NIGERIA: BETWEEN DISCUSSION AND DESTRUCTION

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OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI

OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI

“Bombs kill terrorists, Books kill terrorism.
Missiles kill extremists, Mindfulness kills extremism.
Guns kill supremacists, Goodness kills supremacy.
Law restrains cruel people, Love reforms cruelty.
Sarin cripples the malicious, Service cures malice.
C4 impairs the prejudiced, Curiosity treats prejudice.
Violence can be revolution no more.
For all degradation kindness is the cure.”
― Abhijit Naskar.

‘To jaw jaw is always better than to war war’
– Winston Churchill

Nigeria has always been a country that seems to move from one existential challenge to another. Sadly, these challenges are mostly self-inflicted and man-made, and they are often completely avoidable.

From the Amalgamation in 1914, which people blame for the continued woes of Nigeria, the struggle for independence and its eventual grant in 1960 and the declaration of a Republic in 1963, it has always been one conflict or another. Some of the notable events are the military incursion in politics in 1966, the declaration of civil war in 1967, which ended in 1970. There was also the civilian rule from 1979 to 1983, several coups in between till 1999 when civilian rule was finally restored. In the wake of all these, it has been one contentious issue after another. Other than the civil war era, no period had been more challenging to the corporate existence of Nigeria, than now. Boko Haram started like a joke in 2002 in relatively far away Maiduguri. Not many people paid serious attention to the crisis until it became a full-fledged conflagration engulfing states in the North East. The sect has wreaked havoc on the otherwise hapless citizens and thousands have been killed and many more have been injured and displaced. They claim to be fighting to dethrone the government and institute an Islamic State in the country.

While that imbroglio was on, herders armed with AK47 have been causing mayhem in the North Central and Southern parts of the country. They enter the bushes in the excuse of grazing their cows and not only sack farmers but are also known to kidnap, kill, rape, and alienate their victims from their lands. There have been allegations of complicity by the security officers as the perpetrators of these crimes are hardly apprehended or prosecuted. As if these were not bad enough, banditry and insurgency have grown in occurrence and have frankly, assumed a life of their own. Traveling by road has become one of the deadliest risks for anyone to take in many parts of the country. There are numerous stories of this category of criminals taking over highways and killing, maiming and kidnapping victims at will for ransom. The unresolved issue of the Chibok girls who were abducted in 2014, remains a major turning point in terrorism and criminality in the country. In the mid-2000s, kidnapping was introduced in the country by the Niger Delta militants. After the amnesty and rehabilitation programme by the government, this vocation died down, only to assume a very dangerous dimension lately.

In the South East, other than isolated cases of banditry and other crimes, the rising incidence of attacks by “unknown gunmen” seems to have overshadowed every other crime. The hotbed of these attacks has been Imo State, with Ebonyi, Abia and Anambra States rapidly following. These gunmen attack police stations, correctional facilities, INEC offices and other government agencies, killing, maiming and sacking workers and releasing prisoners. They have even attacked a few private properties, setting them ablaze in their rage. Because no one has been apprehended, it has not been easy to identify the motive or objectives for the attack nor the identity of the attackers themselves. The military and other security agencies have stepped in and the tales from the South East about how people are brutally treated and sometimes killed without any tangible reason by security agencies have made people begin to avoid the area.

While insecurity has dominated our current national discourse, another challenge seems to be taking over from another flank. This is the consequential ethnic conflagration in different parts of the country. It must be stated that ethnic disagreements are as old as the country itself. The Civil war itself had an ethnic coloration and the human toll was recorded among a particular part of the country. However, the country has managed to remain together in spite of these harrowing conflicts. The rhetoric coming from the different major ethnic groups seems to suggest that everyone wants to go on their own separate way. Ethnic militias, which had been hitherto latent or non-existent, have found their voices and new impetus. Some of them are claiming responsibility for attacks that they may know nothing about. Others are being blamed for attacks which they may as well not be involved in. People at different fora are talking tough and threatening hell and brimstone. It does not matter if they are influenced and motivated by Fake News and products of propaganda and disinformation.

People no longer feel safe along the road or even in their homes. Some people are resorting to what a man of God referred to as ‘Plan B as airports are filled with countrymen and women, who want to ‘check out’ like the Andrew of those days. There are palpable anger and fear in the land!

The reasons for the persisting anger can be understood from the contradictions in the polity. They can be categorised as political, structural and economic contradictions. On the political front is the management of our diversity. With a landmass of 923,000 square kilometres, over 300 languages, different religions and unequal income distribution, Nigeria is a classical model of a diverse society.

There is a strong and plausible argument that the present government has not managed our diversity properly resulting in lopsided appointments and marginalisation and domination of some sections of the country. Even though there is no evidence that sections of the country that have dominated political power have fared any better, for the sake of equity and fairness, a deliberate rebalancing and sharing of power will certainly help to de-escalate the tension.

