Monday, October 8, 2012

There is a Country

Chinua Achebe’s much anticipated civil war memoir, There was a Country, has been released to much acclaim and indignation in some quarters. I pass no judgment on the book because I have not read it yet save for serialized excerpts. At this time, I am more interested in the reactions to the book which have predictably corresponded with the default mode of public discourse in Nigeria – the ready, enthusiastic and often blind defence of one’s ethnic group and ethnic heroes. Old habits die hard. In response to Achebe’s book, the tribal troops have been rallied. Many public figures have dived into ethnic trenches and public debate for the next few weeks will be choreographed along sectarian lines. But the context of this debate and its audience are remarkable.

Seventy percent of Nigerians are under 35 years. This means that most Nigerians were born after the civil war and have no memory of that era. For Achebe and his generation, understandably, the civil war was a defining event that forever coloured their view of Nigeria and her possibilities.

For us, the post-civil war generation, it is not. We are defined by a different set of events – the 1970s oil boom and its long recessionary aftermath, the repressive military dictatorships of the 1980s and 1990s, the Structural Adjustment Program, the virtual decimation of public services ranging from healthcare to education, chronic suburban sectarian conflicts and the ascent of a hyper-individualistic ethos that has made our society more Machiavellian and cruel.  Above all, we are haunted by the refusal of previous generations to inter their antipathies, and risk becoming prisoners of inherited animosities.

As one born after the civil war, it is simply impossible to speak with the raw passion of participants and veterans about an event that I, like most of my compatriots, did not experience. What concerns me is that despite the demographic dominance of the post-civil war generation, public discourse is still framed by the issues, terms and experiences of those who fought the war. These warriors have been dubbed “the class of 1966”; they are the generation that came of age as the First Republic collapsed with the heady promise of Independence and degenerated into war. National issues are still largely discussed through civil war blinkers and coloured by long, deeply held prejudices in ways that suggest that Nigeria has not moved on since 1970. Assuredly, it has, for despite its obvious challenges, this is not the same nation that was convulsed by internecine hostilities in the 1960s.

But the conception of Nigeria as a nation in fragments is obdurately promoted by the class of 1966 and its acolytes in the media fossilizing public discourse in the amber of antiquity. Even worse, young Nigerians who have enough contemporary troubles to address are subtly and overtly recruited to re-fight the battles of long ago. 90 percent of Nigerians on Facebook and Twitter belong to the post-civil war generation yet these social media platforms risk becoming battlegrounds where the ignorant, the misguided and the bigoted will duel as tribal pugilists vicariously re-enacting the past.  

The danger is that we are wasting our own epoch, blinded by the bequest of tribal antagonisms, we are ignoring the moral imperatives of our own time and risk passing to our children an even more chaotic mess of a country than our parents left us.

The temptation to reincarnate historical perspectives and to assume the mutually antagonistic roles seemingly ordained for us by fate and history is understandable. Young Nigerians live in a country where the political leadership has overwhelmingly failed to present an overarching transcendent vision of our national destiny. With no portrait of the future to engage us emotionally, we have responded in two ways.

Some of us have adopted a vision of personal success that damns the society at large while emphasizing a privatized prosperity despite the surrounding dysfunction and anomie. This is a philosophy so individualistic that it is no more than a narcissistic nihilism and it is tragically the core of our popular theology.

For others, the absence of a vision of a shared future has prompted refuge in a sectarian past. Given the debilities of our education sector, history is simply a dark blank canvas to most Nigerians. In most of our schools, where history is taught at all, it is essentially the colonial narrative of Mungo Park discovering the River Niger and of Nigeria as an infernal patchwork of perpetually feuding tribes. Despite the immense work of great historians like J.F. Ade-Ajayi, Bala Usman, Elizabeth Isichei and J.C. Anene among other intellectuals, we are yet to domesticate our own history and as Bala Usman proposed, “decolonize perceptions” of our past.

The bid to reclaim the “settled” past rather than inherit an uncertain future drives religious extremists who revel in the pristine and thoroughly mythical visions of 7th century Arabia or tribal fundamentalists who celebrate the nativist and xenophobic ecstasies of long dead kingdoms or simply fabricate ethno-racial identities that never even existed.

Where there is no intelligent and active imagination of tomorrow, the future becomes hell and the past becomes paradise. This is why young Nigerians are so easily recruited to fight for the presumed certainties of a past that they never experienced – oddly enough, by the same elites who have aborted their future – thereby deepening divisions and damning the unborn with a heritage of discord and strife.

I am not, for one moment, advocating amnesia. By all means, we should revisit our history but we should do so knowing that human experience is often subjectively perceived and that war, that most acute of experiences, is even more subjectively perceived. There are many sides, many angles and many perspectives belonging to victors, victims and innocent and guilty bystanders. The wise inquisitor finds safety in a multitude of narratives understanding them to be a symphony of inflamed passions. To accurately interrogate our nation’s history, we must accept that the ties that bind us to our ethnic kin often become lies that blind us to their sins as well as to the sufferings of others.

History is like the elephant and we are like the blind men, feeling and groping in the dark to define it and give it coherence, yet each achieving only a limited perspective. Of all the dimensions of reality, history is where we are most liable to look through a glass darkly. As Chimamanda Adichie has perceptively observed, “A single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.” No single narrative can capture the complexities and ambiguities of ours or any nation’s dramas.

Four decades after the civil war should give us an emotional distance that enables a clinical inquest into the past. But this seems beyond too many of our leading public voices who are all too often inclined to mangle public conversation with pre-programmed primal responses in defence of their tribes and tribal icons. The jaundiced portrayals of our founding fathers – Azikiwe, Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello – have long prevented us from appropriating the lessons of their lives and times. Our need for absolute saints and absolute villains has reduced them to caricatures whose names are casually invoked but who have been so canonized and demonized as to be unreal.

As Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa once said, “No man is wholly evil.” Like all of us, the patriarchs were complex, conflicted and flawed; by turns, weak and strong, cowardly and courageous, petty and charitable. They were capable of both noble and ignoble acts. In short, they were simply and terrifyingly human. If they were all angels then Nigeria would be a paradise and if they were all devils then there would be no Nigeria today. They were as limited by their times as they shaped it. I recommend Dike Chukwumerije’s book One Nigeria as a superbly clinical and empathic examination of these patriarchs and their legacy.

All nations write their history in blood, sweat and tears and in the syntax of tragedy, joy and hope. Nigeria is no different. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu wrote, “The civil war in Nigeria was not a cataclysmic conflict between St. Michael and Lucifer. Rather, it was an inevitable milestone in our journey to nationhood.” The civil war was a tragic chapter in our national odyssey but there have been other chapters and yet more will be written. At some point, we must let the dead bury their dead.

In the end, when this fog of mutual recrimination clears, (and when the class of 1966 is gone) we, Nigeria’s children of deferred hope, will still be left with a country of such immense potential yet wounded by its heirs, a land scarred by low deeds in high places awaiting the redemption that our generation can and must begin to deliver. The question that should animate our pursuits is not what our ancestors did, should have done or would do in our situation. Their circumstances were theirs even as our time is ours. The question that should possess us now is what sort of country we will leave for our children. 

All Images sourced online.          

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Natural Disasters and Leadership Catastrophes

There is a reason why the theme of leadership failure has remained a resilient explanation for our national woes after several decades. Apocalyptic floods have displaced 2 million people across several states north and south of the country. To put this figure in perspective, consider that it is the population of Botswana. The true number of casualties remains unknown. Kogi State says it has lost 40 billion naira in the disaster. Torrential rains and floods are expected to continue till November and more states will probably be affected. Sadly, yet more will die from drowning, disease or starvation. Farms and whole agrarian communities have been wiped out meaning that there will be food shortages. The collateral effect of displacement on this scale will surely include a subsequent spike in crime in neighbouring areas as people who have lost everything struggle desperately to survive.

In an ideal universe, the occurrence of a natural disaster that has afflicted Nigerians from North and South, Christians and Muslims and from various ethnic communities provides an opportunity to emphasize solidarity and brotherhood while galvanizing an empathic national response to the tragedy - especially at a time that political discourse in our country is so fractious. At present, this is not the case.  

Despite the devastation suffered by his fellow citizens, President Jonathan still embarked on an utterly inconsequential trip to the United Nations. He is yet to visit the disaster area. It is one of those strange Nigerian paradoxes that the more an administration demonstrates domestic impotence at home, the more it indulges in delusions of global importance abroad. it is a sure sign of our declining geostrategic relevance that we could not even work with Cameroon to prevent the release of its dam’s waters that has decimated several Nigerian communities. But Jonathan isn’t the only leader that has dropped the ball. Three days ago on Channels TV, Kogi State Governor Wada turned a visit ostensibly meant to provide relief supplies into a photo op grinning into a camera in the face of the terrible tragedy suffered by poor Nigerians. The spectacle of violently dispossessed Nigerians genuflecting in gratitude to receive as privileges what should be theirs as rights was especially jarring as was that of some National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) officials looking like they were there to dole out Christmas gifts.   

There should be an inquest into the lack of emergency preparedness by federal and state governments even after meteorologists had predicted high intensity rainfall. What sort of coordinated emergency response protocols, if any, were put in place? At what level is the federal government engaging with Cameroon over the release of waters of from its dams which have caused much of the flooding?  Surely, a state of emergency ought to be declared in the worst hit areas and the military drafted in (as Senate President David-Mark has proposed) to use its logistical capabilities to bring aid to the disaster areas. The problem is that the military which is dealing with everything from terrorism and insurgency to gangsterism and kidnapping may be over-extended. But it is probably the best chance of alleviating an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.

In the long run, there is only one way of making elected officials responsive to the people in a democracy. If the incompetent US government response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005 virtually ended the Bush presidency in 2005 and helped kill off the Republican Party's chances in 2008, then some Nigerian politicians will have to pay for the derelictions of duty that have put millions of their compatriots at risk. Until elected officials begin to suffer stiff penalties for their ineptitude and delinquency, Nigerians will remain at the mercy of man-made and natural calamities. 

All images sourced from Google Images  

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Science of Success

The reactions of Nigerians to our country’s dismal performance at the just concluded Olympics have been instructive. Nigeria has no medal to its name. Blessing Okagbare valiantly reached the women’s 100 meters final but placed eighth. The U.S. Dream Team beat Nigeria 156 – 73, the highest ever margin of defeat in Olympic basketball history. Many Nigerians have been caustic about our athletes’ performances perhaps because they had hoped for a sporting triumph abroad to punctuate the seemingly interminable cycle of dreary news back home. Yet, both the Nigerian showing and the domestic reaction reveal widely varying attitudes and beliefs about success.

For successful countries, success is a science – an outcome empirically determined by rational systems and structures based on the consistent application of effort and resources and the cultivation of habits of excellence. For unsuccessful countries, success is a miracle – a stroke of outrageous fortune; a whimsical gift from capricious deities; in short, an act of God. To this mindset, success can be no more predetermined than an earthquake can be choreographed. Excellence is a magical occurrence originating not from human exertion but from the realm of the unknown. This outlook explains why our sports teams customarily show up at international tournaments ill-prepared, banking on talent and prayer to clinch victory, only to be duly mauled by better organized teams.

