The State in Question as 2021 draws to a close, By Jibrin Ibrahim

On this last day of 2021, my closing thoughts are focused the message from the Katsina State Governor, Aminu Masari, that residents of the state should arm themselves and confront bandits because security officials alone cannot tackle escalating insecurity. Katsina, like other North-west states of Zamfara, Kaduna, Sokoto and Kebbi, have suffered the worst year in their history as armed bandits kill people with impunity, rape their women and girls, kidnap people for ransom, tax communities and burn down those that refuse to pay their tax. They have now reached the stage where they have started appointing new “traditional” rulers for the people just as the British did one hundred and twenty years ago. In other words, there is a new sheriff in the country and they are in charge. It was in this context that Governor Masari called a press conference to say:

“It’s Islamically allowed for one to defend himself against attack. One must rise to defend himself, his family and assets. If you die while trying to defend yourself, you’ll be considered a martyr. It’s surprising how a bandit would own a gun while a good man trying to defend himself and his family doesn’t have one.” Other governors have made similar comments. Our rulers are telling us that they can no longer provide for our security and welfare so we should defend ourselves the best we could. In plain language, the Nigerian State is telling us, the citizens, that they have abdicated their responsibility to govern. As we all know from Political Science 101, when the States can no longer govern, other actors’ takeover the responsibility. The key feature of the Buhari Administration is this abdication of the responsibility to govern. What they have refused to abdicate is enjoying the privileges of power at our expense – the sumptuous state dinners, the aeroplanes, the government houses and above all, pocketing the money in our treasury. 2022 must become the year of citizen agency. As our rulers have stopped governing, they must also stop enjoying from our treasury.

The cessation of governance has had a huge impact on the fundamentals in our economy and society. I will illustrate this with a few numbers from Stears economic review this week. Seventy (70) million Nigerians are in the labour force, and twenty-three (23) million of them are unemployed while another 16 million are underemployed. Just 17% of Imo State’s labour force is in full employment. In fact, there are almost twice as many people in Imo who are willing and able to work but can’t find work, then those actually working full-time. Only one in five people in Adamawa that are willing and able to work actually have full-time jobs. Same with Jigawa. More than a quarter of the working-age population in Cross River do not have any recorded job. Economic distress has been worsened by non-governance and the Nigerian precariat, the vast army of unemployed youth living precarious lives is exercising its agency.

Stears points out there is a bright spot in 2021 in economic sectors where government is absent. It has been a bumper year for Nigerian start-ups, who raised at least $1.4 billion in funding during the year. Start-ups like Flutterwave and Piggyvest are flexing their acquisition muscles. The Government’s only economic strategy is to continue to borrow making the argument that we have very little debt compared to our GDP. The reality however is that this year we are spending 87% of your earnings repaying debt. Nigeria is broke and the Government is mortgaging our future.

On the COVID-19 pandemic, God has been kind to Nigeria and the massive scale of infections that some feared would be in tens of millions did not happen and if it did happen, was not as virulent as has been expected. Although the number of cases reported by NCDC must be a tiny fraction of the real numbers, nonetheless, its health impact has been limited. The social and economic impact of the pandemic were however massive, especially the effect of lockdown on the informal sector. Moving forward, it appears we will have to learn to live with the disease. In this context, the failure of Government to vaccinate 60% of the population as promised is simply another addition to non-governance.

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. 2021 will be remembered for the considerable restriction in civic space and massive violations of human rights.

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.

The major outcome of the crisis facing the country has been the erosion of public trust. A toxic atmosphere has developed in which different actors 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 some groups to destroy or eliminate others or to take their land. As government has abdicated its constitutional responsibilities, it has not made any serious effort an effective counter-narrative 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 anarchy.

My hope and prayer for 2022 is beginning the task of the reconstruction of the Nigerian State. We cannot allow our political community to continue to crumble and suffer the outcome of State collapse. Rebuilding the State must take the form of a new approach based on good governance in which there is effective, transparent and accountable 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. But then, as I argue above, our governing class has abdicated its role in running the State. Who then will start the process of rebuilding the State. That is the question for 2022.