- Under-developing the Citizen
Nigeria has existed as a federation for longer than a century. In a real sense, we are all settlers in this country from the moment this country was cobbled together by the force of colonization. We became citizens of a colonized country which gradually became independent within a constitutional democratic framework and a structure that ought to have had room for growth and development of the citizen. As citizens, we all had other prominent identities, but the nature of our political competition tended to reinforce them. The primary-level identity ought to have been our Nigerian citizenship, with other identities being faith, ethnicity and location. Ideally, none of these should have posed a threat to each other, but they did. In one hundred years, the growth of the Nigerian citizen was stunted by the pervasive and consistent growth of secondary – level identities. To be clear, there ought not to be a problem with being Nigerian and Muslim or Christian and Ijaw or Kanuri and living in Lagos or Gusau. But we have conducted our politics even under colonial rule to make identity the prime factor in competition over political assets and other privileges. Our current federation speaks volumes of political engineering that put premium on ethnicity, religion and the imperatives of control by the center, and its failure is indicated by the persistent demand of other identities such as indigene and settler and state-of-origin and regions to be the major determinants in the competition for power and economic resources.The elastic nature of identity politics appears lost on us.The more you yield to it as the prime determinant in group relations, the more you have to chase it as it pervades and crowds out other factors in even the minutest decisions in resource allocation.
It is important to state that a political system that works well will capture and process these multiple identities into a system that does not represent a liability for citizens or groups. That, however, will be a political process managed by leaders who place a premium on governing a complex nation, reducing its liabilities and increasing its potential to grow into a nation of citizens and laws. Our politics has unfortunately been about state capture, a phenomenon and a goal that throws all the negatives into the competition and uses public offices for personal gain and political patronage. Exploiting or inventing new faultlines has become standard operating procedure for our politicians. The nation has paid a very high price for some of these weaknesses in the strategies adopted in political competition. Today, we are more divided along ethnic, religious and regional lines than we have ever been. We see evidence of failure of political leaders to manage our pluralism and create less stress in many of our experiences. We are yet to come to terms with the roots and development of Boko Haram as an uprising against a state that had no capacity to remove its basic underpinnings before it became the phenomenon that it is. We still fail to understand that limiting the practice and scope of faith when it does not threaten the basic rights of other faiths is a major source of conflict. Our perception of secularism is severely limiting and damaging, because it fails to define the rights of citizens to live in accordance with their faith and still be Nigerian. We see this in the controversy over Muslim schoolgirls wearing Hijab in Kwara State; in the infantile provocations about Arabic characters in our currencies, and in numerous skirmishes over access to places of worship. Monumental failure to understand implications of an intensely religious people living in a country that its committed to not adopting a state religion leaves a huge chasm which is exploited by people who have strong interests in deepening faultlines. There may be no perfect solution to this, but there does not appear to be an end to the capacity of our politicians to exploit faith and turn it into political capital. It will be foolhardy to dismiss those who genuinely believe that there is a Jihad being waged by the Buhari administration, using, among others, Fulani herdsmen and crude nepotism, because that is the reality for them. There is no denying the potency of the campaigns in the last two elections that voting along religious lines is a major religious obligation.Muslim and Christian clergy have made fortunes peddling dangerously-divisive religious fallacies about politicians, and a forum such as this one will understand that many of them will account for creating some of the huge failures that lead us today. Politicians and the clergy have sown seeds of religious conflicts, most of which wait for the slightest stimulation to bloom, as we saw recently in Gombe State and many parts of Kaduna and Plateau States.
Our brand of politics has squeezed the space for the citizen with rights and expanded the powers of others who benefit from it. The “non-indigene” and “settler” is routinely treated under discriminating laws and regulations, access to economic opportunities, places of worship and political offices. The definition of the ‘settler’ has been so politicized, that it is now a veritable tool for disempowering huge segments of the population.The nation witnessed a governor in one of the eastern states sacking teachers from neighbouring states.In Kaduna State the ‘settler’ is defined along ethno-religions lines and marginalized by a political practice which has defined beneficiaries in very narrow terms. The Hausa-Fulani is quite possibly the largest ethnic group in southern Kaduna state, yet it is virtually non-existent in political dispensation of the region.In Plateau and Taraba States, Muslims constitute a huge segment of the population, yet they are severely under-represented by a political system that defines then as outsiders. In Kebbi State, a sizeable population of Christians do not find space in the political system. There are millions of Nigerians from the Southern part of the country who live on narrow margins in northern communities, limited, either by choice or by a restricting environment, from participating in the political process of accessing benefits that are otherwise available to other citizens. Igbo Muslims find it hard to live with other Igbo in Igboland because their faith is defined as alien to the Igbo ethnic group.In most parts of the south East and South South, northerners who have lived for decades with local communities cannot access jobs, political appointments or places of worship because they are seen primarily as settlers and non-indigenes. A peculiarly Nigerian creation is a Hausa young person born and bred in Ebonyi State, speaks more Igbo than Hausa, but cannot get a job in Ebonyi State as a citizen, because his state of origin is Kano, nor in Kano State from where his father moved to live in Abakaliki because his birth certificate says he was born in Abakaliki.
- Surviving the brink
The arrested development of the Nigerian citizen represents the single most important threat to the unity and even survival of the country. The ethnicisation of political office by politicians, many of whom swear with the Qur’an and Bible to promote and protect unity of the nation is in full evidence today. The current events in the South East are directly related to the clamour for the Presidency in 2023. So are the emergence of ethnic champions and new voices pushing the cause of Yoruba secession. The north which is walking up to the negative consequences of voting along ethno-religious and regional lines in the last two elections feels the pressure to abandon basic rights to vote freely to ethnic and regional pressure from politicians who cannot be trusted at this moment, and will be even less trustworthy if they have to wrest power by threat and blood.
There are many defects in the manner our constitution and federal system are designed, but there are bigger defects in the quality of our leadership. Good leaders will make even a defective constitution tolerable. Nigeria’s tragedy is that we have a constitution that requires critical scrutiny and overhaul, and a political elite that have no place in a Nigeria that needs to find a new lease of life. Restructuring, which is defined here as affecting major changes in the organization and functioning of Nigeria’s federal system, is a critical imperative. It will have to be informed by one fundamental value: justice. It will have to be designed around the question dealing with justice for every Nigerian, irrespective of his identity, location or ethnicity. It will have to be informed by justice in the manner federating units are created, assigned responsibilities and resources and allowed to operate as much as possible in accordance with the ideals of federalism. It must seek to do justice to our shared values and our peculiarities; our faith and obligations to the state; the rights of communities to their resources and security, and of other Nigerians who live among them. It must specifically aim to remove all distinctions between the citizen, indigene, settler or, at the very least, remove all disadvantages which any Nigerian will suffer as a result of the abuse of his constitutional rights by laws, regulations or activities by authorities or persons.
- Above all, the nation must adopt measures which prevent the emergence of bad leaders. We have to work hard to keep this country from disintegrating before 2023. We must reform the constitution and the Electoral Act to reduce the vulnerability of political parties and the Nigerian state from capture. No one should be complacent over the threat which the current political elite pose to this nation. There is nothing in their disposition or plans that they intend to run a country on different philosophy and ideals, and reconstruct a Nigeria that will relieve our future generation of additional burdens. Of all the challenges Nigeria faces, none is more frightening than the distinct possibility that the political elite currently playing high risk politics with our lives, livelihood and the survival of our country will retain power and continue leading us into decline and disaster. Allah has given us a country that is blessed with everything it needs to be great. We can obliterate distinctions and barriers between us that make all of us poorer, but we have to close ranks and speak to, and with each other honestly and with respect. There is nothing to support glib talk that this country cannot fail.Nor is there any reason to believe that we are irretrievably headed for worse disasters.
We have deep roots in each others’ lives, but we are playing very dangerous games.Every section of this country has issues with the way some or all affairs of the nation are run.There is nothing in the law or principles of leadership that says we cannot invite each other to sit down and discuss how we can reduce the tensions and grievances we all bear. It is most unlikely that President Buhari will yield to appeals to facilitate a national discourse on the nation’s challenges.To be sure, the approach of some groups which make demands in a manner that suggests that they must have everything they want or nothing does not help.Nor is it even likely that a conclave knocked together under pressure from some sections will be of any value.The nation can appeal to the President, the legislature and governors to recognize the historic opportunity to address major deficiencies in the country’s security and economic welfare, but this will achieve little with a national leadership that believes its own versions of our circumstances.But we must never give up.
The most important responsibility we bear today is to continue to exploit avenues to engage, to seek accommodation and compromises, to isolate mischief makers and build bridges.If our country survives its current circumstances, it will be because we have all gone the extra mile to salvage it.It is easier to destroy than to build.If Nigeria fails, none of us will be without blame, and our children and their children will inherit the worst fate it is possible to define, because Nigeria’s failure will be a nightmare that will haunt generations.Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala has been good to our country.We are going through a test, which, In sha Allah we will survive.But we need good, strong and honest leaders to lead us through these tests.If we make the wrong choices again, we should blame ourselves, not the leaders we chose.