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.