It is from a place of pain that I want to address the huge problem of fratricidal and internecine conflicts facing our country right now. ‘Fratricidal’ because it is citizens killing their fellow citizens and ‘internecine’ because the destruction of lives and properties have been horrendous on all sides.
I am deeply worried by the rising rate of intolerance between various ethnic and religious groups all over the country. From North to South and from East to West of this great nation, it appears as if Nigerians are increasingly taking laws into their hands and unleashing their frustrations on one another.
What worries me most is that the violence directly involves young people and they are the group who feel the impact much more than any other population group in the country. Everywhere you look, the youth are in the forefront of conflicts as foot-soldiers, maiming and killing or being maimed and killed. This is unacceptable.
To make matters worse, violence against women and children generally accompany these conflicts. Along with the destruction of lives, livelihoods and properties each round of strife worsen the deep poverty which already plague the majority of our populace.
Sadly, nothing is ever resolved after each orgy of violence. On the contrary, after each fight, a new and younger generation of youths count their losses in dead friends and family, destroyed lives and opportunities, and receive first-hand reason to hate each other, to hate other tribes and religions and to hate the country itself.
We do not need a soothsayer to tell us that we are sitting on a keg of gunpowder while playing with burning firewood.
I have given serious thought to these matters and I have come to the conclusion that rather than being tribal or religious, the conflicts we experience in Nigeria are sociopolitical, ie, they are social problems made worse by politics. Every time we have had a breakdown of law and order with citizens attacking themselves in the streets, markets or battlefields, it often turns out that a simple social problem was weaponized when it was given destructive coloration by malignant political interests.
It is my opinion that the biggest cause of Nigeria’s many conflicts is not tribalism and it is not religion. It is a little known culprit hiding in plain sight called ‘politics’, and specifically the variety of politics which is the handmaiden of vested interests. Concerned only about retaining her privileges this elite survivalist bourgeoisie deploys the very diversities which ought to make us great as weapons with which to negotiate their own survival.
This is why when you see a Yoruba man and a Hausa man at war in Shasha Market, Ibadan after decades of living, trading and thriving together, you can bet on it that both sides have recently fed fat on a diet of ethnic, if not religious, distrust which has nourished hatred and predisposed them to explode at the slightest provocation.
This means that we can resolve these conflicts when we address the underlying problems of incitement rooted in politics that are behind them. This can only happen when our politics and politicians become honest about the social inequalities and inequities inherent in Nigerian society.
It is however debatable whether the degree of honesty needed to tackle the roots of citizen-on-citizen violence in Nigeria exists among those of us in politics, even in this 4th Republic. After decades and decades of using politics to camouflage real problems, it seems as if the political class has lost the political will to call a spade a spade.
The quibbling with security and the dissembling around restructuring are symptoms of a bigger malaise which developed in the bowels of Nigerian leadership all the way back to colonial times. It led to the very first coups in this country and are directly responsible for the lamentable Nigerian-Biafra War. Some would even argue that the Boko Haram insurgency and the widespread banditry of today are offshoots of it.
Speaking from my wealth of experience as the 4th Executive Governor of Kogi State who is currently in the second year of a second term, I can say that courage and forthright leadership is practically all one needs to tackle the problems of the nation and unite Nigerians.
Kogi State is a microcosm of the larger Nigerian society. It is multiethnic and multireligious with huge imbalances in population and demography which predisposes the different sections to disproportionate controls over electoral outcomes and therefore political power, and in particular, access to government and her benefits.
Now anybody who knows Kogi State knows it is a hotbed for ethnic distrust and religious divides which leads to frequent and fatal clashes. Communities go to war, often without warning, over rice and other farmlands, cashew plantations and other cash crops, fishing ponds, chieftaincy disputes, festivals, religious grievances, among others. We came to office to meet communities where people had been killed in their numbers and survivors living in exile for years. It was not easy, but over the last 5 years as Governor I have been able to stop all but the occasional conflict. We have also resolved most of the agelong communal disputes we inherited.
Our greatest tools for conflict resolution have been the political will to not play one tribe, religion or locality against another. Add to this a refusal to entertain any agenda which elevates normal social problems into political weapons and you can see why we have been so spectacularly successful in this regard.
I must note that the overall insecurity all over the country has set everyone on edge and with social media being so ubiquitous information has been democratized like never before. Citizens now have news at their fingertips.
Unfortunately the daily news more often than not provides ‘evidence’ to citizens that they are not safe in their own homes. Killer herdsmen, cattle rustlers, kidnappers, armed bandits and terrorists are real threats facing communities and individuals and the news is everywhere. This often provokes the defensive instinct and if political actors stoke that fear instead of deploying mechanisms in a timely fashion to make people feel safe again, it may explode into the sort of mindless mayhem we saw this past week.
My counsel to Nigerians, especially the youth, is two-fold. One, they must not care for any reason given by we politicians to justify the continued existence of these security threats, because no excuse makes sense. The primary purpose and duty of governments at all levels is to secure the lives and properties of their citizens. This duty lies as much on state governments within the boundaries of their states as on the federal government everywhere within our national borders.
Moreover, I happen to know that we have the resources to secure every Nigerian and every part of this country. While it may be more difficult in some parts given the peculiar nature of each security challenge, there is no denying the fact that the Police and other Law Enforcement agencies are equal to the task of providing the security we need.
My second counsel is to beware of populist ploys by politicians. In particular, citizens have to learn to ignore the hype which disclaims responsibility for protecting the people under one’s governance by pointing to Abuja as the command centre of everything security. True, Abuja has a huge role to play in establishing State Commands and posting men to them. It is however the duty of the State Government to put them to use and to continuously encourage them to excel. They may require extra motivation and we may have to expand their capacities with paramilitary and civilian taskforces but it is the job of states to help them achieve the required levels of capability.
Three, and above all, I advise Nigerians to refuse hasty generalizations which demonize a tribe or a religion, especially those from other places who are resident among a particular populace. It does not matter if the stigmatization is founded upon the criminal conduct of a negligible few among the target class. It is the duty of a responsible state government to deploy her law enforcement resources to arrest and prosecute criminals without criminalizing innocent citizens simply because they share a language or religion with the criminal elements.
In the final analysis, citizens must hold their leaders responsible for electoral promises and not allow them escape reckoning by playing on sentiments and turning people against one another. In particular, the game of keeping Nigerians divided by causing them to distrust their fellow citizens must be buried forever now.
We deserve a nation that is not losing grip on her massive potentials simply because very basic issues of leadership and governance are treated like rocket science. Let 2023 be the year when Nigerians come out as one reject politicized division and conflicts which only benefit a few elites. Let us instead elect leaders who have the vigor, courage and character to tackle our national problems head on.