Buhari’s conversion of Nigeria’s democratic national space into a garrison. By Chidi Amuta

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Special to USAfrica magazine (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com, first Africa-owned, US-based newspaper published on the Internet.

Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica — since 1993

In one respect, President Muhammadu Buhari may have worked so hard to prepare his successor for the acclaim that has so far eluded him. He has unconsciously scripted a higher popularity rating for that lucky successor.

The next president will harvest national and international acclaim by doing something that requires little or no effort: just being different from Buhari. Where Buhari has remained distant and aloof, the next president is likely to draw near, reach out and touch the people. Where Buhari has been reluctant to talk to us, the next president will replace arrogant silence with soothing compassion and expressed empathy. Instead of the stern threats of a parade ground commander, the new leader will hopefully offer us the candor of civilized speech in the language of ‘one of us’.

Above all else, the next leader will have to explore the limitless possibilities and elastic benefits of dialogue to restore peace, security and stability. This means discarding Buhari’s perennial threats and relentless belligerence. It requires the humility to seek inclusive engagements with all the factions whose grievances currently endanger Nigeria.

Dialogue as an instrument for the effective management of diversity is the next best road which, for some inexplicable reasons, Mr. Buhari has refused to travel so far. That gateway is the exit which this president needs to quickly find in order to escape from the lure of a tragic legacy even as he strolls towards the exit turnstile of power.

So far, Mr. Buhari has sought to achieve a pax Nigeriana mostly by force of arms. But the failure of these efforts so far has demonstrated the futility of force as an instrument for the resolution of national discord. In the process, the president and his team may now be at the dead end of the deployment of the instruments and methods of war in the search for a retreat from the current brink. To fund the reliance on force, government has borrowed from vendors of death and merchants of debts to buy big guns. What has not however been tested is the elasticity of compromise and the enduring value of frank open discussion.

Just take a look at the theatre.

Against the jihadist terrorists and insurgents of Boko Haram and ISWAP in the North East, a decade long counter insurgency war has produced a more resilient adversary and re-drawn the map of Nigeria. There is now a red zone where the boundaries of at least two states have been blurred by something too dangerous to name. Against the roving train of marauding bandits in the North West, sporadic armed engagements by a security force drained of morale have emboldened opportunistic criminals into an army with neither command nor control.

In the mid section of the country, militarized herdsmen have sustained an unrelenting wave of arson, murder and forceful land grabbing. The scenic beauty of the Jos hills and the lush green fields of the Benue basin have been converted into perpetual human abattoirs. Some Benue villages are now echo chambers for choirs of widows and wailing sanctuaries of countless orphans.

Against the IPOB secessionist militias in the South East, countless special security operations have produced a combination of dangerous local militia and a strange phenomenon called “unknown gunmen,” military grade professional marksmen of speculative origins who are spreading death in a place famed for peace. Special security operations in the South East have literally exhausted the names of all the predatory animals in the fauna for brand names to no avail. In the Niger Delta, an uneasy calm has greeted a recent much celebrated legislative heist of the oil and gas industry.

In the South West, an attempt to invite the imperative of federal force has produced a series of determined urban disobedience. There is widespread separatist activism, cultism, retail kidnapping and spirited armed robbery. Security infractions in this region have been emboldened by the migration of security manpower to areas of the country greater urgency.

In all of this, something despicable has happened. In the quest for security, our fickle democracy has slid into avoidable authoritarianism. The elected president of a republic has shrunk into a tin god prefect of a virtual banana republic. A curious appetite for monarchical pretensions has produced a circumstantial tyrant above reproach and enlightened interrogation. A supposedly democratic national space has degenerated into a garrison and regimental hellhole. Protesting youth have been routinely visited with live bullets and pepper spray in their faces instead of rubber bullets or water hoses. In this place, the freedoms and rights which citizens in a democracy take for granted are now as scarce and costly as basic food items. Even the hope that this, too, shall pass now rings hollow with the futility of a hopeless longing.

