When Nigerians talk animatedly and calculatingly about the 2023 general election and the ethnic origin of the candidate likely to emerge as President, only a few consider the possibility that the existing state of insecurity across the country might lead to unprecedented violence that could scuttle the elections.
Between now and 2023, an enduring culture of peace must be installed, not by military force that is often used to quell hostilities between local communities but by the willingness of the people to live together peacefully. Peace trumps all considerations for a united Nigeria. At the moment, callous killings, kidnappings, rape, destruction of farmlands, and illegal occupation of communities across the country, all of which are capable of provoking retaliatory actions by people of other ethnic origins, pose the greatest challenge to the future of the country.
Anxiety over the imminent disintegration of Nigeria is well founded. Insecurity has dominated the topic of discussion in the public domain. There are concerns that ethnic groups might be forced to take the law into their hands in response to provocative actions that include unwarranted sacking of communities, destruction of farmlands, and other acts of lawlessness committed by itinerant herdsmen. There is the perception in some communities that people are trashing the nation’s laws and nothing is being done to arrest and prosecute the herdsmen or halt the feeling that this group has the licence to impose terror on every other ethnic group.
High-profile public figures such as Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom and others have warned about the rapid decline of law and order in Nigeria and the country’s hazardous descent into anarchy. These warnings must not be treated with contempt. Insensitivity to people’s concerns always fuels anger in the general population. The break-up of any country is usually preceded by dire warnings issued by community leaders. From the north to the south, east to the west, echoes of impending civil strife have resonated from community, traditional, religious, and business leaders. They have cautioned political leaders about the likely consequences of a state of anarchy into which the country is falling.
The danger right now is that the government and other stakeholders are not doing anything in terms of putting into action concrete and practical frameworks to douse public anger against insecurity, and to provide assurances that law and order must prevail in the country. The drums of war are sounding ever so loudly while national leaders remain indifferent. This is not the kind of response the public wants to receive from state officials. The lack of strong voices of criticism against insecurity point to poor leadership rather than a strong leadership that has the capacity to respond promptly to insecurity with a cohesive plan to extinguish ill feelings in the general population. This apathy has so far achieved nothing but exacerbated anxiety across the country.
As history has shown, the most dangerous threat to any country’s existence is the danger of civil war. We should have learned from the ethnic divisions that led to the pogrom that occurred during the Rwandan war, the massacres that marked the 1993-2005 Burundian conflict that was spawned by deep-rooted feelings of ethnic discrimination and suspicion, and the dreadful genocidal killings that shocked the world during the wars in the former Yugoslavia from which emerged six republics. If there was any lesson to be learned about how a country could separate peacefully, we must look at the non-violent dissolution of the former Czechoslovakia.
Nigeria has never been threatened as it is today by so many internally generated problems such as insurgency, as well as feelings by various ethnic groups that they have been excluded, marginalised, and abandoned by the Federal Government. Many ethnic groups say they are discontented in a nation that has overlooked their interests and welfare. They argue that, if they are not recognised, and if they are not accorded their privileges in a country in which they believe they rightfully belong, they would have no reason to see themselves as a part of the country. These are strong sentiments that must be addressed sooner rather than later.
These issues are being expressed strongly in mainstream and online media, as well as in discussion forums, personal blogs, and other non-traditional channels of communication. One way out of the present terrifying situation that stares Nigeria in the face is for the government to cultivate an environment in which every citizen feels equal, safe, important, recognised, respected, and appreciated.
The government has little time, space, and opportunity to act fast to halt the country’s plunge into a state of disorder. No one ethnic group has the authority or divine right to disregard the laws of the country or to treat members of other ethnic groups with disrespect. These acts of impunity constitute a recipe for disaster.
The general mood in the country is that Nigeria is crumbling so quickly. The cracks in the country’s fragile unity and the fragmentation of ethnic groups have grown wider and much quicker than everyone feared. Feelings of exclusion have further reduced the desire for national unity. People believe that perhaps now is the time for every ethnic nationality to go their own way. That would be a dangerous move.
The public sphere is dominated by angry talk about separation rather than conversation about unification and how to move the nation forward. The current situation suggests that only members of the ethnic group who are privileged by, and benefiting from, the present arrangement are keen to sustain the delicate unity. All other people and ethnicities feel uninterested in supporting any sense of national unity in a country that treats them like second-class citizens in their fatherland.
There is no question that Nigeria is currently in a deep hole. Whether or not political leaders accept this reality is another matter. They can continue to live in the bubble of their misconceptions, or they can do something urgently to remove the injustices that undermine the country’s unity. Priority must be given to insecurity. The government must start by dispelling with practical evidence the perception that the herdsmen are untouchable and are not answerable to the government or any authority within the country.
Nigerian political leaders have a way of dismissing the possibility that any of the traumatic events that occurred in other countries could play out in Nigeria. They talk about the strength of our unity, the resilience of the Nigerian people, the desire to work, live, and interact peacefully by all ethnic groups, and the determination of the government to ensure that peace prevails in the country. Unfortunately, these sentiments are built on illusions of a united Nigeria that existed decades ago. Today, many citizens no longer feel they belong to the geographic entity known as Nigeria.
Nigeria must learn from the words of former United States President John F. Kennedy who said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
This was part of a moving address he delivered on March 13, 1962, on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress.
The challenge for Nigeria’s political leaders is to find practical ways to muffle the rising rhythm of the drums of war. To do nothing is to strengthen the state of anarchy.