Spain’s dominance of international football since 2008, to Nigerian eyes, is down to exceptional luck and a fortuitous surfeit of talent. We forget that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Spain was a perennial underachiever. We forget that Nigeria beat Spain in the France 1998 World Cup. A comparative study of Spain’s recovery from that low point and the decline of Nigerian football from that moment will yield empirical data that explains Spanish supremacy and Nigerian decline. Success is the product of systems established to operate a culture of excellence. The Olympic medals table is an index of long term strategic preparation, discipline, research, constantly refined techniques and tactics, enacted on a systemic and institutional scale.

We have built no structures to entrench excellence but we demand results that are completely at variance with our investments. The more our athletes flounder, the more obdurate we are in our belief that we are entitled to success and the more biting our critiques of their failures to meet our utterly unrealistic expectations. In truth, our athletes deserve commendation for even reaching the Olympics – a feat achieved largely on the strength of their own individual efforts with minimal or negligible institutional support. Indeed, a Nigerian medal would only have been a deserved crown for the individual athlete’s hard work not an achievement to be claimed as a national triumph because it would not have been the product of any intentional systemic effort.

As our society has grown more individualistic, we have come to see success as the product of individual talent and effort alone. But the sheer precociousness of gifted individuals is not enough. Many prodigies are roaming the streets, denied the space for self-actualization. It takes institutions to create spaces for their prodigious gifts to bloom. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are supremely talented athletes and their personal exertions have surely been justly rewarded. But they are also symbols of systems that work. They are examples of success by design just as Chidi Imoh, Innocent Egbunike, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, Yusuf Alli and Falilat Ogunkoya represent an earlier epoch when structures existed that, at least, made Nigeria competitive. That epoch also produced the Super Eagles that won the African Cup of Nations in 1994, stormed sensationally into the second round of its World Cup debut that year and won Olympic soccer gold in Atlanta ‘96.

Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta may be superbly gifted individuals but they represent the cultural excellence of La Masia, Barcelona’s highly-rated youth academy. England is launching an U-21 youth league because it has realized that good old English grit and “getting stuck in” are not enough. If she is to truly compete with powerhouses like Spain, Germany and Brazil, then young British footballers have to become technically savvy and tactically aware. This action shows both the humility to recognize the footballing weaknesses of the “home of football” as well as the intelligence to mount an institutional response. A decade from now, when a generation of technically astute English players emerges, it will not be a product of fortunate happenstance but of strategic preparedness.

In Nigeria, a culture of planning and strategy is often seen as tantamount to playing God. But surely, the real folly is arrogantly presuming the certainty of a miracle to compensate for our habitual negligence, when God is certainly not a Nigerian.  Our conception of success carries inevitable implications for public life and politics. We persist in looking for messianic figures to perform miracles in spite of the dysfunctional environment while resisting the need to actually challenge the dysfunction itself. We erroneously focus on stumbling upon exceptional individuals rather than building sustainable institutions. To be sure, exceptional individuals exist but they are rare. This is why they are exceptions by definition. The specific historical factors that throw up a Nelson Mandela or a Lee Kwan Yew cannot be simulated. Institutions are the golden mean between the undistinguished normality of the masses and the extraordinary gifts of exceptional geniuses. They enable societies to function admirably even when they are not led by political prodigies.

Miracles are permissible metaphors in personal narratives but they are unknown in nation-building and development. There was nothing at all miraculous about the so-called Asian Miracle. Asian nations simply married Confucian rigour with western modernity. China’s ascent is the most compelling example of this dynamic. Just as the rise of nations is traceable to institutional and cultural engineering, so too is our decline rooted in the decay of our systems and values. The youth sports federations that oversaw the sporting successes of yore have withered away from lack of funding, corruption and inertia. The inter-school sports contests which nurtured athletes have disappeared replaced by the heroic but sporadic efforts of a few corporations and individuals to sustain sports.

But how much can we really extrapolate from a poor Olympic showing which, let’s face it, has become customary anyway? Nigeria’s youth bulge carries both the potential for powering a developmental leap forward as well as the peril of delinquency, crime and conflict in the face of severely constricted economic opportunities. Sports harnesses youthful exuberance and energies and can provide youths with gainful employment, while enabling them to bring honour to themselves and their country.

Secondly, in the 21st century, nationalistic belligerence has been replaced by sporting nationalisms. Countries send their gladiators to duel in the sports arena rather than the battlefield. Victory boosts national pride and provides a feel-good factor, the sense of creative optimism societies need to grapple with the future. A vestige of the prehistoric tribal instinct requires the reality or fiction of an external adversary against which nations measure themselves and strive for excellence. The great sporting rivalries between nations derive from this. Just as Olympics medals tables of the Cold War era reflected the great power rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR, and between Western Europe and the Eastern bloc, recent tables reflect the emergent Sino-American polarity. Nigeria’s decline in sports and other areas is perhaps also down to the fact that despite our size and natural wealth, we have no conception of strategic rivals or adversaries. It is also conceivable that investing in sports and creating theatres of athletic competition will help defuse the aggressive micronationalisms and militant religiousities captivating youths across Nigeria. Sports show us that the natural competitive instinct that undergirds civilization need not be lethal.

In the final analysis, success in any field is generated by design. It is neither a miracle nor magic. It is ultimately a choice that we make when we adopt a culture of excellence. In our beleaguered society, where mediocrity has assumed a normative presence, the key to receiving excellence is to respect and reward it. As a first step, this means enthroning a meritocracy; selecting the best of us to lead regardless of their ethnicity, religion or gender. Only competent people can build competent institutions.   

(All Images sourced from Google Images)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Democracy in a Glass House

The moral imperative that confronted President Goodluck Jonathan at the inception of his administration was clear. At the time, public debate revolved around the outsized remunerations of members of the National Assembly. President Jonathan was expected to challenge the culture of unbridled acquisition and unhinged entitlement that is ballooning the cost of government. Had he done so, he would almost certainly have ignited a civil war within the Peoples’ Democratic Party since he would be endangering the party’s sacred cult of patronage. But Jonathan could then have rallied the people behind him and served as their knight in the battle to deepen accountability and probity in governance.

