Because of the unprecedented threat of random terroristic violence, like no other leader before him, President Goodluck Jonathan will be judged on the matter of security rather than on the previous perennially staple themes like the economy. However, the challenges are far more fundamental than apparently realized.
We cannot truly have national security without a progressive nationalist vanguard articulating the meaning and purpose of the Nigerian nation and what it means to be its citizen. If as the French philosopher Ernest Renan said, “A nation is a moral consciousness,” then to the extent to which that consciousness does not pervade the government, it will be incapable of designing an authentic national security doctrine. It is impossible to define national interest without there being a national consciousness active in those who would define such an interest. This is in essence the summary of our current crisis. Although a single party controls the presidency and the national assembly, it cannot forge the sort of elite consensus with which to generate a nationalist ideology because its raison d’être is rent sharing.
In the military era, national security was deemed exclusively synonymous with the personal safety of the Head of State and the stability of his regime. Only security threats that directly threatened the Head of State were recognized by security czars. This accounts for why a security apparatus that was stunningly efficient at detecting both actual and imagined coup plots or arresting journalists for perceived slights against the Head of State, his family and his cronies, was incompetent at relatively mundane tasks like securing the nation’s borders.
The very nature of the post-colonial state complicates attempts to define state security. Because the state is less an organ of national interest than a vehicle captured periodically by competing elite factions, concepts like “state security” and “enemies of the state” are disturbingly fluid. Ijaw militants who less than a decade ago could be rightfully defined as terrorists and enemies of the state are now powerful non-state actors and friends of the current administration. The Nigerian state is not anchored to a singular national ethos but to a constantly shifting constellation of grudges and appetites in sectarian hues. This is why it has been difficult to articulate a consistent national security doctrine that defines the interests and enemies of the state.
Furthermore, a system of elite selection based on ethnic or ethno-regional representation cannot possibly produce a nationally-minded leadership and therefore cannot accurately interpret and address national security threats. Olusegun Obasanjo’s candidacy in 1999 was based on the notion of compensating the southwest following the death of Moshood Abiola, the winner of the annulled 1993 election. Umar Yar’Adua became president on the strength of the argument that power should return to the north and Jonathan was picked as his running mate on the basis of his Ijaw ancestry to placate the militants of the Niger Delta.
In all these instances, accident of birth was the sole or major propellant of presidential bids and significantly, the presidency was used to reward the implicit or explicit threat of violence and terrorism by some elites who saw it as the turn of their ethnic groups to rule. Precisely because the threat of sectional violence underwrites claims to national leadership, leaders thrown up by this process cannot interpret anti-state insurrections as anything other than ethnically or religiously motivated challenges to their own power.
This is why some senior figures of the security establishment have apparently settled for the lowest of the low hanging fruits by defining Boko Haram as a dastardly plot to destabilize the Jonathan administration orchestrated by powerful northern politicians.
The grounds for defining Boko Haram simply as an anti-Jonathan conspiracy or more broadly as an anti-southern presidency conspiracy are scant. Until now, the deadliest Islamist extremist insurgencies in Nigerian history have occurred while Northern Muslim presidents where in office – the Maitatsine revolt in Kano in 1980 under President Shehu Shagari and Boko Haram’s siege in Maiduguri in 2009 under President Umar Musa Yar’Adua. The violence of both groups led to bloody confrontations with the army. Comparatively less serious uprisings were staged by the Shia Muslim Brothers in Zaria, Kaduna and Katsina during the mid 1980s while General Ibrahim Babangida was in power. It makes no sense, therefore, to interpret Islamist extremist revolts as secret weapons periodically unsheathed by northern elites to threaten southern Christian presidents. There is frail empirical basis for perceiving Boko Haram as northern anti-Jonathan agenda. Indeed, to define it as such is to reduce a national security threat to the envy of one man’s good fortune. To say that innocent Nigerians, Muslims as well as Christians slain in Maiduguri and elsewhere by the group have died simply because their murderers hate the president who is safely ensconced in Abuja suggests a level of vainglorious conceit at work in high places.
