Saving Our Imperfect Union

ENGAGEMENTS: With Chidi Amuta
ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail:

ENGAGEMENTS With Chidi Amuta

A spectre of strategic instability stares Nigeria in the face. It is not coming from jusst the rhetoric of politicians or the drama of the new breed of ethnic thugs and populist demagogues. We are familiar with noisy threats to Nigeria’s unity as a mode of political expression. Nigerians as a public are distinguishable by our noisy arguments about practically every subject. Our political discourse is even worse; it is a theatre of menacing cacophony. Our politicians seek concessions by exchanging abuses in the day and caucusing over patronage and money at night. That does hurt so much.

The ultimate real existential threat to Nigeria’s existence is coming from a convergence of bad things. What makes this moment more frightening is that we are faced with a rare cocktail of factors which would normally threaten the existence of any nation. There is a monumental insecurity the type and scope of which we have never seen before. A combination of a virtual oil market collapse and a global pandemic has literally wrecked an economy that has always been based on rents, commissions and sustained by syndicates of organized crime. To worsen this combination, the business of state appears to be in the hands of a chaotic and antiquated deep state cabal led by a practically absent sovereign. The national parliament, which should provide a bulwark of control and impetus to the errant executive, has itself degenerated into a conclave of infamy.

But the critical factor remains the vortex of insecurity across the country. It has become part of the language of daily living to talk of kidnappings, abductions and brazen armed robbery to the extent that people no longer get shocked at such bad news. Government and its support cast of politicians have diluted the import of the current insecurity discourse by generalizing on it and proceeding therefrom to see general insecurity as the threat to national survival. Yes, the insecurity is bad news but we can help the security agencies by increasing the general understanding on the matter.

It will not help to put the insecurity into one basket. There are two broad levels and categories. The lethal insecurity which is an existential threat to the survival of the Nigerian state comprises of armed insurrection of the sort that is a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the country. In this category are things like the long standing Boko Haram insurgency in the North East, the rise of banditry in parts of the North West and North Central and the widespread dispersal of herdsmen wielding military grade assault weapons across all parts of the country. These are direct armed challenges to the sovereign pre eminence of the Nigerian state and its corporate existence.

These forms of insecurity require a stiff military reassertion of the territorial integrity and sovereign control of the nation. The clear and present danger that these forms of insecurity could lead to a catastrophic collapse of the state is evident. In most cases, the armed forces have proved incapable of liquidating these threats. In fact, some of these elements like Boko Haram and the new bandit gangs have occasionally outgunned the forces of the state to the point where only humiliating negotiations and silly compromises are the only options left for government to maintain its remaining credibility and tenuous control.

The deep strategic danger of these forms of insecurity is the recent revelation that there may have developed an unholy synergy and collaboration among them. In the recent mass abductions of the Kankara boys, for instance, no sooner had the boys been abducted than Boko Haram took responsibility for their plight and released photographs of their militants with the abducted boys. In other cases, people who were kidnapped by free lance bandits have ended up being handed over to Boko Haram. No one has been able to reveal the sources of the sophisticated weapons in the hands of criminal herdsmen all over the country in relation to either franchise banditry or Boko Haram or both. In nations where this form of insecurity is rampant, the stability and sovereign existence of the state is frequently challenged to the extent that either the state perennially totters at the brinks of failure or accepts categorization as a dangerous place. In this category, we have Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Mali and even Syria.

The second form of insecurity consists of acts of criminality either by lone wolves or organized crime syndicates. These range from transactional kidnapping, armed robbery, cyber crimes, narcotics trafficking, rape, cultism and urban gangsterism. This category belongs in the common run of criminal infractions which feature when economic, social conditions and crass materialism plus greed tempt errant citizens into criminal acts. These are direct challenges to the police whose responsibility it is to fight crime and use the criminal justice system to bring criminals to book and ensure the security of law abiding citizens. These sporadic criminal acts are a feature of even the most secure nations. They never in and of themselves constitute a threat to national sovereignty or challenge the defensive capacity of the state. For instance, a nation like Mexico is wracked by some of the most sophisticated and vicious organized crime syndicates in the world. But this fact has never put the sovereignty and existence of Mexico to question. Nor would the rash of daily gang shootouts in New York City cause the National Security Council in Washington to scramble tanks and jets to defend America!

