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Opinionista

The chimera called Nigeria is still chronically dysfunctional and tragic after sixty years of independence

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Sanya Osha is the author of several books, including Postethnophilosophy (2011) and Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011), An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012) and On a Weather-beaten Couch (2015), among other publications. He works at the Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town.

Nigeria needs no external enemies to disintegrate. The seeds of its own disintegration had been sown many decades ago when the idea of Nigeria was hatched by the British. It has been a cynical and self-serving idea meant to benefit only the colonialists. But it had also been a curse inflicted on the locals to keep them within a perpetual cycle of violence and retrogression.

On 1 October 2020, Nigeria marked its 60th birthday anniversary. But many Nigerians believed there was really nothing to celebrate. Fuel prices had been increased amid deepening economic crises and hardships. The foul and sombre mood was exacerbated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) protests that rocked the nation. Once again, the chimera called Nigeria seemed as brittle as ever.

Last year on 20 October, Nigerian army troops opened fire on anti-SARS protesters at Lekki Peninsula, killing 56 people and injuring many others, according to Amnesty International. It was a shocking response in a supposed era of democracy. An out-of-touch President Muhammadu Buhari wasn’t able to offer a tangible explanation for the dastardly act or provide any genuine words of comfort.

Obafemi Awolowo, the great Nigerian statesperson and one of the pivotal architects of national independence, had cynically called Nigeria “a mere geographical expression”. Indeed, Nigeria had been a British colonial creation founded more as an administrative convenience than as rational sociopolitical engineering. The territories in question had been administered previously as separate protectorates, namely, Northern and Southern protectorates. Two significantly different regions, one Muslim, the other, Christian, with vastly different outlooks, belief systems and aspirations had been insensitively merged to embark upon what had always seemed to be a doomed path to nationhood.

After independence, the nation trudged on grimly, shaken by political scandals concerning profligacy and managerial recklessness until the military struck in January 1966. The military putsch was perceived in many quarters to be ethnically motivated pitting the Igbos against the rest of the country, particularly the North. In a retaliatory move, the North struck with a countercoup that killed then ruler Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, and installed Colonel Yakubu Gowon as the head of state. Gowon managed to rule for nine years during which he presided over a civil war between 1967 and 1970.

Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the eastern region’s military leader, had not accepted Gowan’s leadership from the very beginning and favoured confederacy rather than unitarism as a suitable political arrangement for the country. Naturally, this created a lot of tension and various measures were employed to resolve the matter including a crucial meeting held in Aburi, Ghana just before war broke out. Gowon left the meeting thinking the problem had been solved while Ojukwu remained as adamant as ever.

The war came to pass. The federal side led by Gowon in conjunction with a couple of colourful war commanders such as the irascible Benjamin Maja Adekunle defeated Biafra, the secessionist enclave. In a magnanimous mood, Gowon had proclaimed there was “no victor, no vanquished” in a gallant bid to foster a cohesive nationalism. He even refused to accept there had been a war and instead called it “police action” to quell a rebellion. Of course, former Biafrans were bitter and felt aggrieved. Who wouldn’t be?

Ever industrious, the Igbos went about rebuilding their shattered lives, setting up small businesses all over the country wherever they were accepted. The Nigerian experiment, flush with newly found oil money, rebounded under the yoke of militarism. It was widely believed that only strong military men could prevent this inherently flawed experiment from completely derailing. But in the futile attempt to keep the experiment on track, the country flirted with all sorts of pitfalls of leadership from dictatorship, charlatanism, demagoguery and outright subversion and treason. In between, there were often periods of great uncertainty and chaos.

Civil values and institutions were wantonly perverted and unimaginable excesses were committed. Nigeria was often ruled as a banana republic. And the consequences of this have been dire, to say the least.

In the 1980s, as the world shifted towards democratisation, Nigerian military rulers such as the wily General Ibrahim Babagida and the heinous General Sani Abacha pretended to do the same. But their real intentions hadn’t been to hand over power successfully and fairly. Having so many skeletons in their proverbial cupboards including promoting death squads, they needed to have a say in who succeeded them. They also needed to ensure that the billions of dollars they had looted from the national coffers would be safe.

This was the insincere and counterproductive frame of mind that informed the framing of the exorbitant and circuitous transition to civil rule programmes. Indeed those programmes were flawed, self-serving and ultimately designed to fail. They hadn’t been hatched in the minds of true patriots but in the gut and loins of greedy, selfish and often vainglorious lunatics. This, ultimately, was what the Nigerian flirtation with haphazard and combustible militarism had caused.