Instead, Jonathan took the opposite course of action. His decision early this year to abolish subsidies on fuel amounted to raising taxes of poor and middle class Nigerians in order to fund a broke government – a government that is being bankrupted by the uninhibited appetites of avaricious politicians. Rather than cutting the waste and extravagance of his co-travelers, Jonathan elected to increase the burden of the people. That decision provoked a weeklong strike action and nationwide protests that assumed the shape of a public inquisition into the character of governance.

Sensing the potential for a broader anti-government backlash, federal legislators, have since then, undertaken a series of high-profile investigations of the executive branch. These probes have had public support because they assuage a popular desire to see a cleansing of the Augean stables of the state. They have also enabled the federal legislators to outflank the president, deploy populist rhetoric and deflect attention from their own misdemeanours. Theatrics aside however, the House of Representatives investigation of fuel subsidy payments uncovered a festering edifice of fraud. The representatives’ report indicted senior administration officials and placed the onus on the president to cleanse his government of compromised figures. In some other climes, the scale of fraud uncovered would have led to mass resignations, the prosecution of indicted officials and would certainly have ended the administration.

It is a measure of how much grief the representatives caused that the chair of the investigatory committee, Honourable Farouk Lawan became the target of a sting operation involving the oil baron Femi Otedola and the State Security Service. Honourable Lawan now stands accused of soliciting and receiving a bribe from Otedola. In recent weeks, news of his alleged corruption has displaced the urgency of implementing his panel’s recommendations from the news cycle. The probe report brimming with scandalous disclosures of how government officials and their business cronies defrauded the country to the tune of billions of naira may not be completely discredited but it risks being forgotten even as we are titillated by the salacious renderings of Lawan’s alleged escapades.      

Lawan’s travails, now dubbed “faroukgate,” correspond with a culture of political intrigue that can only be described as the doctrine of mutual incrimination. The most pungent dramatization of this principle came in 2006. President Olusegun Obasanjo accused Vice President Atiku Abubakar of corruption, tried to evict him from the presidency and ultimately disqualify him from contesting the presidential elections in 2007. Atiku’s response was not to exonerate himself, but rather to discredit Obasanjo by arguing that he was equally complicit in the theft of public funds. The former governor of Plateau State, Joshua Dariye’s riposte to being charged with money laundering was to argue that he had funneled much of the loot into the PDP’s campaign treasury thereby effectively incriminating the top hierarchy of the party including Obasanjo.

In 2008, Honourable Ndudi Elumelu, who chaired the House of Representatives probe of the Obasanjo administration’s power projects was himself subsequently prosecuted for contract fraud by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, along with Senator Nicholas Ugbane, the chair of the Senate Committee on Power. Honourable Herman Hembe who chaired the Representatives’ investigation of the Stock Exchange Commission earlier this year was removed after the commission’s director-general, Arunma Oteh accused him of soliciting a N40 million naira bribe from her.

The logic of mutual incrimination is not only that politicians who live in glass houses should not throw stones; it is that our democratic institutions are glass houses. In an equal opportunity kleptocracy, it is the height of moral arrogance for a politician to presume to invigilate his brethren. As Obasanjo once put it, “There is honour among thieves.” At the time, the then president was explaining why Anambra Governor Chris Ngige should turn over the state’s treasury to his political godfather, Chris Uba, who happened to be Obasanjo’s aide. By this understanding, the political consensus under which Nigeria is governed is a pirates’ covenant which requires “fair” and “just” distribution of plunder. Those who question the piracy itself are vilified as traitors or spoilers. It is no surprise that government increasingly resembles a criminal consortium.

Democracy rests on the principle of checks and balances yet the executive and the legislature, paralyzed by mutual incrimination, cannot check each other. The net effect is the delegitimization of our institutions. A presidency crippled by its equivocation in fighting corruption has shrunk; while the National Assembly is seen as a citadel of sleaze. This has resulted in a widespread public loss of faith in civil institutions that makes our young democracy extremely vulnerable to extra-constitutional shocks.

The senate’s deliberation on the recently uncovered multi-billion naira pension fraud was revealing. The senators cursed the perpetrators and their descendants and committed them to eternal damnation in the hottest part of hell. Not one senator raised his voice in favour of prosecuting the perpetrators of the fraud right here on earth. The pseudo-spiritual histrionics disclosed the bankruptcy of a political class so morally paralyzed by its own indiscretions that it cannot summon the will to address crimes against the Nigerian people.

It is often the case that when political elites cannot regulate themselves and lose legitimacy, new agencies of political sovereignty emerge to do the job. We are in a familiar and treacherous historical environment. Three decades ago, public faith in the Shehu Shagari administration plummeted as the entire government became synonymous with unfettered graft. The military struck terminating that democratic experiment. While there is currently no potential for similar military intervention today, there are other threats. Consider the deepening hold of cynicism on the national psyche. Young Nigerians are observing the shenanigans of politicians and internalizing a nihilistic view of life and politics as a Machiavellian domain where high values and ideals do not apply. This is not the sort of outlook that will raise the quality of governance or prolong democracy. The rise of non-state violence and anti-state militancy in recent years is an index of public nihilism and loss of faith in government.

Politicians who are customarily preoccupied with their own ends should care enough about the institutions they presently inhabit to realize that they cannot survive popular apathy. Should President Jonathan find the courage to vigorously and unequivocally challenge the strongholds of graft, he would be saving not only his presidency from opprobrium but preserving Nigerian democracy as a whole. But can he? 

