Lecture delivered by Alhaji Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa, (2nd Republic Governor of Kaduna State) at the 2nd Wole Soyinka Lecture held at the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island, Lagos on Saturday 20th March 1999.
I guess on occasions such as this one it is only proper to begin with fraternal greetings. So, as the members of the Pyrates Confraternity would normally say, I say to all of you Ahoy! Mr. Chairman, I am sure even Capn Blood himself would approve of such greetings!!
The subject of our discussion this afternoon is the role of the progressives in the democratic development of Nigeria since the 1950s. There are two basic assumptions underlying this topic. The first is the assumption that there has occurred in Nigeria since the 1950s changes in the polity which may be subsumed under the rubric of democratic developments. The second assumption is that there exists in this country a coherent group of political activists who may be regarded by virtue of their orientation and praxis as progressives.
Of course, it is arguable whether all those assumptions, or even just one of them, are justifiable inferences from the objective facts of the Nigerian reality. But we shall say more on this subsequently. However, before getting to that, it is important that we are all clear about the two key concepts which our subject of discourse revolves around. These are progressives and democratic development in Nigeria.
Four years ago, Chief Kola Animasaun of the Vanguard Newspaper Limited hosted a national conference here in Lagos on the subject of the real meaning of the term ‘progressive’ in its political, academic and intellectual sense. In my contribution to that exercise, to which I had the honour of being invited, I advanced a definition of the term which was as relevant then as it is today.
The word ‘progressive’ is derived from the term ‘progress’. And ‘progress’ stands for an advance towards perfection or to a higher or better state; an improvement. From this, it follows, therefore, that ‘progressive’ means favouring, working for, or characterized by an advance or improvement as through political or social reform. In political parlance then, a progressive is someone who believes, first, in the idea of progress and who, secondly, is committed to bringing this idea of progress to fruition through social praxis.
In the modern world, with its avant-garde ideas and movement, it is very tempting to take the idea of progress and progressivism for granted. In reality, however, the idea of, and belief in progress is historically a fairly recent accretion of human development. Until the advent of the Renaissance and the birth and growth of empirical science in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, the very idea of social progress was either philosophically inconceivable or morally an anathema. The extant belief then was that the future merely repeats the past and historical and social change occurs in circles. Just as man is born and grows up into adulthood and old age before he eventually dies to be reborn again to repeat the same circle once more, as they say, so do societies go through a circle of birth, ascendancy, greatness, decline and eventually destruction only to be reconstructed once more to repeat the same circle.
In this pre-empiricist philosophy of social change, if it can, that is, be properly so-called there could be no room for the idea of progress, not to talk about progressives. Indeed, even where change or progress was very reluctantly admitted, it was conceived only as the product of a divine intervention, a sudden, rude and apocalyptic calamity. In fact, so enduring has been such fatalistic conceptions of social change that even to this very day, there are many a Nigerian who would rather leave the fate and future development of our society in the hands of these so-called divine interventions! Or just hold the hands in submission to nothing, and do nothing at all.
But since the 18th century, growth and development of science and technology, most men are wiser. Science has, if nothing else, demonstrated to mankind that it is practically possible to use his God-given reasoning powers and the technical and technological apparatus available to him not only to tame his environment but also to improve the quality of his own life and the lives of those around him. It is this new confidence which arises from man’s increasing ability to tame his environment and to fashion out much more rational and humane material and social relations that provide the foundation for the modern idea of progress and progressivism.
Let us now turn to the twin concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic development’. Mr. Chairman, these terms have been so much used and abused by saints and sinners alike, that with your kind permission I shall avoid boring this august audience with any definitions. It suffices here to state that any genuine ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic development’ must consist of the following five minimum attributes:
Guaranteed economic rights of the citizen: A democratic order must provide all citizens who are able and willing to work a living income (not slave wage) which provides not only for their sustenance but also for a dignified and self-fulfilling cultural life. It is only on the basis of such economic guarantees that the citizen can fully and meaningfully participate in the political life of the polity.
Popular election of political representatives: Under a democratic order, the people choose those that govern them or represent them in government through the instrument of periodic elections which are not only free but also fair. Thus, in a democratic society, there is universal suffrage, all legal and administrative constraints on eligibility for elections and political association are abolished, etc.
Maintenance and respect for the rule of law: One of the cardinal pillars of a democratic society is the observance of the rule of law which is maintained by an independent and responsible judiciary, a civilised police force and a humane and correctional penal regime. The maintenance and respect for the rule of law in a democratic society also extends to the strict observance and protection of all the fundamental civil and human rights of the citizen by the state and the civil society.
