Monday, 30 January 2012

The climate of fear

A climate of fear – pervasive, dull and inexorable – has descended on much of Nigeria. It is like the harmattan season of the northern part of the country – cloudy, chilly and, for most categories of people, oppressive. This fear is palpable, clear and unpretentious. You can see it everywhere – in homes, markets, hospitals, on the roads, etc. – showing on people’s faces even if not expressed by words of mouth.

In years gone by, we used to hear stories of things that caused fear in far-flung countries like Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Northern Ireland, Palestine, etc. We used to hear, in the mass media, about bombs going off in public places, including worship centres, causing numerous deaths. They were like fairy tales, those stories, told by media that appeared as alien to us as the stories they told. Suicide bombings were the most outlandish occurence in those tales. A man (or woman!) strapping himself to a bomb and tweaking the control button, killing himself instantly in a blast? No, it could only happen in those lands. Here, we could not have anyone desperate enough as to take their own lives. Men with Kalashnikovs exchanging fire with policemen or even soldiers? Only members of the Cosa Nostra could do that – mostly in the movies or James Hadley Chase thrillers. Or, at worst, armed robbers somewhere in Lagos or the old Bendel.

Things have since changed. We have joined the global village. We are not neighbours to the village, but its occupants. Bombs started to go off in Maiduguri which, to many Nigerians, was another far-flung place somewhere on Planet Earth. A place tucked away near the border with Chad. Indeed, to many Nigerians, when you said Maiduguri they would wonder whether it was a city in Adamawa state, or even Katsina state. You had to tell them it was in Borno state. Yes, they have read the word Kanem-Bornu in their history books. And they could imagine that Borno was one of the states in Nigeria.

Now Nigeria is one big village itself. Reason: the killings we used to hear about are happening in our own neighbourhood, bringing Maiduguri closer home. Someone bombed the police’s national headquarters in Abuja. Another bombed the UN house in the nation’s capital. Bombs have gone off in Suleja and Madalla, killing Christian worshippers. Bombs went off in Kaduna, Damaturu, Bauchi, and Kano. And gun duels have taken place between angry militants and security forces in many towns in the north. In fact, as I wrote only two paragraphs of this piece, a friend who is fond of updating me on the ongoing violence in Kano phoned me from that city and said gunfire was being exchanged “as I’m talking to you” in the Na’ibawa area of the city.

The people of Kano live more in fear than others because a war is going on in their streets. The harmattan of fear in the region’s most populous city is like a heavy cloak that has descended on the people’s reluctant shoulders, forcing a belly-numbing chill that has refused to go away. Muslims go to mosques in fear. Yesterday, according to reports, most Christians stayed at home, fearing that they could be attacked in their churches. Igbo traders, who arguably constitute the majority of non-indigenes in the city, live virtually with their hearts in their mouths. Their ancestral leaders back home, recalling the pogroms of the late 60s, have asked the trading adventurers to start returning home. Even the President has said that these terrible times are akin to the Civil War years. No wonder the under-reported exodus of Nigerians from various parts of the country is continuing unabated in spite of assurances by community leaders.

The Kano killings of a fortnight ago have shown that the bombings and shootings can be indiscriminate. At least over half of the over 200 persons reported to have died in the mayhem were civilians who were caught in the deadly crossfires of the militants and the security forces. They were not carefully selected, but found themselves in the thick of the violence.

A terrible aspect of this saga is that this numbing and perpetual fear is multidimensional: soldiers and policemen now fear civilians and vice versa, the former because they cannot distinguish between an innocent passerby and a bomb-wielding militant. You can see the fear in their eyes at police stations or the check-points. They are not sure of who you are as they scrutinise you, their fingers hovering restlessly over the trigger as you open your car boot. In Kaduna last week, I learnt that many policemen have stopped wearing their uniforms. At police stations, the usual petty ‘cases’ are no longer being entertained. “Go and sort yourselves out,” was the usual refrain by cops to complainants. “We have bigger issues on our hands.”

