When will Nigeria ever rise above the politics of association? When will an educated man in Nigeria become as important as the cattle herder from Niger regardless of ethnic identity? This is part of the burden we bear as Nigeria enters a new year under the clouds of fear, uncertainty and the politics of difference.
One of the major indications of the dysfunctional nature of the Nigerian social and political ecosystem is what can be best summarised in pidgin English as the “Na my brother dey there” syndrome. It is the politics of proximity by another name, the thinking by an average Nigerian that he or she is much safer, better off psychologically and in a better position to gain access to opportunities, and even exercise power and influence, only when in the company of a kinsman, or surrounded by kinsmen or when someone of the same ethnic group or who speaks the same language or dialect is in charge of a public office, or any department at all at any level in society. While persons of the same ethnic group or identity may quarrel or disagree among themselves, their relationship in the public arena, especially when other persons of other ethnic extraction are involved, is governed by this code of identification and association. The idea of “brotherhood or sisterhood” may even be stretched beyond ethnicity to cover sect or religion, membership of the same association, including alumni associations, geography and filial relations. Relationships in Nigeria are mostly determined by the same fault-lines of the country’s national question. These fault-lines have destroyed the walls of trust among the people. They make normal conversations difficult. Everything, if you pay attention enough, is always reduced to your ethnicity or religion, gender, geography and hence, we have in 2019, a country of divided people who through symbols, gestures and actions are locked in a primordial capsule.
This is most evident in the political arena or the public service with regard to appointments, promotions and the leadership recruitment process. When a man from a particular part of the country is in office, let us assume as president of Nigeria, persons who share the same identity with him, or are close to him, simply slide into the “na my brother dey there” mode. They celebrate the emergence of a kinsman as if it is their personal achievement. They raise the level of their expectations. They see the person in office and power as their own person, just because his name sounds familiar, or he speaks the same language or attended the same school or church. There may be no direct personal relationship, but the fact of identity alone is more than enough. In 20 years of return to democratic rule, we have seen this on display at all levels and it is worse when the privileged person in power tolerates or even actively encourages this tendency to the detriment of others who are subtly treated as outsiders and advised to wait until it is their “own turn”. It is the politics of “divide and rule” by other means. The leadership crisis involved is traceable to the failure of Nigerian leaders to discourage this return to the age of inter-tribal wars in African politics.
The fight against military rule in Nigeria was principled and ideological, the military had overstayed their welcome, the rising wave of democratisation in Africa and elsewhere, and the end of the Cold War, had made autocratic regimes unfashionable. But at the root of that fight in Nigeria was also the people’s resistance against the Northernisation of Nigeria through the military control of the levers of power. The annulment of the June 12, 1993 election won by Chief M.K.O Abiola of the Social Democratic Party was the needed turning point and catalyst. Everything was thrown into the mix, in a battle fought along ideological and cultural lines across the nation, with stakeholders united by the need to stop the military from further violating Nigeria. Sadly, the June 12 struggle would be defined along the lines of identity politics, whereas it was a pan-Nigerian struggle. The military left. It was felt that the best way to resolve the matter was to zone the presidency to Abiola’s constituency, and even to his home town. In 1999, former Nigerian head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as Nigeria’s civilian president.
Obasanjo is one good example of an African leader who refused to play the politics of identity or ethnicity, or turn it into an instrument of power. He saw himself as a statesman, not on the Nigerian stage, but on the world stage and he conducted himself with great confidence and as a man who from the very first day had his eyes on the legacy of history. Instructively, he received more votes from other parts of Nigeria than from his own ethnic base. He was Nigeria’s president across all boundaries, a strong unifying factor whose understanding of the dynamics of Nigeria’s politics stood in good stead. Obasanjo’s staunchest promoters and supporters were non-Yorubas. His main critics were his own kinsmen. His Yoruba brothers who flocked to Abuja, because “their brother” was there, were free to feed their own fantasies, but those who tried to abuse the privilege were brutally cut down to size. Obasanjo promoted merit and talent. He hired one of the best teams ever put together by a Nigerian head of government. If there was any cabal during the Obasanjo era, it was the cabal of one man: Obasanjo himself. When his vice president, Atiku Abubakar tried to carve out a space of his own without Obasanjo’s approval or knowledge, Obasanjo asserted his authority and engaged his own deputy in a battle of attrition.
The danger with this kind of politics is that Nigerians all live in silos. The only place they feel safe is in the ethnic silo, and the hope that they will in the process find someone who will lift them up, on solely that account. Due process is sacrificed. Our institutions are sabotaged.
The Yar’Adua presidency, as its official spokesperson, Olusegun Adeniyi, has pointed out, was coloured by the politics of power and death; but still, no one could accuse President Yar’Adua of actively promoting the politics of ethnicity and identity. He was the architect of the amnesty programme for Niger Delta militants; he did the groundwork for ensuring lasting peace in that troubled part of the country. It was, however, under Yar’Adua that the word “cabal” crept fully into Nigeria’s political lexicon and that was due to the circumstances of his ill-health and eventual death. “Cabal” in Nigerian presidential politics does not require much explanation, it is not “a kitchen cabinet”, it is understood as a group of persons who try to hijack power, acting either as alter ego or as power brokers who exercise power and authority on behalf of the president as proxies, or at best persons who simply take advantage of a perceived weakness or vacuum at the highest level. The cabal of the Yar’Adua days almost tore the country apart. They knew that the president was incapacitated, but they did not want the then vice president to either act on his behalf or assume power and office. They soon gained the support of others outside the Villa who insisted that President Yar’Adua was using the slot of the North and as “their brother”, even if he died in office, a vice president from the South would not be allowed to assume office. It became a case of “my brother” against “your brother”, with the former saying “to hell with the Constitution”. But the Constitution prevailed and the then vice president became president. He would later win the presidential election of 2011. But apparently, those who thought he used part of “their brother’s tenure” never forgave him.
President Jonathan (2010-2015) did not use the presidential office to play identity or ethnic politics. He built more schools in Northern Nigeria than in any other part of the country. He set up federal universities in the North. In due course, his own kinsmen, who thought their brother as president should use the office to their advantage, began to grumble about him. It was natural for the Ijaws and other groups in the Niger Delta to believe that it was now “their turn” with “their brother” in office. Since 1956, Nigerian minorities have been asking for the attention of other Nigerians, and for equity and justice. The emergence of President Jonathan was meant to bring them into the mainstream. But Dr. Jonathan tried to please the same people who did not want him in power. He bent backwards for them. He talked about not abusing power, liberalism, and being God-fearing and respecting democratic principles. There were persons who warned him not to be too nice to people who wanted to subvert due process and prevent him from coming to power. Many of his “brothers” from the South South relocated to Abuja. The lobby of Transcorp Hilton Hotel and other major hotels in Abuja were taken over by walking-stick-wielding and fedora-hat-wearing power brokers from the Niger Delta. “Na our brother dey there!” They walked with majestic swagger. Today, the hotel lobbies have been taken over by different costumes, a different language and a completely different kind of swag.
The danger with this kind of politics is that Nigerians all live in silos. The only place they feel safe is in the ethnic silo, and the hope that they will in the process find someone who will lift them up, on solely that account. Due process is sacrificed. Our institutions are sabotaged. I may have focused so far on presidential power and politics and the effect on the ethnic imagination and identity politics, but it is the same with other institutions. When a particular Nigerian is given the reins of power in a particular office, his or her first instinct is to fill the establishment with people from the family, the village, the clan, the state, the church or her mosque. Education is not a barrier to this primitive conduct. Otherwise, highly educated persons, with international exposure at the highest levels, have proven to be ethnic gladiators in the corridors of power. They often conduct themselves as if they are not aware that Nigeria is multi-ethnic. I will not name anyone.
What happens is that the victims, those at the receiving end of this problem, end up with pain in their hearts. They feel hurt. They nurse grudges. They feel short-changed. There is a large population of Nigerians out there who believe that they could have done much better, if they did not belong to the marginalised sections of Nigeria, or if they had not been sabotaged by the politics of identity. For the purpose of this narrative, let me cite the example of Matthew Seiyefa. He was in the newspapers yesterday. Seiyefa is a former director general of the State Security Services. He was appointed to that position on August 7, 2018 by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. President Muhammadu Buhari was then on medical vacation in the United Kingdom. Osinbajo was acting president. Seiyefa assumed office under rather dramatic circumstances. In August 2018, the DSS, led by Lawal Daura, sent its officers to take over the premises of the National Assembly. DSS operatives sealed off the place and chased away lawmakers. Osinbajo, in response to the outrage that this act of impunity generated, asserted the authority of his office and fired Lawal Daura and appointed Matthew Seiyefa as acting director-general of the DSS. Everyone hailed Osinbajo for protecting the legislature, the integrity of the constitutional order, and for saving the face of the government. There are many who insist this was the beginning of Osinbajo’s travails – a subject for another day: He sacked “a brother” of the president and appointed a Southerner, “his own brother” as DG.
Seiyefa is right when he says good education helps, but not always, my brother. Has Seiyefa not seen well-educated persons in Nigeria serving as messengers to mediocre agents who flourish because their “brothers” are in charge? Has he not seen geniuses from other parts of the country kept out of school in the name of federal character?
Meanwhile, according to Seiyefa, the day he was named DG of the DSS, there was dancing in the streets of Bayelsa. It was the first time a man from Bayelsa, “their own brother” would be appointed DG, DSS. In his own words: “…When August 7 last year happened, I was told of the jubilation in Bayelsa state. That they heard that one of their own is the head of a federal agency, people went to beer parlours; they bought drinks and they were happy and that moment of stakeholding in the Nigerian nation is very important.” But the people’s joy was short-lived. A month later, immediately President Buhari returned to the country, he removed Seiyefa and appointed Yusuf Bichi as DG, DSS. The interpretation was that he replaced “their brother” with “his own brother.”
Seiyefa, more than a year later, was speaking at the launch of the Bayelsa State Tertiary Education Loan Scheme in his capacity as pro-chancellor of the Niger Delta University. He further disclosed that he had a hard time earning promotions while in the civil service, because identity politics matters more in Nigeria and you have to know either a traditional ruler or a religious leader to put in a word for you. He sounded like a man in deep pain. It is most unusual for a former head of the Secret Police to take on the Nigerian State but Seiyefa spoke his mind and he should not be sanctioned for that – he has a right to speak and spark under the Nigerian Constitution! He said he was saved by education, and the fact that he had good education. Hear him again: “…because you are from here, (that is from the Niger Delta) you are already disadvantaged. But if you are poorly educated, then that is double jeopardy and you will be doubly endangered.”
Seiyefa is right when he says good education helps, but not always, my brother. Has Seiyefa not seen well-educated persons in Nigeria serving as messengers to mediocre agents who flourish because their “brothers” are in charge? Has he not seen geniuses from other parts of the country kept out of school in the name of federal character? Does he not know that Nigeria is not fair, just or truthful to all concerned? When will Nigeria ever rise above the politics of association? When will an educated man in Nigeria become as important as the cattle herder from Niger regardless of ethnic identity? This is part of the burden we bear as Nigeria enters a new year under the clouds of fear, uncertainty and the politics of difference.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.