The rule by arbitrary decrees, military fiat and the credo “with immediate effect” had far-reaching implications. Coups, countercoups, diabolical plots, chimerical snares and phantom coups followed. Countless lives were lost, grand expectations dashed, families and fortunes ruined, enmities were ignited, resentments fuelled everywhere, unrealisable ambitions pursued and the gun came to be recognised as the unquestionable symbol of power.

However, this was a perverse form of power that fed upon itself and the citizens it was supposed to protect. It was also a sort of power that traumatised and brutalised everyone including the hapless foot soldiers who did its insatiable bidding without understanding why. Those foot soldiers terrorised the already disenfranchised as if they had no thought in their heads. They flogged and humiliated citizens on the flimsiest of excuses and often without rhyme or reason. They whipped citizens raw and senseless on the streets in broad daylight, much to the chagrin of Fela Kuti, who sang variously about it in lushly composed hits, and Wole Soyinka, who satirised it in plays.

Brute force became the nation’s glue and foundation and which also went about destroying everything in its way. This was what militarism had caused, a complete loss of civil values and sensibilities. There is nothing so surreal as the venom which works its way through the body politic as all venoms do, beclouding vision and numbing the senses until death takes over. Militarism turned Nigerians into the walking dead even though their innards had been engulfed by fire. They existed like zombies that had been set alight, tumbling from bonfire to bonfire like drunken fireflies.

Brute force became the nation’s glue and foundation and which also went about destroying everything in its way. This was what militarism had caused, a complete loss of civil values and sensibilities.

And the very same military predators that had brutalised them for decades had to preside over their ill-fated transitions to democracy. Everything was stage-managed to suit military expectations and desires. To be sure, Nigerians needed a sincere programme of demilitarisation but they hadn’t launched one.

It wasn’t a coincidence that the first president of the fourth democratic dispensation had been an army general, Olusegun Obasanjo. And he behaved true to type, inflicting brute force and death when it suited him as in the case of the razed village of Odi in 1999.

The Nigerian democratic project has got to be one of the most Frankensteinian ever; misshapen, misdirected, unpredictable and managed by a bewildering cast of hare-brained military commanders, shady barons, misfits and actors who invariably privilege the self over the nation. Inevitably, both nation and citizens suffer immeasurably. In other words, the political class, disconnected as ever from the Nigerian populace has abandoned the obligations of leadership. The idea of the nation, at best, fickle, becomes even murkier, a charade of territorial unity lodged within the inflamed brains of rapacious gluttons, only. As for the rest, it was simply a false idea meant to deceive the masses into giving up their sovereignty.

The citizenry is at the mercy of a ruthless and depraved state. An organ such as SARS, first established in 1992, a supposedly anti-robbery squad morphed into an ogre of terror, plundering and pillaging, while a moribund president twiddled his thumbs and gawked cluelessly.

Nigeria needs no external enemies in order to disintegrate. The seeds of its own disintegration had been sown many decades ago when the idea of Nigeria was hatched by the British. It has been a cynical and self-serving idea meant to benefit only the colonialists. But it had also been a curse inflicted on the locals to keep them within a perpetual cycle of violence and retrogression.

An appropriate metaphor to describe this unending cycle is to picture millions of muddied subjects futilely slithering upwards against an unforgiving mountain of nationhood, invariably falling backwards atop each other in a thick sludge of black mud. A veritable hell, filled with prostrate and afflicted demon slaves atop each other, forever slithering backwards in a sludge of mud, slime and blood, in permanent agony and pleading for mercy.

Nigerians were lured into a hellish chamber of a country and their climb up the mount of nationhood has been nothing but an interminable ascent into hell. This disconcerting image came to mind as the country marked her 60th birthday. Insecurity had become the norm in a country with citizens unable to travel from one town to the next without the fear of being kidnapped or murdered by roving Fulani herdsmen and SARS operatives. Life in broad daylight had clearly become insufferably hellish.

SARS, that perpetrator of misery and agony, rallied Nigerians against it in an uncommon demonstration of unity as protests spread all over the country. SARS is arguably the misbegotten child of residual militarism. Due to its callousness and sheer brutality, SARS single-handedly turned unwanted international attention on Nigeria for all the wrong reasons. Prominent US celebrities, notably Beyoncé, Kanye West and Lil Baby expressed their unreserved support for anti-SARS demonstrators fighting for a more humane society. Obviously, a perverted military ethos still pervades the land and its frightening offspring are many. There might even be others yet to come.

