With President Buhari temporarily out of the picture, vice-president Osinbajo is left to tackle festering ethnic and regional sentiments threatening the country
A season of all the dangers
The slight figure of vice-president Yemi Osinbajo in his austere black tunic and Sokoto trousers looked incongruous, flanked by burly military officers, as he delivered his address to graduates at the Armed Forces Command and Staff College in Jaji on 23 June. But his message – a melange of hope and the direst of warnings – was absolutely on the mark. Osinbajo had spent much of the previous week meeting traditional and religious leaders, trying to dampen down a new wave of ethnic chauvinism. “Out of the rubble of cynicism, divisions and suspicions, we can build a new nation,” Osinbajo told the graduates, drawn from West Africa’s military elite, at the Jaji academy. Until now, Osinbajo has lived up to his billing as a self-effacing technocrat ill at ease with power politics. That was part of Osinbajo’s job description as temporary head of state during President Muhammadu Buhari’s two extended absences on medical leave in London this year. The trouble started when Osinbajo broke out of political purdah, winning plaudits for taking initiatives. Then, at the beginning of June, a critique written under the pen name of Dr Ismaila Farouk accused Osinbajo of unduly favouring southern Christians in his appointments. It is a charge that Osinbajo’s office strongly rejects, insisting all his appointments have been strictly on merit. Osinbajo’s speech to the Jaji graduates tried a direct answer to Farouk’s cr itique: “The last two decades in Nigeria have witnessed a quickened retreat of the Nigerian elite to their ethnic and religious camps […]. Unity and disunity are promoted by the elite […]. When you hear a person say that my tribe has been marginalised, usually what he is saying is: ‘Appoint me’. Appointments in the public service are no longer judged on merit.” As he catalogued the failures of the ruling elite, Osinbajo set out a brighter future for the graduates: “A nation where the rulers do not steal the commonwealth,” he continued, “where every Nigerian is safe to live and work, where the state takes responsibility for the security of each Nigerian, a Nigeria where the Igbo or Ijaw man can live peacefully in Sokoto, and the Fulani man can live peacefully in the Niger Delta.” Nigeria’s diversity, like that of India and Italy, should be a great strength, he said. This cri de coeur was rendered more poignant still by its timing. Fifty years ago, regional clashes over rights and resources exploded into a civil war that lasted for three years and cost more than a million lives. Horrifically, Nigeria’s civil war pioneered a new generation of conflicts that was reproduced in Yugoslavia, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Sudan. It also defined the careers of Nigeria’s post-independence leaders. Men such as Generals Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and Muhammadu Buhari fought on the federal side against the Biafran secessionists.
CALLS FOR ETHNIC CLEANSING
For many younger Nigerians, the past is another country. But some Nigerians have not moved on, seeing the war as unfinished business. Just three weeks before Osinbajo’s speech to the Jaji graduates, a group of militants from the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum called on all Igbos in northern Nigeria to leave the region before 1 October, national independence day. That was the sort of demand that triggered the civil war. Making the call at a press conference in Kaduna, the political capital of northern Nigeria, youth leader Abdul-azeez Suleiman advised northerners living in
south-east Nigeria to leave that region within the same time frame. He suggested that he was responding to the protest campaign by the Indigenous People of Biafra, which organised ‘stay at home’ protests in the south-east to mark the anniversary of Biafra’s declaration of independence. Suleiman has ratcheted up the tension dangerously, just as his counterpart in the south-east, Nnamdi Kanu, has done. On 10 June, Kanu’s Biafra campaigners advised all southerners to leave no r t h e r n Ni ge r i a , an d some have been heeding the call. Some Niger Delta militants opted for direct retaliation with an extra financial twist, demanding that all northerners should leave the oil-producing region and should give up all the oil blocks that they own. These calls for ethnic cleansing are a clear attack on the constitution, threatening to unpick the federation. But the government’s failure to arrest any of the purveyors of hate speech – either in the north or the south – raises more questions about the coherence of the national security services. Information minister Lai Mohammed quickly condemned the expulsion calls, as did the emir of Katsina, Abdulmumini Kabir Usman. Kaduna State governor Nasir el-rufai and inspector general of police Ibrahim Idris ordered the police commissioner in Kaduna to arrest the Arewa youths, but there was no immediate response. It to o k t he depar t ment o f s t at e security almost two weeks to state publicly that the ethnic cleansing plan was criminal and a threat to national security. Such laggardly reactions have fuelled suspicions that some powerful interests are behind the wave of inflammator y statements, tr ying to undermine the government while Osinbajo is in charge. If that is correct, it is still unclear what those powerful On Democracy Day, 28 May, Osinbajo spoke out against those stoking ethnic divisions interests want : to keep the seat warm for President Buhari’s return or to promote the interests of a different candidate in the 2019 elections. Whichever is the case, Jibrin Ibrahim, a veteran political analyst and chairman of the Premium Times editorial board, argues the present national problems are less life-threatening than those in the 1960s. But political reform with vision is required urgently, writes Ibrahim: “The central problem that has been generating the rise of ethno-regional tensions and conflicts has been the supplanting of Nigeria’s federal tradition by a virtual Jacobin unitary state that emerged under a long period of military rule.” Already, there are plenty of political contenders eyeing the 2019 elections and making promises about restructuring the federation (see box). But credible plans about how to reform the system and satisfy competing regional demands are in much shorter supply. Patrick Smith
Slow reactions fuel suspicions of powerful interests behind the wave of hate speech