By Simon Kolawole
There was a time in my life when my biggest worry about the Nigerian union was the likelihood of a break-up. I worried about the process: would it be peaceful? I didn’t think so. No president would watch the country disintegrate under his watch without putting up a fight. But that would mean another civil war. We have fought a civil war before and there was nothing delicious about it. In recent times, I have also heard tales of war horrors from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. They scare me stiff. Most importantly, I used to worry about the consequences of balkanisation on ordinary Nigerians who could be uprooted and dislocated from places they have always known as home.
Today, my biggest worry is no longer the possible balkanisation of Nigeria. After all, if Nigeria breaks up, would it be a first in the history of mankind? The way we talk about break-up in this country, you would think it is unknown to the human race and we are about to invent something magnificent. The almighty USSR broke up, didn’t it? Eritrea came out of Ethiopia and South Sudan left Sudan. Life goes on. While there are those who genuinely believe the current structure of Nigeria is not working and needs a fundamental change for the greater good, there are also those who are campaigning for an outright break-up completely out of spite. Whatever option we settle for, life will always go on.
My biggest worry, the way things are going, is the somalisation of Nigeria, which I wrote about recently. By somalisation, I mean a descent into prolonged chaos and anarchy. The Federal Republic of Somalia — a country with one ethnic group, one tongue, one religion and virtually one sect (Sunni Islam) — became unthinkably divided along clan lines as it began to descend into anarchy in the 1990s after a military coup. The Somali armed forces could not contain the various armed groups. UN efforts failed and by 1995 its forces withdrew, leaving the country in the hands of armed gangs who competed for power in the absence of a functioning national government. It is a very sad story.
With the Nigerian security agencies showing seeming helplessness as criminal gangs, terrorists and secessionists strike daily, we should be worried more about a prolonged state of lawlessness and ruin than the possibility of a break-up. It would appear these criminal gangs have carved out their own portions of Nigeria where they are operating without let or hinderance. When soldiers are running away from the battlefield and complaining that the enemy has superior firepower, when bandits are killing randomly by the minute, when police stations are being attacked and prisons are being flung open with so much ease, somalisation should worry us — far more than balkanisation.
Nigeria has been inching towards disorder for quite a while, but it appears we accelerated badly in the last few years. I don’t think the anarchy has ever been this widespread, even though I know I could be accused of wild exaggeration. Insurgents, bandits and kidnappers in the north, kidnappers, rapists, separatists and gunmen in the south… I don’t think our security agencies have been this stretched since the end of the civil war. The attacks on police in Imo state and Akwa Ibom have lengthened an already horrifying list of lawlessness across the country. Every day, we wake up asking: where next? My biggest pity is for the hapless and helpless Nigerians seeing hell daily.
The recent attacks on police stations and prisons in Imo state in which thousands of inmates were freed strikingly followed patterns established by the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) and Boko Haram. In 1999, OPC targeted police stations in the south-west, particularly in Lagos, before President Olusegun Obasanjo reined them in by using a combination of soft and hard powers. In 2009, when Boko Haram began to transform from a religious sect to an armed group, its initial attacks were directed at police stations and DSS offices in Borno state. They have gone on to become a formidable rebel force with military-calibre arsenal. We can all feel the consequences.
I have no doubt in my mind that most of those we call “bandits”, “gunmen” and “herders” today are products of the Boko Haram insurgency — that’s if they are not actually their agents. Boko Haram — whether the Abubakar Shekau faction, or the one referred to as the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP), or any other faction at that — definitely needs funds to sustain operations, including buying arms and feeding the insurgents and their captives. That is a huge budget running into billions of naira monthly, even by conservative estimates. Through banditry and kidnappings, they achieve two things: exerting terror on the populace and extorting ransoms to fund their budgets.
The insurgents have also succeeded in fuelling ethnic agitations in Nigeria which are threatening to boil over. In the south-west, northerners are bearing the brunt of the conduct of criminal gangs who engage in kidnapping and rape. The entire Fulani ethnicity has been issued with quit notices and attacked. This is raising ethnic tensions. Some Yoruba nationalists are also seizing the opportunity to amplify their call for the balkanisation. Some have declared Republic of Oduduwa. Ethnic tensions are high and ethnic militias are having a field day. The Boko Haram guys must be having fun in their cocoons because whatever they are doing to damage Nigeria is obviously working very well.
In the south-east, which has a no-love-lost relationship with President Muhammadu Buhari, the activities of these criminal gangs have been interpreted as a Fulani jihad being executed to conquer Igboland. If you dismiss this interpretation with a wave of the hand, then you are far away from understanding the sentiments on the streets. And that will be totally unhelpful. There is a standing instruction by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), the south-east separatist group, that Fulani herders should be chased out of the region. The attacks on police stations and prisons, no matter who is behind them (IPOB has denied having a hand), can only worsen the somalisation situation.
There have always been political explanations for the perennial violence in Nigeria in the last two decades. I recall that in 1999-2002, there was insecurity across the country: ethnic and religious riots in the north and violence by armed gangs and ethnic militias in the south. The first interpretation then was that there were agent provocateurs at work trying to truncate our “fledgling democracy” and bring the military back to power. If that was true, then we managed to scale the hurdle. At least, we have enjoyed uninterrupted civil rule for almost 22 years now. The violence and insecurity have not stopped, though. Instead, things have only got progressively and frightening worse over time.
Another political interpretation of the insecurity is that violent agitations are a means of getting power in Nigeria. In the heat of the Boko Haram insurgency under President Goodluck Jonathan, I read an article (I can’t remember the author) suggesting that it had an ethno-political motive. The author said there was a belief that the Yoruba got power in 1999 because of the agitations of Afenifere, NADECO and OPC. He further argued that power moved back to the north in 2007 as a result of the Shari’a riots that pushed the country to the brink of religious war. He also thought a VP candidate was picked from the south-south in 2007 to pacify the Niger Delta militants.
His overall argument, then, was that Boko Haram was set up to destabilise the Jonathan administration so that power could return to the north after their notional eight-year tenure was cut short by the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in May 2010 — three years into his first term. The author warned that using violence to gain power was a dangerous and an unhealthy trend for Nigerian politics. (I hope I have not misrepresented the author’s arguments and views because I have not been able to find and re-read the article since then). Some analysts believe that some of the ongoing violence and agitations in the country are aimed at securing political power in 2023.
While I admit that there could be some truth to the author’s thesis (I, however, do not believe Boko Haram was set up to return power to the north, given the little I know about their origins and evolution), I am more disturbed with the inability of the Nigerian state to halt the somalisation. No matter the politics or demographics of it, this carnage has to be stopped urgently. I am not saying the balkanisation campaigners should stop their job. That is above my paygrade. But before Nigeria breaks up — if it has to break up at all — government still has the constitutional responsibility to protect life and property. This “on your own” situation is, to put it mildly, depressing.
One frustrating thing about Nigeria is the inability of many ethnic leaders to see that the state of insecurity is a threat to all of us. Helpless and hapless Nigerians are being killed all over the country. No ethnic group is spared. No religion is exempted. But the framing of the issues is such that the impression is being created and sustained that it is a campaign by one section of the country against the other. I wouldn’t be amazed if it is only a few Twitter warriors that are politicising the insecurity. Do they know any better? But when you see supposedly educated and enlightened people peddling divisive theories and falsehoods just to score cheap political points, you have to shake your head.
For one, I no longer worry about Nigeria’s break-up. There is nothing falling from the sky that the ground cannot accommodate. However, for the record, I continue to strongly believe in one Nigeria. It is not because I am such a wonderful patriot; it is simply because I have spent time observing how ordinary Nigerians relate with one another. We do not have differences that cannot be managed with political sagacity. The obstruction to national unity, I maintain, is political mismanagement. But even if Nigeria is eventually going to break up, we still deserve, for the time being, government protection in this Hobbesian state of nature, where life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.