This summation ushers the current crisis into the distressingly familiar territory of North-South suspicion which is the intellectual comfort zone of the majority of our political elites. If as this narrative holds, President Goodluck Jonathan is being opposed because he is a southerner and a Christian, then countering Boko Haram shifts from the realm of developing strategic and institutional measures to that of recriminatory histrionics and jingoistic saber-rattling along ethno-regional lines.
What this means in effect is that the state cannot truly respond to conflicts as a neutral arbiter of contending political passions and custodian of national sovereign will; only as a hostage to sectional and class interests. Most times, the federal government responds by localizing, ethnicizing and politicizing security challenges, evading responsibility, while asking religious leaders and traditional rulers to “intervene”. Thus, Boko Haram is still considered a “northern Islamic” problem even when it poses a direct unequivocal threat to our putative national values of pluralism and tolerance.
Our crisis is compounded by the fact that recruitment into the public sector including strategic services is based on a bastardized model of affirmative action that emphasizes ethnicity (and creed) rather than merit. The original aim of creating a representative bureaucracy has been pursued to unconscionable extremes. This is the kernel of the dysfunction of our government and the legendary ineptitude of the civil service; too many offices are occupied by the wrong people who are indemnified in their incompetence by their ethnicity or religion. Consequently, we have an official bureaucracy that reflects the negative aspects of our diversity but possesses nothing of our intelligence, energy and industry. It is a system that reinforces the popular racist and bigoted idea that intelligence and stupidity, competence and knavery are unequally distributed among Nigeria’s ethnic groups.
The virtual collapse of governance is rooted in this malaise but the political elites who sit atop this sepulchral system have no incentive to make meritocracy the prime ethic of the Nigerian state. Yet, Nigerians persist in demanding excellence from a system that is not even configured to deliver performance. The politics of being a “good representative” of one’s ethnic group or faith cannot coexist with the imperative of serving the national interest.
As terrorism deepens, Nigerians have duly looked to the security services for answers and have been angered by their apparent inability to deliver results. Much of this anger is misplaced. There is no reason to expect a state which cannot deliver power supply to excel at law enforcement. Nor should we expect security services to perform above the general decrepitude of our infrastructure. On the occasions that they have miraculously done so, it stems from the work of a remnant of patriotic professionals who remain marginalized by an oppressive public service terrain.
The rise of anti-state violence and the government’s inability to curb insecurity across the country are symptoms of a profoundly pervasive governmental incapacity. Indeed, even if the political will to confront terrorism existed, there would still be the problem of state capacity which has been diminished by decades of graft and by the unhinged appetites of the ruling class.
Yet, the dark cloud of terrorism hanging over our nation has a silver lining. Our perennially fractious country periodically requires a common enemy, a foe so democratic in its affliction of our diverse members, that it qualifies itself as the object of our collective wrath. Boko Haram indiscriminately targets Muslims and Christians, Northerners and Southerners, men, women and children. It is the perfect enemy.
It is a species of evil that we cannot combat with sectarian rhetoric. President Jonathan should use this existential threat to our common humanity and citizenship to rally Nigerians behind his administration and to forge a new sense of national solidarity.
In confronting a group that uses suicide bombers, the state must address a burning question: what is the value of a Nigerian life? Boko Haram has amply demonstrated its low valuation of life. But does the state offer a radically different estimation of the worth of its citizens? Consider the level of alienation that could provoke young Nigerians to effectively renounce their citizenship and seek self-definition in a hate-filled life of violence. Consider the police officers and soldiers that have been killed by the group. Often these deaths in the line of duty pass unsung in the haze of statistical anonymity. But at least a Boko Haram operative can say what he is fighting for however nebulous. For what cause are young Nigerians in the police and the military being sent to fight and die in the north east or in the Niger Delta? What does it mean to be a citizen and a servant of the republic? An authentic national security doctrine must affirm the right of the Nigerian citizen to life and livelihood anywhere in the federation without hindrance or discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or gender.
There is an opportunity here to redefine our articles of faith as a nation and to articulate a new social covenant that meaningfully binds state and citizen. This conflict is ultimately a clash of ideals and values. It is about which ideal offers the most tangible psychic and material incentives and rewards. Beyond armed confrontations, the more significant struggle must be won in the dimension of the heart and mind.