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The Ominous Signs that Validate Obasanjo's Verdict on Nigeria's Unity

Ifiok is a public affairs analyst and sociopolitical commentator passionate about good governance, justice & equity. He lives in Nigeria.

Obasanjo's Candid Verdit

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in his characteristic fashion, spoke candidly and forcefully about his concerns for the unity of the country, given the many deep-seated issues threatening to tear the country apart. The crux of his speech was that the Buhari administration is not handling these issues, which directly impact the foundation of the nation's unity properly. He blamed the country's drift towards disintegration on the Buhari administration.

The government responded by calling Obasanjo, the Divider-in-Chief, and raining a barrage of unpleasant words on him.

Obasanjo was speaking in Abuja at a consultative dialogue organized and attended by various sociocultural groups in the country. The groups in attendance included the Afenifere, which represents the interests of the Yoruba ethnic group, the Middle Belt Forum, which represents the interests of the peoples of the North Central geopolitical zone, the Northern Elders Forum, which represents the peoples of northern Nigeria, the Ohanaeze Ndi Igbo, which represents Igbo interests, and the Pan Niger Delta Forum, which represents the interests of the peoples of the oil-rich Niger Delta region of the country. The meeting took place on Thursday, September 10.

In his speech on the occasion which he titled, 'Moving Nigeria Away from Tipping Over', the retired general and Nigerian Civil War veteran, confessed that he had never seen Nigeria this divided in his lifetime. He blamed the Buhari government for the division, saying that the country's current problems are largely due to the administration's inability to effectively manage the nation's diversity.

Obasanjo said specifically;

"I do appreciate that you all feel sad and embarrassed as most of us feel as Nigerians with the situation we find ourselves in. Today, Nigeria is fast drifting to a failed and badly divided state; economically our country is becoming a basket case and poverty capital of the world, and socially, we are firming up as an unwholesome and insecure country.

"And these manifestations are the products of recent mismanagement of diversity and socio-economic development of our country. Old fault lines that were disappearing have opened up in greater fissures and with drums of hatred, disintegration, and separation and accompanying choruses being heard loud and clear almost everywhere.

"I believe one of our major problems in the past was that we did not dialogue enough, we talked at ourselves and selfishly kept old prejudices and biases. If we show understanding, give-and-take, love for one another, and commitment and love for the country, we will do what is right and stand firmly together for the good of all."

Recent developments in the nation's polity validate Obasanjo's candid verdict on the nation's unity.

Within the past months, some significant events have occurred in the polity, which on critical analysis, represent shreds of evidence of major cracks in the Nigerian project along age-long ethnic, religious, and regional fault lines. I will highlight some of those events in this piece.

Olusegun Obasanjo

Olusegun Obasanjo

Today, Nigeria is fast drifting to a failed and badly divided state; economically our country is becoming a basket case and poverty capital of the world, and socially, we are firming up as an unwholesome and insecure country. And these manifestations are the products of recent mismanagement of diversity and socio-economic development of our country.

— Olusegun Obasanjo

The Buhari administration's proclivities to make lop-sided appointments into federal positions and other partial decisions

Ever since Buhari assumed office as the nation's President in 2015, persistent complaints of bias and partiality, especially in appointments into strategic government positions, have continued to trail his administration. Citizens have accused the administration of making lopsided appointments and decisions in favor of the President's ethnic, regional, and religious interests. And quite frankly, these complaints are not without a basis.

Nigeria is a delicately balanced, plural, multi-ethnic, and multicultural society. On the religious front, which is perhaps the most volatile fault line, the country broadly divides into the Christian South and Muslim North. It takes a high level of sensitivity to the issues that affect each of the constituent ethnic nationalities to maintain that delicate balance.

It was for the reason of ensuring equity and maintaining this balance that the writers of the Nigerian Constitution inserted the principle of Federal Character into it. The principle provides for the equitable distribution of federal appointments among the constituents groups of the federation.

Sadly, the Buhari administration has consistently jettisoned this constitutional provision in favor of parochial interests. Some examples of the blatant display of insensitivity to the nation's delicate balance will suffice here.

The leadership of each of the nation's three arms of government is firmly in the hands of persons from northern Nigeria. That has never been so. The administration did all within its power to ensure that a northerner emerged the leader of the Senate.

Perhaps it was in its subtle manipulations in the appointment of the head of the judiciary that the administration revealed its biases. It went overboard in bruising the sensibilities of the southern part of the country without a care. After the head of the judiciary, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed retired, on reaching the mandatory retirement age, the officer next in line to succeed him was Justice Samuel Walter Onnoghen.

Onnoghen is from the Niger Delta region of the country. But against all fair judgment and despite mounting pressure, the President stalled on appointing Onnoghen as the CJN. It was the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, who eventually made the appointment in his capacity as acting President while the President was away on medical leave in the UK. But the drama was not to end there.

When the President returned from the UK, his administration removed Onnoghen from office in a most controversial circumstance. The government leveled charges bordering on financial corruption and false declaration of assets against the former CJN and got him removed in an unusually speedy judicial process just before the 2019 general elections.

The government then quickly proceeded to replace Onnoghen with a northerner, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed. It was the first time that a Nigerian President would sack a chief justice since 1975! The move was illegal because it neglected the principle of separation of powers among the three arms of government as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution.

In arriving at its decision to remove the CJN, the administration failed to follow the due process of the law, which stipulates obtaining the recommendation by the National Judicial Council (NJC) and a two-third concurring approval of the Senate. The Senate's insistence on the reinstatement of Onnoghen fell on deaf ears. Despite pressure from the international community, who faulted the decision especially coming so close to an election, the President would not budge.

The most significant positions in the nation's security architecture are in the hands of officers northern extraction. Out of 17 of such key security positions, northern officers head 14 of them. (Source: Punch Newspaper). Buhari appointed the majority of them. Despite public outcry from southern Nigeria about the slanted nature of the appointments, the government has maintained the status quo.

A northerner, Mahmood Yakubu, currently heads the nation's electoral body, the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC). It has never happened before in the history of the country that the President would appoint someone from his ethnic extraction and religion to head the nation's electoral umpire.

A northerner, Mele Kyari, heads the nation's state-owned oil conglomerate, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), which is the regulator of the nation's oil industry. Buhari appointed him to oversee the organization after the retirement of another northerner, Maikanti Baru, from the position. Buhari had appointed Baru to replace Dr. Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, a southerner from the Niger Delta region. Kachkwu only occupied the office very briefly.

These are just but a few of the instances of the blatant display of bias in the Buhari government's appointments and decisions. The appointees in these cases are not just from the north; they are mostly of the President's Hausa-Fulani ethnic stock and are all Muslims.

Ever since Buhari assumed office as the nation's President in 2015, persistent complaints of bias and partiality, especially in appointments into strategic government positions, have continued to trail his administration. Citizens have accused the administration of making lopsided appointments and decisions in favor of the President's ethnic, regional, and religious interests. And quite frankly, these complaints are not without a basis.

The government's reluctance to bring killer Fulani herders to justice

In 2018, the Global Terrorism Index listed Fulani militants, locally called herdsmen or bandits, as the fourth deadliest terrorist organization in the world. Despite such fact from a globally-recognized expert on such matters, the Buhari administration has refused to declare the Fulani militants a terrorist group. They move around freely with sophisticated arms and terrorize communities all over the nation, especially in the North Central and Northwest regions. They kill, maim, rape women, steal, burn, destroy cultivated farmlands and other properties, and kidnap people at will. Sadly, the nation's security agencies have failed to make any major arrests in these attacks.

The umbrella organization of the Fulani pastoralists, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), a relatively unknown quantity before Buhari came into office, now occupies a prominent pride of place in the nation's scheme of things. It has become the most vocal of the sociocultural organizations in the country. But very few Nigerians would complain if it spoke responsibly on issues; after all, the other groups do air their views on national issues too.

The problem with MACBAN, however, is that it is in the habit of making provocative statements on sensitive national issues with unabashed impunity. The organization has on different occasions claimed responsibility for killings and brutal violence in certain parts of the country, yet the government has never deemed it necessary to prosecute its leaders.

Instead, the government would make excuses for the militants' atrocious crimes and assiduously find means to appease them, using different narratives and devices. At first, the government pushed the narrative that the killer herders were not Nigerians. But why would a responsible government allow foreigners to infiltrate its territory and kill its citizens?

Then, the government said the militants were killing farmers because their ancient cattle grazing routes have been blocked. It resorted to making frantic efforts, including what could pass for arm-twisting tactics, to force all the states to reopen grazing routes for the Fulani herders.

When its efforts met with stiff resistance from the other constituent ethnic nationalities, the government changed tactics. It officially mandated the governments of all the states of the federation to set aside portions of land for RUGA settlements for the Fulani herders under the pretext of trying to resolve the incessant conflicts. When that too would not sell, it muted the idea of creating what it called cattle colonies in every state for the herders.

Each time a proposed government policy failed, the militants would double their efforts at causing mayhem in the country to cow everyone to submission.

Muhammadu Buhari

Muhammadu Buhari

In 2018, the Global Terrorism Index listed Fulani militants, locally called herdsmen or bandits, as the fourth deadliest terrorist organization in the world. Despite such fact from a globally-recognized expert on such matters, the Buhari administration has refused to declare the Fulani militants a terrorist group. They move around freely with sophisticated arms and terrorize communities all over the nation, especially in the North Central and Northwest regions.

The Dr. Obadiah Mailafia controversial radio interview

A former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, granted an interview to the radio station with the widest reach in Lagos, the commercial nerve center of Nigeria. While fielding questions on the lingering brutal conflicts in Southern Kaduna in Kaduna State, Dr. Mailafia made very grave allegations about the involvement of very highly placed state actors in the conflict. One of such weighty allegations was that a serving governor of one of the northern states was a commander of the jihadist group, Boko Haram.

Dr. Mailafia claimed that he got his information from interviewing repentant ex-commanders of the terror group. He also alleged that that the terror group had infiltrated the southern part of the nation and was planning to cause a civil war in 2022. He accused the governments at the state and federal levels and the security agencies of complicity in the raging crisis in Southern Kaduna, which has claimed many lives.