Civilians fear security men because they know that if a soldier or a cop decides to shoot, no one would accuse him of anything, much less charge him for murder. It seems our security men have acquired emergency powers that they can use at will. They can detain a suspect for longer than is allowed by the laws of the land – or even kill him under one excuse or the other. They can invade a house or an office and ransack everywhere and take whatever they like. Many people live in fear of being accused of knowing a militant or of being one. In this climate, mutual suspicion is legion.

The cost of this fear is unquantifiable. To businesses, to development projects, and to politics and governance, the cost is gargantuan. Our roads and streets have become war zones, with blockades and check-points everywhere. Traffic snarls are a familiar eyesore, as well as their attendant waste of time, energy and resources. The biggest cost, however, is the loss of lives, innocent lives, lives that could contribute to the progress of the nation. People are dying without anyone accounting for their death. In government, no one is resigning for their failure in forcing the present circumstance on the nation. They have to be pushed out. The only fall guy (so far) is Hafiz Ringim, who smilingly handed over the reins of his office to the new inspector-general of police on Thursday. He will not account for anything, including the strange escape of the now mythical Kabir Sokoto.

Shall we ever see the end of this climate of fear? Your guess is as good as mine. But whatever your guess is, it should accommodate the notion that we are not on the road out of this dark and chilly tunnel. So, what do you do when you are caught in a tunnel wherein clouds of fear are thick and menacing? Just one thing: pray.

Published in my column in BLUEPRINT today

Above pix: MD Abubakar, Acting Inspector General of Police

Monday, 23 January 2012

Do we really have a government?

Yes, we do have a government. But which type may be a more appropriate question. Nevertheless, the first question is germane to the debate over the worsening security situation in the country, especially after Friday’s massacre, through coordinated bombing of Kano in five places and the simultaneous shooting of uncountable people –leading to the death of hundreds of people. It has since been accepted by all and sundry that the weekend war on Kano was the worst attack ever carried out by Boko Haram, both in terms of destruction and casualty figure.

The way the attackers succeeded in carrying out the deed and the crass failure by all security agencies under any name to pre-empt or stop it have spawned the question nationwide and in social media whether we really have a government in this country. Many Nigerians have asked the question knowing that a government is supposed to secure the life and property of all citizens. But for years now our government has failed to provide the basic security needed for any Nigerian to exist in his motherland. Violent crimes such as armed robbery and assassination (which still occur unabated) have since been overtaken by Boko Haram’s insurgency.

The attack on Kano was the clearest proof that our government, together with its money-guzzling security outfits, is at its wit’s end about the Islamic sect. That any armed group could visit such a horrific and devastating blow on innocent and unsuspecting residents of the north’s most populous city was hitherto unthinkable.

Nigerians are thoroughly disappointed in this government for its ineffectual handling of many things, especially three issues – free and fair elections, the economy and security. Though all three have a potential for causing violent death, security, which takes the lion’s share of the national budget, is nowhere to be found.

The existence of structures like police and military formations no longer provides any comfort to the taxpayers who sponsor them. They do not give value for money. They are becoming a drainpipe on our scarce resources.
The man we identify as the President of Nigeria, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, appears helpless and clueless in the prevailing circumstance. He tends to believe that he is operating alone, probablywith a few trusted aides. This is evident in his recent resignation to fate, moaning that there are Boko Haram members in his government. Even though he has not named names, it is easy to guess the type of person the President meant: a Hausa/Fulani, Muslim, from the north. And we all know who is a Hausa/Fulani, Muslim, northerner in the administration, starting from the VP downwards.

Now, a government which has “terrorists” in its hierarchy is no government. It is a cult or a nest of vipers who are prepared to bomb and destroy its citizens in order to achieve some morbid agenda. Since the President believes that there are Boko Haram members in his government, then, does he really have a government? Shouldn’t we assume, by his own confession, that certain of his top lietenants are not only undermining the administration but are also causing the death of thousands, thus commiting treason and a sundry crimes? Shouldn’t we also believe that the President knows these people and is afraid to name them, much less have them arrested and prosecuted? And if he really knows the members of Boko Haram in his government, is he not an accessory to their deeds?

This brings us to the widely held belief in Nigeria that there is Boko Haram and there is a ‘Boko Haram’ – the original one with headquarters in Maiduguri and another one with headquarters in Abuja or any other secret location.

Many today believe that some of these killings ascribed to the original BH are being commited by another shadowy group with aims and objectives far removed from instituting Sharia law all over Nigeria. The agenda of the second– and probably more ruthless – BHis believed to be the destruction of Nigeria as a single entity, in line with a U.S. agency’s prophesy that Nigeria may cease to exist by 2015. This theory is being widely shared today, more so with the increasing sophistication of the bombings and the growing desperation of the attackers. The almighty God, who is All-knowing, is seeing all.

In the meanwhile, Jonathan needs to prove the conspiracy theorists wrong in order to salvage what remains of the credibility of his government. He has been destroying it bit by bit through a series of avoidable missteps. His promised “fresh air” has since become foul and suffocating. His blunders are legion, from violently wrestling a presidency which his party had zoned to the north through anon-election, to the mishandling of the current insurgency, the removal of fuel subsidy and its attendant somersault and being impolitic with his utterences.

One big misstep is his failure to fulfill his promise of restructuring the security agencies soon, beginning with changing their chiefs. We are witnessing the worst security situation in the history of the country under the very noses of these security (?) chiefs. While each one of them holds fast to his office, the killings have continued. Because the word ‘honourable resignation’ is absent in the lexicon of Nigerian political appointees whose offices have been tainted by one scandal or the other, Jonathan should have had the courage to wield the big stick against the failed agencies as a way of injecting public confidence into them.

His biggest challenge today is getting round to sorting out the Boko Haram conundrum. As I had cause to argue in this column a few months ago, the solution to Boko Haram, in the face of failure of intelligence, is not police action or military onslaught but political brinkmanship. The Boko Haram leadership may seem to be invisible, but it is now known to be headed by Imam Shekau. The leadership once named certain Muslim clerics that it agreed could help broker a parley with them. So, who has ever reached out to those malams as a first step towards starting a dialogue?

Jonathan, who is trying to act macho, is losing grips on all fronts by not toeing this line. I understand that the security chiefs, who feed fat on the ugly situation, want the administration to continue toeing the tough-guy line even though the price is the bloody encounters we are witnessing all over the north. If the agenda is not really to balkanize Nigeria as the ‘fake Boko Haram’ is seen to want, the President should stop listening to any aide asking him not to dialogue with Boko Haram. The Kano killings of three days ago have proved that Jonathan is clearly at his weakest point now.

If you are down, dialogue is the best option. This is not the time for playing Jason Statham or Arnold Schwarzenegger, please. Leave the action heroes to the movies; we are in the real world.

Published in my column in Blueprint today

Monday, 16 January 2012

Can we really fight a religious war?

Of recent, especially since the horrendous bombing of the Madalla church allegedly by Boko Haram, many commentators have made the prospect of a religious war breaking out in this country to loom larger by the day. Only the equally horrendous removal of fuel subsidy by Dr Goodluck Jonathan – arguably the most hated president Nigeria ever had – eclipsed that prospect. However, while one joined the rest of Nigerians to sound alarm, dismay and rejection of the government’s thoughtless reflex action, one was also unable to dismiss the thought of the ‘religious war’ from one’s mind. Reason: before the subsidy catastrophe befell us like a bag of damnation from the heavens, the issue of a shooting battle between Christians and Muslims in the country was conceivably a fait accompli. What with the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Pastor Ayodele Joseph Oritsejafor, angrily urging Christians to stop turning the other cheek and return fire for fire.

It is easy – and even excusable – for certain elements to express extreme outrage at such wanton killings in places of worship, or any other place for that matter. Only a person of extreme wickedness and inhumanity would bomb a church (or a mosque), killing worshippers – people who most probably have nothing to do with the killer’s grouse or kind of politics. When such murders occur, it is only fair to expect the action to draw extreme outrage even from sedate members of the society.