Institutionalization of the supervisory role of the public over state organs: In a truly democratic social order, the supervisory role of the citizens (organized along residential and occupational lines and in popular, professional and non-governmental bodies) over all state organs – including the armed forces and para-military state organs – is guaranteed and institutionalized. This is essential as a guarantee against the arbitrary and even vindictive abuse of the extensive coercive instruments of the state by those controlling government.
The existence of a free independent and patriotic press: Another cardinal component of a genuinely democratic social order is the presence of a free, independent and patriotic press. But for this press to fulfil its democratic responsibilities, it must rise above the parochial interests of its proprietors, whether public or private, and sectional biases and see the entire nation as its constituency. It must also be a press that, as much as this is possible, free from the globalizing tentacles of imperialist and neo-colonialist propaganda and indoctrination.
These five attributes are what I consider to be the five minimum components of democracy. These by no means exhaust the attributes of the term. They are just but the core. But, as I am sure you all know, democracy is at one and the same time both a normative as well as a prescriptive concept. As a normative term it describes a particular state of things. And as a prescriptive notion, it represents an ideal which we struggle to attain. And for us in Nigeria – and, for that matter, in many other parts of the world, both ‘old and new’ – it is in this later, i.e. prescriptive sense that the term democracy has meaning and relevance to us.
A Nigerian Perspective
In Nigeria, we have seen democracy more in the struggle to attain it than otherwise. For, I believe that few – if any at all – in this country would today say that there had been at any time in our country’s forty years history since 1950 that we have truly had a democratic order in place. What then has been the role of the progressives in this struggle for the democratic development of this country? This is the question which I will now address.
You may recall that in my definition of progressives earlier on, I said a progressive is someone who does not only believe in the idea of progress but who is also committed to ensuring that this progress is brought about through praxis. In other words, to be a progressive, it is not enough to believe in or even to hanker after progress. A progressive must do more than dream about progress, he must also buckle up, roll up the sleeves of his shirt and struggle dauntlessly for bringing into concrete existence his dreamed progress.
But even this is not all. To be genuinely progressive, one has to be an essentially dissatisfied person. It is the dissatisfaction with the status quo, that is, with the way things presently are, with what our friends and hosts today, i.e. the Pyrates Confraternity, choose to call the stasis – it is the rejection of this stasis that leads one to become not only a believer in progress but also a member of that army of legionnaires, who are engaged in the struggle to bring this progress, no matter how conceived, into being. But we also know that no status quo remains unchanged forever. To the extent, therefore, that no condition is permanent, to that extent are the terms progress and progressive essentially relative. Depending on changing status quo, yesterday’s progressive may well become today’s conservative. Just as today’s progressive could easily become tomorrow’s conservative.
What then were the conditions of the 1950s which bred the progressives of that decade and what were the struggles which they waged against the status quo which they so much abhorred? Nigeria in the 1950s was a country under conquest. British colonial rule bestraddled the entire country like a venomous giant, sucking its very life blood. Using willing indigenous agents such as emirs and chiefs and an invidious administrative system called ‘indirect rule’, the British Colonial Officer was lord and master over all. In collaboration with the British merchant companies and finance capital, the colonial government frustrated the ambitions for upward mobility of the emergent indigenous African business class, professionals and public servants alike.
In the rural area, the yoke of taxation and other extortions by the colonial regime, the chiefs and sundry petty officials associated with the system was driving the peasantry to the very limits of exasperation and tolerance. In the towns and cities, an army of hapless workers and petty bourgeoisie, for decades underpaid even subjected to forced labour at starvation wages, was beginning to flex its muscles for a better deal. These were the post-second World War years and everywhere in the world there was ferment for a more just order and Nigeria in the 1950s was not left out of this ferment. At the political front, the nationalist struggle was reaching its height. Under pressure from the nationalist movement, the Richard Constitution of 1946, which had sought to divide and rule the country by institutionalizing regionalism in the country’s politics, was under review.
These were the conditions in the beginning of the 1950s, which bred a crop of progressives from all parts of the country to wage a relentless struggle against these unsatisfactory conditions. The flagship of this progressive tendency was, without doubt, the National Council of Nigeria and the Camerouns (NCNC), particularly its youth wing, the Zikist Movement. Founded in 1944, the NCNC was the first Nigerian political party which seriously tried to be a Pan-Nigerian stature and uncompromising nationalist fervour had been somewhat mellowed by a number of factors, its earlier struggle against the colonial order had set off sparks of nationalist zeal across the country.
I have already mentioned the militant and Pan-Nigerian revolutionary zeal of the Zikist movement. The movement attained its height in the years 1948-50. It was the members of the Zikist movement who were largely behind the coal miners strike at Iva Valley in Enugu in 1949 which led to the massacre of twenty-one coal miners by the colonial police. It was massacre which in turn gave rise to the formation of a united front of all nationalist organisations to fight against colonial rule, called the National Emergency Committee. Indeed, the combined struggle of these progressive forces was what forced the colonial government to summon the 1950 Ibadan General Conference which reviewed the Richard Constitution and finally gave shape to its successor, the Macpherson Constitution.
In the Northern part of the country, progressive minded elements had been politically active since the mid 1940s. As early as 1948, such individuals as Habi Raji Abdullah, Abubakar Zukogi, Abdulrahman Bida and Sa’ad Zungur were leading, even executive, members of the Zikist Movement. Indeed, when the NCNC organised its 1946 nation-wide tour of the country to collect funds for a trip to Britain to protest against the provisions of the obnoxious Richard’s Constitution, the party realised more than one thousand, five hundred pounds (£1,500) with over one hundred pounds collected in Maiduguri alone. Amongst the leading speakers in the rallies organised by the NCNC in the North were such Northern political progressive politicians and nationalists as Mallam Iro Kaya and Zanna Bukar Dipcharima.
But a really organised political struggle of the progressive elements in the North only fully took off with the formation in Kano on 8th August, 1950 of the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) – the first political party to emerge in the northern part of the country. The NEPU declared in the ‘Sawaba Declaration’ its uncompromising opposition to the feudal order then subsisting in northern Nigeria to the indirect rule system which allowed Emirs and native authorities to visit untold misery on the people of the North, to the class division of the society, and to foreign rule by the British colonial oppressors. The party also committed itself to national unity, in spite of the fact that it was like all the other Nigerian political parties of the time – essentially a regional political party.
Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of the progressive activists of the 1950s, in addition to their uncompromising stance against the continuation of colonial rule, was their resolute commitment to national unity and their Pan-Nigerian outlook. This was in spite of the devious strategies of the colonial administration to regionalize politics through the instrument of both the Richard Constitution of 1946 (which for the first time created regional legislatures) and the Macpherson Constitution of 1951 (which put final seal on those divisions).
Progressive Politics in the 1960’s
The year 1960 marked a watershed in Nigeria’s political history, when on 1st October that year, Nigeria gained political independence. But political independence – as most Nigerians were soon to realize at a bitter cost – was no magic wand with which like Aladdin the political successors to the colonialists were to conjure up all the goodies that the citizens legitimately expected from their newly-won freedom.
In any case, the newly-won independence did not come with an equal measure of economic independence, on the basis of which alone this political independence would have meaning for the majority of the people of Nigeria. Besides, the departing colonial rulers had made sure that they left behind in the new state, political and economic structures that were bound to retard, if not impede, the unity and progress of the ‘new’ nation. These structures included uneven educational and economic rates of development in the component units of the country, an unbalanced federal structure and an unproductive quarrelsome and avaricious comprador elite as the successors to the political estate. It is in this complex catacomb that the reactionary cabal of the successors of the outgoing colonial administration played out their ethnic, sectional and regional politics.
The inability of the new Nigerian reactionary ruling class to design and operate a modus operandi which would ensure that they maintain their class hegemony over the people of Nigeria led them from one crisis to another. First was the crisis over the results of the 1961 population census. Then there was the 1962 Action Group crisis. Again, there were the Tiv riots of the same period. Then the constitutional crisis over the results of the 1964 Federal elections. And finally the bitter Nigerian Civil War.
What was the response of Nigerian progressives to these challenges to national unity and social progress? The response of the progressives took many different forms. At the formal political front, there emerged many political alliances, which sought to thwart the nefarious strategies of perceived reactionary political forces. In the Northern parts of the country, Northern Progressive Front (NPF) was constituted in October 1963 to serve as an umbrella organisation to democratic and progressive parties in the Northern region of Nigeria. The NPF was made up of the NEPU, the United Middle Belt Congress, the Northern Youth Movement, the Kano People’s Party, the Zamfara Commoner People Party, the Nigerian Tin Mine Workers Union, the Middle Belt Tin Mine Workers Union and the Northern Federation of Labour. The NPF saw the NPC and the feudal neo-colonialist and imperialist forces behind it as the main bastion of reaction in the region and made no bones about saying so in the preamble to the instrument establishing the NPF. This preamble states thus:
These parties and organisations taking part in the front are all opposed to feudalism and imperialism; the official representatives of which in the North is the NPC. The parties and organisations are convinced that as long as all those who are opposed to oppression, suppression and exploitation in this country are not united and wage a determined struggle against the forces of reaction and oppression represented by the NPC and its likes, so long will the people of this country remain under feudal oppression and imperialist domination.
