On 19th May, 2021, Mr. Abu Mohammed Abubakar bin Mohammad al-Sheikawi (Abubakar Shekau), life ‘president’ of Boko Haram, finally died on his own terms under the supervision of his fellow ISWAP terrorists. The Nigerian presidency was silent. I am not aware that there has so far been any official presidential statement on the death of this villain who terrorized Nigeria for over ten years. However, the Nairobi kidnap and rendition of Mr. Nnamdi Kanu and the subsequent invasion of the home of Mr. Sunday Igboho have been celebrated with loud presidential triumphalism. Aso Rock town criers quickly passed a verdict of guilty on both men. The president himself added Mr. Igboho to his growing list of personal adversaries and state branded ‘terrorists’. Yet the most elementary notion of justice in a democracy is the presumption that even a villain is innocent until proven guilty in a competent court. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Kanu is yet to have his full days in court while Mr. Igboho is yet to be arrested or charged with any crime known to law. Only last Thursday, the army handed over more than 1,000 Boko detainees to the Borno State government. No charges filed. No trials conducted. No convictions. Detention alone confers repentance and earns forgiveness and state pardon!
Predictably, regime devotees and vocal political animals have recently been busy making a cruel distinction between Mr. Kanu and Igboho on the one hand and other dangerous trouble makers on the other. The Boko Haram terrorists and the pageant of bandits tormenting the entire northern space are being categorized as less of a threat to national security than the two major secessionist catalysts. According to this shameful argument, Mr. Kanu and Mr. Igboho are leaders of treasonous secessionist movements intent on splitting the federation and shrinking the nation’s sovereign space.
The bandits, on the other hand, are mere opportunistic criminals, peculiar businessmen exploiting the security deficits of the state to make some extra cash. As for the Boko Haram sectarian terrorists, nothing new is being said about them by the devotees of the new politics in town. Boko Haram and the bandits have become part of our national architecture and décor of violence. We should accept them as given and live with them. At best, we should grant amnesty to repentant Boko Haram fighters and even absorb them into the military.
Similarly, Mullah Ahmad Gumi has counseled that we rehabilitate and even apologize to repentant bandits, cuddle and pay them handsomely so they go home and sin no more. After all, they are no worse than Niger Delta militants who repented and were granted generous amnesty! We have already seen state sponsored welcome ceremonies in honour of repentant Boko Haram fighters in some states. Shortly afterwards, the same fighters have been reported to return to the battle fields to ambush and kill a few more soldiers in a war whose cost and duration seems endless.
Let me from the onset clarify my position on our growing parade of troublemakers and merchants of violence. I am first and foremost an unrepentant Nigerian. I am yet to see anything in the current atmosphere of transient insecurity that makes the business of Nigeria untenable. Neither Kanu nor Igboho appeals to my fundamental instincts. I understand their grouse but disagree with their methods and tools. We cannot allow opportunistic mob demagogues and unelected separatist entrepreneurs to derail the country. Similarly, the epidemic of banditry in the northern zones of the country along with the Boko Haram insurgency need to be exterminated with precise and decisive finality. The state must no longer compete for supremacy of violence with armed rascals of all persuasions. No grievance is so grave and no hurt so irremediable that we should sacrifice our unity to the momentary anger of ethnicities or the ambitions of crude mob thugs and drunken zealots. The possibilities of dialogue and legitimate protest remain unexplored.
Without question, the consequences of treasonous acts against the state are clear and obvious. But even then, promoters of militant secessionist projects deserve fair trials on proven grounds of treason. But as Col. Abubakar Umar, former governor of Kaduna state, recently pointed out, those who render the lives of fellow citizens unlivable and generally devastate the national economy while killing, maiming and raping innocent citizens deserve no less punishment than people like Mr. Kanu. In the northern half of the country, farms have been sacked, crops and herds have been stolen or destroyed, innocent villagers have been killed, traditional rulers have been abducted and schools serially shut for fear of more abductions by bandits.
In the same vein, countless bandit formations now close highways, sack farms, abduct school children in hundreds, sack security formations, kill soldiers and policemen, impose huge ransoms as levies on state governments and generally and openly contest territorial control over whole states. Ungoverned spaces in States like Zamfara, Kebbi, Yobe, Katsina and even, recently, Kaduna have become Bandit Reservation Areas (BRAs). Some elected governors have signed MOUs with bandit leaders. Some of the afflicted governors are ever so willing and ready to negotiate away part of their sovereign control of the states where they are the recognized chief security officers. When democratically elected governors cede sovereign control over parts of their states to armed non -state contestants, something more insidious than secession is on the agenda.
