ENGAGEMENT BY CHIDI AMUTA
Nigeria is currently like a small hamlet invaded by a thousand witches, each bearing a sack full of assorted plagues and poxes. The trouble is in not knowing which affliction ails us most or which is likely to deal the ultimate fatal blow. Of late, sensitive elders, faction leaders and honest citizens have put a name to our key affliction: the nation is badly divided and the structure of state is tethering towards cataclysmic failure. To sound this alarm, to my mind, is not a mortal sin but the height of patriotic duty. Those who fear that the nation may implode under the weight of its novel divisions are by no means less patriotic than those paid to comfortably preside over this dreadful gala. We have come to the Nigerian ship by different boats but our fate is now tied in a common ship caught in perilous waters.
Feuding over whether the Nigerian nation today is more divided than it has ever been is fruitless. Similarly, disputation as to which past leader steered the state to produce the most divided nation is equally pointless. Happily however, from the raging dispute between Mr. Buhari’s presidency and its traducers a curious consensus has emerged. Both sides now agree that ours is today a sadly divided nation. It is only on the matter of the health status of the state apparatus that insults are still being hurled in all directions. That is understandably a political stratagem. While the presidency could , with a bit of justification, claim that it inherited a national legacy of inherent divisions, it cannot disown the very state over which it totally presides.
It seems to me that both the cow horn blowers of Aso Rock Villa and their troublesome traducers are mixing nation and state as categories in this very Nigerian exchange. While the presidency is instead shopping around for whom to blame for the divisions which it has graciously acknowledged exist, it has proceeded therefrom to insist that the state could not possibly be failing since Mr. Buhari is squarely in office and his administration is busy awarding contracts, implementing programmes and projects, ordering the military and police around and blaring sirens all over the place.
Those opposed to this stance are saying that the increasing misery index in the land, the failing security system and the rising crescendo of separatist rhetoric and sentiments are indications that the state has fatally mismanaged the nation as a perpetual trust and patrimony. While the best nation can be ruined by a disastrous sovereign (Mr. Trump, are you there?), a gifted statesman and exemplary leader can salvage a tottering nation and make it whole again(Hello Rwand!; Are you there Ethiopia?). Of course, appointees of the incumbent state are paid to defend their political principals while opinion leaders and ordinary citizens have an inalienable right to reflect the mood and state of the nation. It is precisely the manner of the management of the state and the deployment of presidential power that determines the state of a nation at any given time. This linkage is critical if the present debate is to lead anywhere.
The beginnings of the present anomie are not far. After a remarkable peaceful handover of power from president Jonathan to Buhari in 2015, the triumphant All Progressive Congress (APC) went on a rampage of partisan political genocide. It sought legitimacy by waging a relentless war on the reputation of the party it had just defeated. A sort of Animal Farm type regime ensued in which all things associated with the defeated party were thrashed and cast away only to be replaced with nothing in particular. It was a ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ kind of situation. Corruption was narrowly defined as all things PDP. But given the 16 -year rule of the PDP, the new government’s policy of blaming everything on its opponent party was bound to divide the nation’s political landscape into two sharp poles. The necessity for strengthening democracy through the benefits of a bipartisan accord was squandered on the altar of empty grand standing and self righteous drama.
This is not of course to vindicate the more crude extremes of some PDP chieftains on matters of corruption. The untidy book keeping, senseless debauchery, reckless exhibitionism, outright thievery and mindless looting cannot be excused. Even then, the bulk of APC chieftains were persons who decamped from the ill fated PDP. Yet the sins committed by some party leaders while in power could have been handled more maturely through studied investigation and rigorous judicial processes than the Gestapo tactics and televised drama in the early days of triumphalist reverie. This original political divisiveness translated into a badly divided National Assembly that was literally perennially at war with itself and with the executive for the whole of the first four years of the Buhari tenure.