It is noteworthy that even though the NPF was a front comprising northern-based political parties and trade union organisations, it saw the threat of NPC reaction not only as a northern Nigerian threat but also as a threat to the entire country. The NPF’s strategy and tactics were not regionalist, in spite of its locus in the North, it was Pan-Nigerian. This Pan-Nigerian outlook of the NPF was made even clearer in the subsequent chapters of the NPF’s charter where it was stated thus:
Confident of the glorious future that lies ahead of their coming together and confident of the fact that by their coming together of these forces, in co-operation with other forces who believe in progress and unity of this country and the well-being of its people, the front shall make an important contribution towards the final liberation of the toiling masses of the North in particular and all oppressed and exploited masses of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
In the other parts of the country, the progressives’ response to the hegemonic crises of the ruling class in the first half of the 1960’s took the form of the formation in 1964 of the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), to which the NPF subsequently became an affiliate. The UPGA’s manifesto, issued on the eve of the 1964 federal election, was very clear about who the enemy was. It states that:
The last four years in Nigeria have witnessed a systematic frustration of the lofty aspirations of the masses of the people by the combined forces of reaction and neo-colonization. The high expectations of the people for the eradication of poverty, disease and ignorance and the liquidation of disunity and the strangle hold of Imperialism have been completely frustrated and dashed. Reactionary tribalists are raising their shrill loud and croaking voices in sermons of hate. These enemies of unity are busy turning brother against brother, group against group, tribe against tribe and region against region.
This, Mr. Chairman, is a cry which resonates to this very day. The progressive forces, in spite of all their efforts, could not halt Nigeria’s descent into the dark labyrinth of the Civil War.
The Civil War and After
The Nigerian Civil War years marked the darkest years in the country’s history. It cost the nation millions of innocent lives and retarded the country’s growth in human, material and social terms by several years. But, even in these murky years, there emerged sparks of progressive heroism here and there on both the Federal and Biafran sides. Indeed, it was precisely the sacrifices made by these progressive patriots, on both sides, which aborted disintegration and ensured that in spite of everything Nigeria remained a united federal entity.
The immediate post civil war years brought forth new challenges to the growth and development of democracy and democratic culture in the country. This largely took on the form of the growth of the military establishment from its initial subordinate position as a force serving colonial and later civilian political authority to the position of a militarised colossus, ruling intimidating, terrorising and generally abusing civil society.
What was, and what has been, the response of Nigerian progressives to these new and additional challenges? In the earlier period of the post-war years, this took two forms mainly. First was the increasing militancy and agitational activities of proletarian organisations, professional associations and student unions. This increasing militancy led successive military administrations to either proscribe some of these organisations or to restructure trade union organisations in such a manner that the regime could keep a firmer tab on their activities.
The other response of the progressive forces took the form of formation of political associations which debuted with the explicit aim of capturing state power. This tendency became more manifest in 1978 as the exit date of the military drew nearer. Amongst the political associations with a progressive tendency which emerged during this period were the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), which is the successor of the NEPU, the Socialist Party of Workers, Farmers and Youth (SPWFY), the Nigerian Workers and Peasant Movement (NWPM) and the Progressive Peoples Party (PPP). But of all these groups and associations only the PRP succeeded in getting registered for contesting the 1979 federal elections. And by the time the second election of 1983 were held, the PRP itself had become so enervated by money politics, internal struggles, external hostility and sabotage that it made very little electoral impact.
Of course, efforts were made during the so-called Second Republic by some progressive minded individuals and political groupings to form an alliance akin to the UPGA of the 1960’s to contest the 1983 elections. These efforts which began with the periodic meetings of the nine state governors of the PRP, UPN and the GNPP – and later extended to the NPP governors – led eventually to the formation of the progressive programme of action. Their leaders however could not subordinate their personal political ambition to the greater collective interest of the Nigerian people. Thus, lacking a common platform and a common progressive agenda beyond stopping the NPN from winning the 1983 elections, and the deciding role of money politics, the PPA floundered on the altar of egocentrism, opportunism and ideological incompatibility.
