Our Collective Fears and the Urgent Need for Presidential Response, By Jibrin Ibrahim
It has been a long time since I have seen Nigerians as frightened as they are currently. It’s the type of all-pervasive fear that emerges when people become acutely aware that they are confronted with multiple threats to their safety and that if one does not get them, another would. It’s above all the fear grounded in the belief that as the numerous threats march towards them, no one in authority is trying to do anything about it. It’s the fear rooted in the knowledge that State authority has substantially collapsed in Nigeria, small arms and light weapons are in the hands of bandits, terrorists and militants and these bad guys are using the arms against the people. As the situation deteriorates, people are frightened that their president is talking to them less and travelling out more to network with the world while they are being killed, abducted and stolen from.
If I had access to the President, my advice to him is to declare a one-year moratorium on foreign travel and start talking to Nigerians about what could be done to address the problems facing them. My second advice is that he should warn his spokespersons, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu to stop sending Presidential letters of felicitations and goodwill to all members of the elite over 70 years celebrating their birthday. I see them almost daily and I always ask myself is birthday wishes the most important issue on the President’s desk today? For me, there are more pressing issues that he should concern himself with.
The Presidential narrative on Boko Haram has been that their capacity to fight has been degraded, the territories they took five years ago have since been recovered and they have become a ragtag group capable of inly hitting soft targets and sending girls on suicide missions. Every Nigerian wishes that this is indeed the situation. Every Nigerian knows however that they have moved from attacking soft targets to attacking and killing our gallant soldiers virtually on a daily basis. That over the past week, they have taken over control of the road between Maiduguri and Damaturu and have been killing and abducting travellers. The Borno State Governor has had occasion to complain last week that soldiers have been busy collecting toll from rather than defending road travellers and after his complain, the road fell completely to the control of the insurgents. Nigerians are afraid because they can see a decline in performance of the military and there is no attempt on the part of the Government to get a new leadership for them. Nigerians are also frightened because the security situation in the North East further deteriorated when the Chadian soldiers helping us withdrew. How and why has the mighty fallen?
Nigerians have become frightened of travelling on the roads in all geo-political zones in the country because bandits and kidnappers have become the kings of our roads. Hundreds of people are being attacked regularly, killed, kidnapped, raped and forced to pay ransoms in millions. We live in dread because payment of the ransom is itself not a guarantee that our kidnapped loved ones would be returned alive. Meanwhile, so many families and communities are becoming bankrupt as they are forced to sell their belongings to pay ransom that might or might not lead to the release of their loved ones.
Nigerians live in apprehension because there has been a massive expansion of the phenomenon of rural banditry in the country. The problem which started as conflicts between farmers and herders has been transformed into widespread armed attacks on rural communities leading to mass killings, arson, theft and again the despicable action of rape and sexual violence. Many people are no longer able to access their farmlands or stay in their communities leading to the mortal fear that their land would be taken away from them. Armed banditry which was a largely urban phenomenon is now everywhere and people are in anxiety because they are neither safe in their urban abode or in their home communities.
Nigerians are dismayed because as fear and dread follow wanton killings and destruction, the phenomenon of hate has enveloped their lives. The narratives emerging on rural banditry in the media and in popular discourse have become part of the drivers for expanding the conflicts and killings. The growth of rural banditry has been grafted upon a background of intense competition over increasingly scarce land and water resources in rural communities. The problem is that the protagonists in these growing conflicts are being reduced in an over simplified manner to nomadic Fulani cattle herders, who are mostly Muslims, and sedentary farmer communities of several other ethnic extractions, who are often non-Muslim. These two distinct groups are usually depicted as perpetrators and victims, respectively. The reality is more complex and more serious as freelance armed banditry has taken over the killings and bandits of all religious and ethnic persuasions have joined the fray while the ethno-religious narratives have remained. Fear is intensifying because more and more Nigerians are convinced that the others hate them, are trying to destroy them and no one is trying to defend them.
The danger of the unfolding dynamics is that the expansions of hate speech, stigmatisation of communities, religious and ethnic groups is causing growing distrust as negative stereotyping between “the one” and “the other” becomes the national pastime. The result is the rise of ethnic and religious bigotry, culminating in the escalation of further chains of attacks and counter or revenge attacks being exchanged between these different groups. There is dismay in the country because each group is convinced they are victims and the State is not there to protect them. Life has become in Hobbes words – “nasty, brutish and short”. No one appears worried about the manner in which the social media in particular is mass-producing discourses and narratives that are intensifying conflicts. Each day, we receive numerous reports, especially on our WhatsApp platforms about how the enemy is killing and abducting our people while the State would not act. Nigerians in Katsina, Benue, Bornu, Abia and elsewhere are all convinced about their victimhood and the absent State thereby maintaining the country on the straight path to self-destruction.
The rural peace offered by the British following their formal occupation of all of Nigeria’s territory in 1903 has completely crumbled and rural and urban banditry by well-armed criminal gangs, most of them multi-ethnic, is emptying Nigeria of its objects of value – lives, livelihoods, property, liberty and safety. Part of the effects of the process is massive population displacements and as the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) grow, farming becomes impossible in many places and the risk of famine is today very real. The Government appears to believe it has a lot of time to work on these issues so there is no rapid response to multiple crises. The security situation in the country is unravelling and citizens have become despondent as they see no State action addressing the issues. I have not even spoken of the traditional problems including militancy in the Niger Delta and Biafran secessionist movements, not to talk of the new Amotekun challenge.
What must get out of the conundrum of the constant relay between a normally absent State and an occupation State that appears when killings have occurred and soldiers are brought in. The President must act, continuously engage with Nigerians on what is happening and what he is doing about it. He and his Government must address our fears, anxieties and concerns and assure us that there is a future for the Nigerian State on the basis of concrete actions being taken to address our collective fears over our security and welfare.