All images sourced from Google Images

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Tyranny of the Majority

Since the return to civil rule in 1999, ethnic and religious conflicts across the Nigerian federation have claimed an estimated fifty thousand lives. These conflicts have not just been inter-ethnic or inter-religious; they have also been intra-ethnic and intra-religious. They include clashes between the Ife and the Modakeke in Osun State, the Aguleri and Umuleri in Anambra and the Ezza and Ezillo in Ebonyi State. Sectarian clashes between Christian and Muslim partisans dominate the headlines because they cohere with a popular mythical narrative of Nigeria as a nation embroiled in a clash of civilizations. Less reported is the intra-sectarian animosity that has seen Sunnis and Shiites clash in Zaria and Sokoto, or the war of attrition waged by Boko Haram and allied extremist sects on other Muslims who oppose them. 

The escalation of conflict suggests a correlation between democratization and violence. After the long decades of military dictatorship, democracy was supposed to inaugurate an era of peace and prosperity. Why has it led to so much strife? A major reason is the nature of democracy itself. As Claude Ake once wrote, “The military is a taut chain of command; democracy is a benign anarchy of diversity. Democracy presupposes human sociability; the military presupposes its total absence, the inhuman extremity of killing the opposition. The military demands submission, democracy enjoins participation; one is a toll of violence, the other, a means of consensus building for peaceful co-existence.” Democracy creates greater spaces for self-definition and self-understanding by various groups and interests.

Under military dictatorships, political identities are necessarily constrained by the code of totalitarian uniformity that permits only two actors – the state and the citizenry. Democracy opened the flood gates of expression and activism. Repressed identities and resentments surged to the surface. For example, during the military era, the notion of Arewa – northern Nigeria as a political monolith – was an article of faith in the media. One of the most important political developments since 1999 has been the fraying of northern identity. The ecumenical regionalism of Ahmadu Bello, and the dubious provincial cronyism propagated by some northern elites during military rule has collapsed into the chaos of self-determination and cultural and political rediscovery.

Since 1999, the previously plain canvas of northern homogeneity has fractured into sharp colours of resurgent ethnic identities. New narratives that involve the Sayawa, the Adara, the Nupe, the Berom and the Bajju have become prominent revealing the ethnically heterogeneous and fairly fractious reality of the north. Democracy offers opportunities for various flags of identity to be hoisted in the sun. This is precisely what is happening. Democracy is conducive for diversity in a way that totalitarianism cannot be. This is why Nigeria’s diversity has become troublingly thematic in recent times. It is all part of the renegotiation of political realities that is promoted by democracy.

However, the fundamental problem is that in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic polity where democracy is still primitively defined as a game of numbers rather than a contest of ideas, it is bound to generate the tyranny of the majority. Most of the conflicts in Nigeria revolve around the relational dynamics between ethnic and religious majorities and minorities. This is compounded by a rentier economy in which numbers are used to corner resources, economic advantages and social opportunities to the detriment of minority groups. This accounts for the extant apartheid system in which certain groups define themselves as indigenes and landlords and classify other citizens as settlers and tenants. Most states entertain discriminatory policies in employment practices and admission into public schools that make nonsense of Nigerian citizenship.

In such circumstances, where an illiberal democracy sustains restrictions on the civic status of citizens, the tyranny of the majority is countered by the rage of the minority. Conflict is inevitable. Where majorities can hijack the apparatus of the state and direct its machinery of coercion against perceived opponents, minorities resort to anti-state violence. The structural violence of majoritarian tyranny is equalized by the actual physical violence of minoritarian terrorism. Militancy and aggression, in this sense, constitute the eloquence of those rendered voiceless by the system.

The biggest factor in the escalation of conflicts since 1999 has been the inability or unwillingness of the federal government to act as a neutral arbiter of contending provincial passions to prevent them from erupting into interminable cycles of strife and vengeance. This governmental function includes the protection of minorities from victimization and the prosecution of sponsors and perpetrators of violence. The simple truth about cycles of violence is that they are perpetuated when crimes go unpunished. In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity, these derelictions of duty by the federal government constitute an invitation to communities to devise their own means of defence – which can only mean higher levels of sectarian violence. In some of our theatres of conflict, we have already witnessed ugly scenes of unpunished violence and retributive aggression. The wanton slaying of innocent Muslims has been defended as “reprisals” for the atrocities of Boko Haram and ostensibly “legitimized” by the negligence of the state. But to accept that it is permissible to target people for the sins of their supposed kin is an invitation to mutual genocide. 

Therefore, a new national security doctrine must have as its cornerstone the sanctity of citizenship. This means protecting the rights of Nigerian citizens everywhere in the federation from discrimination and violence. It also means recognizing ethno-religious violence and political terrorism as the most potent threats to the union. During the 1970s and 1980s, armed robbery assumed epidemic proportions in Nigerian cities. The federal government recognizing that it was dealing with a new security threat, established special anti-robbery squads and tribunals to speedily and decisively address the spate of violent crime. The proliferation of bomb-making technologies and the sophistication of Boko Haram, allied terror groups, and sundry militant gangs represent an escalation of violence. In addition to all other measures, special anti-terrorism tribunals should be established to deal speedily and thoroughly with these crimes against Nigerian humanity. Terrorism, in this sense, should not just be limited to Boko Haram’s outrages but expanded to include political violence and all crimes that are currently categorized as ethno-religious violence. This would also cover hate crimes and hate speech, particularly in religious, political and media rhetoric that encourage prejudice and bigotry. This is the way to restore dwindling civic faith in the state’s capacity to protect citizens’ lives and property.   

The federal government must also recognize the adverse national security implications of the majoritarian hegemonies thrown up in a young democracy. It must commit to protect ethnic and religious minorities everywhere in the federation, not merely as “minorities” or endangered species but as citizens with equal rights. Polemicists who see chronic conflicts as an opportunity to dissolve the union are wrong. The issue is not our diversity. It is how to guard against the tyranny of the majority in a democracy. And there is no possible post-Nigerian configuration in which there would be no ethnic, religious or political minorities. 