A citizenry confronted by both categories of insecurity and who wake up daily
to a barrage of bad news from all forms of insecurity may not have the luxury of distinguishing between ordinary crimes and sovereign assaults. As far as ordinary people are concerned, the world around them is collapsing and Armageddon is not very far off. As a consequence, fear of widespread physical insecurity has bred the most far-reaching and widespread form of insecurity among Nigerians. This is an insecurity of faith and a crisis of belief. Wracked from all directions by the perennial fear of imminent injury or death in the hands of kidnappers, herdsmen, robbers etc., most Nigerians have fled to the comforting embrace of religion. Even in this place of ultimate peace of mind, the agents of violence have infused their crusades with elements of sectarian division. Boko Haram terrorists and their bandit franchises no longer disguise their sectarian preferences or religious affiliations. While Shekau and his rampaging Boko Haram jihadists have never disguised their fundamentalist zealotry, prominent Islamic cleric, Sheikh Gumi has since assumed virtual ownership of the entire national bandit industry. He negotiates ransom pay outs on their behalf, is advocating for paid amnesty for them and succeeds in communicating with them where officials of state cannot.

In this crisis of faith, the Christian faction of the national faith industry have little confidence in the state and fall back on agencies of organized religion like the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to press their interests.

In situations where organized religion and the dominant faiths offer little or no sanctuary for a frightened populace, the natural recourse ought to be the government and the state. Sadly, the Nigerian state has hardly ever been there for the people to entrust their faith in. As a result, the citizenry like a flock in a thunderstorm seek protection in the warm embrace of ancient and primordial loyalties. The tribe, the ethnicity and the moribund regions have come back alive.

This is where we are now. In the last few weeks, something new and frightening has come to town. The threats to national unity have been hijacked by mob leaders and populist demagogues. They are all deriving their strength from ethnic, regional and sectional backdrops. Elected governors look on in utter helplessness and hopelessness.

With neither verifiable education nor refinement, neither partisan affiliation nor structured political followership, rough ethnic and sectional stalwarts have taken over the high ground of national trouble making. Dangerous ethnic and religious mob energizers are waxing unchallenged. The new gangs are led by a rare combination of illiterate thugs and mob contractors. In the South West, an emerging ethnic solidarity front led by one Sunday Igboho with a background support cast of a Ganiyu Adams and throngs of tribal mobs has declared the imminence of something called Oduduwa Republic. Advocates, devotees and fanatical followers are growing both within and among diaspora Nigerians. Some diaspora Yorubas posted themselves on the internet shredding and cutting up their Nigerian passports!

In the South East, the collective sad memory of the Igbo nation has been exploited to resurrect, declare and re-declare the return of the defunct Republic of Biafra. For years now, an unproductive separatist movement (IPOB) led by one Nnamdi Kanu, a man of doubtful means and uncertain qualifications, has hijacked the tragic memory of Biafra as an enterprise of sorts. People with neither pedigree nor education have been propelled into public notice and unexpected wealth by mouthing the name of Biafra. In a curious recent development, Mr. Asari Dokubo of Niger Delta militancy fame emerged from unemployed anonymity to announce himself as the new leader of the same ‘Biafra’ in an obviously sponsored mischievous machination to bunt the bite of IPOB and sow further confuse.

In the Northern precincts, two formations have emerged. Mr. Shekau, an incoherent and confused zealot and his patented Boko Harem has been leading a religious insurgency aimed at carving out a Caliphate from the North East of Nigeria. Of late, a riot of bandit gangs operating mostly in the North West has spread mayhem and mounted bloody campaigns, freely abducting and kidnapping school kids, on an industrial scale. They have added farmers, local chiefs and innocent citizens to their human trove. Suddenly, Sheikh Gumi, a religious chieftain has emerged not just as the spokesperson of the bandits but also as a powerful mediator between the government and the bandits in negotiated deals to free the more embarrassing school abductees. As things stand now, we have a national formation of undertakers jostling for the carcass of a failing Nigeria state: Sunday Igboho (South West), Nnamdi Kanu (South East), Asari Dokubo (South South), Abubakar Shekau (North East), Sheikh Gumi (North west) and Miyetti Allah (Nationwide)!

