On Sunday, February 14, the Nigerian Presidency, in a statement signed by spokesman Garba Shehu, reportedly affirmed that President Muhammadu Buhari is determined to ensure the protection of all religious and ethnic groups in the country, whether majority or minority, “in line with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.” The statement added that the government “will not allow any ethnic or religious group to stoke up hatred and violence against other groups.” As if to give effect to this, the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) announced that the NSA, Major General Mohammed Monguno (rtd.), was scheduled to meet with seven governors of the North-Western part of the country on Monday, February 15, as part of a “whole-of-government and whole-of-society” approach to address the recent spike in cases of insecurity across the country. The NSA and other security chiefs agreed on a series of town hall meetings, to assess the national security situation, generate feedback, and build a synchronisation framework with various stakeholders in order to find a pathway to sustainable peace and stability in the country.
It all sounds so good, except that it is also so eerily familiar and formulaic. The Presidency needs not issue a statement to remind us that the Buhari administration will protect all of us, whether we are from the majority or minority stock, or adherents of whatever faith. This is the primary responsibility of government in the first place. It is the job that President Buhari signed up to as spelled out in Section 14 (2)(b) of the same 1999 Constitution. The president swore to uphold this Constitution, and in Section 5 thereof and elsewhere, he is given enormous powers to so act and to recruit persons and deploy resources in pursuit of the directive principles in Chapter Two. The fact that the Presidency needs to restate its commitment to its own primary assignment, five years after the fact, is an indication of how there has been a gross omission in this regard.
In 2015, ahead of the first presidential election that brought this government to power, the Buhari campaigners argued that he was the best man for the job, if not for any other reason, he, being a former military chief, will know what to do, to address the crisis of terrorism, especially in the North-East, and ensure stability across the country. At the time, Boko Haram and the al Qaeda forces seeking to destabilise Nigeria, were at the peak of their offensive. Many Nigerians embraced the Buhari option as the most attractive proposition: The war-tested General and military tactician whose very presence in power was expected to instill fear in the enemies of the state. But things have not turned out that way, as expected. If the dominant security challenge in 2015 was Boko Haram, the security situation in Nigeria since then has worsened.
Despite the government’s assurance that Boko Haram had been “decimated” or “technically defeated”, we have all seen the terrorists gaining more in audacity and ferocity, with soldiers fleeing from the battle-front out of frustration, mocking their commanders, and protesting about their poor conditions of deployment. Nigerians thought the president should change his service chiefs, to inject fresh blood into the fight, but public opinion in that regard was ignored until the president finally decided to let them go on January 26. While the team of service chiefs led by General Abayomi Olonisakin remained in charge, the country had to face other challenges on other fronts in the shape of banditry, kidnapping, wanton criminality, ethnic conflicts, farmers-herders conflicts, and attacks on places of religious worship. Ordinarily, it was the duty of the Nigeria Police Force to protect lives and properties within the country, but the police were so disorganised so poorly equipped, they couldn’t handle the situation.
Nigeria ended up deploying soldiers to do police work. They didn’t do much better. The Nigerian military was over-stretched, from fighting terrorists and insurgents in the North-East to police check point assignments in the South-South and South-East. Somehow, everything got muddled up. The same security problems that the Buhari administration set out to resolve merely increased. In a cancerous manner, they metastasised. Pro-government campaigners would argue that insecurity in Nigeria is being fueled by “fifth columnists” and the “political opposition”, even when they have no concrete evidence to support their claims. Anti-government analysts would rather argue that Nigeria has become insecure because the government failed to do what is right, which is to simply deliver on its constitutional mandate – the same mandate that the Presidential Villa has now suddenly re-discovered! When the people cried out that the Boko Haram was getting stronger and bolder, they were told the terrorists had been “technically defeated.” The Federal Government even brandished a seized Boko Haram flag. The terrorists have since made another one! When governors in the North-West later pointed out that the madness had spread from the East to the West, they were told that they were the chief security officers of their states and should stop whining, even when they were not so empowered. The poor governors of the North-West decided to negotiate with the terrorists and gave them money but it turned out the criminals were not willing to sell their struggle. The curse of violence, crime and banditry soon spread from the North to the Middle Belt. One or two governors wept openly. They were told to wipe their tears and expect a miracle. No miracle came.
By the time the crisis settled down in the Middle and Central parts of Nigeria, it had now taken on a primordial dimension: Muslim vs Christian; farmers vs herders. Religion and ethnicity are the two most divisive factors in Nigeria. Both have helped to expand the country’s fault lines in the last five years – negatively and dangerously. In the Middle Belt and Southern Kaduna, there were complaints about churches that were set ablaze. Communities were attacked and the security agencies were accused of looking the other way, in a striking demonstration of complicity, criminal negligence and indifference. Religious leaders, including priests, were abducted and killed. The major blame for the mayhem was heaped on the head of one major ethnic group: the Fulani. It is the seeming failure of the state to check banditry and other acts of impunity that has promoted the politics of ethnic profiling, and the consequential demonisation of the Fulani.
