“A country does not have to break up to breakdown.”
The unity choir is rather ubiquitous, regularly imploring Nigerians to stay together. Former head of state Abdulsalami Abubakar, speaking in Makurdi recently, reechoed the unity message, arguing that the various ethnic groups have “intermingled” and that “there is nothing that can break up this country because God has brought us together”. The clarion call to stay together often concludes with such intermingling of pious exhortation and patchy logic. The frequency and shrillness of these admonitions make it appear as if a break up is imminent, and that the intervention of the good and the great is required to avert this looming tragedy.
Despite appearances, and the din of secessionist threats, Nigeria is not about to break up. The country’s various peoples and factions may not have worked out exactly how to live in concord but a troubled union is not always headed for divorce. Some live well enough with tensions in such relationships, while for others such complications bring only endless hazards. The logic of a nasty civil war has advised most rational people that this country can be split only by consensus, and that is a most unlikely scenario.
Nigeria faces a peril more insidious than the phantom of dissolution. It may be said that the campaign to avert an unlikely break up has become a distraction from the urgent need to stem a breakdown. Nigeria is united, but untied to the values and discipline that make a modern state; its institutions are delivering below par; for many citizens life and liberty are as uncertain as they tend to be in broken polities.
There is a fate worse than a break up, and it is creeping upon us. The challenge Nigeria faces today is breakdown, a condition that is devastating because it replaces order with anarchy and nullifies the prospect of a happy life for most people, all these without any adjustment of borders and often without a change of government. Breakdown is the retreat of the state from its obligations, its inability to effectively protect its hegemony and an incapacity to credibly project might. There are signs aplenty of this syndrome across the country.
Boko Haram is not the only group thumbing its nose at the state with a murderous project. There are sundry low-intensity conflicts afflicting parts of the country. Entire communities have been sacked in fatal attacks in Zamfara, Plateau and Kaduna with shootings and assassinations occurring in many cities from Kano to Lagos, the country’s commercial centre that’s recording a growing menace of robberies and kidnappings. There are reports that the country’s pipeline network has become a vandal’s paradise, reducing the country to distributing most of its fuel by road. Crude oil meant for export is stolen as are imported refined products.
In many of the spaces that matter the state is at best a half-hearted presence. The absence of responsiveness is a defining trait of the attitude of many state institutions to citizens, be they victims of crime, the infirm or the many warriors holding an increasingly weak line against the advance of poverty. Public goods such as security, education, healthcare and transport infrastructure are in poor shape, yet the government does not exhibit any perceptible sense of urgency to prevent Nigeria from becoming the country that defines the parody of a state.
This unstructured diminution of the state is accompanied by a deterioration in rationality among sections of society. We have seen the unlikely spectacle of unions going on strike in support of indicted marketers, teachers refusing to be certified and the curious absence of a sustained challenge to state failings.
Somalia did not break up, but its collapse since 1991 into a lawless entity hobbled its people, and transformed the country into a threat to international commerce and a hotbed of terror. The Congo has retained its colonial era borders through its many incarnations and bloody history, but the weakness of its state structure has meant insecurity, poverty and many mutinies.
Nigeria is effectively a vastly under-governed space. Our government and leaders should focus on the things that make daily life worthwhile enough for dreams of a better future to seem a realistic prospect. The country is bleeding, insecure and uncertain, and the life chances of many citizens are being narrowed. It’s still united but is not working well. Let the jingles of unity yield space to the hard work of building a state that works for most of its peoples. Let us face the problem that is here and now, ruining lives and halting dreams, by focusing our energies on building a system that works. A country does not have to break up to breakdown.