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Nigeria without Nigerians?

By Jideofor Adibe
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Today’s reflection was inspired by Buhari’s recent reiteration of the determination of his government to run ‘an inclusive government ’. Speaking recently when he received a delegation from Nasarawa State, led by Governor Abdullahi Sule, at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, Buhari was quoted as saying: “In the next four years, I want to assure you that we will remain committed to the change agenda. Our goal of building an inclusive, secure and prosperous Nigeria is achievable.” On June 12, 2019, the country’s new Democracy day, Buhari also declared: “Nation building takes time. But we must take solace in the knowledge that this country, our country, has everything we require to make Nigeria prosper.” In fact, in recent times, the words ‘nation-building’ and ‘inclusive government’ have been popping up more than ever before in Buhari’s speeches.

Today’s reflection is to interrogate how these two concepts can be meaningfully employed in our journey towards nationhood and economic development. And the title is lifted verbatim from a book I published in 2012. The book itself was inspired by a public lecture I gave at the Institute for Security Studies Pretoria on February 2 2012 entitled ‘Boko Haram as a Symptom of the Crisis in our Nation-building Project’. At that time Boko Haram’s terrorism, which started with the radicalization of the group in 2009, had just entered a frightening phase. For instance, on June 16 2011 the group bombed the Police Force headquarters in what was thought to be the first case of using a suicide bomber to carry out terrorist activity in Nigeria. Two months later, on Friday August 26 2011, a suicide bomber blew up the UN headquarters in Abuja, leaving at least 21 people dead and dozens more injured. On January 20, 2012, it attacked Kano, leaving more than 185 people dead. In fact, a day hardly passed without news of attacks by the sect.

I was invited by the ISS in Pretoria, South Africa, (together with the late Professor Rauf Mustapha from Oxford University), to provide an explanation of the sect to the research and diplomatic communities in South Africa. Rauf spoke (via teleconferencing) on the origin and reasons for the radicalization of the group while I provided a theoretical framework for understanding the sect and its activities. I reviewed and rejected as inadequate a number of theoretical explanations being put forward at that time to explain the emergence and radicalization of the group such as the human needs (poverty) argument, governance failure, frustration-aggression hypotheses and the various conspiracy theories being bandied about at the time.

I borrowed from the German- American political theorist Hannah Arendt’s notion of ‘banality of evil’ where she argued that the great evils in history are not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their actions and therefore participated in them on the grounds that those heinous actions were normal. I interrogated the basis for Boko Haram’s gory terrorism and found it in the crisis in our nation-building process. As I explained it then:

“Personally I believe that a major reason for this [Boko Haram] is the crisis in our nation-building project, which feeds into the crisis of underdevelopment to create an existentialist crisis for many Nigerians. For many young people, a way of resolving the consequent sense of alienation is to retreat from the Nigeria project and construct meanings in chosen primordial identities - often with the Nigerian state as the enemy.

“In Nigeria, there is a heavy burden of institutionalised sectional memories of hurt, injustice, distrust and even a disguised longing for vengeance. No individual or political authority enjoys universal legitimacy across the main fault lines. Nigeria is therefore a country in desperate need of creating Nigerians.”

I also argued that the number of Nigerians being alienated from the Nigeria project and therefore regarding the state as a legitimate target was increasing by leaps and bounds, and warned that if the trend continued, we risked having Nigeria without Nigerians as “everyone seems to carry out an attack on the Nigerian state using whatever means at the person’s disposal – those entrusted with the nation’s common patrimony steal it blind, law enforcement officers turn the other way if you offer them a little inducement while organised labour, including university lecturers, go on prolonged strikes on a whim. Everyone has one form of grouse or the other against the Nigerian state and its institutions.”

With Buhari’s new found fascination for the notions of ‘nation-building’ and ‘inclusiveness’, I feel that there are a few deductions and lessons from the above that could be useful:

One, Buhari did not trigger the current crisis in our nation-building process, but he has not done much to change the storyline. In fact, just as some people argue that under Buhari “Nigeria has never been as divided as we are today since the end of the civil war” to underline the failure of Buhari’s government in the area of nation-building, the same aphorism was also used to describe the Jonathan government by some. In fact under Jonathan, some people from both the ‘core’ North and the South-west were openly talking of secession because they felt alienated from the government.

Two, any existing unity is based on a certain power configuration- those favoured by that power configuration are likely to complain less than others less favoured by that power equation, and are likely to see others not supporting their vision of unity as not being patriotic enough. For instance, under Jonathan, the south-east and the south-south were not as boisterous as they are now in complaints of marginalization. In the same vein, we hear less of threats of secession from the core North than we did under Jonathan. During the 2019 presidential election in the south-west (which had been at the vanguard of the restructuring movement in its various incarnations) the clamour for ‘restructuring’ was largely muted because Yemi Osinbajo, a ‘shon of the shoil’ was the running mate to Buhari. In fact the Vice President even declared his opposition to what he called ‘geographic restructuring’. The inference from this is that remedying perceptions of power distribution or asymmetry among the different ethnic and regional factions of the political elite is an important part of addressing the problem of inclusion and nation-building.

Three, though Nigerian political parties may not be anchored on any visible ideological differences, there are emerging philosophical and ideational differentiations among Nigerians that also interface with their ethnic and religious identities. For instance though the Igbo and the Yoruba are known to be ethnic rivals in the Southern part of the country, the two groups have had instances of convergence on political beliefs that transcend their ethnic rivalry. A good example here was in 1993 when the presidential candidate of the SDP, Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim, chose Babagana Kingibe, a Muslim from Borno State, as his running mate. The late Emeka Ojukwu was so infuriated by the Muslim-Muslim ticket that he decamped from the SDP to the NRC, which had Alhaji Bashir Tofa as its presidential candidate, and Sylvester Ugo, an Igbo, as his running mate. Interestingly Abiola did very well in the then four Igbo states, winning Ojukwu’s home state of Anambra, and losing in the entire south east to Tofa by just 50,000 votes. At that time, there appeared to be a shared angst between the two ethnic groups against the Northern domination of political power through the military, which the Igbo probably felt trumped any psychological benefit they would derive by having one of their own as a Vice President. In the same vein, during the 2019 presidential election, Atiku Abubakar, the PDP presidential candidate, who had Peter Obi, an Igbo as his running mate, was very competitive in the South-west, which had Osinbajo, a Yoruba, as Buhari’s running mate. The Atiku/Obi ticket won outright in two states in the region. Some of the reasons for this were shared concerns by the two ethnic groups of the menace of the herdsmen, demand for restructuring and suspicions of what Obasanjo was to later call ‘Islamization and Fulanization’ agenda by the Buhari government.

Four, following from the above, strategies for pursuing ‘inclusion’ and ‘nation-building’ will have to be at two levels simultaneously: the first level is addressing the perceptions of power asymmetry by the various contending ethnic and regional factions of the political class. In this sense, while the issue of political appointments is purely an elite game, it cannot be ignored given the role of optics in governance.

The second level is recognising that the various parts of the country are increasingly being differentiated on their beliefs on sundry issues such as the ideal relation between the centre and the units (restructuring), the role of religion in the organization of state affairs and the appropriate economic philosophy for a state. Any strategy for inclusiveness and nation-building which neglects these emerging differentiations among different parts of the country will be problematic. Nation-building and inclusiveness therefore will not just mean making the constituent units feel that they are stakeholders in the Nigeria project but also that some ideas and philosophies they hold dear are respected and incorporated into the philosophy of governance.

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @JideoforAdibe

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