Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Clear and Present Danger

In the 1990s, the ecologically-devastated creeks and militarized communities of the Niger Delta generated an insurgency that threatened to destroy the soft underbelly of the Nigerian state – its hydrocarbon economy. Goodluck Jonathan’s emergence as president will not solve the fundamental questions raised by this insurgency but it symbolically defangs Ijaw militancy and answers the clarion of southern minority marginalization. Just as the creeks produced a generation of militants, the multiplying ghettoes of northern Nigeria combined with the devastation of rural agrarian communities by drought and desertification have sired a culture of homicidal zealotry that manifests frequently in bouts of sectarian violence. This cult with its offspring terrorism is the most urgent national security threat confronting Nigeria today.

There are four distinct though closely related formats of violence in the north. Conventional ethno-religious violence pits the mainly Christian Berom against the mainly Muslim Hausa in Jos, the Tiv against the Jukun in Wukari and the Muslim Hausa-Fulani against the mainly Christian Sayawa in Bauchi. This type of conflict is frequently more ethnic than religious, revolves around land ownership and political primacy and frequently conflates religious and ethnic identities. There is the conflict between the largely non-Muslim nomadic Fulani pastoralists and various agrarian communities which is fundamentally a non-religious struggle for scarce land resources. With drought and desertification forcing increased southward migration of pastoralists, this is Nigeria’s most consistent low intensity conflict. There is sectarian violence that pits Muslims, usually members of extremist sects like Maitatsine, against Christians. Fourthly, there is the emergent strain of nascent terrorism in the form of groups like Boko Haram who seek to create their version of an Islamic society. With the exception of that between pastoralists and farmers, all these conflicts are closely linked to urban poverty.  

Let us be clear. The problem of the north is not Islam. Too often commentators struggling with ignorance and prejudice sacrifice analytical integrity on the altars of their prejudices and slander a whole religion and its adherents. The notion of an Islamic north and a Christian south hermetically sealed off from each other is a fallacy. There is a very significant Muslim population in the southwest (just as there is a significant Christian population in the north) and the zone records little religious violence. The difference is that Islam in the southwest historically interacted with western education, economic empowerment, the accessories of modernity and an industrial economy. In the north, Islam exists in a pre-industrial vortex rife with ignorance, poverty and illiteracy. This precarious existential condition produces an inferiority complex and notions of ethno-religious supremacy that incubate extremist violence. Religion in this situation can only become a hideous zealotry.

Once Islam is eliminated as a cause then we may examine the geography of sectarian violence which is consistent across the north. It occurs mostly in the densely populated ghettoes with high concentrations of unskilled young males and is entirely unheard of in the upscale neighbourhoods and estates of the middle class and the rich. It may spread occasionally from the ghettoes to the commercial districts where these alienated males destroy businesses and storefronts – the bastions of an economy from which they are excluded. Churches are unfortunately deemed fair game because they embody an alien presence more culturally and organically connected to the same economy that has no place for the talakawa.

The dynamic of Hobbesian violence in slums is similar all over the world. Consider the gang-bangers of American inner city ghettoes, the gangs of Brazilian favelas or the small time narco-trafficantes of Mexican barrios. During the 1960s, Martin Luther King argued that the serial rioting of blacks in the American inner city communities was not because they were black but because they were poor. They were victims of a structural violence that had trapped them in the slums in the first place. This is the case with northern slums and ghettoes. Violence always wears garments of cultural convenience. In northern Nigeria, violence wears the garments of Islam just as in the Niger Delta it assumed the form of Ijaw ethno-nationalism. Violence typically adopts the socio-cultural properties of its immediate environment.

