Many who have quite rightly praised President Goodluck Jonathan’s declaration of a state of emergency in the north-eastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe — strongholds of Boko Haram’s wasting war against a secular Nigeria — will be forgiven for doing so in apparent relief that the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces is a vertebrate after all.
Right or wrong, the image of a spineless, clueless and floundering President Jonathan is lodged in the minds of many at home and abroad. Mine included, though not on the grounds of a presumed preference by Jonathan to walk into the enemy’s camp armed with carrots when he should ride in atop an armoured tank. In other words, I do not consider Jonathan weak on account of his supposed reluctance, until the 14th day of May 2013, to “bare his fangs.”
Only in January of last year, Jonathan bared his fangs and spat venom when he rolled out tanks to crush citizens’ peaceful and legitimate protests of the massive oil subsidy scam that had drained the treasury and led to another act of expropriation by way of yet another hike in the price of petrol. And Jonathan has moved with both stealth and brazenness against political enemies — from no less a formidable “opponent” than his own benefactor, former two-time head-of-state General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd), to governors, including that of his own state.
You can’t hold the highest office in the land, can’t have climbed the ladder of power all the way from deputy governor to president, without acquiring brass knuckles or knowing something about power and subterfuge.
Once it became clear to me that Jonathan lacked the requisite vision and courage to steer Nigeria in the one needed direction of nation-building, I knew that he would be no different from any past power-monger, military or civilian. I came to this conclusion when Jonathan chose not to accept the Justice Uwais report on electoral reforms. It was the first major test of his vision and political courage.
Jonathan confirmed this view for me by refusing to openly declare his assets, even going so far as to mount a bizarre and truly troubling defence of his surrender even before he had begun his so-called war against corruption. Whatever would make a self-avowed transparency-and-transformation president lose all restraint and declare to the whole world, “I don’t give a damn” about the critical need to lead by example on the burning ethical issue of personal probity, pointed unerringly, I thought, to the source of our greater worry.
Another way of explaining my position is this: if a president will not promote democracy through bold and justifiable acts of nation-building, especially in a country hurtling into the unenviable status of a failed state, he will, sooner or later, confront forces that cannot be assuaged by the usual means of patronage, of distribution of largesse.
And when those forces are so armed and organised as to be capable of threatening the government’s ability to carry out the basic function of maintaining law and order, then it is only a matter of time before the C-in-C declares war against them. In other words, that government will soon find itself in a shooting war against sections of its own people. While patronage worked with the Niger Delta militants — though I suspect that ethnic loyalty has much to do with their willingness to “suspend” sabotage and other forms of guerrilla warfare — it has no chance with Boko Haram due to its religious ideology and mission of establishing a “holy” Islamic republic.
And that brings me to the title of this piece and the point I made at the beginning. That Jonathan finally tired of wiping off his face the spittle that accompanies each of Boko Haram’s acts of rejection of a secular Nigeria to speak forcefully in the language of righteous indignation and command has distracted many from asking, So what happens after (even, during) the state of emergency?
If, as Jonathan acknowledges in the opening paragraph of his speech, the “spate of terrorist activities and protracted security challenges” is not limited to the north-east but reaches also to Gombe, Bauchi, Kano, Plateau, Taraba, Benue, Nasarawa and even the president’s home-state of Bayelsa, then isn’t the state of emergency really the “state” of Nigeria as a whole? A state might justifiably use overwhelming military force to deal with random but portentous incidents of “militancy or criminality,” but how effective can it be when faced by “rebellion and insurgency” spurred by disagreement with the structure and fundamental principles of the nation widespread enough to “pose a very serious threat to national unity and territorial integrity?”
Even more worrisome, the president admits that the Boko Haram terrorists pledge “allegiance” to “different flags and ideologies.” What is the core tenet of these ideologies and what is the proof that it lacks a nurturing socio-cultural environment, considering the history of carnage by Islamic fundamentalists in the north? Or that its adherents can be annihilated without the risk of a long war of attrition with unpredictable yet ominous consequences to the nation? Does Jonathan expect a decisive victory as in a conventional war secured when the enemy army is routed and its commanding officer signs the terms of surrender?
It seems to me that Jonathan and his service chiefs have learnt the wrong lesson from the way and manner the United States is waging its war against terrorism. For one thing, the war is not being fought on American territory, the recent Boston marathon tragedy notwithstanding. For another, no American — not even Native Americans, the original owners of the land — is at war with the basic “idea” and “structure” of the USA. Indeed, it is striking just how closely Jonathan mimics President Obama’s tone of strength and resolve. “I want to reassure you all,” he said, “that those who are directly or indirectly encouraging any form of rebellion against the Nigerian state . . . those insurgents and terrorists who take delight in killing our security operatives, whoever they may be, wherever they may go, we will hunt them down, we will fish them out, and we will bring them to justice.” Adding, “No matter what it takes, we will win this war against terror.”
Only that there is one little problem: Nigeria lacks a sustainable “ideology” equal to the test of another civil war fought outside the relative innocence of the Independence decade. It is, of course, possible that Boko Haram will be defeated in the short term (and I hope they are, for all that will be worth), but if it is true that the insurgency is part of the worldwide al-Qaeda jihadist movement, then Jonathan will be lucky to claim such a temporary victory. But he will be well advised to prepare for the worst: that the rest of his tenure and, possibly, a new one (I am yet to be convinced that the PDP can be out-rigged), could very well be haunted by a permanent nationwide state of emergency. After all, in what corner of the country are there no rumblings capable of bringing the false and fissured republic called Nigeria crumbling down?
I fear that Jonathan, as all of our so-called leaders distinguished by phenomenal greed and a stunning lack of vision and courage, take “the sovereign integrity” of Nigeria for granted. They mistake for the requisite will to nation-building their readiness to use the armed forces to squelch revolt and compel a union of manifestly unhappy people. “Our will is strong, because our faith lies in the indivisibility of Nigeria,” says Jonathan.
That is no ideology, no “national myth,” capable of binding together 160 million people of 400 odd ethno-nationalities with probably as many deep-seated grievances against their “given” but fiercely contested nation. Besides, history makes abundantly clear that no nation is “indivisible.” All of which is to say that while the state of emergency Jonathan has declared might achieve the immediate goal of imposing law and order on the flaming north-east, a political solution, which entails the re-structuring of the nation and a reformulation of its basic constituting “Idea,” is the only guarantee of lasting peace and unity. But that, alas, is where Jonathan is least likely to show a spine.
Professor Ogaga Ifowodo, a poet and lawyer who writes a syndicated column for Premium Times, teaches literature at the Texas Central State University. You can talk to him by email via firstname.lastname@example.org