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Time to stop this brinkmanship

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Nigeria must be among the most battered nations, and Nigerians among the most psychologically brutalized citizens in the world. The dangerous game the Nigerian elite play is coming to a head and it is time to bring this needless brinkmanship to a stop.

The two years since October 1, 2010 have ushered in one of the most divisive and self-destructive eras in our history since the civil war. We have witnessed the first bombing of Abuja, the nation's capital, hitherto considered the most secure city in the country; an election that was bitterly fought along sectional, ethnic and religious lines because politicians could not honour their word; communal warfare bordering on genocide and sectarian insurgency which has, so far, claimed thousands of innocent lives; not to talk of mind-boggling corruption, the intensity of which has not been experienced anywhere else in the world. We have brought more misery to this long-suffering nation and its people in

these two years than other countries experience in an entire lifetime. There is only so much any one country can take at any given time.

To be sure, we have not come close to being a Somalia yet but for a nation blessed with enormous human and natural resources, Nigeria has no business being at the lower rung of the ladder of development. In 2011, the UNDP Human Development Report ranked Nigeria 157th out of 187 countries, with lower life expectancy rate than the Republic of Benin. 20% of our newborn die before they attain the age of five. According to our own National Bureau of Statistics, one out of every four Nigerians is unemployed while 70% of the population, or 119 million Nigerians, live below the poverty line. The cumulative value of our national debt has hit the $42 billion mark while we continue to borrow at the rate of roughly $1billion a month. We have been told that our economy is growing at between 6 - 7% over this period but this growth, taking the above statistics into account, must be benefiting only a handful of Nigerians or else, is taking place on planet Mars.

Overwhelmed by unspeakable level of corruption and brutalization, Nigerians have resorted to turning on themselves. Rarely a day passes by without an eccentric academic, an attention-seeking politician or a pseudo socio-cultural group hurling virulent invectives against fellow citizens from other ethnic groups, who may practice a different faith or who live in parts of the country they consider unfit to share the same nationality with. There is much talk of fossil oil, cotton, groundnut and other agricultural products and, in extreme show of intolerance, there is the stereotyping of citizens along religious lines. Elder "statesmen" breathe fire and brimstone while the younger ones, taking a cue from them, have become hate-mongers on the Internet. For those who get their information from the web, reading news and commentary from and about Nigeria by Nigerians is like watching the Hobbesian state of nature unfolding before your very eyes.

The raw passion Nigerians display and the uncivil language they deploy against each other is unfit for animal consumption, not to talk of consumption by human beings. We disrespect and vilify each other without a proper illumination of the issues and, therefore, without addressing the real problems. In majority of the cases, what passes for a discourse on the state of the nation by members of the Nigerian elite generates more heat than light and could, if stripped of all pretensions, pass for hate-mongering and base sentiment. The net effect of all these is that uninformed Nigerians, who constitute the bulk of the citizenry, have become victims of two types of crimes: their criminal debasement by the elite through unbridled corruption, in addition to deliberate and criminal incitement. Little wonder ordinary Nigerians are prepared to visit mayhem on each other at the slightest provocation even as their elite-patrons continue to plunder our commonwealth. When it comes to their favorite pastime, the Nigerian elite speaks with a unanimous voice, completely blind to section, religion and tribe.

For some of them, the solution to the problems Nigeria face is to break the country up between the North and the South; or to give every one of the nation's over 250 ethnic groups "autonomy", whatever that means; or to divide the country between Muslims and Christians, regardless of how absurd and impractical this may seem. The false logic in this proposition is that the problems of Nigeria are to be blamed on either the North or the South, or on ethnic groups other than the one to which we belong, or on either Christians or Muslims, each as a whole. The other false logic is that these problems will disappear once the presumed guilty party is excised. The more pretentious of the elite have resorted to blaming our laws, insisting that once the constitution is created anew, corruption will be stopped dead in its tracks, equity and justice will reign and Nigerians, or whatever variety of them that may emerge from the exercise, will begin to live in heavenly peace.

It is truly aggravating that these self-serving propositions are canvassed by those who   benefit from Nigeria the most, the same group largely, if not solely, responsible for the nation's predicament. Never mind that the 70% of Nigerians, who eke out a miserable existence below the poverty line, the truly neglected and marginalized have, by the very fact of their marginalization, been denied the voice to canvass for a position of their own. It is, in the event, most dishonest and absurd for those who impoverish a people and strip them of decent human existence to turn round and claim to be speaking for them. So, for who do these attention-seeking agitators speak? Why is it that, as a rule, their agitation is about the sharing of our commonwealth? When are they going to begin to agitate for an end to poverty, corruption and bad governance and all the evils that have made Nigerians prone to violence while reducing the country to a universal laughing stock? If these pretentious elite are truly committed to the welfare of the people as they claim, why are they unable to stop corruption and bad governance in their own states of origin or in the local councils closest to them? Or is it by breaking the country up into ethnic enclaves or by writing new laws that these crimes they, themselves, perpetrate against the people they claim to represent will come to an end?

Let us put a few popular fallacies to rest. The first fallacy is the claim that Nigeria's current predicament is rooted in the nature of its diversity or, more specifically, is to be blamed on particular sections, ethnic or religious groups other than our own. This is an elite contraption which is not supported by the facts. Recent events have shown that when ordinary Nigerians are able to free themselves from elite manipulation, especially in the face of existential threats, they close ranks, regardless of section, ethnicity and faith. This has been demonstrated during the fuel subsidy demonstrations in early January in both the North and the South, specifically in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Kaduna whereby young people, Muslims and Christians, took turns to protect each other from possible brutality by agents of the State, to enable each to practice their faith. In the same vein, we are witnesses to the spectacle in the House of Representatives which lasted for weeks, during which oil marketers from the North and the South, Muslims and Christians, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, were being investigated for mind-boggling fraud, in concert with agents of the State. Which of Nigeria's sections, ethnic groups or religions is responsible for the fraud which the oil marketers and their collaborators allegedly perpetrated on the rest of us?