Skeptics will ask why the presence of slums in the south has not produced similar ethno-religious violence. The socio-economic dynamics are different. Historically, the north has always had lower crime rates than the south. This has less to do with piety than opportunity. Urban centres like Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu, and Onitsha have economies that can sustain a thriving underworld. Crime is a sort of black economy but it requires a flourishing legal economy to exist. For example, armed robbery exists where there is actually something to steal; kidnapping is rife where there are high net-worth individuals who can pay hefty ransoms. Advance fee fraud or 419 requires people wealthy enough to be scammed. Drug dealers need people that can afford their products. Lagos has more schools, banks, hospitals, industries, cybercafés, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and IT technicians than the 19 northern states put together. This indicates the geographical concentration of a middle and upper class whose presence can sustain crimes of acquisition. Advanced societies address crime by instituting wealth redistribution and welfare programs. In our unequal society which has no social safety nets, crime is often like an informal wealth redistribution program.

However, the northern economy cannot sustain crime in the same degree as in the south. Kano, the erstwhile commercial centre of the north has been reduced to a de-industrialized ghost town. The destruction of northern industries which began with Babangida’s structural adjustment policies has stripped the region of its productive capacity. In northern towns, there is little of a middle class but plenty of idle rich, contractors, retired generals, political operatives and ex-bureaucrats who live on government patronage but do not create wealth. There is literally little or no economy to steal from in these parts. Since the hoards of the dispossessed have little to steal, they take to killing and destroying. Thus, while underclass angst in the south assumes the form of conventional crime, in the north, it is simply arson, murder and brigandage. But we do not call it crime; we call it ‘ethno-religious violence.’

The problem, therefore, is not Islam. It is systemic poverty – the structural impoverishment of a region that was late in accepting western education and has therefore remained behind the rest of the country in every conceivable way except possibly in the incidence of random violence and the burgeoning population density of its urban areas. What divides north and south is not fundamentally religion or ethnicity but the disproportionate distribution of skills and empowering tools fostered by British colonialists and their local allies but then carried on by a generation of northern elites who exploit the region’s poverty as a political weapon. These elites have used the rage of the talakawa to underwrite their claim to power while ensuring that generations of northerners remain entrapped in Dickensian conditions. Thus radicalized by neglect, these youths become ready recruits for all kinds of cults, wannabe terrorists and a host of malcontents with grand anomic aspirations.

Privation of the scale we see in Nigeria is dangerous enough. But it is compounded because it significantly coincides with ethnic and confessional lines creating a situation in which the condition of the talakawa can always be explained by demagogues as a conspiracy against Hausa Muslims or Arewa in general. When poverty seems to be the exclusive property of a particular ethno-religious community, sectarian violence rears its head. Paranoia is its own reason and logic, its own court, judge and executioner.

Our national security infrastructure needs urgent reform to deal with the escalating threat of domestic terrorism, especially the law enforcement, policing and intelligence administrations. But the typical response of militarizing a strife-torn area is not sufficient. The conceptual link between social security and national security has to be rediscovered. People who have been educated have the tools to actualize their potential and are less likely to throw their lives away. People who have good jobs are ennobled by the dignity of labour and have a sense of self-worth as contributors to the economy. They have much to live for and therefore no reason to risk their lives in suicidal acts of mass delinquency. People who earn decently are unlikely to hire themselves out to politicians to fight and die for causes they barely understand. Such people perceive themselves as citizens, part of a social economy, and are not inclined to destroy that economy.

The geography of sectarian violence indicates that densely populated areas which lack basic social amenities are especially prone to breeding anarchic nihilism. Indeed, Nigeria’s geography of violence corresponds with its geography of economic opportunity. Seen from this perspective, the provision of basic social infrastructure – potable water, electricity, sewage systems, healthcare and schools – to raise the quality of life in these areas, as well as the provision of jobs, is an urgent priority. An urban transformation project aimed at replacing these slums with environments actually fit for human habitation is necessary. In short, good governance commends itself as the ultimate national security strategy. Of course, merely providing social services will not completely stamp out extremist violence but it will reduce its incidence to the activities of an intransigent delinquent minority, whereas military deployment as a sole solution will only radicalize whole communities.   

