Rebuilding Nigeria for Peace and Progress  

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BY OLUSEGUN ADENIYI 

(Text of a presentation at the annual conference of the Nigeria Union of Journalist (NUJ) Lagos Chapter, on 20th October, 2021)    

The chairman of this occasion and our own much respected Prof Ralph Akinfeleye, chairman of the Nigerian Union of Journalist (NUJ), Lagos State Chapter, Mr Adeleye Ajayi, the vice chair, Ms Biola Beckley, other exco members, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

Last Saturday evening, I missed an important call that evoked guilt. When a man who is almost old enough to be your grandfather takes the trouble to constantly check on you, the least you can do is to reciprocate such gesture from time to time. But those close to me know I am not very good with calls. That of course was no excuse that it is the Afenifere leader, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, who is always asking after me. When I returned his call last Saturday evening and made my usual apologies, he posed a question, “Segun, are you happy with the state of our country today?” Before I could respond, he added, “Owo yin lo de ku si. Awa ti se ti wa (It’s now in the hands of your generation. Mine has done its best.”)

I have had the privilege of close interactions with Chief Adebanjo for more than three decades and as I wrote in my tribute to him when he marked his 90th birthday in April 2018, Chief Adebanjo is a man of unbending conviction who neither sits on the fence nor tiptoes around issues. On Nigeria, he is a passionate advocate for restructuring the country along the federal arrangement we had in the First Republic before the military interruption. Last Saturday, we had our usual conversation in which I argued, as I always did, that as defective as the current structure may be, with good governance and a leadership that can appreciate and properly manage our diversity, we can still attain peace and prosperity. But for the first time, and Chief Adebanjo must have noticed, my argument had little conviction so when he sounded off the way he started by saying, “Oku s’owo yin o”, I had a troubling time processing our conversation thereafter.

Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

Let me specially recognise Mr Adewale Akodu, chairman of the organizing committee with whom I have been exchanging correspondences and calls since he first contacted me about this conference. He knows that I didn’t jump at the idea. To be honest, I didn’t want to accept the invitation and I looked for every convenient excuse to decline. I had my reasons. The problem in this country, as a former Super Eagles coach, Berti Vogt, once remarked is that Nigerians spend too much time at seminars, workshops, conferences, “and the rest in prayers at the end of which nothing works.” I tend to agree with him. Conferences upon conferences, prayer sessions upon prayer sessions, reports upon reports and yet what are the results? Having attended many of such sessions, I am also becoming increasingly cynical.

However, despite my initial misgivings, I am glad to be here today. Indeed, this session could not have come at a better time for two reasons. One, we are at a period when conversations about the future of our country have become rather chaotic hence the urgent need for us as journalists to moderate discussions. So, the idea of interrogating the challenges of security, restructuring and self-determination for progressive change is quite apt. Two, in an unprecedented move evidently meant to reaffirm that while journalism thrives on disruptions of the status quo, it is also a profession that is critical to the attainment of a fair and peaceful world, the Nobel committee last week awarded the 2021 Peace Prize to two journalists: Dmitry Muratov of Russia and Maria Ressa of the Philippines.

When we take the two together, it becomes clear that the rising profile and complexities of conflict disorders within Nigeria require increased focus on activities in peace building and conflict resolution. Therefore, we as media practitioners have a sacred duty to promote peaceful co-existence without which there can be no meaningful progress. And there is perhaps no better way of doing that than facilitating sessions like this where stakeholders can come together to share ideas on how to build an inclusive society that works for majority of the people.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let me confess straightaway that I have no new thing to say about these issues. I have decided to come here this afternoon simply to provoke a conversation. Fortunately, the organisers have made my job easy with the assemblage of a panel of discussants comprising such distinguished people as Professor Adepoju Tejumaye of the University of Lagos, Dr Jide Johnson of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Dr Olusanya Awosan of Essence Communications, Lagos State Police Commissioner, Mr Hakeem Odumosu, and my own egbon, Pastor Ituah Ighodalo of Trinity House Church.