(All images sourced from Google Images)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Why Appeasing Terrorists is A Recipe for Disaster

The decision of the federal government to dialogue with Boko Haram has to be situated against a collage of tragedy – two thousand dead; men, women and children; Christians and Muslims; foreigners and locals; civilians and military and paramilitary personnel; innocent bystanders and agents of the state – all sacrificed on the pyre of nihilistic violence. There is something fundamentally immoral about negotiating with a band of murderers. It is the final violation of the memory of those whose lives they so brazenly cut short. What does it say to serving police officers, soldiers and intelligence agents that the lives of their fallen comrades have been bartered for the political legitimization of a terrorist group? It suggests dangerously that political outcomes can be determined by access to bombs and guns and is an open invitation to diverse assortments of criminals to seek political relevance by demonstrating a willingness to engage in mass murder.

Advocates of dialogue have argued that the federal government should negotiate with Boko Haram, understand its grouse and then offer what sops it can to end the carnage. There is one word for this –“appeasement” – and the spectacle of a government cajoling criminals to the table for “peace talks” raises questions about assumptions of a social contract, state capacity or national sovereignty. It suggests that for all the vainglorious pomp that attends governance in Nigeria, the public realm is a lawless frontier where citizens would be well advised to devise their own means of self defence. The word for describing this state of affairs is “anarchy.” Negotiating with terrorists is a bottomless abyss. Where does the state draw the line? How should it respond to the next band of terrorist gangsters that assault our way of life? Why, after negotiating with Boko Haram, should it suddenly refuse to do so with the next gang of murderers who demand a seat at the table? A state that so easily succumbs to the whims and caprices of every group that takes up arms against it is participating in the demise of its statehood and enthroning the rule of gangs in its stead.

To be fair, this crisis did not begin with Boko Haram. It is permissible to argue that the Nigerian state has a policy of negotiating with terrorists. We can look back at the Obasanjo administration’s handling of the Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC) and the Odua Liberation Movement (OLM) which in the early 2000s attacked police stations and police officers in the southwest. We can also cite the Yar’Adua administration’s handling of militant gangs in the Niger Delta which included a sweeping amnesty program for militants and under President Goodluck Jonathan, significant influence for erstwhile militant chieftains, including the scandalous outsourcing of maritime security functions to a company owned by Government Ekpumopolo a.k.a. Tompolo, a key figure in the Niger Delta insurgency.

Several pundits have insisted that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is not a terrorist group like Boko Haram. They have through semantic contortions tried to place MEND on a higher moral plane where it enjoys a greater legitimacy than other insurgent groups. This effort is demonstrated by the readiness to label Boko Haram as “terrorists,” while describing their peers in the Niger Delta and elsewhere, somewhat ambiguously as “militants.” MEND, they say, fought for resource control while Boko Haram’s goals are either indeterminate or non-negotiable, for example, the “Islamization” of a section of the country. This summation is rather spurious. It derives from the selective discernment of pundits who only observe evils that emanate from cultures other than their own. They fail to see moral equivalence in the fact that violence as a means of extracting political and economic concessions did not begin with Boko Haram.

To begin with, terrorism is a description of means, not ends. Wanting Sharia or resource control does not make one a terrorist; taking up arms and violently threatening public safety to attain those goals is terrorism. Boko Haram, MEND, OLM, to the extent to which they deploy violence in fulfilling their objectives, are terrorist groups. MEND militants killed soldiers, police officers and attacked government bases and oil company installations. Its methods were remorselessly violent. Recall that the first terrorist attack on Abuja in the Jonathan era, the 2010 Independence Day bombing at Eagle Square, was carried out by MEND. On that occasion, President Jonathan committed the faux pas of publicly absolving MEND, contradicting available evidence before any investigation had been initiated. He fired Kayode Are as national security adviser and replaced him with General Andrew Owoye Azazi. In a July 2006 interview with Tell magazine, Azazi, then Chief of Army Staff had argued that the Niger Delta conflict is a political crisis that requires a political solution rather than a military one. It is easy to see why some polemicists would insist on applying the same standards of judgment to Boko Haram.

There is no better argument against appeasing terrorists than the evidence of recent history. The amnesty program has not ended violence in the Niger Delta. Arguably, it has incentivized gangsterism. By the end of 2012, the program would have gulped over N200 billion since its inception in 2009. Unemployed youths who want in on the bonanza have formed their own gangs to press their claims to the largesse. Piracy has surged since 2008 making Nigerian waters dangerously similar to those of Somalia. The fundamental issue in the Niger Delta is not federal largesse but good governance which politicians have been loath to deliver.

Even if the federal government did negotiate with Boko Haram, there is no reason to expect an end to violence in the North. The expanding footprint of gangsterism across the region which includes bank heists, cross-border banditry and violent religious extremists are not all the work of one organization as is popularly imagined. Boko Haram itself has splintered and its factions may not be easily accommodated by one accord. It is unlikely that gangs that have indulged so wantonly in sating their bloodlust can relinquish their murderous instincts and suddenly abandon the addictive ‘thrill of the kill.’ It is more likely that insurgency and crime will coalesce in a region already flush with guns and the technologies of violence. As in the Niger Delta, the failure of governance rather than the paucity of federal funds is the real problem.

To compound matters, the Nigerian state all too often acts like a terrorist entity. According to a 2011 report by the Centre for Victims of Extra-judicial Killings and Torture (CVEKT), Nigeria recorded a total of 7,198 extra-judicial killings by the police between 2007 and 2011. Police officers are notoriously trigger-happy and their conduct often invites comparison with men of the underworld. Recall that the extra-judicial slaughter of Mohammed Yusuf and scores of the group’s members by the police in 2009 was to form an important justificatory narrative in Boko Haram’s campaign. The state’s legitimacy is anchored to its methods and the relationship between its means and ends in its quest to establish justice.

