Nigeria’s 2023 elections might provide the strongest opportunity for former minister, senator, and governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso, to assert his claim as the rightful heir to Kano’s most illustrious son, Aminu Kano.
Kano is one of a few cities that can serve as an accurate metaphor for Nigeria. The bustling promise of trade and productivity and the sprawling hopeful population is contrasted by widespread unemployment and poverty. The stark division between ancient thrones, noble families and the squalor they are surrounded by is also reflective of the national social reality. Lagos, Nigeria’s economic hub, is another city that can lay claim to a similar role, but while the former capital is adorned with memorials to different leaders, Kano is dotted with tributes to one famous son—Mallam Aminu Kano.
Aminu Kano’s legacy is based on his ability to inspire a movement of the talakawa (masses) to question previously held truths and ascend to positions of responsibility. Though many have tried and some like former Kano governor Abubakar Rimi (1979–1983) and perhaps even former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu (1999-2007) have even come close, few politicians have established the niche, but firm cult of personality Aminu Kano inspired. The 2023 elections, however, might provide the strongest opportunity yet for former minister, senator and governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso, to assert his claim as the rightful heir to Kano’s most illustrious son.
NEPU AND THE MODERATE EXPERIMENT
In a 1959 profile, published in Africa Today, Homer A. Jack, an activist and clergyman, recalled a familiar anecdote about Aminu Kano that many believe informed his subsequent political direction during that trip:
In 1947 a young man from Northern Nigeria attended a cocktail party in London given by George VI for the delegates to an International Boy Scout Jamboree. The King mixed freely with his guests – conduct that would be revolutionary for an Emir (religio-political leader) in Nigeria – and so impressed the youth that he felt compelled to write about his experience. His essay won him a prize.
This experience would influence Aminu Kano’s political leaning and lead to his long-lasting ideological push for a more egalitarian political space; one that prioritized equality in a sternly feudal Northern Nigeria. This would be no mean feat: the politics that dominated Nigeria before and immediately after independence was regionally motivated. The Action Group (AG) dominated the West, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) led the East, while the aptly named Northern People’s Congress (NPC) governed the North.
Few fringe parties managed to challenge these major structures in their regional strongholds, but of these outliers, Aminu Kano’s Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) attracted a firm and robust following. In 1964, NEPU quickly entered into an alliance with the Azikiwe-led NCNC and was able to secure shy of a third of the parliamentary election vote in the Western Region.
These parties barely survived a decade, were interrupted by the two coups of 1966 that led to the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) and 13 years of military rule. However, as opposed to today’s political parties, there were clear ideologies that underpinned support of the various parties. Aminu Kano’s NEPU was clear in pushing for a more national spread, which it reflected in its alliance with the Eastern NCNC. NEPU also pushed for more moderate and leftist policies, which resonated with its base that was largely made up of the peasant and working classes, known as talakawa in Hausa. NEPU’s goal was to provide a firm alternative to the perceived conservatism and elitism of NPC.
The mass support NEPU enjoyed, especially in populous Kano, fuelled allegations that elections in the North were deliberately misconducted to whittle the influence of the insurgent party. Nonetheless, the moderate ideologies for more education, heavier taxation of the rich and a more socialist state clearly resonated enough that Aminu Kano was again at the forefront of electoral politics during the Second Republic (1979-83).
PRP AND THE REPUBLICAN ERA
One of the biggest beneficiaries of Nigeria’s change from parliamentary to presidential politics was the People’s Redemption Party (PRP), the platform created and led by Aminu Kano to replace the defunct NEPU. Ahead of the 1979 elections, this new state structure ensured that sub-regional strongholds could be controlled and effectively managed.
The previous political arrangement of proportional representation gave NPC an advantage over NEPU, because parties were represented in the national legislature proportionately to the votes received in the election. It meant that even if parties like the PRP were strong in particular areas, if they did not assert themselves across the region or country, they would not receive a strong enough representation in parliament. However, the new system meant that the parties could get decisive results in their support bases and ensure representation.