Perhaps Mr. Buhari has a right to look forward to some positive legacy. But his record indicates differently. He has led a government whose trademark is endless, foolish fights. Fight against the Igbos. Fight against the Yorubas. Fight against the Middle Belt. Fight against the Niger Delta. Fight against the Hausas and other indigenous peoples of the North. Fight against the youth. Fight against the social media, the judiciary, against ASUU and against the medical profession. Most Christian factions as well as Shiites feel embattled under Buhari.

While the fights rage and the drift to anarchy quickens, something fundamental in the lifeblood of the nation is dying.  The basic communication that ought to bind government and citizens has atrophied. Government has threatened to deal with dissenting citizens  ‘ruthlessly’ while those who disturb the peace will be ‘severely punished’. Niger Delta militants and Biafran separatists will be spoken to ‘in the language they understand’.  Government has opted to address Nigerians mostly in the language of violent threats and incendiary retribution. The only crime which Nigerians have committed to warrant this barrage of linguistic terrorism is no more than a desire to be respected and left at peace as citizens. At other times, this ‘next level’ government has resorted to sectional abuse and divisive hate speech in its official pronouncements on legitimate national concerns. Let us not forget; hate rhetoric in an elected government is an act of treasonous violence and a travesty of democratic culture. Predictably, separatists, secessionists and the political opposition have responded in kind. The social media pages of key government officials bleed with torrents of unprintable insult.

Yet it is common knowledge that in the arsenal of the truly democratic state, strength lies not in the ready invocation of state violence but in the delicate balance of stiff coercion with the soft power of compassion and a willingness to dialogue. The language of exchange between government and the people should be one of candor and mutual respect, not the reckless hurling of abuses across a divide of shame and hate. Pretending that government cannot dialogue with non- state actors is foolish arrogance. We cannot vanquish dissenting citizens by force either.

It is therefore time for the president to try the route of dialogue to exit the fast closing corridor of national tragedy. There is no better hour than this moment of exit through the revolving doorway of democratic transition. The quest for peace through dialogue is by far an easier, less costly option. The total cost of organizing an all inclusive national dialogue on our current troubles is less than the sticker price of one A-29  Super Tucano aircraft at ($30 million)!

Somehow, the aggrieved factions have simplified things by making themselves and their demands known. We know their leaders and their emblems. IPOB parades openly, clad in flags with the radiant Biafra sun. Advocates of the Yoruba Nation carry the emblematic wisdom of the Oranmiyan head. Even Boko Haram has its distinguishing black flag adapted from the dark covens of Al Queda and ISIS. Sheikh Gumi knows the bandits and their forwarding address. Boko Haram and ISWAP are now part of our national landscape. Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho are now household names, made even more popular by the arrogance of a State that fears the footsteps of its more courageous citizens.

Whatever happens, the hour of engagement through dialogue has come. Dialogue will allow the government a breather from perennial fighting to rediscover the dying art of responsible governance. In matters of statesmanship and statecraft, strength is not the deployment of anger that can set the homestead on fire. Mr. Buhari has consistently displayed the trademark anger of an expired warrior. He has in the process reopened the wounds of war that have not healed after half a century. Twitter was banned because the president used hateful language to remind the nation of Biafra. But this systemic nastiness and endless governmental recrimination has only earned us a descent into greater violence and a drift towards the brinks of catastrophe.

Those in the present house of power fanning the embers of discord and fuelling the machinery of state terror hardly mean well for the country. They may well be on a lucrative business mission. Every new threat to peace is an opportunity for profit. It is a chance to visit the arms bazaar with its promise of generous commissions. Each threat of mass protest or uprising against the highhandedness of the state merits a financial requisition to purchase instruments of law and order (guns, bullets, tear gas, pepper spray etc.). We are paying more these days to calm the storms that government sometimes deliberately invokes.