I am sure they will do justice to this most important theme, and we will all learn, although I am disappointed that there is no woman on the panel. With so much to learn from our women, I hope the NUJ Lagos chapter will not commit such error in future. But before I take my seat, let me say a few words about why I also subscribe to the notion that except we successfully navigate the intersection between security and restructuring while at the same time addressing the concerns that have made self-determination a popular idea, we will not attain the progressive development that we seek as a nation.

At the Passing Out Parade of 68 Regular Course of the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) two weeks ago, President Muhammadu Buhari admitted that Nigeria is currently facing “security threats and violent crimes such as insurgency, banditry, kidnapping and politically motivated killings which threaten our national integration.” But there is nothing to suggest that we are addressing the problem with the right tools.

At a period you expect the national security architecture to be defined in a manner that considers peculiarities of criminal tendencies in various parts of the country, we keep doing the same things yet expecting different results. In a public lamentation last year to express his seeming helplessness and that of his colleagues, Governor Darius Ishaku of Taraba said, “If any governor tells you that he will do anything about insecurity, such a governor is lying.”  And he was not just griping, he explained why: “As governors, we don’t have control over the police or army and virtually there is nothing we can do over security. We have been calling for the establishment of state police, but nobody seems to consider our position.” The evidence is everywhere. Just on Sunday, a band of killers under the appellation of ‘bandits’ invaded a market in Goronyo local government area of Sokoto State in broad daylight. By the time they left, dozens of lives had been wasted.

Meanwhile, as challenging as the times may be, what we face today are the results of the bad choices made at different epochs and at all levels. Sadly, we have carried this grand systemic mismanagement to the security sector. With the failure of the police in their constitutional responsibility, we have dragged the military into roles for which they are not trained: guarding key installations, quelling civil disturbances, manning roadblocks, combating banditry, armed robbery and kidnappings as well as providing security for the conduct of elections. These are not challenges that can be resolved by soldiers because they are mostly law and order issues primarily within the purview of the police.

Although the Airforce has denied the report in the Wall Street Journal about some shady deal with bandits “to retrieve a weapon that directly threatened the country’s president,” not a few Nigerians would remember how elected governors were holding meetings inside forests with these same bandits and handing them humongous amounts of money to extract promises that were never kept. While we must continue to commend our armed forces for their enormous sacrifice, especially in the past one and a half decades, it is also obvious that as a nation, we have lost what Max Weber described as the monopoly of “the legitimate use of physical force” to criminal cartels.

In the face of new dimensions to old conflicts, we must embrace new models of crisis management. But having failed to forge a nation out of our diversity, the security challenge and its mismanagement has led to a situation in which many now question our togetherness. There is a strident call that we must divide Nigeria. But such proposition neither addresses our problem nor does it point to the way forward. This is where our job as journalists has become more important not only in promoting issues that will aid the resolution of many of the crises that are now tearing apart the fabrics of our society but also in asking salient questions. Is ‘self-determination’ by the several ethnic groups that spring up almost daily the panacea to what ails us? Even if we do not believe that we are better off staying together as one country, how many ethnic entities can we create to resolve the various contradictions that we refuse to deal with?

In his 1996 Vanguard newspaper lecture which he titled ‘Understanding Nigerian Economy and Polity’, the late Ahmadu Bello University lecturer, Dr Bala Usman dealt with the issue of territorial identity within the context of Nigerian polity. “The Kingdoms, chiefdoms, city-states and village confederations which the British conquered were not sovereign ethnic political blocs which can now be brought back into existence if Nigeria is dismembered, or which can provide the basis of political entities out of which a Nigerian confederation or commonwealth of independent states can be created,” he had stated while interrogating the issue of ethnic enclaves which some canvass as solution to our problem. “There was no Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, Kataf, Sayawa, Tiv, Baju, Jukun, Ogoni, Chamba, Ijaw, Itsekiri or Urhobo polity or sets of polities which can be resurrected to constitute the component units of a confederation, or to stand on their own as independent states, if the Nigerian polity is loosened or dismembered.”