The newly instituted office of ‘state governor’ also ensured that there was some executive control over a territory. The PRP used these factors to its advantage and was able to win the governorship seats in Kaduna and Kano. Abubakar Rimi, in Kano, was able to effectively handle the reforms promised: from adult literacy to the abolition of colonial-era taxes. Despite Rimi’s popularity, his falling out with Aminu Kano and subsequent move to the National People’s Party cost him his seat—such was the loyalty the PRP inspired. Conversely, Balarabe Musa, in Kaduna, was hamstrung by a state legislature that was dominated by members of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The conflict between both arms of government led to Musa’s impeachment and subsequent loss of the state to the NPN in 1983.
Aminu Kano died in April 1983, well ahead of the elections that took place in August of that year which many reports suggest were rigged. But the legacy of the work and manifesto of the PRP would influence many members, who would later become prominent politicians in the Fourth Republic (1999-present). These would include future Jigawa State governor, Sule Lamido, whose state was originally part of Kano State till 1991, and future speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, Ghali Umar Na’Abba. Finally, and perhaps most prominently, it included Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who would serve as governor of neighbouring Katsina and then president of Nigeria from 2007 till his death in 2010. Aminu Kano may not be directly responsible for their later success as politicians, but he shaped their political ideals in a way that is unmistakable.
THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING
Perhaps in sync with the equally tumultuous history of the emirs of Kano, the state’s governorship has also suggested that leadership is not a birth right; it is earned, and it can be lost. Because of the strong followership that Kwankwaso has today, it is easy to forget that he actually lost re-election when he ran as governor in 2003. The winner in that election was Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, a well-spoken educator and then civil servant, who was re-elected in 2007. This feat is more impressive when you consider that Shekarau won re-election, albeit marginally, in the face of a PDP wave led by the popular outgoing governor from a neighbouring state.
Both Shekarau and Kwankwaso have similar backgrounds and political trajectories. They have both been in the PDP, the APC and are now strange bedfellows in the newly formed, New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). At some point in their political careers, they have served as governors, ministers and senators—Shekarau even succeeded Kwankwaso in his senatorial seat at the last election. With this in mind, it is entirely possible that Shekarau could also be considered the heir to Aminu Kano’s legacy simply based on the record of electoral influence he has had in the state. However, there are two major factors that distinguish both men from each other. Firstly, unlike Shekarau, Kwankwaso was able to decide his eventual successor, which speaks to the level of influence he was able to maintain when leaving office. Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, his loyal deputy governor, served with him during his two terms, even if they were eight years apart, and succeeded him as governor in 2015. Shekarau by this time had defected to the PDP and was serving as minister of education in President Goodluck Jonathan’s cabinet. Secondly, and most importantly, subsequent policy directions while in office show that only Kwankwaso has been able to display the same progressive, albeit less radical direction, that Aminu Kano promoted.
In 1999, at the onset of a new democratic era led by Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the South, northern leaders were faced with the challenge of absolving themselves from the discredited and unpopular Sani Abacha regime (1993-1998) in order to save face and regain the support of their followers. This led to the establishment of shari’a law in October of that year by Governor Sani Yerima. Shari’a law is theocratic in nature—it promotes religious guidelines and punishments as prescribed in the Quran.
In a multi-religious country like Nigeria, it would be difficult to justify having a pseudo-theocratic state in one part of the country. Aminu Kano’s attempts to forge a national consensus and a sense of nationhood would run contrary to this movement. But the tide was turning and, perhaps to avoid any conflicts jeopardizing the nascent democracy, the federal government did not make a serious attempt to stop it. This tide would swallow the more moderate elements in the region, such as Kwankwaso, who was a more reluctant implementer of the law and lost his bid for a second term. Kano was the only state that the then-ruling PDP lost and governors in Gombe and Borno—who were seen as reluctant implementers—were also voted out.