Thus, it can also be argued that anti-state violence has emerged as a dialectical necessity to counter the official terrorism of the state. We usually define chronic violence as extremism, terrorism and militancy but risk missing the larger context that makes them inevitable and symptomatic. That context is a colonially-oriented state piloted by a kleptocratic political class whose outsized privileges are guaranteed by their control of the instruments of official violence.  The Nigerian state must change its ways and its politics must be rescued from the abyss of feral aggression. A greater regard for human rights and human life should inform its security operations.  

To resolve chronic violence, we must move away from the idea that murderers can justify their crimes by claiming that they committed them in the name of their ethnicity or religion. The right to life must remain sacred and be promoted as such by the state in word and deed. To this end, the federal government should consider the establishment of an anti-terrorism tribunal to adjudicate a wide range of matters under the rubric of terrorism including, the use of private militias by politicians during elections, hate speech and hate crimes. It is impossible to separate the plague of terrorism from the supervening culture of political violence. The thoughts and words that make it permissible to kill people in the name of creed or tribe, whether propounded by religious clerics, politicians or journalists, must themselves be stridently punished. The Jonathan administration must show greater resolve in apprehending the political sponsors of violence. And it must speedily develop the capacity to confront anti-state violence – something that it has been distressingly slow to do, even with the billions of naira voted for security.

It is, of course, conceivable that terrorists can have worthy ends and deploy terroristic means. The intelligent government must address the ends, the legitimate grievances that feed extremism; but it must punish the means of violence used to achieve them, lest we promote terrorism as a brand of politics. If not, it would be paving the surest path to a state of anomie. 

All images sourced online

Monday, March 5, 2012

Who are the Real Enemies of Nigeria?

Judging from the trend of opinion in the media and the tenor of conversations online, it seems that Nigerians have reached a rare consensus on the object of their collective wrath. He is the Northerner, particularly the Muslim “Hausa-Fulani” Northerner with the emphasis of the indictment varying from the generic category of “Muslim” to that of “Northerner” or “Hausa-Fulani” depending on who is doing the indicting and the circumstances. From the barrage of anti-Northern invective online, it is clear that the Northerner is considered the diabolical, greedy and power-hungry embodiment of all that is wrong with Nigeria.

Nigerians have consensually used these same adjectives before about another group – the Igbos. At one point in our history, the Igbos were the national scapegoats. As Chinua Achebe wrote in 1983, “Nigerians of all other ethnic groups will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo.”

In a multiethnic and multi-religious society steeped in poverty, part of the competition for group advantage is the quest to identify a common enemy, to dress it in readily identifiable sectarian garments and crown it with thorns as the national scapegoat. In earlier times, the toga of villainy was draped around the Igbo, stereotyped in the national consciousness as grasping, greedy, arrogant and clannish.

From the mid 1980s onwards, it became fashionable to speak of “northern domination.” The designation of national scapegoat has to do with perceptions of power and group advantage in the public realm. During the pre-Independence period when Igbos were prominent actors in commerce, politics and the civil service, they were vilified for plotting “Igbo domination.” The sequence of northern-led military regimes from the 1970s to the late 1990s made a new narrative of northern domination inevitable.  

The demonization of “the north” in the media mirrors the vilification of the Igbo between the 1940s and 1960s. As with the Igbo, the depiction of the north as the arch-villain of the Nigerian tragedy is fallacious. Blaming all of Nigeria’s problems on one region or ethnic group and defining ethnicities as political categories with predictable socio-political habits is an untenable generalization and a prejudicial simplification of the Nigerian situation. This is unfortunately the dominant pattern of social and political analysis. It is one in which public life is interpreted in terms of mutually hostile fractal solidarities perpetually locked in a war for ascendancy.

The practice of identifying national scapegoats is a Machiavellian dark art. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Babangida regime identified “radicals” as the enemy. It was the desire to destroy radical academics that informed the military’s perception of the university as enemy territory and its subsequent subversion of higher education. Academics in the Ahmadu Bello University and the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) in particular faced systematic persecution and harassment. In later years, elements within the Babangida regime would identify the OAU as the hub of a “Yoruba opposition.” Similarly, the University of Nigeria in Nsukka was targeted during the civil war as the “intellectual base” of the Biafran secession.  

Following the June 12, 1993 election crisis, the emergence of Sani Abacha, and the incarceration of Moshood Abiola, the Yoruba were cast as the enemies of Nigeria and the chief opponents of the regime. The regime’s propagandists lost no time in dubbing the pro-democracy activists who wanted the June 12 election actualized as Yoruba tribalists even though Abiola’s mandate had been remarkably pan-Nigerian. The June 12 advocates reciprocated, insisting that the “north” was against the emergence of a Yoruba president, even though Abiola had won very handsomely in northern states. Abiola, himself a long time crony of military dictators, never attributed his travails to the machinations of a “north” intent on denying him power because he was a southerner but to what he called “a small clique in the military determined to cling to power at all costs.” But facts pale in the face of mythology.

Eskor Toyo once lamented that ethnic chauvinists in the south would rather refer to Sani Abacha as a northerner rather than as a fascist military dictator. After the near assassination of The Guardian publisher Alex Ibru in 1996, a group calling itself the Revolutionary Movement for Hausa Fulani Interest, (REMHFI), claimed responsibility. Of course, the attempted assassination was the work of the junta’s agents. It had nothing to with Hausa or Fulani interest and everything to do with the prolongation of a fascist dictatorship.  But power mongers have long learned how to manipulate popular bigotries to their own advantage.