The crisis soon crossed the River Niger and found another location in the South-East. With a group known as the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) and its leader Nnamdi Kanu, young Igbos found a rallying point for their grievances against the Nigerian state and the place of the Igbo in its geo-politics. Young Igbos asked Northerners to stay in their zone. They did not want any cattle to be grazed on Igbo soil. But rather than treat the delicate situation with the caution that was required, the Federal Government deployed soldiers to the South-East. Operation Egwu Eke (Python Dance) I and II. Operation Atilowgu Udo. The confrontation that followed between state agents and IPOB was like setting the roof of the house on fire. On the question of cattle grazing, government added further petrol to the raging fire when it decided to set up a National Livestock Transformation Plan, with a livestock settlement programme called RUGA as its main offer. This merely ignited further division in the country, and widened the gap between North and South.
It did not take long before the crisis crossed the Niger again, this time to the Western part of Nigeria. The drummers of hate had taken over the beat and the main tune that they offered was the rhythm of hate. The drummers have been in frenzy, the dancers are drunk and yet no one can talk to the other because the music is in people’s heads throwing them into different patterns of spatial paroxysm. In the South East, the governors and the people have objected loudly to cattle grazing in their region. They have a group called the Eastern Security Network (ESN), to enforce this, very much like the Amotekun in the South West. In the North, the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) accuses President Buhari of setting the country on fire. They are asking him to ensure that all Nigerians, wherever they may be, are protected. The Northern Youths Council of Nigeria has called on the Northern Governors to evacuate Northerners from the South. They want Sunday Igboho, one of the by-products of the latest crisis, declared a terrorist. But will his people agree? Among the Yoruba, Sunday Igboho, the de facto Generalissimo of the Yoruba, is considered a very courageous man, Nobody knows exactly what he does for a living, but he is a respected able-bodied man, who stepped forward when it mattered most for his people.
This is the way Nigeria is at the moment. Every group nurtures and grows its own Igboho: Men who can lead them to battle. The problem is that this does not advance the cause of unity. Last Saturday at Shasha market in Ibadan, there was wanton destruction just because a Fulani trader and a pregnant Yoruba woman had a minor disagreement. In Ogun state, in the Yewa Division, Yoruba villages have been attacked. In some other Yoruba towns, traditional rulers have been abducted and killed. Can you imagine a Southerner killing a Northern Emir?
Nigerians have lived together for centuries. Virtually every major town has a Sabongari where other ethnic groups live. The Fulani have interacted with the people of the South for more than a century. There are Southerners whose ancestors have also lived in the North almost forever. The people of Nigeria have thus shared history and culture across generations, but when government fails to promote the values that bind us together, language, ethnicity, and geography become tools of conflict. It must be noted that no ethnic group targeted the Hausa-Fulani when Southerners were Presidents of Nigeria between 1999- 2015. Nobody did so either during the Yar’Adua administration. Certainly not in the kind of manner we now see. So what happened? Why is it that all of a sudden the friendly Northerner who has always been a partner of the Southerner has suddenly become a person to be suspected? Why should any group feel superior to the other or become a problem to the other just because his “kinsman” is in power? I have seen some videos in circulation showing the scope of the division among the people.
What we are facing is frightening. It is shocking. It is disturbing. Yorubaland is divided. The traditional rulers are even fighting among themselves. The country’s only Nobel Laureate is threatening to become a mai suya should any herd of cattle trespass across his compound again. In Ogun, Ondo, Oyo and elsewhere, a thousand Igbohos are springing up, determined to defend their region. Igbos have served notice that they are no cowards on the battlefield. The North is not afraid either. How did we get here? It wasn’t nearly as bad in 1966? Can we have a nation if every group is mouthing the rhetoric of violence and threatening the worst possible?
No, and that is why it is not enough for the President to issue a statement telling us what we already know: that it is his job to make Nigeria safe. Is the appropriate response the Town Hall meetings being organized by the National Security Adviser. I have nothing against dialogue. The office of the NSA can gather a lot of useful intelligence through its “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society approach” but this may not go far enough. The Federal Government needs to take pro-active steps to compel the drummers of hate to drop their sticks. The way they are beating those drums, they may soon tear them apart, and the drunken dancers may graduate from their bibulousness to psychosis. What balm can government apply? Government needs to change the narrative. This is the right time to give the people something to occupy them, an assignment that will offer them hope, an opportunity to draw them back into the fold. Nothing keeps Nigerians more engaged than the opportunity to talk about Nigeria and its future. This will require a more structured platform than Town Hall meetings.
I therefore recommend that whereas the Buhari government may not like the idea of a National Conference, whereas it set aside the findings of the 2014 National Political Conference, and whereas this same government has shown much disregard for public opinion, the way forward lies in precisely that same direction. The attempt to suppress the people’s opinion or disregard it is in part the catalyst for the state of anomie in which the country has found itself. The Buhari administration needs to convene forthwith, a Conference of the Nigerian People. It can be given any other label: Conference of National Reconciliation, Conference of National Unity and Reconciliation, Conference of National Peace and Unity… Such a Conference will take the debate off the streets. It will rescue the Nigerian debate from the hands of Sunday Igboho, Nnamdi Kanu and their followers. Is it not disturbing enough that even senior lawyers and Professors now quote Kanu and Igboho as national philosophers? The people should be tired of living a lie. If President Buhari really wants to make a difference, he must provide an opportunity for a re-tabling and re-negotiation of the key issues at the heart of the Nigerian question: restructuring, federalism, constitutional review, state police, derivation, governance…
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.
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