With Pres­i­dent Buhari tem­po­rar­ily out of the pic­ture, vice-pres­i­dent Os­in­bajo is left to tackle fes­ter­ing eth­nic and re­gional sen­ti­ments threat­en­ing the coun­try

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS -

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.


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

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