In the process of governance itself, Mr. Buhari’s conception of Nigeria seems to have been in concentric circles spanning outwards from his native Daura through Katsina state and on to the larger geographical North. This president has concentrated appointments to commanding positions in strategic institutions of national power in the hands of what many Nigerians see as his geo-political kinsmen. In Nigeria, the North-South geo-political divide is not just about directions on the compass. It is about power domination and subordination. It is therefore first and foremost a political divide. Consequentially, it is a powerful religious and socio -cultural divide. Therefore, a skeptical Nigerian public has interpreted Buhari’s geo-political lopsidedness in strategic appointments as a willful strategy of regional hegemony and political domination in every sense. This index of division is hard to wish away.
In the midst of it all, a gale of violence and unparalleled insecurity gripped the nation from an unfamiliar quarter. Migrant Fulani herdsmen who have historically traversed the length and breadth of the country for decades escorting cattle suddenly turned into mindless killers, armed robbers and transactional kidnappers. A militia of murky origins and unclear motives was born. Violent confrontations between armed herdsmen and settled farming communities have assumed epidemic dimensions under Mr. Buhari’s watch. The concentration of these violent encounters in the strategic mid section of the national divide can only reinforce dastardly conspiracies calculations.
Law enforcement has been relatively effete and lax in controlling the criminal acts of these herdsmen. Instead, the state has since empowered and emboldened unlicensed devious groups like the Miyetti Allah to graduate into political interest groups. Similarly, the proliferation of military grade weapons among the herdsmen and sundry killer groups of undefined nationality and murky intent has added to the conspiracy theory that these groups may be enjoying official protection and cover towards undefined ends. To date, there is nothing in the official narrative or law enforcement record of the Buhari administration to defend the administration on charges of complicity in the scourge of insecurity.
A dangerous off shoot of the deterioration in national security has been the sporadic targeting of religious places of worship by bandits in parts of the country. Religion is a most sensitive matter in our nation. A conspiracy theory has grown to the effect that there may be an Islamization plot on the cards. We have no way of legislating on what people choose to believe. This conspiracy theory has taken root in the minds of a significant section of the citizenry as well as of some major international partners of Nigeria. We cannot wish it away except by decisively acting in transparent contrary ways.
The conspiracy theories would have been easier to manage if this government was innocent of deliberate innocuous executive acts that fuel them. Not long ago, the government was in the process of smuggling into being a nebulous nationwide ranching programme that sought to establish the controversial RUGA cattle and migrant Fulani settlements in every state. It took nationwide outrage and shouting to dissuade the measure. Even now, the National Assembly is being blackmailed into passing a controversial Water Resources Bill that is likely to achieve the aims of the failed RUGA project through the backdoor. An administration that is serially conspiratorial in divisive directions cannot easily exonerate itself from responsibility for the current nationwide epidemic of division and divisive thinking.
In this atmosphere, all manner of primordial self protection myths have come back alive. Regional and ethnic champions have dusted their costumes. The pro-Biafra movements and Ohaneze, Afenifere, Northern Elders Forum, the Middle Best Forum, the Niger Delta (PANDEF) have all been further activated in response to the unclear political and economic agenda of the incumbent state. There is perhaps no greater open indication of the division in the soul of the nation than the recent outing and open declaration of concern by these ethno regional groups at the herald of Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo, former president and relentless political gadfly of uncoordinated causes.
Obasanjo’s recent declaration is merely a summation of feelings and perceptions that have since been gathering in the public square. It has little to do with Mr. Obasanjo’s own highly contentious records in office as an elected president not long ago. But the issues on hand are beyond Obasanjo. Calling him names will achieve no useful purpose. Of course Obasanjo and the various geo ethnic overlords he addressed have a crippling political limitation. They are not elected representatives of the people, going by the basics of partisan democracy. They are not a political party and cannot therefore canvass for votes or contest the political supremacy of an elected president. To that extent, they technically have no constituency. But the regional leaders have a fundamental appeal at a level that matters most. Obasanjo and the geo ethnic leaders do represent a political force that cannot easily be under estimated. In a divided polity that is still moored to primordial roots, the ethnic root remains the readiest resort in times of national uncertainty. Nigeria is still fundamentally a nation of tribal factions irrespective of the fancy lexicon we deploy to dress up our democracy and nation statehood.
On the economic front, the most recent measures of the government are likely to push the envelope of division to a dangerous territory. The presidency has itself acknowledged that a population of close to 100 million Nigerians are abjectly poor. If pushed to the wall, this republic of the poor can keep us all awake for quite some time. Yet, the government has recently introduced a rash of taxes, charges and tariffs that are likely to further impoverish the most vulnerable segments. President Buhari is in the process of widening the existing inequality gap to incredible levels with the attendant upheaval and insecurity.
Just when we were beginning to exit the disruptions of the covorna virus pandemic, Nigeria has quickly scored an unusual first as the first government in the world to welcome its people from a six -month economic and social quarantine with a gamut of taxes, tariffs and elevated charges. A 2.5% hike in Value Added Tax became effective while Covid-19 raging. Government has slammed an increase in electricity tariffs. It has also readily allowed gasoline prices to sky rocket from a manageable N127 per liter to a suffocating N162 per liter with a small print that indicated that henceforth, government will no longer wait at the gas station to manipulate pump prices. This means that petrol importers and marketers are now literally free to charge whatever pump prices their cartel decides is profitable.
Meanwhile the National Bureau of Statistics has reluctantly agreed that inflation is now at 13,3 % and still heading north. But the presidency insists that food prices have in fact dropped courtesy of Mr. Buhari’s ingenuity in agriculture. The trouble is that a few days later, the Minister of Finance, confessed that food prices have indeed gone up as a result of disturbances in the economy. Nigerians will now have to decide which food market to visit to stay alive. At least there is a choice between Ministry of Finance rice and the Aso Rock garri markets!
An imminent grave inequality confrontation looms. In the horizon, those who are about to die of hunger and grinding poverty are up in angry salute to the genius of the best president ever. Students are mobilizing for nationwide protests. Medical workers are already on strike. ASUU, itself perennially on strike, insists they are not going back to the classrooms. Government is preparing to discuss with organized labour to avert a nationwide shutdown. These are days of turmoil and upheaval. These cannot be the signals from a state that is up and running.
All this has come at a time when nearly every responsible government in the world has tasked their best economists to find unusual ways of protecting their most vulnerable populations from the adverse effects of a global pandemic that no one envisaged. Even in the United States, the epicenter of global capitalism, the adversities of the corona virus disruption are so massive that Americans who can no longer afford to pay their rents are being helped by their government which has already dispensed a whopping $5 trillion in palliatives and bailouts. Similarly, the British government has released over £500 billion in covid related assistance packages to individuals and businesses. South Africa with a population of 57,7 million and an economy statistically only second to Nigeria’s has budgeted R500 billion which translates to $31 billion. The Nigerian government says it has provided an estimated N500 billion (about $1.3 billion) in Covid-19 related bailouts, palliatives and loans for our estimated 200 million citizens. We hope this assistance will get to real honest people and businesses eventually in the fullness of time.
The inconvenient truth of this moment therefore is that we have a president in office who has been in office with near absolute powers for over five years on the clock. The incumbent president and his administration have no business blaming any of his predecessors for the state of a nation that Nigerians elected him to preside over. The truth of the moment is of course that Nigeria is squarely under Mr. Buhari’s watch. He decides for us. He rules our lives. He has not outsourced the management of Nigeria to any external bodies nor handed it back to any of his predecessors.
No one can credibly say that the Buhari administration is not busy. It is building railway lines. Some roads and bridges are being built or repaired. Some farmers are being empowered to produce more food. But the core of the nation is dying. Our trust in each other, our community of feelings, our hope for the future and a sense of security to carry on with our lives: all these have suffered badly under Mr. Buhari’s watch. The business of Nigeria was never landscape decoration or project implementation. The grand dream was to build a nation with a strong sense of community, some equity and abiding justice.
But the nation under his care is shredded along all conceivable lines: partisan, religious, ethnic, regional and socio economic. The outlines of those divisions are getting harder to conceal or ignore. Adopting a policy of relentless denialism on the matter is unhelpful. It will only deepen a situation of crisis that could fatally alter the state of our national stability and continuation.