It is easy to dismiss the threat of unschooled thugs and mob merchants in matters of national security. But in the history of nations, persons of murky background and lowly nurture have been known to plunge nations into anarchy, bloody wars and costly insurrections. Master Sergeant Samuel Doe was an inconsequential illiterate subaltern in the Liberian army. He capitalized on public boredom and disquiet in the country to topple President William Tolbert and move into the Presidential Mansion in Monrovia. That opportunistic act of unschooled rascality plunged Liberia into decades of instability and bloody civil war. The sophisticated society of privileged onlookers, the professors, judges, journalists etc. ended up fleeing into exile as refugees in far flung places like Nigeria where the Liberian elite were seen queuing up for food rations in refugee camps.

Idi Amin Dada was an illiterate Ugandan soldier. He managed to topple the government of Milton Obote and initiated a reign of terror. Uganda was plunged into unparalleled anarchy. The economy was wrecked. Hitler, too, was not exactly your ideal of the elite German soldier. He was a man of modest education and initial lowly rank who however carefully studied the political divide in the Germany of his time. He rose through the ranks to the summit of his party. The rest is history and the whole world has not quite forgotten the aftermath of Nazi Germany. Similarly, when the Arab spring dislodged the authoritarian Ghaddfi regime in Libya, it was inconsequential mob militia leaders who massed up in Tripoli and Benghazi to carve up Libya into hellish fiefdoms leading to the failed state that we have today.

The threat in the rise populist thugs and demagogues is worsened by the unenlightened nature of present day Nigerian society. We live in a Nigeria where the majority of the populace is still steeped in superstition and superficiality. This is a world in which the next ethnic group is the enemy, the rival faith is scheming to forcibly convert everybody else into their fold, and the neighbor next door has deployed juju to hijack your good luck. The populist demagogue and motor park thug leader who shouts abuses at authority is mistaken for a God sent liberator of the masses.

The rise of these populist mob entrepreneurs is a dangerous reversal of whatever progress had been made in enlightened leadership in the past. A progressive region like the South West that had given Nigeria outstanding leaders like Obafemi Awolowo, S.L Akintola, Olusegun Obasanjo, M.K.O Abiola, Wole Soyinka, Ernest Shonekan, Bola Tinubu., is now being escorted into anarchy by a Sunday Igboho accompanied by a Ganiyu Adams. In the South East, the land of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Akanu Ibiam, Michael Okpara, Louis Mbanefo, Odumegwu Ojukwu, Alex Ekwueme and the like is now cowing to the adolescent thuggishness of an Nnamdi Kanu.

Therefore, for the challenge of nation building and fostering national unity, these are the worst of times as well as the best of moments. It is the worst of times because never before in the over 50 years of post civil war peace time Nigeria have we witnessed such colossal insecurity and abysmal failure in the capacity of the state to rein in the forces of violence and anarchy. Yet it is also the best of times, a historic opportunity to walk back from the precipice and build a better place for our children.

For those who are excited about the prospect of Nigeria’s possible demise, I have bad news. Large federations like Nigeria do not split nicely. The bad news does not end there. The naive optimism that bad things may not happen here cannot in itself save us from a destruction we are working so hard to bring upon ourselves. There is even worse news for those waiting to harvest the benefits of successor states to a failed Nigeria. There will be neither sleep nor rest in any piece sliced off the Nigerian paternity. There will be countless border wars, resource wars, wars over access to the sea, clashes over the assets of a Nigeria that dies under the watchful eyes of a disinterested United Nations. There will be endless troubles from itinerant and stateless armed gangs, private armies, unhinged militias, vigilantes and forces of darkness clashing over nothing except the carcass of a dismembered dream.

If therefore question comes down to whether we should save Nigeria or allow it to self-destruct, my position is a clear unambiguous reaffirmation of the sanctity of our union with all its imperfections. We must save Nigeria at all costs. We must preserve its unity by every means possible. From that convergence and the consensus that we need to urgently build around it, we can have any number of options and allow any decibel of noisy controversy about the future.

We can convene large conferences about a desirable structure of our union. We can mount endless partisan campaigns about the best mode of governance. We can disagree with facts on the desirable direction of Nigeria’s development going forward. People can mount the rostrum to pontificate on the scope of justice for individuals and groups of Nigerians. But it is too late in human history to subject our children to learning how to draw new maps, learn new anthems and fly new flags. By no means must we as elite subject our hapless citizens to the dire consequences of costly state failure and national meltdown.