These unfortunately have been the very same stumbling blocks to the unity of progressive forces in the on-going transition to civil rule programme. Instead of organising around issues, most of our so-called progressives have either disappeared or chosen to organise around regionalist and ethnic blocks. Instead of promoting national unity, they are busy flying the kite of regional armies and a so-called conference of nationalities. Instead of struggling for proletarian and/or national solidarity in the face of the united oppression of imperialism and their neo-colonialist fronts in Nigeria, they are busy fanning the embers of jingoism in the North, busy singing war songs in the West, and busy chanting war cries in the East.
A Way Forward
Which way forward then for Nigerian progressives in the current struggle for the building of a democratic and progressive order on our dear soil? Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, you will recall at the beginning of this lecture I explained that progressivism is a relative concept. What is progressive, and what is not, is determined by the conditions present at any given period. This is why for us to determine what should be in the agenda of any genuinely progressive movement, we must take our cue from the economic, political and social realities of our society at this particular conjuncture in history.
I do not think I need to spell these conditions out, point by point, in this lecture since I am sure we all know them as we live through them in our daily lives, no matter how privileged some of us here may happen to be. I believe it suffices to sketch here only those basic minimum programmes which any Nigerian progressive today, who is worth his salt, ought to commit himself to. These minimum programmes are as follows:
National unity: the forging and sustenance of national unity in the country on the basis of justice and equity for all its constituent units. Under this unity, social, political and economic opportunities shall be available for all citizens, communities and nationalities without discrimination within a cohesive and balanced federal system of government.
Sustainable economic development: the pursuit of an independent and sustainable economic development of Nigeria free of Imperialist and neo-colonialist domination under which a living income is guaranteed to all citizens willing and able to work. This economic development must be based on principles for the active participation of the people. It should aim at ending poverty through increasing productive employment.
Promotion of democratic culture and practice: the promotion, establishment and growth of virile democratic institutions capable of permanently subordinating the military and other public institutions and organisations to a democratic civil authority through the painstaking observance of fundamental rights and mobilization of the citizenry into civil defence units in their places of work and residence.
Promotion of the rule of law: ensuring that Nigeria operates under the rule of law by promoting the revitalisation, re-orientation and enhancement of the capacity of the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary and grassroots community organisations to ensure the security of life and public and private property of all Nigerians. They shall be concomitant with the establishment and operation of a just, cheap and efficient system of crime prevention, detection, trial and punishment.
Institutionalisation of public accountability: the vigorous pursuit of public accountability on an open and regular basis at all levels by developing the democratic process of systematically institutionalising the participation of the people directly in monitoring and reporting on public revenue and expenditure and by ensuring open and prompt investigation, trial and punishment of all those guilty of betraying the public trust.
Ecologically friendly environmental management: ensuring the ecological and environmental health of the country for the sake of present and future generations, waging a tireless struggle against all organisations and practices which lead to the degradation of the Nigerian environment and the rehabilitation of all degraded ecological features.
Leading role of the state in economic management: the protection and promotion of the leading role of the state in the economy, to ensure social justice, equality and even development, and to ensure that the key sectors of the economy, especially finance and international banking, mineral resources, water and energy and capital goods industries, are not sold off to private interest, whether foreign or local. This leading role of the state, however, is without prejudice to genuine private enterprise in other sectors so long as these are free from exploitative relations.
Corrective measures: to restore public confidence in institutions and their functionaries, and bring about all-round performance by government. It is necessary to probe and re-possess stolen public property as a deterrent and as a means of disempowering rich and powerful enemies of the state.
Proper roles for organisations of workers: peasant farmers and youths who are more than eighty per cent of the population of Nigeria should be given proper roles.
African unity: the promotion of African unity and a commitment to a relentless struggle against imperialism and neo-colonialism, particularly now under its globalist cloak, wherever it is found, and an internationalist solidarity with all people struggling against oppression and justice.
These, Mr. Chairman, are the minimum programmes which a progressive organisation in the present Nigerian conditions must subscribe to, if it is to justify its claim to progressivism howsoever defined. Can we, as self-proclaimed progressives, pass this simple litmus test? This a question which we can answer by our political and social praxis or by the lack of it. But even more seriously, it is a judgement which posterity shall waste no time in passing on us. For now, however, the jury is still out on us.
I thank you for your attention.