The grand narrative of northern political domination has long obscured the larger truth of northern poverty. The plight of the presumed hegemon of Nigerian politics has not elicited as much sympathy as that of the Niger Delta did. Even so, the case for northern slums is not a matter of sympathy but about pursuing what is right, just and fair. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Buhari's Last Testament

The Congress for Progressive Change is something of a populist movement with its presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, as the symbolic vessel of northern underclass angst and radical discontent. Much of this fury is not directed at President Goodluck Jonathan personally but at a national confederacy involving northern elites that has left the north impoverished. The ferocious support for the CPC in the ghettos and slums of the north is therefore a protest movement against a generation of northern oligarchs which has gained influence and affluence while misery and privation have proliferated in the region. Jonathan’s emergence is only a convenient trigger for the rage of the talakawa.

Buhari’s limitations as a politician, ideologue and communicator prevented him from framing the inarticulate groans of the talakawa in a broader grammar of national liberation politics as Aminu Kano, Sa’ad Zungur, Bala Usman, Balarabe Musa and others did before him. These were the luminaries of a northern progressive tradition that has roots in socialism and in the egalitarian preachments of Uthman Dan Fodio. This tradition has been remorselessly assailed to the point of near extinction by the conservative oligarchs. In the absence of progressive voices calling for social justice in the north, groups like the anarchist Islamist sect Boko Haram have emerged.

Where opportunities for social progress are denied, agencies of regress evolve. If the talakawa are denied opportunities to prosper in the 21st century, they are seduced by merchants of chaos preaching the merits of a 7th century Islamic utopia. If the present and the future hold no hope for the seething millions of uneducated and unskilled young males in the slums of the north, then a mythical past becomes more appealing. This is the secret of the allure of fundamentalists who preach a return to an idyllic pre-modern paradise – a return to statelessness since the state is deemed to have failed.

Buhari’s and the CPC’s failings left the party desperately unable to transcend its limiting definition as the party of glass-eyed mobs in the northern suburbs. With proper organization, the CPC may have been able to harness the rage coursing through northern slums to build a constructive opposition to the status quo. Instead, the party will now be terminally defined by the scenes of its supporters burning, killing and maiming, fulfilling the resilient stereotype of ‘the angry northern Muslim mob’ that scares so many Nigerians. Without critical orientation, the party has been reduced to the most primal manifestation of political violence – that rooted in religious differences. This is a pity but perhaps it was to be expected of a party that was apparently solely set up to facilitate Buhari’s pursuit of the presidency.

To be fair, Buhari is no religious extremist but he is uncharismatic, serious, and hopelessly oblivious to how he is perceived by many Nigerians. His record of addressing sectarian violence has been atrocious for one who aspires to national leadership. He seemed happy to milk his popularity with the talakawa, not worrying that their evident ownership of his candidacy was casting him as a sectional champion. He did little to counter his brand as a “defender of the faithful” even though a candidacy charged with such religious meaning is incompatible with the egalitarian settings of democratic contest, and particularly dangerous given our history of divisive politics.

Religion makes absolutist claims about the will of God. Democratic politics is about the supremacy of the popular will. Both claims cannot mix without perilous consequences. As we have seen, when a messiah is defeated at the polls, his disciples interpret it as apostasy and launch a violent inquisition to root out the infidels. This is the meaning of the post-election meltdown in northern suburbs which saw CPC supporters attack homes of Christians who were simply assumed to be PDP supporters and also attack Muslims who voted for the PDP.

It is difficult to believe that the ecstatic mobs at CPC rallies failed to intimate Buhari of the possibility of violent protest by his supporters in the event of his defeat. It was an outcome that could have been avoided or at least minimized. Buhari and his party must accept some culpability. He and the CPC dissociated themselves from the mayhem but it was too little, too late. True, we cannot blame all the violence on the CPC but the tenor of Buhari’s campaign in the north was like a spark to dry tinder. He, of course, has the right to feel disappointed by his electoral fortunes. But his refusal to concede defeat and his decision to challenge the poll results has cemented a reputation for gracelessness unbecoming of a democrat.

Since the days of Ahmadu Bello, northern politics has been a continuing search for a moral champion – a political quest for the twelfth Imam. Even Aminu Kano often framed his progressive socialist preachments in the syntax of Islamic liberation theology. Yet over the decades as Northern Nigeria has reeled from sectarian wars, the place of religion in public life has become contentious. In appropriating the rapturous ecstasies of the northern underclass, Buhari succumbed to the temptation to be a spiritual talisman and undercut his claims to national leadership. This was partly strategic. Financially outmuscled by its rivals, the PDP and the Action Congress, the CPC sought to compensate by whipping its northern base into a populist frenzy. Maigaskiya, (person of truth) the honorific bestowed upon him by this constituency, reflected the esteem in which they held him. Their love was insufficient to fetch him the presidency.

The main lesson of Nigerian politics, which opposition parties have repeatedly failed to learn, is that no party clinches the presidency by appealing solely or mostly to its provincial base. In fact, it is possible for a candidate to win without his home zone as Obasanjo proved in 1999. The victorious candidate is the one who can go beyond his homestead and build broad national coalitions. This is historically what the establishment parties – the Northern People’s Congress, the National Party of Nigeria and now the Peoples Democratic Party – have been good at doing. It is why Shagari fairly defeated Awolowo in 1979 and why Abiola defeated Bashir Tofa in 1993. (In fact, in 1979, Shagari won more votes in Rivers and Benue than in his native Sokoto) It is why Buhari has been losing since 2003. In contrast, the failed merger of the CPC and the AC illustrates the handicap of the opposition. The fact that CPC voters in the south have held their peace, while those in the north went on rampage shows the geographical location of the party’s soul. Buhari’s popularity in sections of the north, while unquestionable, was an insufficient basis for a national victory, especially given his reputational, financial and organizational deficits. Nigeria is a far more complex proposition than the fallacious “Christian south-Muslim North” formulation customarily used to explain our politics.   

In a bid to pacify the ‘north,’ President Jonathan may try to forge a consensus with the discredited old guard oligarchs. Ironically, these elites despise the puritanical and uncompromising Buhari, and would sooner negotiate with Jonathan so long as business continues as usual. Should Jonathan pursue this course, he risks being identified more closely with the problematic personalities of the north and reaping even more of the ire of the underclass. Instead Jonathan is better off cultivating a new generation of northern progressives to implement the rescue of the region from poverty. Jonathan’s emergence has sealed the retirement of the geriatric northern elites who have spoken for the region for the past forty years. Their failed politics of entitlement has reduced the north to a zone of misery. There is an opportunity here to inaugurate a new conversation about the north centred on people-oriented development instead of elite privilege.

Regardless of its showing in the gubernatorial elections, the CPC does not seem to have a long term future. Without Buhari’s halo, the party is simply an unwieldy aggregation of political outsiders and malcontents from other parties, all hoping that their proximity to Buhari may yield an anointing by association. With the general’s halo, the party is simply a personality cult. Nigerians who voted for Buhari had high hopes, but on hindsight, the CPC was always a poor vehicle for national change. The search for truly transformative alternatives will have to continue. In any case, the talakawa crisis remains a grave plague that we must confront as a society. Any viable opposition movement must tame the north’s feral ghettoes and translate the fury therein into transformative democratic energy.

