The image of King Nero fiddling away while Rome is aflame has become the classic metaphor for every disconnect between a decaying state and a concerted nation. Very few places dramatize this metaphor than today’s Nigeria. We are now in that place where the anxiety of an eager citizenry to live in a good nation contrasts sharply with the relentless bungling of an errant state.
Therefore, beyond the October 1st fanfare at Eagle Square and the cascade of rituals about Nigeria at 60, the frightening paradox of today’s Nigeria is that a deteriorating state has become a mortal danger to the survival of the nation itself. On this proposition, there is a raging contention between the incumbent government and the significant centres of opinion in the nation. Two dominant and opposing sets of forces and positions are on display.
There is the predictable self adulation of the government captured in the defensive reassurances of the Buhari presidency that Nigeria has never had it so good. In his Independence day broadcast, president Buhari dwelt extensively on the state of the nation from the vantage pedestal of power incumbency. He spoke of fallen oil prices, dwindling revenues and of the imperative for government to quit the gas station and allow impoverished Nigerians to pay the commercial prices of gasoline as they do in Saudi Arabia and other carefully selected African countries.
It did not matter to our president that the citizens of Saudi Arabia do not ply broken roads or perennially dodge the bullets of bandits in an atmosphere of perennial insecurity. Mr. President, Saudis do not send their children to dilapidated schools, die of the most preventable diseases or perish from avoidable poverty and compulsive misery. In any event, the essence of Nigeria was never the computation of oil prices or the tallying of tax and tariff returns. This place was meant to be the home of diverse peoples living together in peace under leadership that is visionary and purposeful.
The president lamented the difficulties of the times while renewing his resolve to fix the damages of a bad past which he largely blamed on his predecessors. A broad spectrum of Nigerians have since opined the lack of inspiration in the badly written and atrociously delivered anniversary speech. The most conspicuous absence in the president’s speech was of course a disturbing failure to acknowledge the increasing tension, escalating violence and raging rhetoric of hate in the nation. Most importantly, president Buhari failed to address the urgent need for unity and healing of a nation that many agree his administration has badly divided. No one expected the president to acknowledge his own personal responsibility for the sorry state of the Nigerian state but a tacit admission that all is not well would have sufficed. Consequently, a certain wall of indifference and hopeless apathy has greeted both the presidential broadcast and the entire 60th independence celebrations. Our sense of emptiness and hopelessness persists even as Nigerians lament that we have been in the rain for sixty years.
From the opposite side of a divided nation space has come an unbroken torrent of apocalyptic warnings. Voices have risen from across the land cutting across the various divides of our diversity. The Northern Elders Forum has acknowledged that there is in fact merit in the argument for some restructuring of our creaky federation. The Arewa Consultative Forum has added its voice by proposing a referendum on the future of the nation. The major regional cultural and political groupings have pressed on with their relentless clamour for restructuring or even outright balkanization of Nigeria into fully independent or semi independent units.
The fear has been variously expressed by these privileged voices that the current signs of state failure could lead to national collapse. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo used the inter denominational church service to mark Nigeria at 60 to express the fear that the now visible cracks in the fabric of the nation could lead to a tragic break up if not quickly fixed. But Mr. Osinbajo was merely echoing the most dominant temper in the public space.
Other voices have joined in the cautionary warnings. A select roll call of who else has added their voices to this patriotic concern is quite revealing: Pastor Enoch Adeboye, Bishop Mathew Kukah, former president Olusegun Obasanjo, former president Ibrahim Babangida, Abubakar Atiku, sundry clergymen and traditional rulers ranging from the Sultan of Sokoto to Guru Maharaji!
The increasingly strident separatist groups have not only joined in the note of caution. Some of them have actually undertaken symbolic actions to point in the direction of what could follow the possible demise of Nigeria. An Oduduwa Republic movement has assumed an international complexion with protest marches, flags, emblems etc. and incensed rhetoric. They were out at major centres of the world on October 1st. Predictably, IPOB and other pro-Biafra movements ordered a stay at home for October 1. The police countered by asking people to go about their business. Most sensible people obeyed the IPOB order and ignored the police.
The social media is ablaze with incendiary rhetoric and divisive narratives from individual Nigerians and groups on the plight and future of Nigeria. Suddenly, the hurling of abuse across all conceivable divides has replaced mutual respect and tolerance. What is disturbing about the emerging separatist pictures is the erection of alternative post- Nigeria worlds that seem happier and more peaceful than life in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
It may be convenient for Abuja to ignore the deafening clamour of separation. What cannot be argued away is the general atmosphere of increasing discontent among the general populace. Our people are troubled by a life of extreme deprivation and unending struggle for basic existence. People set out on honest journeys but are no longer quite sure that they will get to their destinations or return home with life or limbs. Men and women who have spent an honest life working in the service of the state hardly get paid their pensions or gratuities. Those who are lucky to be in any form of employment can hardly pay for the basic things of life. Millions of youth are spewing out of a dysfunctional educational system into dangerous streets and unsafe neighborhoods. The prospect of employment is a forlon hope.
A new world of social media and globalized euphoria has created for our youth an alternative world of fantasy and make belief. They have become stateless exiles and iconoclastic rebels living in a virtual never land with allegiance to neither country nor nation. They are citizens of a globalized world in which the priority is to ‘blow’ (become instantly very wealthy) and strike a splashy ‘arrival’ in an outlandish automobile. The possibility of instant wealth through unclear undertakings has emerged as a theology against honest aspiration, hard work and deferred gratification. Their career preferences now include entertainment, gambling, music, wanton display of genitalia, glorified prostitution and cybercrimes. A mismanaged state is mass producing a whole generation of outcasts and rebels with no clear cause.