Dr. Mailafia is no ordinary Nigerian. At the moment he gave the interview, he was a directing officer in the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS). He contested for Nigeria's presidency in the 2019 general elections.

Following his interview, Nigeria's secret police, the Department of State Services (DSS), interrogated him thrice in less than two months. His recent statements in which he recanted much of the allegations he had made during the radio interview are very suspect. It would appear as though the DSS had coerced him into withdrawing his initial comments. He also resigned from his position at the NIPSS.

The emergence of the New Nigerian Bar Association

The leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the umbrella body of lawyers in the country, had invited the Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, to speak at this year's edition of its Annual National Conference. Kaduna State is in northwest Nigeria.

However, a large number of members of the association signed an online petition against el-Rufai's invitation. The lawyers based their grievances on the governor's poor human rights record as demonstrated in the way and manner that he treats dissenting voices and opposition in his state, his lack of regard for the rule of law as shown in his flagrant disobedience of court orders, his biased handling of the conflict that has engulfed Southern Kaduna as manifested in his utterances and actions regarding the crisis, and his son, Bashir's belligerent attitude on social media.

On the strength of that petition and a strongly-worded letter by another group of lawyers, the leadership of the NBA decided to withdraw its earlier invitation to el-Rufai. But the decision to withdraw the invitation did not go down well with members of the association from the northern part of the country. The aggrieved lawyers threatened to boycott the conference if the NBA refused to rescind the decision. The northern lawyers weaved a regional and religious slant to their narrative regarding the reason for the NBA's later decision.

The Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN), Kaduna branch, also threatened to boycott the conference for the same reason. So did the Jigawa and Bauchi states branches of the association too. Both states are in northern Nigeria.

As a result of the dissatisfaction with the NBA's handling of the el-Rufai controversy, some northern lawyers led by Nuhu Ibrahim and Abdulbasit Suleiman announced that they had broken away from the NBA to form a new association, the New NBA, for lawyers in the northern region of the country. The splinter group officially wrote to the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, to notify him about the group's formation.

The emergence of the North Central People's Forum from the Arewa Consultative Forum

The Arewa Consultative Forum has been the umbrella body for all the peoples of northern Nigeria since its establishment in 1979. Northern Nigeria has always prided itself as one indivisibly monolithic entity, particularly when it comes to its political direction. Although the region has three geopolitical zones comprising many ethnic nationalities, it has always spoken in one voice and pursued the same political goal.

All the other ethnic groups in the region were, until very recently, satisfied with being under the shadow of the domineering Hausa-Fulani Muslims. For decades the words, 'the North' especially as it relates to politics, almost exclusively referred to the Hausa-Fulani Muslims. They manipulated the other ethnic groups to pursue a common political cause with them.

It is instructive to note that those other tribes, who are predominantly Christians, bear most of the brunt of the Fulani militants' vicious attacks.

Then, as though on cue, just a few days after the emergence of the New NBA, some elements from the North Central region decided to pull out of the Arewa Consultative Forum, citing the decades of injustice and insecurity that their people have suffered under the umbrella of the north as their reason to break away.

Other prominent Nigerian citizens have since joined Obasanjo in voicing out their apprehensions concerning the continued existence of the country as a unified entity. First to add his voice in support of Obasanjo's, was the revered professor and Nobel Laureate in Literature, Professor Wole Soyinka.

On September 15, 2020, Soyinka reacted to the federal government's response to Obasanjo's statement in a published essay he titled, 'Between Dividers-in-Chief and Dividers-in-Law.'

Excerpts from the essay read:

"The nation is divided as never before, and this ripping division has taken place under the policies and conducts of none other than President Buhari. Does that claim belong in the realms of speculation?

"Does anyone deny that it was this President who went to sleep while communities were consistently ravaged by cattle marauders, were raped and displaced in their thousands, and turned into beggars all over the landscape? Was it a different President who, on being finally persuaded to visit a scene of carnage, had nothing more authoritative to offer than to advise the traumatized victims to learn to live peacefully with their violators?

"We are close to extinction as a viable comity of peoples supposedly bound together under an equitable set of protocols of co-habitation, capable of producing its means of existence, and devoid of a culture of sectarian privilege and will to dominate.

"Across this nation, there is profound distrust, indeed abandonment of hope in this government as one that is genuinely committed to the survival of the nation as one, or indeed understands the minimal requirements for positioning it as a modern, functional space of productive occupancy".

A former Chief of Defence Staff, retired Lt. General Alani Akinrinade, has spoken in the same vein regarding the situation. So has former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani Kayode, and many others.

Whatever the Buhari government thinks about Obasanjo's candid verdict, whatever it says about it, whatever it would want to have us believe, the truth remains that the things we witness all around us every day are ominous signs and pointers to the fact that the very foundation of Nigeria's continued existence as a united nation is very shaky at the moment.

These are the signs that validate Obasanjo's blunt but timely warning. Nigeria is dangerously tottering on the brink of collapse.

Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka