Last week, someone from the Presidency finally admitted that there is a war going on. Dr Doyin Okupe, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs declared to the press that “we are in a war”, he has been the last to find out, Nigerians have known that for quite some time. Its however good that they are admitting now so that we can define the legal status of the combat and ensure we fight it in a way that is respectful of the rights of Nigerians and at the same time provides security to the people.
I am writing this column from Niamey in Niger Republic where I have just arrived. Two items related to the war were on the news last night. The first is the burden of caring for the 40,000 refugees “from the Boko Haram war in Nigeria” the broadcaster announced which is threatening their economy. The second item on the news was the announcement by General Seyni Garba last week Tuesday about the discovery and dismantling of a Boko Haram cell in Diffa just before they embarked on an attack in that Kanuri town so close to Maiduguri. The Nigerian war is becoming a Nigerien war. Of course the issue in Niger is that of really understanding how they have remained outside this war all this time. The composition and sociology of the people, the tendencies and ambitions of radical religious movements on both sides of the border are the same so logically, they should have been a central part of the war for some time.
I asked some of my friends how come Niger has remained outside the war for so long. I identified two different sets of explanations. The first explanation raises two issues, one about the state and the other about the people. The story of the state in Niger is that after Tunisia, the state in Niger developed the most elaborate and effective system of surveillance of the people on the continent and that system was never completely dismantled. The result is that state security agents pick up people before they do the damage. The second aspect is the community. Most communities in Niger, I am told, do not accept preachers to simply turn up and start proselytising. Anyone that tries it gets reported to the authorities. What this means is the Islamic radicals from Niger have to go to Nigeria to practice their trade.
The second explanation is more troubling. It argues that with the Sahel/Sahara zone firmly in the hands of Islamic militants, the real prize is Nigeria so for tactical reasons, it makes sense not to attack in the base for retreat. After they get Nigeria, Niger would be an easy pick, sandwiched as it is between Boko Haram and the Jihadists in the Sahara. The cells from Niger therefore join the struggle in Nigeria while bidding their time to take on Niger.
The Nigerian armed forces also came out last week to declare that they have identified twelve bases in Cameroon from where attacks in Nigeria’s North East are organised and to which they retreat after their operations. Nigeria is currently engaged in discussions with the Cameroonian authorities over rights of hot pursuit and I do hope the two governments could agree to peaceful collaboration on this matter. I recall in the 1970s and 1980 that Mohammed Marwa Maitatsine from Cameroon came to Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s to practice his trade because he was prevented from practicing in his country. The Maitatsine movement was of course the first major case of direct and significant confrontation between security agencies and Islamic militants.
As the war in Nigeria intensifies what has been really saddening for us as a nation is the impact on the younger generation. The attack on the Federal Government College Buni-Yadi in Yode state and the recent abduction of
twenty female students are yet another devastating events. These events follow the recurring massacres in Baga, Bama, Konduga, Maiduguri and so on. More broadly, Governor Suswan has been warning about the emerging “ethnic” war in Benue between the Fulani and the Tiv, events that have been reproducing similar conflicts in Plateau, Kaduna, Nassarawa and other states. As the Emir of Birnin Gwari explained also last week, the issue is not the ethnic issue as in his Kingdom, the war has been raging and the issues are cattle rustling and armed robbery. What is on the cards therefore is the loss of state monopoly over the monopoly of the instruments of violence and the rise of systemised banditry. If the star guest to our centenary celebrations was the French President, that might not be unconnected to feelings in Government circles that we need the big boss after all today, the French with 6,000 boots on the ground in Africa is the power player.
Also last week, I attended the press conference given by Ms Rita Izsak, the United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Rights. She expressed her sadness at the reports she received that so many communities that have lived peacefully for generations are today torn by violent conflicts. She was particularly concerned at how the settler/indigene dichotomy has grown into a major generator of communal conflict and called for a review of the legal regime but above all for improved governance that would allow Nigerians enjoy the dividends of democracy. Yes indeed, we need to deepen our democracy and improve the capacity of the state to deploy accountability mechanisms so that those who commit crimes against the people pay a price.
The major news item last week was of course the celebration of the centenary of the creation of Nigeria. Many wondered whether it was appropriate to continue with the celebration following the massacre of the students in
The other question was the composition of the famous one hundred people identified as makers of Nigeria. Under Category A, Lord Lugard, his spouse Flora Shaw and the Queen were celebrated for their contribution to making Nigeria. If I were the one making the list, I would have categorised them as imperialists and colonisers who pillaged the country. I dare say that my categorisation would have been more historically accurate. Along the same vein, I would have categorised the B list of people who struggled for our independence such as Herbert Macaulay and Michael Imoudu as the people who really made Nigeria. The late General Sani Abacha only made it to category M of people who promoted unity, patriotism and national development. Once again, I was to make the list, I would not place Abacha in the category of national unity because his regime really fractured Nigeria’s unity. No one asked me to make a list, nor was I invited to the great celebration in State House so I can only reflect on this list of one hundred, many of whom, or their families are already rejecting the offer due to discomfort with the list.