Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State is fast becoming an extreme reactionary. His positions on national issues have become weird and awkward. But his visage does not betray this strangeness. The man does not look tough. He also does not act or talk tough. He just has a strange way of worming himself into controversial issues. In doing this, he hardly comes with a straight face. He usually masks his position in the labyrinthine world of doublespeak. Denial and refutation are constant variables in his public commentaries. Two instances will suffice.
Way back in January 2018, Lalong shocked his colleague, Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State. Ortom was then faced with the mindless massacre of over 70 indigenes of Benue State on New Year’s eve midnight by murderous Fulani herdsmen. The bloodbath reverberated across the country and beyond. Shock and disbelief pervaded the eerie atmosphere. Sympathy and empathy poured out in torrents. Strangely, Lalong, Ortom’s neighbour, did not show sympathy. When he chose to speak, he did not talk about the carnage. Instead, he blamed Ortom for introducing the Anti-Open Grazing Law in his state. He said that the herdsmen who engaged in that concert of blood were responding to Ortom’s new law. He said he warned Ortom about the law. In a way, Lalong justified the murderous reaction by Miyetti Allah to the law. In all of this, the embattled Ortom was still able to pull himself together. When he reacted to Lalong’s insensitive comment, the Plateau governor denied the statement he made in the open.
Lalong has maintained that streak of doublespeak ever since. Just a few weeks ago, the strange disposition in Lalong manifested again. Nigerian youths had then taken over the country with the #EndSARS protests. As this was going on, Lalong stepped forward, in his capacity as the chairman of Northern States Governors’ Forum, to say that the North wanted SARS. According to him, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which the youths were up in arms against, has served the interest of the North. It has helped the region to combat crime. With his utterance, Lalong placed a sectional tag on the #EndSARS protests. When he was challenged over his vote of confidence in SARS, he denied the statement. He made a clarification, which, strictly speaking, was not different from his original position.
Then, after the dust had settled, Lalong convened a meeting of northern leaders at which the #EndSARS agitation was packaged and handed out as an attempt to topple the regime of President Muhammadu Buhari. The Lalong gathering also insinuated that the protest was a clever attempt to dismember the country. They then reaffirmed their belief in one indivisible and indissoluble Nigeria. With these declarations, the #EndSARS agitation, which was supposed to teach the leadership in the country a lesson in how not to govern, was discredited. It was made to look like a southern agenda against the North-controlled government of Buhari.
Since Lalong summoned that meeting, other members of his gang have been speaking. They are joining issues with the South, which they believe is pushing for restructuring as a ploy to break the country. As things stand, the North and South of the country are stridently opposed to each other over the political and economic structure that will serve the best interest of the country. But the problem in the debate is not so much about the structure of the country. It is much more about crisis of confidence. The North does not seem to trust the South on this issue. The South, on its part, is feeling that the North wants the status quo to remain because its interest is well served by it. Each is suspicious of the other. We must note, however, that there are strong voices from the North who support the call for the restructuring of the country. Living examples are former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, and former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida. These men are not afraid of restructuring, unlike their brothers from the North.
If we have not found a solution to the vexed issue of restructuring, it is not because the North and South hold divergent positions on the matter. It is because those who are pushing for a restructured Nigeria have not been steadfast. There are a few committed voices like Ayo Adebanjo, Yinka Odumakin, Edwin Clarke, Victor Attah, Nnia Nwodo, Mbazulike Amechi and Chukwuemeka Ezeife, among others. But the problem with the quest lies in lack of sustenance.
I recall that, by mid-2017, the civic space was awash with issues around restructuring. The argument was so heated that Yemi Osinbajo, who was Acting President at the time, had to weigh in on the matter. He promised then that the Federal Government would soon address the clamour for restructuring. He said: “Very soon, we are going to come out with policies that will take care of some of the issues around restructuring.”
This was in July 2017. Osinbajo obviously meant what he said. But the problem was that he was just an appendage to a President Buhari who does not share his views on the matter. Unlike Osinbajo, Buhari does not see any need for restructuring. Like most of his northern brothers, he is suspicious of the agitation. For him, Nigeria should remain as it is, whether it is working or not. That is why we have remained where we are.
But as I noted earlier, even the chiefest advocates of restructuring went on recess at some point. By 2017, when the polity was charged over restructuring, we had an opportunity to make it a big issue in the 2019 presidential election. But we did not. As the election year approached, we suspended the issue and went ahead to elect a President who did not commit himself to restructuring. Atiku was clearly pro-restructuring. That should have been an advantage for him. But it was not because we relegated the issue during the campaigns. One year after the elections, we are at it again. Restructuring debate has taken the centre stage. But will it be sustained? Can we tie the fate of 2023 around restructuring? We should ponder these questions.
In the absence of a clear-cut agenda on restructuring, the likes of Lalong are bound to continue to foul the atmosphere with prejudices and sectionalism. Every national issue has been regionalized. If the Special Anti-Robbery Squad whose notoriety was crying to high heavens for redemption could be given a clean bill of health by Lalong and his gang, then the prospect of achieving consensus on any national issue has become very remote. If we take into account Lalong’s position that SARS did a good job, we may never get to know the kind of reforms the Nigeria Police needs. If the protest by Nigerian youths was a wake-up call on government to embrace good governance, Lalong and his gang of naysayers have asked government to overlook the issues arising from the protest as its agents were only out for regime change. These are the confusing scenarios the Lalong breed are foisting on us. We must reject this revisionism before it becomes an albatross.