The Options before President Buhari

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SIMON KOLAWOLE LIVE, Email: simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com, sms: 0805 500 1961

I remember this encounter all the time. My wife and I were on a trip to the US a few years back. When the immigration officer at the JF Kennedy International Airport, New York, began to check our passports, he launched into a conversation with me on “the problem with Nigeria”.

“Why do you think Nigeria is still struggling to develop?” he asked me.

I know the drill. He wanted me to pinpoint corruption — the international template for diagnosing Nigeria’s ailments. I would not fall for his trick, I told myself.

“I really can’t say. Maybe leadership deficiency?” I was half-stammering. I knew I was holding back my thoughts. But, hell, I didn’t travel to the US to discuss Nigeria’s problems. I spend all my life discussing the problems. I deserved a one-week holiday in the US with my family. Normal service would resume after the break.

He smiled, stamped the passports and returned them.

“I will tell you one thing,” he promised. “Some countries have political problems. Some have economic problems. Nigeria has both economic and political problems.”

I nodded sincerely. I could not agree less, and I praised him for his laconic diagnosis. He seemed gratified. Political problems plus economic problems. What a deadly combination. That is what Fela would call “double wahala for dead body”. There was a time in my life, particularly in the 1990s, when I believed the nonsense that Nigeria could develop in spite of political instability. My model in those days was Italy — which was changing governments and prime ministers the way a lady changes her shoes, yet the economy was stable. I used to conclude that political problems need not lead to economic problems. I wouldn’t repeat that statement again.

Recent socio-political upheavals in Nigeria are dampening my enthusiasm. Low oil prices and the resultant economic crunch should be enough trouble for us, but political tensions are arising from the menace of the herdsmen, the renewed agitations for Biafra and the rebirth of Niger Delta militancy. Without peace in the yard, we are going nowhere. We are already saddled with low oil income, forex scarcity, unpaid salaries, increasing unemployment, skyrocketing cost of living, and a looming recession. Now add herders, Biafra and Avengers. These are too much to bear. Political problems plus economic problems. Deadly.

I do not consider the issue of the herdsmen too much of a problem: it is mainly about enforcing law and order, on the one hand, and addressing grazing needs, on the other. The herders’ problem has been with us for decades and has nothing to do with a Fulani being president of Nigeria. But our bitter politics has worsened matters, and things easily got compounded when President Muhammadu Buhari himself did not as much as show some concern and empathy. At least, the menace is getting national attention now. I’m a bit more confident that concrete steps will be taken to address this issue decisively.

My bigger worries are coming from the South-east and the South-south. There is a renewed agitation for Biafra in the South-east, and no matter what we think, this will not go away easily. I know there is an attempt, even by the Igbo elite and intelligentsia, to dismiss this with a wave of the hand, but I am not that generous with cynicism. I have heard people argue that the Igbo stand to lose more if they leave Nigeria, but again that is not the point. We are not discussing facts and logic here: we are discussing political emotions. The Biafran flag is flying, even if at half-mast, in the hearts of a vast number of south-easterners. It is unhelpful to deny this.

Presidential spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina, recently said the renewed Biafra agitations only came after President Goodluck Jonathan lost the 2015 election. That, exactly, is what bothers me. The South-east voted massively for Jonathan, who lost. Word started going round that they would pay dearly for it. I have heard well-marshalled arguments that since the Igbo voted for Jonathan, they know the score. They should pay the price. I shiver. No country can make progress with a winner-takes-all definition of politics. I don’t know what is driving the renewed Biafra agitation, but we must find a way to calm things down. We need the peace badly.

I can imagine Buhari being pulled in different directions by the hawks and the doves. The hawks would be saying: Mr. President, you owe the Igbo nothing; let them do whatever they want; make sure you use a strong arm to keep the protesters in check; do not yield an inch to blackmail. The doves would be saying: Mr. President, the election is over; it is time to embrace everybody and forget the past; accommodate everyone no matter their political choices in the past; let everybody have a stake in your government; we need all hands on deck. For me, I favour anything that will bring down the tension. We need political stability to build economic prosperity.