As a 69-year old former military dictator, Buhari was always an implausible candidate of change. Most Nigerians had either not been born or were in their early childhood when he ruled. It should be clear now that his three abortive presidential bids have as much if not more to do with a fundamental lack of national acceptability than with the much vaunted rigging of the ruling party. He belongs to a generation that has long exhausted its potential. He should just go quietly into the night.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

Change We Can't Believe In

In our complex, plural, often fractious society with various mutually-suspicious interest groups, you do not win the presidency by being (or appearing) visionary or radical. You do so by looking harmless, passive and unthreatening. You do not win the presidency by serving up a revolutionary manifesto or rigorously grappling with issues; you do so by affecting a genial cluelessness. You win by demonstrating an extraordinary capacity to regurgitate stale clichés and to utter the bleeding obvious with an air of intellectual profundity. This is the true genius of successful presidential aspirants and it is sadly reflective of where our politics has calcified at the moment.

Muhammadu Buhari looks too threatening to win the presidency. Behind the stern mien lurks a seething moral zealotry and a righteous indignation at what his country has become. During his term as Head of State that zealotry came to the fore when armed with repressive decrees, his regime declared a war on corruption, handed out hefty jail terms to corrupt politicians and attempted to frog march the country into the future. Buhari’s running mate is Tunde Bakare, a pastor, attorney and activist who earned his stripes as a preacher railing against the materialistic excesses of Nigeria’s Pentecostal elites and thundering against official corruption. Thus the Buhari-Bakare ticket is led by two puritans…and two authoritarians, for the Pentecostal movement is an authoritarian institution and its pastors tend to be totalitarian oracles.

Whether a ticket led by two men of authoritarian disposition can deepen democratic habits is a fair question. But Buhari is feared for other reasons. The fanatical support he enjoys from swooning and ecstatic mobs in the north scares many southerners who fear that the ex-general is a closet religious extremist. This allegation owes less to reality than to a smear campaign against the general mounted by President Obasanjo’s minions during the 2003 polls. Buhari has tried to counter this fear but clearly deems it beneath his stature to address such canards. The cruel irony is that in a bid to dispel his sectarian image, he has been forced to play “religious politics” by picking a pastor of questionable political clout as his running mate. Whether this will assuage fears remains to be seen.  More importantly, many elites fear that a President Buhari will resume his war on graft after a 26-year hiatus with renewed vigour. For all his grassroots support especially among the northern underclass and others who see him as a potential change agent, Buhari simply frightens too many people – people who could otherwise be valuable supporters.

Nuhu Ribadu suffers from basically the same limitations as Buhari. The former police officer made scores of powerful enemies during his term as anti-corruption czar when he hunted down several high profile fraudsters and thieving politicians. Ribadu is seen as embodying the promise of the independence generation (those born in the 1960s) and has attracted many young urban middle class professionals to his campaign. But Ribadu has lost the toga of incorruptibility to Buhari and is now running solely on youthful promise and potential. Even so, Ribadu can at least look to the future, but for Buhari, 69, this is clearly his last presidential venture.

This leaves us with Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent and frontrunner in the race for Aso Rock. Jonathan fulfils all the requirements for winning the presidency cited above. He is not a radical and has no record of any strong views on any subject. His placid demeanor, in contrast to say Obasanjo’s abrasive persona has made it impossible to cast him as a hate figure in the north even after he torpedoed the PDP’s zoning arrangement. He is clearly a deal-maker and a conciliator rather than a confrontational type. His unlikely ascent from obscurity resonates in a religious country as the stuff of pop religious mythology. His campaign has nimbly exploited this by portraying his rise as the quintessential Nigerian folktale – a man from provincial backwaters rising to be president aided by divine favour. And, as incumbent, he has a war chest of public and private resources surpassing anything his rivals can boast of.

Above all, Jonathan’s appeal lies in his novelty. As the first ethnic Ijaw to sit in Aso Rock, his presidency is a symbolic recompense for the long-neglected oil-producing region. His other names ‘Ebele’ and ‘Azikiwe’ have enabled him to skillfully appropriate the affections of the southeast. His appointment of the first Igbo army chief in 40 years has deepened those affections. For many, Jonathan’s presidency signals the reintegration of the south and southeast zones into the national project. It breaks the perceived northern hegemony of national leadership and conveys a sense that people from other parts of the country can aspire to the highest office in the land. In this regard, Jonathan’s presidency speaks to the deep-seated need for equity and justice in the Nigerian subconscious.

Ethnicity should not matter in our politics in 2011. But Jonathan’s rivals have acted as if it does not matter at all. They have failed to seriously interrogate the roots of Jonathan’s appeal, to grasp the sense of inequity and exclusion that sustains his popularity, and to make the case that their own governments could deliver more tangible goods to those that feel excluded as against the merely symbolic properties of a Jonathan presidency. Instead Buhari and Ribadu, betraying a tin-ear to the sentiments in the southeast and the Niger Delta, picked running mates from the southwest, leaving those two zones with no option on the field except the incumbent. Perhaps, in their calculus, those two zones were deemed unwinnable and thus conceded. The polls will prove this strategy right or wrong.

Yet, Jonathan has significant chinks in his presidential armour. His reign in Bayelsa was so anonymous that not even his handlers have used it to make a case for his presidency. His vice-presidency was largely nondescript. Jonathan has never won an election on his own steam, and his one year in Aso Rock has not dispelled the image of a man promoted beyond his competence by fate. His intellectual minimalism agrees with a society that disdains ideas and scorns men of thought. His handlers have trumpeted his PhD as though it is a Nobel Prize – a scandal in a country that produced Azikiwe, Awo, Aminu Kano, Ahmadu Bello, among others – in an age in which politics was for men of thought and erudition. A more demanding electorate would have scrutinized Jonathan’s claims to the presidency more closely.

As it stands, Jonathan’s campaign rests primarily on his incumbency yet he is yoked to the disastrous brand of his party, the PDP, whose 12 years in power have been appalling. He has built a personal brand and distanced himself from the party in the public consciousness. He has not cast his campaign as one of continuity but as “a breath of fresh air.” Thus placated, many Nigerians excuse him as a good man who just happens to be in a bad party. This is bollocks but it works for some and Jonathan is genuinely popular.

There is one last thing to his advantage. Oppositional figures do not fare well in Nigerian politics. If not, Awolowo, Aminu Kano, Gani Fawehinmi and Pat Utomi might have done better in their presidential adventures. We may romanticize mavericks and outsiders and crown them with such epitaphs as “the best president Nigeria never had” but we rarely validate them with votes. There are many reasons for this. Culturally, we venerate authority and so find the iconoclasm of democratic competition unnerving. Nigerians may disparage the ruling camp but would rather join it than oppose it. Under military rule, political and economic survival meant seeking accommodation with the establishment rather than challenging it. Nigerians still respect the establishment and prefer giving it a new veneer to discarding it. In this sense, our society is conservative. Jonathan and the PDP will benefit from this dynamic this year. Unfortunately, Buhari and Ribadu will suffer for it.

But there are signs that this sort of conservatism is ebbing away provoked by widespread disillusionment and the emergence of a new generation of Nigerians. Young voters, unburdened by memory and prejudice, are more likely to challenge the status quo. This is why the Action Congress and the Congress for Progressive Change have mounted such strong campaigns this term, and it holds great promise for the future. The opposition parties will achieve more in future if they venture out of their provincial strongholds with more conviction to build national networks.

Jonathan has been clever as a servant of the status quo posturing as a change agent. This weekend, most Nigerians will probably agree with his claims at the risk of choosing symbolic change over substantive transformation. His likely victory tells us where we are as a society.   

Friday, April 8, 2011

Beyond Ballots and Bullets

Hopes that Nigeria’s 2011 elections would proceed peacefully and without incident have since vanished, replaced by trepidation as to what the electioneering and post-electioneering period hold. Arson, murders, abductions, terrorism, bomb attacks and other acts of violence have marked the electioneering campaign. Well-meaning Nigerians have dutifully expressed the usual mix of outrage and concern but the violence should have been expected. The very nature of Nigerian politics makes violence a necessary component. Nigerian politics is a quest to privatize the enormous fiscal resources disproportionately invested in public office. An investigation of electoral violence should take into account the huge amounts of petrodollars used to subsidize official sloth.

Simply put, the excessively high financial reward for political office incentivizes the violence that marks the scramble for Abuja. And we are talking about the legal remunerations that politicians take home every month, not even the quantum of public funds which is stolen. The stakes involved in electoral competition are so high as to discourage fair play. Consider that the chance of becoming a federal legislator is the opportunity to become a multimillionaire. Nigerian legislators are among the highest paid in the world and are among the top earners in one of the world’s biggest kleptocracies. Combine the scale of poverty and inequality with the fact that politics now offers the surest route of upward mobility, transforming middle class strugglers into members of a super class, and we begin to understand why politicians cannot approach elections with the bonhomie of the golf course or a tea party. 

Political office offers an irresistible level of social security in a realm where life has become terrifyingly arbitrary and uncertain. Hoards of youths have plunged into politics to participate in the putrescent dream of astronomical returns for little or no labour that characterizes high office. But as more and more people flood the system in search of its outsized rewards, the cost of sating the hungry, pacifying the angry and indulging the greedy is making our democracy ultimately unsustainable. There are far too many people to be settled; the scale of avarice is beyond what the system can reasonably accommodate. And the ranks of restive outsiders excluded from the fest who are willing to violently pull down the temple of sleaze have swelled.

However, we must also look beyond the polls to a larger context. We live in an age of deregulated violence. Militant non-state actors like MEND and Boko Haram have demonstrated their ability to wage asymmetrical warfare against the Nigerian federation. Too often, we focus on episodes of subjective violence – the recurring bouts of sectarian strife in Jos, the occasional shooting at a rally, clashes between rival party supporters, etc. – and we miss the framework of objective violence, the supervening dynamic of repression and strife that makes conflict recurrent. Objective violence is institutional, invisible and thus difficult to spot but its portents are discernible. Any society in which 70 percent of the prison population is incarcerated without trial is a violent society. A realm in which politicians in sirened convoys can whip and run other citizens off the road is a violent society. A realm that permits extrajudicial homicides by state agents is a violent society. Our kleptocracy is a classic embodiment of objective violence. Official graft is depriving millions of healthcare, food security, employment and education – with catastrophic humanitarian consequences that rival the casualties of any deployment of guns and bombs. I argue that the objective violence of this kleptocracy fuels the subjective violence that we see around us.

There are three other dimensions of objective violence which lubricate the engines of conflict. Prebendalism, the personalization and privatization of governance and the transformation of offices into economic resources to be invested in communal allegiances, negates meritocracy and subverts the state’s capacity to deliver good governance. Over the years, prebendal politics has been institutionalized as the quest for strategic parity among ethnicities and regions in terms of control of federal resources. This quest informs the use of quotas, zoning and “federal character” in everything from determining admissions into public schools to staffing government agencies. In fact, these devices have created a bloated government bureaucracy and nurtured the cult of equal opportunity embezzlers that run Abuja.

Secondly, there is the electoral fraud which nullifies the civic will and generates unaccountable state power. The direct result of this is the culture of impunity that marks elite behaviour. Election rigging is, in effect, a stealth coup d’état and displays similar pathologies of violence as military rule. The third dimension of objective violence is the framework of legalized apartheid that we describe in blithely colloquial understatement as the “indigene-settler dichotomy.” It is basically a discriminatory regime that creates cadres of citizenship based on the lowest common denominators of kinship. In the lexicon of power, the term “settler” denotes the categorical exclusion of whole communities from civic life and political representation based on a calculus of identity, blood ties, ethnic and geographical origins. This regime sustains bloody ethno-communal conflict across the federation.

The chain of causality is clear. Kleptocracy triggers political violence. Due to the high stakes of electoral contest, elites adopt extreme measures to slither up the totem pole of political relevance and economic security. When these politicians recruit youths and arm them with cash and guns to execute electoral heists, they create the next generation of militants and terrorists. When these politicians take power, their impunity creates the material conditions that gestate yet more delinquency.
Because political offices are also seen as resources, the competition to occupy them rapidly moves from the personal to the ethno-communal terrain, pitting ethnic and religious groups against each other. This is how kleptocracy and prebendalism sire ethno-religious conflict. The “indigene-settler” dynamic kicks in as rival politicians use apartheid in a bid to divide the opposition and to monopolize power. The more conflict spots there are, the greater the number of guns in circulation. Yet once there is a lull in political violence or ethno-religious conflict those guns remain in circulation, often finding their way into the armouries of urban gangsters and thus escalating urban crime. Just as armed robbery spiked after the civil war when hoards of youths proficient in the use of arms streamed into urban areas, political and sectarian violence are similarly fuelling urban insecurity, with former political thugs and hired muscle striking out on their own as independent gangsters.

Violence organically feeds itself. The Umuleri-Aguleri communal conflict in Anambra during the late 1990s created a generation of combatants who, after the war ended, moved to Onitsha where they promptly inaugurated a reign of terror as gangsters. Following the abject failure of the police to contain them, Anambra retained the services of the Bakassi Boys, an ultraviolent vigilante group that used terror to cast out terror. Beginning from 2001, they executed over 3000 suspected criminals over a period of eighteen months in an orgy of public lynching. The group was disbanded after they had evidently been co-opted by unscrupulous local politicians and turned into enforcers for special interests. The subsequent proliferation of gangs of ransom kidnappers in the southeast led to the deployment of the army to Aba in 2010.  

Similarly, homicides have spiked dramatically in Jos, the once serene city now sundered by sectarian tensions. Because the police force is woefully ill-equipped to address the new gangsterism and terrorism, the military has been deployed to police the city. Across the federation, the escalation of urban crime has led to the creation of joint military-police task forces. This militarization of constabulary functions is a recipe for disaster. It is doubtful that democracy can be nurtured in the presence of tanks and guns. Similar militarization of the Niger Delta in the 1990s led to the growth of militancy in that region and will most likely produce similar outcomes in this instance. Even so, as more citizens realize that the state can no longer provide security, the cardinal commodity of governance, they will take to self-help. We will see a continued increase in the spread of firearms as families undertake to protect themselves, as well as a rise in vigilantism.   

How do we stop this cycle of violence? Presidential assurances of free and fair elections are inconsequential as long as the kleptocracy remains in place. De-escalating the armed scramble for Abuja calls for the drastic reduction of the entitlements of public functionaries. The costs of government must be scaled down and the culture of extravagance that accompanies high office abolished. This should be the basis of government that is truly accountable to the people.

In the mid to long term, we should demolish the framework of racist identity politics by abolishing the indigene-settler dichotomy and affirming an inclusive and unconditional citizenship. We should also seek to decentralize governance by distributing more resources and responsibilities away from Abuja to rejuvenated local government authorities. Political and sectarian violence have intensified over the decades in tandem with the centralization of power in the unitary command and control system of military rule. As power shifted from regions and local authorities to the centre, the scramble for Abuja came into being with politicians jostling for one centralized power source. If the locus of power is restored to municipalities, creating multiple centres of democratic authority, it would not only restore the relationship between power and the public, but also reduce political hostilities.

These mid- to long-term measures are goals for the near future around which a political consensus should form. In the meantime, as the terrifying outcomes of objective violence manifest, there is a need for vigilance, for voices of reason to stridently highlight structural injustices and root causes rather than flail at mere symptoms. Politicians must show uncommon resolve and statesmanship to defuse a building incendiary discontent. And people of faith are perfectly entitled to be prayerful. Difficult days lie ahead.