Friday, January 6, 2012

Boko Haram and the Nigerian state

Since 2010, a wave of terror has been unleashed on the Nigerian state. The ongoing campaign of bloodletting by the Boko Haram sect has reopened the fissures in the fabric of the Nigerian nation. Unlike other countries confronted with terrorism, there is in Nigeria a glaring lack of consensus among the elite, leading to inertia and seeming helplessness in the face of a virulent terrorist threat. After the terror group’s Christmas Day bombing of a church near Abuja that killed at least 43 people and wounded 73, calls for a renegotiation of the State of the Union have resurfaced forcefully and can no longer be ignored. Our political future as a nation-state will depend on how stakeholders are able to tackle this menace.

Though President Goodluck Jonathan has taken the right step by declaring a state of emergency in Boko Haram’s areas of influence, the crackdown on the sect may no longer be enough to save the Nigerian state. The grim realities demand bolder initiatives. As the second decade of the 21st century gathers momentum, the stress, tensions and threats that crouch beneath the surface, ready to erupt at the slightest opportunity, demand that all stakeholders rally behind the imperative of political restructuring to save the union and fashion realistic rules of political, economic and social engagement.

Nigerians are often divided along religious, ethnic and regional lines despite a shared, albeit forced, union of almost a century. But, as Prof. Tam David-West has pointed out, the merger of Northern Nigeria, Southern Nigeria and the Colony of Lagos by the British in 1914 was an amalgamation: “…an amalgam is a mixture of different constituents; an alloy, easily resolvable into individual components or entities”. The challenge for successive Nigerian generations has been how to forge nationhood, an American-style melting pot. To forge that nationhood and disprove late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s 1947 assertion that Nigeria “is a mere geographical expression”, states have been created, while the federal character principle has been enshrined in the laws and used as a basis for recruitment in schools, the civil service, political offices and the security agencies. It has been a long, hard road for the country to get where it is today. Yet, the gradual dismantling of federalism in favour of unitary structures has exacerbated the divisive tendencies, which manifest during every national crisis.

The nation’s political structure remains fragile and democracy appears to be in jeopardy. Therefore, it is time to restructure to achieve, at the very least, a vibrant federal structure that will allow all the component units to control their own resources, foster healthy competition and allow effective local autonomy over security and religion. The country effectively became a dichotomy from 2000 when 12 states (contrary to 1999 Constitution) adopted the criminal aspects of the Islamic sharia law complete with the Hisbah (religious police) without any constitutional safeguards for non-adherents.

Just as religion has been stretching the fabric of the union since 1986, when the military junta of the day dragged Nigeria into the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, religious and sectional interests have curtailed the heavy-handed attrition that the maniacal Boko Haram sect deserves. The emergence in the South-East of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra; in the South-South, Niger Delta militant groups; in the South-West, the Oodua Peoples Congress and in the North-Central, increasingly radicalised youths, gives expression to entrenched divisive tendencies.

Former Defence Minister, Lt. Gen Theophillus Danjuma (retd), once warned that no country could survive two civil wars or a religious war. The experience of war, famine and dismemberment in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and former Yugoslavia compels a discussion of Nigeria’s continued existence on mutually acceptable terms by all the federating units. The explosive situation that exists today cannot be wished away. Condemnation is definitely not enough. Ultimately, it is Nigerians themselves that will have to decide the country’s future. And the time is now. At the very minimum, component units should have control over their own resources, run their police forces and have control over local governments. The Federal Government will be left with defence, immigration/emigration, customs and foreign affairs while other responsibilities can be negotiated. A true federal structure should follow from the 1963 republican constitution, which allowed considerable regional autonomy and delivered rapid development through competition among the defunct four regions.

The country today resembles a failing state with the Boko Haram menace as an ominous reminder of the United States’ State Department assessment of Nigeria as a “fragile state” that could disintegrate by 2015. Human Rights Watch 2011 report calculates that inter-communal, political, and sectarian violence has claimed the lives of more than 14,500 persons since the end of military rule in 1999. Without security, there will be no future for the union. The way out is for all stakeholders to quickly agree to a truly representative conference of all nationalities to renegotiate the terms of the union.

Courtesy: The Punch
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