While we are at it, the Niger Delta militants have gone for our economic jugular. They have vowed to bring oil production to zero, and, so far, they are on target. They are even threatening to test-run surface-to-air missiles. Mr. Bismarck Rewane, respected economist and public affairs analyst, thinks there is a link between the attacks on oil pipelines and the stepping up of the anti-graft war. “The destruction of assets at this time happens to coincide with the step-up on the anti-corruption war. Is there a link between the anti-graft war and the militancy? What is this all about? There’s a riddle that needs to be unravelled,” he said on Channels TV on Monday.

Again, this worries me. All along, I thought it was all about the toning down of the amnesty programme and the reported scrapping of the maritime university. In my mind, these issues could easily be resolved: just restore the amnesty programme and bring back the university. But Rewane seems to suggest something more complex: the probes are hitting officials of the Jonathan administration below the waist; indeed, there have been rumours that Jonathan himself might be arrested and prosecuted. No former Nigerian president has been so treated, no matter the allegations. Many even argue that the anti-graft war is targeted only at PDP members.

Now the dilemma: are we going to advise Buhari to call off the chase, appease the militants and halt the bleeding of pipelines — if indeed it is a reaction to the probes? Or do we ask Buhari to assert Nigeria’s sovereignty and launch a full-scale military war? The hawks will be saying: Mr. President, go for it; crush them; you would be sending the wrong signal, or even a mixed message, by engaging with the militants or bargaining on the anti-graft war. The doves, on the other side, would be saying: you’ve arrested Jonathan’s associates; you’ve clamped them into detention; you’ve recovered billions of naira and dollars; what else do you want, Mr. President?

Ultimately, it is Buhari’s call. The one thing I can say — be that as it may — is that he can only tackle our economic problems when there is peace and stability. Upheavals will be a major distraction. The longer these agitations dominate the agenda, the more distracted we will be. I would also say the military option could be costly, time-consuming and unpredictable. Between asserting the sovereignty of the Nigerian state and working out compromises to keep the country going, Buhari will have to design a solution that will leave both his reputation and Nigeria intact. He must carefully weigh his options in this conundrum. He needs all the wisdom he can get.

“Between asserting the sovereignty of the Nigerian state and working out compromises to keep the country going, Buhari will have to design a solution that will leave both his reputation and Nigeria intact”

BLASPHEMY MURDER

What’s the value of human life in Nigeria? Accused of blasphemy, 74-year-old Bridget Agbahime, a market woman in Kano state, was killed on Thursday by mobsters who heartlessly slit her throat. Last Sunday, Methodus Emmanuel, a 24-year-old trader in Padongari, Niger state, was accused of blasphemy and murdered by a mob. So I am asking: is there no proper mechanism for dealing with these issues rather than jungle justice? So if we just had argument on who is more beautiful between my wife and your wife, I can easily accuse you of blasphemy and get you murdered by the mob? Senseless.

JAMB AND JAMBOREE

So the federal government has scrapped the post-UTME (unified tertiary matriculation examination) conducted by the tertiary institutions? The test came about as a result of distrust in the examination handled by the Joint Admissions Matriculation Board (JAMB). Well, I have a different problem. I thought the natural logic is to scrap JAMB itself. Where in the world does one body conduct entrance examinations for tertiary institutions? Can’t each school set its own standards and conduct its own entrance tests? JAMB is one of the leftovers of our military history that needs to be trashed and given a state burial. Anachronism.

BUHARI AND JONATHAN

Critics of former President Goodluck Jonathan will never agree with me, but conceding the 2015 presidential election and calling to congratulate President Muhammadu Buhari remains historic. You just can’t wish that feat away. We have seen politicians set the house on fire after losing elections, dating back to the 1960s. Buhari admitted on Monday that Jonathan’s phone call left him “shocked”, remarking: “For him to have conceded defeat even before the result was announced by INEC, that was quite gracious of him.” I’m happy it’s not everybody who thinks it was “normal” — and I’m glad it happened during my lifetime. Exemplary.

THE GREATEST

The Rumble in the Jungle. The Thrilla in Manila. Sting Like a Bee. Float like a Butterfly. Rope-a-dope. Dear God, we cannot thank you enough for creating Muhammad Ali, for allowing him to add so much colour to our lives, and for allowing him to live with us for 74 years. The boxing world will never forget his bitter rivalry with Joe Frazier whom he nicknamed “The Gorilla”, even giving us unforgettable poetry: “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla in Manila.” He won 56 of 61 professional fights, 37 by knockout. We can’t stop loving him. Adios.​