In the same vein, sectarian terrorism and rampant banditry are both threats to national unity and security in ways that are even more dangerous than secessionist rallies and violent showmanship. Taken together, therefore, all forms of threats to national security by armed non- state combatants should be countered with the full legitimate force of a concerted state backed by appropriate legal enablement.
For those busy exonerating bandits and Boko Haram, there is news for thought. A revamped Boko Haram under the command and control of ISWAP has announced the appointment of their own alternate governor and cabinet for those sections of Borno and other states they control. They are claiming to have established a caliphate spanning the entire Lake Chad region. They are reported to be collecting revenues and levying taxes on local fisher folk and farmers. If these decade long daring acts do not amount to violent secession, I cannot find a better definition.
Similarly, the implicit state terrorism in the manner of Mr. Kanu’s capture and rendition deserves to be interrogated and placed in historical context. Younger Nigerians need to be reminded of this. On 5th July, 1984, the same Mr. Buhari as military despot, ordered the kidnapping of Mr. Umaru Dikko, Second Republic politician, on the streets of London. A drugged and chloroformed Mr. Dikko was in the process of being freighted to Nigeria in a ‘diplomatic’ crate when the terrorist heist was busted by vigilant British security personnel at Stansted airport. Mr. Dikko and his two Israeli mercenary abductors and one Nigerian ‘security’ escort were fished out of the crate and restored to health. The rest is part of Mr. Buhari’s history of progression to the apex of Nigerian power and politics. I am sure that British government intelligence agencies, especially MI6 and MI7, will not be in any hurry to forget this incident as they try to figure out how Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, a British citizen travelling on a UK passport, returned to Nigeria from Kenya on the wrong plane.
In equal measure, no one has yet called the Department of State Services (DSS) to full public account on the controversial invasion of Mr. Igboho’s Ibadan home during unholy hours. Apart from a rather foolish and amateurish attempt to sabotage the Lagos rally of the Yoruba Nation movement, government is yet to overcome the embarrassment of the Gestapo visit to Igboho’s home. The violent exploit claimed two casualties, willfully damaged private property and yielded a dozen war prisoners and an inconsequential inventory of evidential material. These included children’s passports, some $5 in single dollar bills, charms and amulets plus of course a few predictable AK-47s. But the Lagos rally still took place nonetheless with a commendably mature handling by the Lagos police command.
Ultimately, whether we choose to defend dangerous secessionist catalysts or to decorate marauding bandits and fanatical Boko Haram terrorists, we need to recognize their common source. They are products of a dangerous variant of Nigerian politics inaugurated by the advent of the Buhari presidency since 2015. This is politics characterized by a sad combination of deliberate divisiveness and insensitivity to the feelings of component groups in a diverse federation. Worsening socio-economic conditions mean little to this political school. An unprecedented lack of economic direction has birthed a Nigeria that is now the poverty capital of the world. The elevation of insensitivity to the plight of the people into state policy has bred a nation in which human life has been trivialized to a point of being valueless. Funerals have become the most frequent and common social gatherings all over the country. Ready made condolence messages roll out of the presidency almost daily to notable casualties of this season of anomie.
We are dealing with a pattern of political leadership that is totally insensitive to the diverse essence of our nation. This is the politics of defiance and cruel daring, intent on forcing the personal wishes of a virtual absolutist monarch down the throats of the rest of the polity. It is the politics of hegemonic arrogance and unbridled nepotism in appointments to the most strategic public positions in the land.
It is actually a politics of deliberate provocation. It merely goads the disaffected to take such extremist actions as those for which people like Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho are now being persecuted. Such politics can only be a bait so that the might of the state can be martialed to crush opposing factions. The politics of catastrophe can only escort a nation towards tragic disintegration because of a stubborn refusal to acknowledge, understand and manage national diversity.
The trademark of this type of politics is its penchant for lopsided and provocative actions. Executive actions are taken and pronouncements made to incite anger and resistance among other sections of the polity. There neither regard for the sensitivities of other groups nor the political consequences of these actions for the unity and cohesiveness of the nation. It convenient to resurrect moribund grazing routes or impose cattle settlements on every state. It becomes expedient to garrison whole zones of the country and send in soldiers and policemen with a blanket order to commit atrocities and violate citizens rights in the name of security. It no longer matters if 98% of senior government positions go to one geo political region or religious zone to the disadvantage of everybody else.
In recent times, this dangerous politics has taken aim at the media and the freedom of expression of the citizenry. The social media platform Twitter as been banned for grazing the ego of an absolutist sovereign. Other social media platforms have been placed on notice as a curious licensing regime is in the works. The print media has come under the threat of emasculation through legislative revisionism. No one knows how many media censorship draft laws could still go to the National Assembly for microwave passage. A nation that is yet to escape from the hangovers of prolonged military dictatorship is being manipulated back into authoritarianism and illiberal democracy.