On 20 October 2020, Nigerian army troops shot at protesters at Lekki Peninsula toll gate, killing 50 people and injuring many others, according to Amnesty International. It was a shocking response from a supposedly democratic government. Amnesty International further reports that at least 150 demonstrators were murdered by the army in the southeastern part of the country.

Blind and unfeeling force, the sheer will to dominate without regard for citizens is one of the most corrosive legacies of militarism. Together with seeking to maintain a monopoly of violence, there is a concomitant culture of impunity and lack of accountability. It is therefore widely assumed that power has no obligation to answer to anyone, least of all itself. And until Nigerians realise this about the lingering effects of militarism, they will continue to be victims to recurrent cycles of terror and oppression than have their antecedents in much earlier times.

Distressingly, SARS was an organisation that committed flagrant acts of torture. Tabay, an archaic type of torture that can be traced 2,000 years back to ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, has now resurfaced with especial virulence. Through this form of torture, victims’ arms and elbows are bound together tightly to stem blood flow. They are then suspended from the ground by their arms, clubbed repeatedly and subjected to electric shocks. It is believed that anywhere there was a SARS office, there were also torture cells. This ancient form of torture that has now become widespread in Nigeria undercuts all pretensions to modernity, democracy, human rights and dignity. It means that deep behind the façade of nationhood, there are widening and festering cesspools of utter barbarism.

A 2016 index of world policing reported that the Nigeria Police Force ranked the last out of a survey of 127 countries. SARS, an offshoot of this deadly force, broke many hearts by senselessly killing activists Tiamiyu Kazeem, Isaac Mgbe, Ifeoma Abugu and Chibuike Anams, who were merely protesting against their inhumane methods. Nigerian youth had so much to protest about. Foreign direct investment in 2020 stood at $1.29-billion as opposed to $5.85-billion for the preceding year, which represented a propitious decline of 78.1%. The National Bureau of Statistics revealed an unprecedented rate of unemployment at 56%. About 14 million youth are currently unemployed. Undoubtedly, out of these teeming armies of the unemployed, hoodlums amid their midst acting under the pretext of fighting against police brutality embarked on terrifying campaigns of looting, vandalism and brigandage.

On 20 October 2020, Nigerian army troops shot at protesters at Lekki Peninsula toll gate, killing 50 people and injuring many others, according to Amnesty International. It was a shocking response from a supposedly democratic government. Amnesty International further reports that at least 150 demonstrators were murdered by the army in the southeastern part of the country.

Ironically, mass protests haven’t been launched against marauding Fulani herdsmen or Boko Haram, which now has a sizeable portion of the northeastern region under its control. Instead, they have been directed at an ineffectual government and its deadly anti-robbery squad that terrorised citizens more than it did robbers. The state, hollowed out by decades of relentless looting, is incapable of providing adequate security and stability and so Boko Haram jihadists and other dangerous insurgents now merely have to sit back rubbing their palms while Nigeria implodes.

Due to its chronic dysfunction, Nigeria has lost innumerable immensely skilled citizens to successive waves of brain drain. With the continuing crises, many are unlikely to return. The stories filtering from home are simply too distressing. Other Nigerians trapped at home continually attempt to risk their lives across tempestuous seas, inclement weather and deserts in a bid to reach safer and saner countries. But they are often disappointed as they are greeted with the grim realities of alienation, squalor, statelessness and uncertainty. Entrapped in a nowhere zone, unable to advance and yet incapable of retreating, lives flounder in limbo. And those unfortunate human beings are left with three sorts of strength to survive: a sense of humour, unflagging resilience and a never-say-die spirit.

This seemingly indomitable spirit drives droves of Nigerians annually to all parts of the world: Ghana, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Gambia, Kenya and even South Africa, where they are unwanted.

They are also not needed in Dubai, Malaysia and the US, but they still venture across those borders through all available means, land, air and sea. Nigerian youth would rather expend their rambunctious energies in other countries than remain in their own country, which is unpredictable and prone to the vagaries of chance, like a theatre of war. It seems the war they would have to face in other countries is infinitely better than anything they would have to confront at home.

This is the great tragedy of present-day Nigeria. DM

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    • Indeed. Yes, the borders of African countries have been determined in Europe decades ago. Yes, it was beneficial to to colonialists. But they are not here any longer. Africa’s leader had more tham ample opportunity to improve things, but it suit them not to.