By 1999, the scales of enemy definition were weighted firmly against “the North.” Guerilla journalists had riveted Nigerians with tales of the intrigues of the “Hausa-Fulani oligarchy” or the “Sokoto Caliphate” – all metaphorical representations of the “northern enemy.” In his book, This House Has Fallen, Karl Maier reports Bola Ige as disclosing that the real controllers of Nigeria consisted of “not more than two hundred Fulani families.”

With the emergence of Boko Haram, the North is being entrenched as an “enemy other” in the national imagination, aided by the ignorance and malice of a biased media, 90 percent of which is based in the southwest (the so-called Lagos-Ibadan axis); and bigotry of pandemic proportions in our public life. Jingoism as journalism is rendering public discourse between Nigerians mutually unintelligible. It should have been fairly easy to mobilize national opinion against Boko Haram, a terrorist group that murders Muslims and Christians alike, and to cast it as a common enemy – but the media’s insistence on the myth of the “northern enemy” and its prejudicial coverage, which has prevented even sufficient acknowledgement of the fact that as many (if not more) Muslims have been killed by the group, – have negated this. This reportorial slant corresponds with the narrative of a Muslim north ranged against a Christian south – a popular fiction, yet possessed of such apocalyptic sensationalism that it sells papers. Put simply, politicians and the press both profit from demonizing groups and promoting prejudice.  

However, ethnicity and religion possess limited explanatory capacity. According to Obi Nwakanma, northern domination is one of “the most sustained mythologies of post colonial Nigeria.” He argues that “the idea that the north through the military ran Nigeria and underdeveloped it is false… The closer truth is that a very complex alliance of business interests from the North and the South, with their international banking and security links ran Nigeria, and continues to run Nigeria. The ordinary northerner – Hausa or Fulani or Berom or even Tiv – has not benefited in any significant way from the so-called rule of Northerners. Individual northerners and southerners have benefited in immense ways, from their close associations and links with power, and we must pay heed to this fact.” Tam David-West contends that, “Northern Domination is a myth concocted and popularly peddled and perpetuated by lazy politically emasculated Southern politicians and most unfortunately also some Southern intellectuals; a grand alibi to cover up or divert from their  ineffectiveness, ineffectuality and even political harlotry.” “Northern domination” is used in the same way that some northern politicians use the bogey of “southern domination” to mobilize support through fear of the other.  

The great radical historian Bala Usman interpreted the Nigerian condition as a consequence of class machinations rather than contending ethnicities. He argued that a comprador elite of impeccably national character and transnational affiliations armed with hegemonic designs, rather than any ethnic constituency, are the true enemies of the Nigerian nation. Yet, their ascendancy lay in their ability to wear ethnic and religious masks, and manipulate ethnic and religious identities for personal gain.

In 1989, while addressing the Oxford-Cambridge Club, President Ibrahim Babangida said, “By accident of birth and more by education and access to opportunity, a few of us numbering only a few thousand, out of a population of more than 100 million, find ourselves in positions of leadership and influence in the professions and academics, the armed forces, the bureaucracy, industry, agriculture and commerce, in the media houses, in the courts and councils of our traditional and political associations. We equate our ends with the ends of the groups and communities to which we belong. We mobilize others to fight for our individual causes, individual beliefs, and interests as if those were their causes, beliefs and interests, etc.” Critics may justifiably see Babangida’s thesis as a self-indictment but it is accurate nonetheless.

The enduring lesson that political elites learned from the catastrophic failure of the First Republic is that no one ethnic group or region can “dominate” Nigeria. The key to political success since then has been to build multi-ethnic coalitions to share the national cake – an equal opportunity kleptocracy. This was the genius of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) during the Second Republic and has been carried on by the Peoples’ Democratic Party. The tiresome “north-south” polemics only serve to obscure the pan-Nigerian character of the reigning elites, by provoking provincial passions and diversionary conflicts at the grassroots – in which the poor are expendable.       

Our chances of mitigating such aggressions depend on how mature we become intellectually and politically. The more mature we become, the less need we will have to externalize our failures upon other ethnicities and faiths, and the more discerning we shall be of who the real enemies are.  As the great political scientist Claude Ake once said, “There is no north that is anybody’s enemy and there is no south that is anybody’s redemption.”

In the 2011 PDP convention, Atiku Abubakar sought the party’s presidential nomination as the “official northern flag-bearer” and failed to muster a complete following even among northern delegates. His failure was no mystery. Political power obeys dynamics other than accident of birth. Geography is not always destiny. As Chidi Amuta explained, In a free market Nigeria, the brotherhood of the naira is fast overtaking the bonds of tribe and religion.”

Despite Muhammadu Buhari’s popularity on the northern street, many northern elites, being beneficiaries of the current order did not support his presidential candidacy. Nor did they support the other two northern contenders, Ibrahim Shekarau and Nuhu Ribadu. The media with its tunnel vision fixation on a mythical northern solidarity failed to note that a monolithic north no longer exists (If indeed it ever truly did). The blame for our woes lies squarely with “the brotherhood of the naira” – a national fraternity of politicians far more united by their appetites than divided by ideology – and also with our own lack of discernment. Ethnic and confessional allegiances matter but they are subject to the supervening calculations of class interest and are nowhere as definitive as believed when it comes to the intrigues of “high” politics.

In fifty years, the actual enemies of Nigeria have not changed. As one soldier declared on a fateful day in January 1966, “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles; those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.” The righteous fury of this indictment was to be lost in the series of tragic events that collapsed the First Republic. But the truth of the diagnosis remains unimpeachable.   

Thus, while we slander and stereotype each other, our leaders continue in their unregulated feasting, secure in the knowledge that we are too distracted by petty bigotries to surveil their conduct. We must realize that this season of turbulence is also a teachable moment – one in which we should share perpectives, listen to and learn from each other while building a front to salvage our common future. We must not squander it. 

All images sourced Google Images.