But when otherwise informed people warn of the country slipping into a religious war, one wonders just where the shootings would begin. Some even display their ignorance about the cultural composition of Nigeria. A ‘religious war’ must have clearly defined enemies whose locations must be recognisable and mutually exclusive. In Nigeria, no matter how outraged we are over the unacceptable actions of some of us, such enemy lines are not clearly identifiable.

The biggest error I always read in news reports by Western media on the Nigerian crisis is where they unavoidably claim that Nigeria is “roughly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north.” This statement is painfully wrong because Nigeria is not divided along a north-south line when it comes to religious enclaves.

Start from my state, Katsina. One would say it is a mainly Muslim state. But that does not mean there are no Christians who are indigenes of Katsina state. They are Hausa like the rest of the Muslims in the state, or even more so. They are not ‘settlers’ but dyed-in-the-wool indigenes. As such nobody can say, on the day a ‘religious war’ breaks out in Nigeria, that they should start moving to the “Christian south.” Many of them may have probably never travelled out of their vicinity or beyond Zaria.

Same thing goes for many other “Muslim states” in north. Zamfara, Kano, Kogi, Niger, Kwara, Borno and Adamawa are other examples of states where there are indigenes who are as Christian as the man in the Niger Delta. And in Christian-dominated states like Plateau and Benue, there are Muslim indigenes who cannot be expelled till kingdom come.

If you move down south, what would you do with all those Yoruba Muslims? Some of them are obas or even the governors of their states – and they are not ‘settlers’! In some of the south-west states, Muslims are in the majority. So, just because somebody wants us to fight a religious war, should the Muslims in all the Yoruba states, as well as those in southern states like Edo (around Auchi) hire lorries and buses and pack to the “Muslim north”? Even among the more homogenous Igbo people in the south-east there are quite a few Muslims.

To stretch the argument further, what would you do about states in the north where Christians are in the majority – like Plateau, Taraba and Benue? Should the majority of the people in these states migrate to the south and start life anew, build new civilisations and try to blend with their brothers and sisters in faith there?

Recently, while reading the autobiography of the highly respected Prof. Adamu Baikie, I found the ‘religious war’ notion an increasingly bigger fallacy, concocted by largely southern commentators and their ignorant collaborators in the Western media. I saw how families not only in the north but also in the south are inextricably meshed together through intermarriages across tribes and religions. I saw how in a family there are followers of both faiths, all living together in peace and harmony. Later, in a discussion with a Yoruba friend, I realised that this meshing of creeds is even more rampant among the Yoruba, where some children of the same parents can follow different faiths – and without killing each other for it. The question, then, is that on the day of our religious Armageddon, should such siblings start massacring each other because of the blandishment of some religious bigot? Should a Muslim married to a Christian woman just kill her because a religious war has begun? Should a son professing Christianity send his aged Muslim mother in downtown Abeokuta to the great beyond because the pundits have said so?

Thus, it is simply foolhardy to believe that a war based on religious sentiments could be successfully prosecuted in Nigeria. The fabrics of our nation are so meshed into each other, not only through political alliances, business partnerships, marriages or workplaces but also through the faiths we individually profess. Of course, some idiots may bomb a mosque or a church thinking “it is the other people’s”, but at the end of the day they may unwittingly be murdering someone from their family, tribe or village. Instead of a religious war, therefore, people may fight based on tribal lines or in exclusive and clearly defined enclaves like the ones you find in Plateau or Kano.

What Nigerians need to fight is militancy, terrorism and bigotry. God, whom we all worship in spite of differences in creed, has a purpose for bringing us together as one nation. He knows why we have this unique diversity, the type you only find in multicultural societies like America. We should find strength in it and oppose those who want to forcefully take it away from us.

Published in my column on the back page of BLUEPRINT, today, January 16, 2012

Above picture is Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor