A while ago, Mujahid Asari-Dokubo’s visceral defence of the Jonathan regime against all real and perceived enemies left many observers bewildered.
Is this not the same individual, it was widely asked, who had made a name for himself by his charismatic leadership of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and vocal enunciation of the cause of Nigeria’s oil-producing riverine minorities? How did Asari metamorphose from a feared Mohammedan of the creeks (complete with the elaborate head gear) to a megaphone of state power?
This is the question I propose to answer here, and my very simple thesis is that to track Asari’s movement from the swamps to the corridors of the state is to apprehend a sociological dynamic: the particular mode by which social agents gain entry into the domain of the state, via, in this specific case, the instrumentality of violence.
Analytically, there are two immediate targets. One is Asari himself, particularly the gradual but symbolic evolution in his personal profile and self-presentation over time. Second, there is the theme of violence, its effectivity as a means of negotiating access to material resources and social certification as a member of the political elite.
For a proper appreciation of this dynamic, in particular the latter idea of the social utilization of banditry, it is important to understand, first, an idea captured here as ‘violence entrepreneurship.’ As a framework, violence entrepreneurship avoids otherwise legitimate questions like, for instance, how endemic insecurity threatens the short-term stability and long-term existence of the Nigerian state.
Instead, it prioritizes the need to make violence coherent as a political phenomenon, meaning that the most ostensibly unrelated acts of violence are understood and made meaningful solely in relation to politics and the dominant ethos of the political order- and not just the current political regime- in Nigeria. For example, the unusual spate of carjacking and violent armed robbery, the festering hostage-taking industry, prohibitive auto-mortality, the insurgency in the northern half of the country, resource militancy in the oil producing region, and sundry examples of routine violence, all become perfectly explicable as effects of politics and political choices.
Second, the notion of violence entrepreneurship demands that violence be seen as an agential strategy; a currency of exchange between the state and agents within civil society. One implication (and Asari’s ongoing political evolution is a great illustration) is that even when the violence deployed is visceral, and the rhetoric of threatened exit from the state is prohibitive and inflationary, ultimately, violence tends to function as a means of negotiating access.
Access of course can be understood in various ways, but my basic concern here is to show how violence entrepreneurs enter into and become part of the orbit of the state. In this regard, particular attention must be given to how such entrepreneurs attain ethical equilibrium with state officials, eventually assuming the moral and material paraphernalia of the state. When examined carefully, it becomes evident that this is the sociological trajectory that Asari has assumed.
This is not to say that the productivity of violence is always one-sided. Historically, the Nigerian state too has functionalized violence in various ways. One well-worn modality is through the development of relations of patronage between state functionaries and political godfathers, many of whom are often surrounded by thugs and other individuals with a history of difficult relations with the law.
Think here of the showdown between Rasheed Ladoja and the late Lamidi Adedibu on the one hand, and that between Peter Obi and Chris Uba on the other. Following the same logic, the state can use the prevalence of violence in a particular region of the country to leverage both resources and moral sympathy from various international agents, a good example being the mobilization of external resources to fund the pacification of civil unrest in the Niger Delta.
Last but not least, the state has been known to surreptitiously develop its own extra-judicial killer squad, either as an alternative to, but in most cases in simultaneous existence with, regular apparatuses of violence authorized by the law. Here, think of revelations early in the year concerning the alleged use of killer platoons by the Obasanjo regime; and Sergeant Rogers’ credulous testimony that the late General Abacha actively maintained a killer squad and that it, i.e. the squad, was responsible for the murder of Kudirat Abiola.
Be that as it may, the key point to be emphasized is the structure of engagement between the state and armed militias, and the main idea I am trying to develop is how, in the long run, the threat or actual deployment of violence, one, transforms the relationship between the state and armed militias, and two, tends to eventuate in the incorporation of leaders of such militias into the orbit of the state. Mujahid Asari-Dokubo (and the Odu’a People’s Congress’s Gani Adams no less) is a perfect encapsulation of this logic, precisely in his sheer transformation from radical revolutionary and purveyor of violence, to a more or less bona fide member of the state nobility, complete, as I claimed earlier, with all the conceits and appurtenances of the Nigerian political class.
Now, this is a very complex process, and yes, the last chapters have yet to be written. Nevertheless, certain details in Asari’s transformation seem instructive for my analysis. First is his (Asari’s) emergence from a proper order of injustice: the crisis of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta. Second is his astute reading of the social mood and readiness to capitalize on a glaring leadership vacuum. Here, you have to go back to the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 1995 by the Abacha regime, the emasculation of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOOP), and the overall tranquilization of opposition throughout the region.
Finally, there is his personal rebranding and self re-presentation. For instance, the distinctly Islamic turban has been jettisoned, though the bushy beard (part Mohammedan, part Che Guevara) is still in place. Furthermore, although there is a notional forswearing of violence, this is strategically counterbalanced by frequent threats to ‘return to the creeks’, as seen in the example with which I began this piece.
Finally, there is of course the desperation to undo the obvious disadvantages of class cum educational cum professional pedigree, often through regular appearance in social circuits (weddings, burial ceremonies, etc). In short, there is an enactment of the whole ‘Big Man’ repertoire, complete, it goes without saying, with personal channels of patronage. The Dr. or Chief prefix is just a matter of time.
Ebenezer Obadare (email@example.com) teaches sociology at the University of Kansas, United States.