Let’s be clear about one thing: Nigerian affairs are of concern to everyone on the African continent.
For without Nigeria‘s diplomatic — and sometimes military — support, at least four African countries would, today, be quite unrecognisable.
These countries are Angola, Namibia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Extend that the include South Africa — for reasons that will become clear soon.
When the Portuguese Government, after the “Carnation Revolution” of 25 April 1974, began to grant independence to its African territories — Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe — the situation in Angola in particular was quite messy. Three almost equally-matched, armed movements, the MPLA, UNITA and the FNLA, each claimed to be the one to whom the Portuguese should hand over power. The movements y fought an on-and-off civil war, in which Nigerian diplomatic support for the MPLA, which became pronounced after the accession to power of General Murtala Muhammed (July 1975 – February 1976) and his successor, General Olusegun Obasanjo (February 1976 to September 1979) was of crucial importance.
This was because the United State and the apartheid regime in South Africa,afraid of the MPLA’s ties top the Soviet Union and Cuba, tried to divide the Organisation of African Unity and prevent it from supporting the MPLA. If Africa had fallen into the traps of regarding the MPLA as a mere surrogate of the Communists in Cuba and the USSR, the MPLA regime would have had a tougher time garnering diplomatic support to obtain recognition for Angola from the international community as an independent country.And if Angola had failed, the transformation of South Africa from the apartheid monster it the was, to the multi-racial society it is today, would not have occurred.
Liberia and Sierra Leone would also not be enjoying the peace they are currently enjoying, had Nigeria, in the company of other West African countries, including Ghana, not played a leading role in sending forces under ECOMOG and United Nations auspices to provide peacekeeping services in both countries.
So, from an African continental point of view, it is extremely important that Nigeria should continue to be be stable and respected by the international community. But as important as that is, Nigeria’s stability is, of course, primarily of concern to the country’s own population of between 140 and 150 million. Sadly, Nigeria’s politicians have, of late, displayed a disregard for their country’s stability that is quite alarming.
Everyone in Nigeria knows that President Umaru Yar’Adua is not the most healthy human being on earth. Now, there is nothing wrong with that. Every human being can fall sick. Although President Yar’Adua was known to be sickly, he was adjudged capable of becoming President before he actually assumed the post. So, if his sickly nature becomes more pronounced after he’s taken office, there is hardly anything earth-shattering about it.
But he has a so-called “kitchen Cabinet”, led by his wife, Turai, which has come to the inexplicable conclusion that his true condition should not become known to the Nigerian populace. They took him to Saudi Arabia in November 2009 and kept him incommunicado there until 24 February 2010, when they brought him back, in the dead of night, without even informing his Vice-President!
When they were taking him to Saudi Arabia, they refused to comply with a constitutional provision that if the President was going to be away for any length of time, he should write to the National Assembly to inform it of his absence, and ask the Assembly to accord the Vice-President all the powers of the presidency.
There was a “he-did, he didn’t” run-around between the Parliament and the President’s liaison officer with the Parliament, over whether he had written to the Parliament, but that the liaison officer had not delivered the letter! It was an amazingly amateurish bit of dissembling over a matter of such national importance..
In the end, the Nigerian Senate took matters into its own hands and declared the Vice-President as Acting President. Even then, the “kitchen Cabinet” wouldn’t accept the situation and tried all sorts of manoeuvres to try and undermine the position of the Acting President. Its most disgraceful faux pas was to smuggle the President back into the country, in the middle of the night, without alerting the Acting President. Many people even thought a military coup had been mounted against the Acting President, inasmuch as he had not, apparently, been made aware of of a military deploment in the middle of the night to cordon-off Abuja airport, at the time of the President’s return. They created the impression that the Acting President was not in full control of the military.
Nigerians began to make fun of their government. “A country with two Presidents”, some said. Others called Yar’Adua a “Shadow President”. Many more resorted to Nigerian local colloquialism and described Yar’Adua as “President not on seat.”
At the moment, many of the thorny issues indicative of a power-struggle appear to have been resolved. Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, has begun demonstrating that he will be governing the country with a firm hand. He first dismissed the national security adviser appointed by Yar’Adua, General Sarki Mukhtar, and replaced him with General Aliyu Gusau, who was General Obasanjo‘s national security adviser, and had been involved with national security matters over a long period before that.
With the security situation under control, Mr Jonathan has now began to reconstruct the government by dismissing the Cabinet. Everyone in Nigeria is agog with speculation about the new men he will bring in.
Meanwhile, he is confronted with one of the most difficult situations any President can be faced with. The Plateau State, which lies right across the fault-line of Nigeria, in the sense that it is in what used to be called the “Middle Belt” between the North and the South, and between Islamic and non-Islamic communities, is falling apart.
Terrible pictures of Fulani herdsmen taking revenge over non-Fulanis who had attacked Fulanis in January 2010, have made their appearance in both the local and foreign media. Because of the Internet, these pictures have received wide publicity and inflamed a great deal of passions.
It is not only in the Plateau state that there’s tension between people of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. In 2009, there were terrible outbreaks of violence in Bauchi province, pictures of which have again been publicised on the Internet. Extrajudicial executions by the police took place during the disturbances.
Each time these acts of violence occur, great damage is done to the fraying lines of cohesion that hold Nigeria together. Ethnic and religious rivalries are two of the worst forces that any nation can be faced with. They just turn human beings into animals and there is no way of reasoning with people when the two evils take hold of them.
The Acting President has two courses of action open to him; 1. to establish a much-better organised intelligence structure that can detect social tensions before they reach the breaking point where people take up weapons and 2. to set up a body to distil all the reports that already exist about social tensions. There have been many such reports gathering dust in civil service offices and it shouln’t be difficult to sift their recommendations and implement those that are practicable.
At the same time, a serious effort must be made to alleviate the underlying poverty in Nigerian society that enables desperate people to obtain supporters for any violent enterprise that promises to make the participants richer. Politicians with an axe to grind can far too easily “rent a crowd” in Nigeria.
An important — and rich nation — like Nigeria cannot just sit down and tear itself apart the way it has been doing. Sporadic outbreaks of violence may look transitory and unimportant, but the lesson of the dozens of small acts that eventually led to the Biafran war of 1967-70, in which between one and two million people are estimated to have lost their lives, must not be forgotten. For, as the Spanish-born American philosopher, George Santayana (1863-1952) said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to re-live it.”