Before the 2015 general election, the Government of President Goodluck Jonathan received the report of the Constitutional Conference which it had set up. The report could not progress to the National assembly to be passed into law. That report attempted to suggest some form of restructuring that would have addressed some of the sore points of the 1999 constitution. Even though some of us disagree with the suggestion of creating additional states, there was the strong point of enshrining in the constitution, the equality of the component parts of the country. We had argued, and continue to argue, that legislating away the states and its expensive structure would serve us better than the multiplicity of states. We need to divide the country into a maximum of 6 regions, granting each of them autonomy and having them compete like was done in the past while taxes are paid to the centre.

Some have advocated a return to the 1963 constitution which, we are told, worked relatively well for the nation. Whatever structure we choose, one thing that is agreed is that the 1999 constitution was not the people’s constitution. We therefore align with the view that this National Assembly, which has the mandate of the people, should draw up a new constitution that would work for us. We deserve a constitution which, when it says, “We, the People…” would not be denied by the people. Even if the National Assembly does not achieve any other thing within the remaining two years available to it, it will do the nation a lot of good by giving it a new, and truly the peoples’ constitution. The new constitution should address federalism both in terms of its fiscal and structural perspectives. It must replace a strong, almost unitary centre, which we currently operate, with a much trimmer, weaker but more efficient, centre. Some of the key considerations should be how to make policing a regional affair, create a unicameral legislature with much fewer members who would drastically reduce the drain, the current structure and size has constituted on the resources and move more power and governance to the regions.

Regions should be at liberty to create their own local governments as they deem fit. This is amongst several other recommendations we had made on this column in the past (refer to “Massive Government, Miserable Populace” April 24, 2021). We must state without any fear of contradiction, that one of the anger points in the polity is that the political class seems to have cornered the wealth of the country for themselves to the detriment of the populace. We have held the view that politics should not be a profession. It is a misnomer for someone to introduce himself as a politician. In many cases, our “politicians” do not have any other jobs. They have seen politics as a place to make money rather than where to contribute towards uplifting society with the skills they have acquired elsewhere. Any wonder why the recycling just for the sake of being in the corridors of power. Reference is made of a former governor who accepted a transitional local government chairmanship role from a sitting governor recently. We must make political offices unattractive to job seekers in favour of accomplished solution and service providers.

The economic angle to the anger is what we consider the most potent in this essay. A fortnight ago, we discussed unemployment and insisted that the very high level of unemployment is significantly responsible for the insurgency in the country. The argument is that a country that has more than 33% unemployment rate as against the allowable 4% rate, is preparing a large army for recruitment into crime. This figure is exacerbated by close to 90m Nigerians who are trapped and living in poverty. These are people who must find a way to feed and survive, whatever it takes. It is the responsibility of government at all levels to ensure that these numbers are reduced to the barest minimum, and we made recommendations in the column under reference.

While the government is looking at these, it must also not lose sight of the more than 16m out-of-school children in the country. These are potential time bombs that will invariably detonate in a few years’ time and will be available to enroll in less than noble callings with dastardly consequences. Meanwhile, inflation is roaring at about 20% and exchange rate pressure is not abating.

There is also the issue of revenue generation and allocation which straddles the political and the economic. To the extent that we do not generate enough revenue and the fact that we enmesh ourselves in debt, spending what we do not have, we will continue to have a growing pool of angry people. The anger begins to boil over when we realise that over 70% of our fiscal allocation goes to servicing less than 1% of the populace who are in government while less than 30% goes to the rest of us. Even if they do not understand the numbers, the ordinary people see the lifestyle of those that are supposed to represent them. They knew what they looked like when they were canvassing for votes and 4 years down the line, they can compare and contrast. They can tell when their money is no longer complete. They can tell when the roads, water, electricity and other amenities promised them are not delivered! Even when it looks like they cannot do anything about it, they can at least know who is responsible for their state and would be justifiably angry.

Given the level of anger in the land what should government be doing at this time? One of the things not to do is to do nothing. Just like John F. Kennedy said, “the mere absence of war is not peace”. People may have endured all these in the past, but it does not indicate that they are happy. This, to my mind, is an opportunity for those in power to quickly engage the populace and listen to them. This is the whole essence of democracy. Even when people are seeking self-determination, which, by the way is their fundamental right, the government of the day should not be tired of engaging them. Quebec in Canada has been seeking self-determination for decades. Twice, Canada had held a referendum for them and twice, majority of the people have voted to remain as part of Canada.

It is clear evidence that agitation for a referendum does not mean that it would gain majority vote. Today, the major ethnic nationalities in the country are yearning for one form of autonomy or another. Government must understand this in the context of the anger in the land supported by hunger and violence. We encourage the government to robustly engage the leaders of these groups and discuss genuinely and frankly. We believe we can always find common grounds to coexist. This is definitely not the time to talk tough or beat the drums of war. The truth is that no part of this country can fight a war that would leave it better than it was. The beneficiaries would be the Russians who make AK47 and other countries that would jostle to sell weapons to all the sides. The losers would be the people who have no ‘Plan B’ and would exist in the theatre of war and the country, which is not producing much, not to talk of ammunition. At the end of the destruction and carnage, the survivors, if any, would still gather at the negotiation table to discuss. So why not hold that discussion now? Should you be in doubt, ask Rwanda, still doubting, contact Somalia!