The pervasive pessimism about the future of the nation and the diverse visions of apocalypse is a recent development. It is directly traceable to the conduct of state affairs under the Buhari administration. It is not just the economic challenges of the moment that have created doubts about the future. It is first the lack of direction and the serial tacit subversion of the constitution. It is the diversion of the majority of privileged state positions to only one section of the country. Bishop Mathew Kukah’s 60th Independence message estimates that a majority of strategic national positions have gone to Northern Muslims: “It is estimated that the president has handed over 85% of the key positions to Northern Muslims and has ensured that men of his faith hold tight to the reins of power in the most critical areas of our national life”.
This strange new normal and the anger it has bred is behind the recent separatist pressures in the country. What has intensified these pressures is of course the denial with which the government has greeted the dissenting voices. The new well orchestrated programme of hegemony has activated the forces of fierce self determination among the other major constituencies in our federation.
At the root of the imminent crisis is a certain failure or willful refusal by this government to understand the basis for order in a diverse nation. The first requirement in the effective management of diversity is transparent inclusiveness. Once a government misses this ingredient, the consequence is distrust, alienation and feelings of marginalization and exclusion. In a multi ethnic society, a sectional hegemonic usurpation of vantage power positions translates into ethnic and regional alienation. Divisive thought and hateful rhetoric result and soon, calls and mobilization for restructuring, secession, separation dominate public discourse. This train of events is given quantum traction in an age of social media, and instantaneous communication and mobilization of opinion. The algorithm of hate is self -propelling as we have seen with the viral spread of fundamentalist creeds around the world in recent times.
Let us not underestimate the gravity of our situation. The mismanagement of diversity and inclusiveness has led many a nation into bloody conflict and nasty unraveling. Yugoslavia, Sudan, Rwanda, Yemen and Myanmar have all been sad stories at some point on this account.
When a government is at once divisive and also grossly incompetent, its destructive threat to the survival of the nation increases. Under Mr. Buhari, divisiveness and epic incompetence have joined forces to threaten the political survival of the nation. In turn, the strategic components of the federation have begun to define their survival in separatist terms. In the process, attention has also shifted to a certain historical apprehension as more people now ask how we got to this sorry pass.
Unfortunately, the history of our nationhood is still very fresh. Sixty years is too short in the history of a country to begin digging for stories of origins. Current fears about injustice and inequity in Nigeria have led the elite to question major historical milestones such as the 1914 Amalgamation, the 1960 Independence Constitution and the 1970 national order.
It is too late in the day to blame the British for the Amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914. The colonial venture was primarily an economic enterprise. It adopted whatever administrative structures that would enhance and facilitate the evacuation of produce and expropriation of resources from the colonized space. But in the run up to independence, we encounter the real face of the Nigeria’s founding which shaped this present. The series of talks that led to independence were dialogues and negotiations among the leaders of diverse nationalities. They negotiated before agreeing on the formation of the Nigerian federation which was granted independence on October 1st, 1960. It is from this point that we need to depart in order to rescue today’s Nigeria.
For Independence and the birth of Nigeria, it was the component parts, the federating units that agreed to form a union called Nigeria under definite terms and conditions. After 1966, the military shredded the Independence constitution and imposed a unitary arrangement that culminated in the creation of states. This is the birthplace of our present problems and it is rooted in a major problem of political theory. Most durable federations are unions of consenting federating units in voluntary legally binding associations. An overbearing national authority cannot create federating units. The reverse is the norm.
In the United States, for instance, it was the states that joined the union at different times and created the federal government. But in the Nigerian instance, it was a bunch of politically illiterate soldiers that sat together to create the states and imposed on them a constitution of terms and conditions. This unitarist federalism was rammed down the throat of all Nigerians under a new national order instituted in 1970 after the Civil War and guaranteed by force of arms. The allocation of powers and privileges was a top to bottom affair. Thereafter, the survival of states has remained a function of their dependence on the federal government.
The prevalence and survival of the national order of 1970 was a function of the durability of the federal government’s coercive pre-eminence. Most national or international orders guaranteed by force last for an average of 40-50 years. So, we are at the tail end of the 1970 national order (“To keep Nigeria One…”) that guaranteed the survival of the current unitary federal state. As is obvious, in the last decade or more, the prevalence of the federal might has been constantly challenged by diverse non -state actors. Rival militias, militant political groups, weaponized separatist movements, bandit squads and sundry other competitors for power have come into play. The forces of micro nationalism and sectarian fundamentalism have joined the fray. These pressures are coming at a moment in an international environment that now recognizes minority rights as an aspect of human and peoples rights. For Nigeria, this moment is made more dangerous. A general atmosphere of insecurity has shaken the trust and confidence of the populace in the protective umbrella of the federal state.
In our present circumstances, there are three urgent fraught options:
• First, we can retain the present federal state and strengthen the coercive control of the centre to contain opposing violent forces to reassure the populace of their security. The result will be a fascist state possibly ruled by a populist illiberal president.
• The second option is a drastic amendment of the 1999 constitution in a manner that substantially devolves power to the states, leaving residual powers over national defence, foreign relations, customs and air space to the federal authority. Accordingly, the states are to generate their own revenue while those that have minerals keep their revenue and only pay 30% tax on royalties to the federal government.
• The third option is the convening of a national all-Nigeria conference of nationalities to renegotiate a future constitutional arrangement for Nigeria. This conference should lead to a new constitution in which it is the representatives of Nigerian peoples that negotiate and agree on the type and scope of federal government they consider appropriate. Such a government must not wield power in excess of what the federating units accord it.
In each option, the current state of Nigeria makes a single demand on us. We now need a knowledgeable, visionary and transparently patriotic leader to escort our people out of the acid rain of the last sixty years.