By prolonging this state of undeclared war, our annual defense and security budgets have soared while our social development spending has suffered. Poverty and hunger have become epidemics while the expanding frontiers of anger and insecurity have frightened off serious investors. Only rogue miners, oil pirates and black market arms racketeers still find this place attractive. But it remains debatable whether we need these sophisticated fighter planes and helicopter gunships to combat squads of untrained and unfed citizen combatants on motor bikes and rickety pickup trucks.

The truth is that each useless big gun or fancy airplane we buy with borrowed money means millions of our children denied education, several million citizens condemned to go to bed each night without food or thousands of our compatriots who cannot find a hospital or even first aid clinic. We are paying American and European arms dealers hundreds of millions of dollars while so many of our youth cannot find jobs for their able hands, willing hearts and talented minds.

On the contrary, the cost of dialogue with all the pockets of anger and grievance in the land is next to nothing. The ego of political big men may be grazed or the greed of vested interest may take a cut. But the president must take higher solace in the truism that opening the gateway to peaceful dialogue is not a mark of weakness. It is instead a show of unusual strength, the kind of strength that elevates leaders from mere office occupants to historic statesmen. A place at the table of peace for all those who feel aggrieved and excluded is the first step to finding peace and security in this place wracked by anger and division. It will lower the national temperature. An inclusive national dialogue is the best opportunity to find out the why of all things that have gone wrong.

For instance, we could find out why, after half a century, a dead Biafra is more alluring to some Igbos than a living Nigeria. Why does the South West, in spite of their relative prosperity, seem attracted to the logic of separation from a country that has benefitted from their industry? Why has wealth and shinny material things become such attractive to the north where the power of the dominant faith abhors the worship of the idols of material glitter? Dialogue is an opportunity for Sheikh Gumi to tell us who the bandits really are and what they want. Mr. Gumi might tell the nation in open televised forum why his bandits find risky violence more attractive than secure opportunities for meaningful work and fruitful livelihood.

Boko Haram and ISWAP are not immune to the benefits of open dialogue. Insurgency fueled by ignorance and misguided faith can only be cured through corrective coercion and a battle for hearts and minds. A kinder Nigeria must embark on a massive re-conversion of these misguided minds. It is time to heal social and economic dislocations and de-radicalize the misguided. The North East needs systematic citizen reorientation complemented by material and infrastructural rehabilitation. A kinder gentler Nigeria should restore to misguided citizens happiness on earth in preparation for paradise hereafter.

 

The things that dialogue will resolve are both simple and complex. We do not need Biafra to give back to the Igbos their natural sense of belonging everywhere in Nigeria. The needed political engagement needs not involve bullets and jackboots. Armed soldiers and policemen cannot be part of the resolution of disagreements in the civic space. The Yoruba nation needs room to determine their common good, at their own pace and scope as masters of their fate in a restructured Nigeria. Our compatriots in the creeks of the Niger Delta are waiting for that day when the management and control of the oil and gas resources in their backyards will involve their sons and daughters in more commanding heights.

We have no business letting the children of Arewa loose onto the streets of our cities as homeless beggars. The Al Majirinkids need not be tossed around as ambassadors of a lost generation by an insensitive ruling elite. We need to quickly reopen the schools, return people to safe farms and secure homes. Only in a safe place can the lofty dreams in our prayers find us here on earth as a happy community.

Buhari's conversion of Nigeria's democratic national space into a garrison. By Chidi Amuta
Chidi Amuta

By the last quarter of 2020, America was at the brink of a civil war. Donald Trump’s toxic politics, warlike rhetoric and unrelenting belligerence had brought active duty troops onto the streets. Most cities and towns were engulfed by violent riots and protests. Joe Biden came campaigning on a platform of inclusiveness, dialogue, order, peace and unity. The morning after his inauguration, the cloud of war cleared. The mobs dispersed. The military returned to their bases. The protests dissipated. Hate and racism went back into hiding. America’s imperfect mission resumed.

This is Nigeria’s hour to correct course and rediscover our missing mission.