Kwankwaso did not contest in 2007, but Shekarau only managed to defeat the PDP’s Ahmed Bichi by 45,000 votes. In 2011, Kwankwaso returned when Shekarau was term-limited and set about in a moderate re-evaluation of the state’s affairs. A notable example was the choice of who to succeed Ado Bayero as emir of Kano in 2014. The more popular choice was Bayero’s son, Aminu Ado Bayero, who would eventually become emir in his own right in 2020. But Kwankwaso chose the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who had the double advantage of being a known critic of President Jonathan and progressive leader who could use his position to help sensitise the populace.
Kwankwaso himself has tried to claim the mantle of being the new ‘Aminu Kano’. This is even clear when one considers that while most Nigerians know the red cap (ja hula) as a mark of a member of the Kwankwassiya (his supporters) it is actually a trademark of the late Aminu Kano. However, some don’t believe he has earned the right to make that comparison. In a June 2022 interview with the Vanguard Newspaper, Salihu Lukman, an APC National Vice-Chairman, stated that:
Kwankwaso is a respected politician, he was in APC and I still respect him to this moment. But I have problem with his method of mobilization, it would appear as if everything opposed to APC is welcome and that is a complete betrayal of the principle that informed his attraction to the red cap because he tried to link the red cap with the PRP and Aminu Kano ideology.
As governor, Kwankwaso embraced more moderate reforms that resulted in less censorship of the Kano film industry or ‘Kannywood’ and increased educational opportunities. Still, Kwankwaso did not inherit Aminu Kano’s firm grip on the state. While Kwankwaso was able to make sure he was succeeded by his former deputy governor, he was unable to ensure Ganduje’s defeat for a second term in 2019 when the pair fell out—unlike Aminu Kano who succeeded in removing an incumbent Rimi in 1983. Other governors have been able to maintain firm control of their own territories, which begs the question: if Kwankwaso cannot make Kano his, can he truly be considered the heir of Aminu Kano?
The answer lies in a key distinction made earlier: Aminu Kano was not always electorally successful. NEPU was overshadowed by NPC and PRP held on to Kano, but could barely control Kaduna, which it lost in 1983. Aminu Kano also placed a distant fourth in the 1979 presidential election, and only received significant votes in Kano and Kaduna—which he didn’t even win. The major aspect of Aminu Kano’s legacy is outlining a vision and ideology that is more socialist, which in turn appeals to the working class. Kwankwaso’s victories in Kano were anchored on a broad coalition of moderate religious leaders and professionals who were not represented in previous administrations. His switch to PDP led to a much closer race for governor in 2019. Ganduje lost on the first ballot but qualified for a run-off which he subsequently won. And ahead of the 2023 elections, he has formed a new party, NNPP, which has already received members defecting from other parties in Kebbi and among lawmakers in Kano. NNPP might not have the national reach or structures that other parties have, but that it is even in the conversation is testament to Kwankwaso’s appeal and his ability to inspire.
THE NEW AMINU KANO?
The hyper-partisan nature of Nigeria’s present-day politics means that it is unlikely that the national airport or university in Kano will get renamed anytime soon. There are also very present forces in play—Ganduje, the incumbent governor, installed, Aminu Ado Bayero, an emir who was overlooked the last time round. Both APC and PDP will invest significant resources to claim arguably the most populous state in the country. More recently, Kwankwaso’s comments concerning the South East’s chances at the presidency, following failed merger talks with the Labour Party’s Peter Obi, could be construed as being dismissive despite the frank approach that Aminu Kano’s statements often embraced. But to rule out the impacts of Kwankwaso and his movement would be unwise for any of these groups. In order to inspire the level of loyalty comparable to what Aminu Kano enjoyed, one must be able to combine an ideology worth supporting with the vision to show its possibility. Kwankwaso has effectively tapped into the consciousness of a robust population of Kano indigenes over the course of his political career. He may not be able to enthrone the next governor, and NNPP might not be the new PRP, but few will begrudge mentioning his name in the same breath as Aminu Kano when naming the favourite sons of the ‘centre of commerce’⎈
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