In rebuilding state capacity, Nigeria might need to reconsider providing a substantive role for traditional leaders… The present insecurity in the country is an opportunity to open a conversation on modalities and possibilities for returning institutions with authority to rural Nigeria… we should consider what roles they could play that are positive in addressing the quagmire we find ourselves in.


The security situation in the country today is frightening. Insurgents, militants, criminals and bandits have caught up the reality of the Nigerian state, such that it is not capable of providing for the security of its people. These undesirables have seen the absence of state capacity as opportunity to create a Hobbesian state of nature in which violence and mass atrocities reign and life has become “nasty, brutish and short” for Nigerians. Consequently, these miscreants are spreading all over the country’s hinterland killing and maiming people, burning houses and even more serious for the future, preventing the mainstay of the country’s existence, agricultural production.

Nigeria has been transformed significantly over the past decade. The country has witnessed a significant breakdown of religious hierarchies and order. The Nigerian family is itself in crisis and has been torn apart by the decomposition of social and moral education that used to keep it together. In our towns and cities, there has been galloping urbanisation that has highlighted poverty and ghettoes, providing an atmosphere in which disconnected individuals wallowing in misery can see the engagement in mass atrocities as acceptable and indeed desirable behaviour.

The condition of the Nigerian state is serious and each day we appear to be sinking deeper into the abyss. There is mounting evidence that we are not being effectively governed and the traditional task of running the State is not a priority of the ruling class. Indeed, strictly speaking, the usage of the term ‘ruling class’ is questionable because although we have occupants of the offices that embody state power, the tenants of such offices are not engaged in running the state. The principal work they engage in is mega looting. The state does not tax citizens and relies almost wholly on petroleum rent; it hardly produces public goods such as security, social services and infrastructure for the welfare of inhabitants. Finally, the state is no longer capable of performing its regulatory role in society and making laws for the good governance of the country and sanctioning those who breach the laws through the judiciary and law enforcement agencies.

In his definition of the state, Max Weber makes the point that the first rule is that the state must have the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in society. We find ourselves in a situation in Nigeria in which private citizens have access to vast arsenals and use it against citizens and against security forces, while for their part the security forces use their own arms in an illegitimate fashion, killing and maiming citizens in an extra-judicial manner. We know that there is no state in the world where you do not have some illegal arms in the hands of private citizens but when the quantum of such arms goes beyond a certain level and private armies are able to attack security forces at will, and the response of the security forces is to turn on ordinary citizens, then the state is in question.

Insurgents, armed bandits and the growing bands of kidnappers are able to move around freely in reconnaissance missions and stay and live within communities, which they study before carrying out their actions. Nigeria is at war and no one is taking measures to provide security at the local level.


Our Constitution defines the purpose of the state as the protection or the security of Nigerians and the pursuit of their welfare. Nigerians, however, know that they have to pay for their own security guards and even the bulk of the Nigerian police personnel are used to provide security, not for the people, but for individuals who can afford to pay for this service. Nigerian citizens are forced to provide their own electricity, with the millions of generators they purchase to power their houses and pollute the atmosphere. Nigerians go to the stream to fetch water or buy it from water vendors. The water is usually not potable and it poisons families through diseases borne through it. The members of the elite are able to pay for personal boreholes in their houses and the result is that they wipe out underground water sources for future generations, while surface water is not captured and treated but left to flow into the sea. Of course, health and education have largely been private and the state is completely disdainful of Chapter Two of our Constitution that directs it to provide for the welfare of citizens.

Insurgents, armed bandits and the growing bands of kidnappers are able to move around freely in reconnaissance missions and stay and live within communities, which they study before carrying out their actions. Nigeria is at war and no one is taking measures to provide security at the local level. In all the states in the country, corrupt practices by governors have led to the complete disintegration of local government. The police have also disappeared from rural Nigeria. Our reality today is that no one is governing rural Nigeria because we had removed power from traditional authorities and handed it to local governments that are no longer operational. Meanwhile, traditional rulers have lost much of their capacity to monitor and track members of their communities. Today, we do not even have statistics of the killings and atrocities taking place because there are no institutions exercising authority to monitor and report these. Communities with voice are screaming about their suffering but so many have no voice and are being killed in silence.

In rebuilding state capacity, Nigeria might need to reconsider providing a substantive role for traditional leaders. Yes, I am eating my words, having argued for 30 years that traditional rulers are oppressors who should be kept at arm’s length from the exercise of state power. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. Traditional authorities have been lost in finding a role for themselves since the collapse of the system of native administration when they lost control of elements of state power, the native police and the prison at the beginning of military rule. The present insecurity in the country is an opportunity to open a conversation on modalities and possibilities for returning institutions with authority to rural Nigeria. As such institutions exist everywhere, we should consider what roles they could play that are positive in addressing the quagmire we find ourselves in.

The task 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. Rebuilding the state must ultimately take the form of a new approach based on good governance, in which there is effective, transparent and accountable use of public resources…


Many civil society organisations have competence in promoting community awareness on security. Such organisations could also be encouraged to intensify their capacity building efforts and messaging that security is everybody’s business. High quality intelligence is one key ingredient that has been missing in the war against insurgency and rural banditry. Communities have not been socialised into a war mood in which they are on their toes, watching out for the enemy and liaising with security agencies. This needs to start.

The Nigerian state is so weak that the society has to take charge and nurse it back to some strength. It seems incapable of responding to the crisis generated by the escalation of the spread and use of small arms and light weapons in the country. The insurgency in the North-East remains strong after a decade of military engagement. There is widespread rural banditry, cattle rustling and kidnapping in the North-West zone, particularly in Zamfara, Kebbi, Kaduna and Katsina States. In the North-Central zone, farmer-herder conflicts have developed into widespread inter-communal violence, especially in Plateau, Taraba, Nasarawa and Benue States. The militancy in the Niger Delta has escalated into large-scale piracy and theft of petroleum. The armed forces are deployed in at least 32 of the 36 States of the federation and are therefore spread too thin to be able to respond effectively to deepening insecurity.

The task 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. Rebuilding the state must ultimately 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 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 taking the first steps towards reconstruction.

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.