Nigeria: The spectre of anarchy and conflict
by Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, February 2021
The recent youth-led EndSARS protest movement revealed the combustible nature of Nigeria’s polity. The protestors demanded the dissolution of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an end to police brutality and an overhaul of how Nigeria is governed. In 1984, the Nigerian Police Force created SARS as a unit to combat the growing incidence of armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping and advance fee fraud. Like many other well-intentioned creations before it, SARS was successful initially at reducing violent crimes until impunity percolated its ranks, and the unit became a racket and a criminal enterprise. It is not surprising that Nigeria’s spent leadership, long used to arbitrariness, reinforced by the legacy of military rule and at the limit of its own possibilities, put down the protest violently. The looting, destruction and burning of public and private properties that followed was evidence of the social failure of Nigerian society. It felt like the revenge of the poor.
Nigeria has become a theatre of conflict and insecurity. Anarchy seems to be shaping the country's character, with the northeast overrun by Boko Haram on one hand, bandits calling the shots in the northwest and Fulani herdsmen wreaking havoc in the Middle Belt and southwest. This amorphous conglomerate of conflict entrepreneurs maim, kill, ransack villages at will, plunder harvests and burn down homesteads. With a burgeoning population, decreasing earnings, entrenched corruption, deep divisions in the polity and growing religious intolerance, it is not difficult to see how Nigeria found itself in this cauldron of insecurity and conflict.
Anarchy looms in Nigeria because insecurity has prevented people from farming, leading to a steep drop in food production. This has led to a spike in food prices and escalating hunger. In addition, the rise in kidnapping has decimated capital, as families scramble to withdraw their savings and sell their properties to pay ransom. The crisis predates President Muhammadu Buhari's administration, and his government’s reaction to it has been tepid at best. This has led many to believe that Buhari, a northern Muslim, is unconcerned by or even complicit in violence carried out by his co-religionists against non-Muslim communities in the Middle Belt and elsewhere, and has exacerbated distrust in the centre.
Identifiable risk factors for genocide seem to be gaining strength
Identifiable risk factors for genocide seem to be gaining strength in the country. First, there is large-scale instability due to armed conflict. Everyone, leaders and citizens alike, feels threatened and insecure. Many public officers cannot travel outside the state capitals without armed escort. Those who brave the odds often face the wrath of their constituents. On Saturday 28 November 2020, scores of farmers were slaughtered by Boko Haram in the northeast. If this situation continues, the people will be forced to consider violence to protect themselves, their family and property.
Second, President Buhari deepened sectarian suspicions by creating an incestuous security architecture manned by only one section of the country. Dwight Eisenhower warned of a military-industrial complex. In Nigeria, there exists a new problem – a military commercial complex. The war against terror in Nigeria's northeast has become a business. There is no framework or any institutional processes for accountability and those involved are in no hurry to end a profitable business venture. Everywhere you turn, there seems to be a game plan to induce war. For a deformed post-colonial state, or in the case of Nigeria a "semi-democracy" in the churlish observation of The Economist, the incursion of a military-commercial complex can prove catastrophic.
Since every business needs multiple sources of income, this business venture has been diversified and franchised to include kidnapping for ransom and cattle rustling. This new vista of opportunity will stress Nigeria's fiscal template as conflict entrepreneurs search for new frontiers. There are doubts though whether the country's fragile finances can cope. If the country cannot cope, semi-democracy can always be shoved aside. After all, for democracies conflicts come at a cost and the very nature of conflicts erodes the efficacy of civil society.
Nigerians are seeking support in ethnicity and religion
Since there is no support to be found in national institutions, Nigerians are seeking support elsewhere, particularly in ethnicity and religion. Traditional forms of Islam and Christianity are being displaced by new religious movements with a heavier focus on purity and proselytisation, furthering weakening the national fabric.
For all the reasons above, Nigeria is increasingly ungovernable. Avoiding a descent into complete anarchy will require a great deal of political will and cooperation, of the sort that has been rare among Nigeria’s ruling classes. If that is not possible at the national level, perhaps the best hope for Nigeria is a system of increased federalism, in which more authority would be concentrated at the state level, and local elites would be empowered to solve problems that national elites have failed to solve, to provide the security that national elites and the military-commercial complex have failed to provide.
Bamidele Ademola-Olateju is an entrepreneur and member of the editorial board of the Premium Times, for which newspaper she writes a weekly column on politics and socioeconomic issues.