The second fallacy is the claim that Nigeria's current predicament is rooted in the nature and the quality of its laws, or more specifically, the nature and quality of the 1999 Constitution. I will be the last person to insist that the 1999 Constitution is a perfect document. My biggest reservation with the 1999 Constitution is the immunity clause which enables some category of public officers to loot the treasuries entrusted to them with impunity and stay, even if temporarily, above the law. I also would like to see the structure of the federation adjusted such that Nigeria's federating units are reduced from thirty six to between six and twelve, with more powers devolved to them, not for homogeneity but for economies of scale. I am also a believer in fiscal federalism, whereby every federating unit is empowered to raise and keep its revenues, while contributing an agreed percentage to the federal government to enable it discharge the responsibilities assigned to it. In many respects, the 1999 Constitution needs to be reformed. However, this reform, I believe, can take place incrementally, whenever the need arises or whenever there is sufficient popular agitation to tinker with the constitution on a case by case basis. No group of human beings will ever be able to fashion a constitution for all time, which cannot be improved upon down the line. I therefore totally disagree with the professional agitators that we need a brand new, cure-all constitution which will settle all issues once and for all or that we need a special conference to overhaul the existing one.

Also, as far as I am concerned, the argument that the 1999 Constitution is a document fashioned by the military is an academic one and, therefore, does not cut it for me. To begin with, the 1999 Constitution is the constitution we already have and we can decide to keep it, if that is what we want. No one stops Nigerians from taking a constitution fashioned by the military and improve upon it to suit our needs. While I agree this is not ideal, especially in a democratic setting, it takes nothing away from our freedom as citizens to take a constitution fashioned by some of us, military or otherwise, as long as no one prevents us from amending it. We also have to remember that when that constitution was fashioned, Nigeria was not under a democratic regime even though the regime at the time had to prepare for a transition to democratic rule. It is totally inconceivable that this could have been achieved without a constitution, even if an imperfect one.

The impression created by the agitating elite that the 1999 Constitution had no input from ordinary Nigerians is dishonest and probably designed to pull the wool over our eyes. The draft 1999 Constitution was subjected to extensive public scrutiny and debate, across the six geo-political zones, in town hall meetings attended by thousands of Nigerians from all walks of life. Some Nigerians actually participated in these debates in their own native tongue because they could not even speak in English. But they turned up nonetheless to offer their views on how they wanted the constitution to cater for their needs. Although no one elected them, the drafters of the constitution were civilians who love their country and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was one of them. As a member of the Nikki Tobi Committee, I canvassed for all the views I express in this piece (and more) among my colleagues, regarding the structure of the federation, including a separate constitution for every federating unit, a court of appeal and a supreme court. I cannot remember the number of people involved but I have no doubt there were roughly as many patriotic Nigerians involved in the drafting of that constitution as those involved in drafting the American constitution which we hail today as a model constitution for presidential democracies all over the world. Other than using the 1979 Constitution as baseline, there was no attempt by the military junta ruling at the time to tell the drafters of the constitution what to write.

While, therefore, it may be true that the nature and quality of a constitutions could, in certain situations, be blamed for the nature and quality of society, this self-serving argument cannot be sustained in Nigeria today. In our specific case, the law is actually the victim not the culprit. The average Nigerian, not to talk of the average member of the Nigerian elite, has absolute contempt for the law. The only constitution Nigerians from all sorts of backgrounds continue to hail since Independence is the 1979 Constitution which, like the 1999 Constitution, was superintended by the military and which the political elite subverted and, by so doing, gave another set of military officers an excuse to stage a coup d'état in 1984. If Nigeria's political elite had such deep respect for the law as they claim, we would not have found ourselves today in a situation whereby we are splitting hairs over the nature and quality of the constitution we feel entitled to have because we would still have been operating the Constitution of 1979. We cannot, therefore, continue to scapegoat the law for our failures when the only way we observe the law is in the breach.

The divisive and self-serving disposition of the elite has taken Nigeria to the edge of the precipice and it is time for this grandstanding and holier-than-thou attitude to come to an end. If we spend half as much time trying to move this nation forward as we spend trying to pull it down, we would, by now have made spectacular progress. Nigerians must not succumb to the propaganda that we cannot live in peace and prosperity because we belong to different sections, "nationalities" or faiths or that unless we "review the basis of our union" every time we have a problem, then we cannot make any progress. No nation desirous of making progress will continue to question the foundations of its existence because these foundations are not as perfect as they should be. Show me one nation on earth that was not cobbled together by either colonialist or other factors external to it. Conversely, if homogeneity is a precondition for development, Somalia will be among the most developed nations on earth. No nation that wishes to make progress will resort to writing a new constitution every once in a decade on the false premise that it is possible to design a constitution that settles all issues and addresses all problems. Only a delusional, lazy, incompetent and self-serving elite will fail to realize that the problems of Nigeria have nothing to do with our diversity or with our bad laws but everything to do with bad leadership, poverty, corruption and disrespect for the law.

Next time, therefore, someone, promises to give you a perfect new country or a perfect new set of laws, ask them what they made of the ones they already have.

Bashir Yusuf Ibrahim may be reached at