Nigeria’s Shrinking Civic Space, By Jibrin Ibrahim

Yesterday, I participated in a workshop organised by General Saleh Bala (rtd) on national security and Nigeria’s shrinking civil space. We noted that the loudest voices in the country today are those of discord and disintegration. Indeed, over the past few days, Nigerians have received several warnings from the Presidency, the military and security agencies not to break up the country. This is in reaction, I think, to loud cries from many Nigerians that they have had enough of being married partners to the other in the country and they want a divorce. I was alarmed when three days ago, the Nigerian military warned politicians and soldiers against any military coup in the country. The statement was from the Defence Headquarters, in a statement by its spokesperson, Onyema Nwachukwu, who said it was reacting to a statement by a senior lawyer calling for the handing over of power to the military. It struck me that we are living in dangerous times.

Professor Nic Cheeseman and Dr. Fola Aina just published a very interesting article in the prestigious journal, Foreign Affairs, warning the world not to call Nigeria a failed state, because in spite of appearances, Nigeria’s statecraft has produced mechanisms and practices to improve inclusiveness and that when the key surveys on the feelings of Nigerians are reviewed, antipathy towards each other have been reducing steadily and that therefore the resilience of the Nigerian State to fractures is being underestimated. The States to Nigeria, John Campbell and Dr. Robert Rotberg in an immediate response announced yesterday that they will be publishing another article in the same Foreign Affairs to prove the opposite – that Nigeria is indeed a failed state.

Nic Cheeseman and Fola Aina have been subjected to a barrage of abuse and invectives for daring to suggest that the Nigerian State has not failed completely. Many have asserted that they are hired wordsmiths who have been paid by the Nigeran State to “whitewash” reality by doing a public relations job just at the moment when “all” Nigerians have concluded, based on objective facts, that the State has died and they want out. academics have accused them of being spineless hagiographers seeking to turn the “devil” running the Nigerian State into a saint.

My position is that it is teleological to describe the State as having failed because it is never about the game, it is always about on-going processes of construction and deconstruction and above all, the direction of movement. The same Ghana that was once described as the clearest example of a failed State in Africa is today being described as the opposite. I fall into the category of believers in the Nigeria project and I track the evolution of the Nigerian State to see how we can pull back from the brink. The analysis by Cheeseman and Aina sets out to find evidence about the resilient Nigerian State and as the Bible says, “seek and you shall find”, so they found what they were looking for.

As I have repeated so many times in this column, the Nigerian State is undergoing a three-dimensional crisis. The first one affects the political economy and is generated mainly by public corruption over the past four decades that has created a run on the treasury at the national and state levels, threatening to consume the goose that lays the golden egg. The second one is the crisis of citizenship symbolised by ethno-regionalism, the Boko Haram insurgency, farmer-herder killings, agitations for Biafra, militancy in the Niger Delta and indigene/settler conflicts. The third element relates to the frustration of the country’s democratic aspirations in a context in which the citizenry believes in “true democracy” confronted with a reckless political class that is corrupt, self-serving and manipulative.

These challenges have largely broken the social pact between citizens and the State. That is why today, Nigerians find themselves in a moment of doubt about their nationhood. It is similar to the two earlier moments of doubt we have experienced, 1962-1970 when we went through a terrible civil war and the early 1990s when prolonged military rule created another round of challenges to the National Project. We survived those two moments but there is no guarantee that we shall survive the third. Nonetheless, there is a possibility that the current crisis as an opportunity to surge forward in fixing Nigeria.

Part of the problem today however is that the discussions in homes, offices, bars, religious gatherings, the mass media, social media, professional associations and all other fora in Nigeria today is that there is a real and imminent threat to the corporate existence of Nigeria. In addition, there is an on-going rapid slide into precipitated by the most serious collapse in security provisioning in our country, which is confronted by an almost complete lack of leadership or governance response to a multipronged crisis.

Our greatest fear today should therefore be that of a self-fulfilling prophesy. The major outcome of the crisis facing the country has been the erosion of public trust. A toxic atmosphere has developed in which different are suspected of developing plots to destroy others. Action of whatever type as well as non-action or late action by governments and institutions are no longer taken at face value but are re-interpreted within narratives of coordinated plots by groups to destroy or eliminate others or to take their land. There is no effective counter-narrative from Government to create hope. The other challenge is agency. With almost half the country living in extreme poverty, a generation of young Nigerians have emerged with nothing to lose but their poverty. They are procuring arms and engaging in violence, banditry and insurrectional acts precipitating the march towards .

My message to Nigerians is that it is not too late to save the country. Concerted citizen action can create the basis for offering Nigeria a new lease of life, provided proactive measures are taken to redress the crisis. Pressure can be put on the National Assembly to address the current governance failures we are experiencing. The National Assembly would not act without pressure from constituents to their elected representatives to get out of the “YES SIR” mentality and carry out their constitutional responsibility to seek solutions based on the rule of law. Given the ethnic and religious tensions caused by poor governance, religious and community leaders have the onerous responsibility to talk to Nigerians to seek solutions to our problems by promoting inert-faith initiatives for peace rather than fueling the drums of division. The religious arena must get out of its reality of being the most toxic space in the country.

The before us is the reconstruction of the Nigerian State. We cannot allow our political community to continue to crumble and suffer the outcome of State collapse, which Thomas Hobbes had assured us will make our lives “nasty, brutish and short”. Rebuilding the State must take the form of a new approach based on good governance in which there is effective, transparent and use of public resources to provide public goods for citizens. If those who exercise State power cannot use it to improve the lives and livelihoods of citizens, then they would have to be replaced. Our State must also recover the capacity to have the monopoly of the use of legitimate violence in society. The armed forces and the police in particular must the rebuilt. As the State recovers, our traditional and religious institutions as well as civil society have a huge role in playing their part in rebuilding the State.