaged in vigorous conscientisation, political mobilisation and political education. In fact, in the early 1980s, the verdict of a Nigerian journalist writing for the National Concord, Tunde Obadina, was that the political consciousness of the talakawas in Kano and Kaduna at that time was higher than that of the average British working class elements.

However, before the collapse of the Second Republic, the test of party supremacy was administered on PRP by a sequence of some unfortunate events. The stress almost became unbearable as the party got divided down the middle.

However, the other parties – NPN, Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) etc. were able to bring party supremacy to bear relatively more than the PRP that was on their left.

So, how could the ideals of those who formed NEPU 70 years ago be reinvented in rejuvenating political parties in the 21st Century?

The challenge really, as Jibrin rightly posited, “is how to bring back ideologies and public purpose” into party politics. He added that another challenge “is how to bring those who share the same vision on the same platform.”

Currently, the only purpose of political parties appears to be the nomination of candidates for elections. Politicians join parties to secure the party tickets by all means.

So, the political spectrum is not clearly delineated into conservative, liberal or radical platforms. It is, therefore, difficult to identify the ideological loci of politicians on the spectrum as it is the case, for instance, in European polities. Even in the presidential systems, parties are still defined by some ideas. There is a substantial difference between a Republican and a Democrat in the American politics. The two support their different parties’ programmes in the congress. While one may support higher tax and welfare programmes; the other could fight for low lower tax in the interest of the industry. The choice of which policies to support is certainly underlined by some organising principles.

You can hardly say that of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Nigeria!

The character of the present political parties is a symptom of the chronic disease of political underdevelopment. The parties are not organic because there is no ideal, beyond being in power, uniting the members. Party discipline is easier to maintain when the parties operate organically.

Radical poltical economist, Professor Claude Ake, once likened the Nigerian politics to “a game of football without a referee.” Politics of ideology and party discipline could stop this retrogressive and anarchic tendency.

The story of NEPU is another proof that there is a lot of inspiration that could be drawn from history in order to squarely face the political challenge of the future.