We may disagree with his thesis, but it is difficult to fault the conclusion that those drawing imaginary maps cannot support their ideas with any historical facts nor can they guarantee that such entities would fare better than what we currently have in Nigeria since we are going to be dealing with the same set of actors in different enclaves.

Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, this is not an argument against restructuring. There are certainly things that we can, and indeed should, do if we must reposition our country for peace and prosperity. I have always argued that the fiscal imbalance in which the federal government controls disproportionate power and wealth relative to the two other tiers (the 36 states and 774 local governments) is unsustainable. And we need to deal with the excessive hangovers of prolonged military rule that are still with us. So, I wholeheartedly endorse all ideas that will help fashion out the requisite strategies necessary to overcome the human and institutional barriers that have for decades held the country back. Where I differ from some proponents is on the nature of such engagement. While we cannot dispute the fragility of the Nigerian state, there is a country in our consciousness that we want to see–a Nigeria that would take her rightful place as the leader in Africa and a global power.

However, for that to happen, we as journalists have a huge role to play. At a most critical period in our history when we need to focus on accountability and good governance, what we should embrace is not polarizing rhetoric but rather a more productive and cooperative form of national engagement on how to get out of the hole in which we now find ourselves. Whatever the spin being put on the situation by the managers of our economy, there are difficult days ahead. Yesterday, BudgIT released a very disturbing infographics on the federal government revenue and expenditure in the first eight months of this year. Of the N3.06 trillion total revenue collected between January and August this year, a whopping sum of N2.86 trillion, representing 93 percent went into debt servicing!

The reality of Nigeria today is that in the coming months, at both the federal and the state levels, it will be increasingly difficult to pay salaries of workers without resort to more borrowing. That will in turn increase the quantum of debts and the portion of revenues to be used for debt servicing. New jobs will also be harder to find for our growing population of young graduates even as the cost of living will continue to skyrocket. How do we deal with those challenges? How do we harness the productive capacities of every citizen away from the distributive mentality that oil has foisted on our collective psyche? Put simply, how do we create enough wealth to cater for the need of our huge population? How do we make Nigeria a land of equal opportunity for all, a nation whose unity is not decreed as non-negotiable but is guaranteed by the practical incentives it offers for all to want to stay in and perfect the union?

Let me quickly add here that those campaigning for restructuring are not advocating the dismemberment of the country. The quest for a country that works better and for the generality of the people, irrespective of their stations in life or the God they worship or the language they speak, is a valid quest. The truth is that we have serious security, economic and governance challenges, and it is important to consider and not dismiss all the ideas being put forth. Some of these ideas may not be the magic bullets they are being framed as and some may not make any difference or may even worsen the situation. But it is important to continue to discuss and debate and to continue to search for a better society.

Mr chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am sure our panel of discussants will share their thoughts on the way forward for our country. But as I take my seat, let me remind my colleagues that it is how we play our role as journalists in the coming weeks and months that will determine the fate of Nigeria. We can be a powerful force for change by framing issues in a way that offers practical solutions to our challenges while keeping the debate within the bounds of civility or we can be a disruptive force by lending our platforms to hate mongers.

The media have a huge role to play in this important quest for progressive development as objective purveyors of information, as honest agenda-setters, and as trusted mediators. For us to play this role well, and not become part of the problem, we need to stay above the fray, drop sectional and sensational framing of issues, and maintain utmost fidelity to facts. It is a huge responsibility, and it starts with us. If we effectively fulfill our role, we can encourage the critical stakeholders in Nigeria to find strength in our diversity.

I thank the Lagos State chapter of the NUJ once again for inviting me here this afternoon.