Buhari’s variant of the politics of catastrophe has a troubling diversionary twist to it. Mr. Buhari may be excused for his nativist preference for his fellow northerners above other Nigerians. Every politics is first local after all. But the same northern political elite now issuing incendiary statements in Buhari’s support are the ones some of whom wasted the resources meant for the development of the region. What happened to over fifty years of affirmative action and federal character? What became of the cumulative resources for education, infrastructure and social welfare over these decades? Where are the dividends of over four decades of power hegemony? Why is the north still writhing in abject poverty, unemployment, ignorance and medieval squalor? Why is the president shielding his regional political followers from this betrayal and instead focusing attention on isolated trouble makers from elsewhere in the country? Why are the injustices meted out to the people of the region being covered with the veneer of religion? Why can’t Mr. Buhari see that the bandits and Boko Haram killers are monsters from the long dark night of neglect and betrayal of a region that deserves to be happy?
Our current encounter with this nefarious politics is by no means unique. Recall the recent experience of the United States with the divisive Donald Trump. His politics deliberately saw two Americas: a white supremacist America and the nation of ‘others’- Blacks, Native American, Latinos, Asian Americans and sundry immigrant groups. As a matter of deliberate policy, Trump let it be known that he was first the president of white America over and above the others. He suppressed protests, tacitly ordered police and National Guard invasions of protesting gatherings, sponsored and promoted militia groups to advance his cause.
The catastrophic consequences have been on display in increased hate violence, hate speech and culminated in the January 6th armed invasion of the Capitol and erosion of the sanctity of American democracy. Benjamin Netanyahu was a smaller iteration but still a practitioner of the politics of catastrophic defiance and daring. He annexed more Palestinian territory, clamped down on Gaza and shrank the possibility of Palestinian self determination. The repercussion was more rockets targeted at Israeli cities, more deaths of innocent Palestinians from Israeli air assaults. We can add Hafez al Assad of Syria and Viktor Orban of Hungary to this mix of practitioners of this devilish politics.
Nigeria’s current politics of catastrophe has yielded more far reaching strategic consequences. A conclave of governors of Southern states met recently in Lagos and reiterated positions they had articulated in an earlier meeting at Asaba. The summation of the governors’ resolutions is a political response to the President Buhari’s politics of catastrophe and divisive demolition. In plain language, the governors want to exercise their constitutional rights over the territories they govern. Among other concerns, they do not want herds of cattle roaming their states, destroying farmlands and desecrating public and private spaces. Nor do they want to play host to ostensible herdsmen with arsenals of AK-47s who are more interested in killing innocent people, kidnapping for huge ransoms, robbing highway passengers and raping hapless women.
Easily the most consequential item in the resolutions list of the Southern state governors is a restatement of the obvious political truism that the 2023 presidential slot should go to a southern candidate. This last item has inflamed strange passions. Various politicians and regionalist hawks have been up in arms about the governors’ resolutions. The Lagos meeting has been described as ‘a gang up’ against a part of the country. Politicians from the northern end are divided on the matter of zoning. Some like the governors of Kaduna and Borno states have supported the imperative of a president from the south in 2023. On the other hand, politicians and commentators from the southern end of the country have praised the governors’ position on zoning the presidency. The political division of the nation along a north-south axis is clearly palpable.
The question of rotation of the Nigerian presidency between the southern and northern broad zones of the country is more of a common sense pragmatic and strategic exigency than a constitutional issue. This is a nation forged from the furnace of cultural and geo strategic compromise. Therefore, the matter of rotation of the political leadership of the nation between these axes has become an axiomatic convention. Even under the military, the delicate balancing of the north-south poles of power prevailed as a prescriptive model for national balance. It may not be the best but it remains a strategic necessity and a political imperative. To seek to tamper with that arrangement is to court ultimate catastrophe. Those contemplating that disruption do not wish Nigeria well.
There is an urgent need to rise above the drawbacks of the politics of negative bi-polarism. Ordinary Nigerians want a nation that works for all. Therefore, a fierce urgency is calling us all. It is the question of how to end the present insecurity by negating the politics of catastrophe. Our children have to be protected in their schools. That is an imperative for the future of education and the progress of the nation. We need to free our higways from the menace of violent actors to restore the free movement of persons and goods across the nation as a common market. We need to encourage those engaged in the private business of cattle farming to invest in modern methods that do not endanger the lives of herders and other citizens. The South East as a zone of natural entrepreneurship needs to be freed from unfruitful militancy, armed criminality and disruptive security presence.
A national security strategy that thrives on the crushing of individual symbols of sectional disquiet will end in political vendetta. A political strategy that seeks to elevate one section above the rest is an invitation to violent factional resistance. The challenge of this moment remains how to heal the nation through restorative statesmanship.