Land of the sick and the deaf

By Levi Obijiofor

ANYONE who understands the importance of national stability and high quality leadership would appreciate the significance of the tragedy that has gripped Nigeria for over two months. Everything that should not go wrong in the country is already happening. We are not officially at war but the atmosphere inside Nigeria looks very much like we are at an advanced stage of a major conflict.

Barely two weeks ago in Jos, Plateau State, ethno-sectarian misunderstandings exploded into full-scale bloody violence, for the umpteenth time, leaving many people with lost limbs, lost lives and lost businesses and properties. Churches and mosques were incinerated in three successive days of madness. Early this week, the government released its official tally of the victims - no fewer than 300 deaths and over 1000 injured. What makes the latest carnage in Jos highly provocative, condemnable and unpardonable is not only the toll of the dead and the injured but also the government's inability to implement preventive measures based on lessons learned from previous experiences -- in 2008 and 2001 just to mention a few instances.

The Boko Haram carnage of July 2009 (which consumed no fewer than 700 lives), the recurring anarchy in Jos, and previous eruptions of criminal violence in various parts of northern Nigeria over the past 10 years provide good evidence that Nigeria is a failed state, fast losing the battle against internal insurrection by groups determined to propagate their cardinal principles and philosophies.

On Tuesday this week (26 January 2010), Vice President Goodluck Jonathan visited Jos and adopted the same slapdash attitude that has characterised government's response to ethnic and religious violence in the past. In Jos, Jonathan said rather unflappably: "I have asked the police to continue investigations exhaustively and anyone linked to the crisis, no matter how remotely, will be investigated and prosecuted. There will be no biases. Prosecution will be pursued to the last level of litigation, and if the court convicts such persons, they must face the full weight of the law." We have heard such effusive but unproductive expressions of concern before.

Why would Jonathan ask the police to undertake an assignment that far exceeds the current capacity of the police to handle? Over the past two decades, federal authorities and the police have developed a reputation for shedding crocodile tears whenever violence, murder and destruction occur in some parts of the country. In July 2009, Boko Haram, the philosophy that Western education is a form of social transgression, led to unprecedented violence that first started in Bauchi State and later spread to other states. That riot claimed an estimated 1,000 lives. At that time as at today, the government and security agencies failed to intervene on time to prevent the deaths, the destruction and the violence that occurred and continue to unravel in some parts of the country.

To tackle effectively the problems that fan ethno-sectarian crises in Jos and indeed any other parts of Nigeria, the government would provide much more than the resources and personnel that are currently provided to the police.

It is not that the government does not understand the major causes of the riots or that it does not know what to do. It is simply that Jonathan and his team of security officials -- including the previous government of Olusegun Obasanjo which experienced eight years of ethno-sectarian violence in Kano, Zango-Kataf, Kaduna, Kafanchan, Katsina and Yobe -- lack the courage and determination to crack the so-called myth that feeds and sustains communal misunderstandings about the virtues and vices of the so-called notions of "indigenes" and "settlers" in Jos and adjoining suburbs.

It is not enough for Jonathan to preach the merits of "good neighbourliness" to the victims and perpetrators of the riots, as he did during his recent visit to Jos. Those who carry out the mayhem and their sponsors don't understand that theological injunction. They are driven by sheer hatred for the "Other", a misapprehension of the underlying elements of individual differences, particularly those relating to religious beliefs and ethnicity.

These violent riots, the grisly murders of innocent citizens, the rampant destruction of churches and mosques, the inability of the intelligence services to pre-empt the sadistic uprisings, and the tardy response of the police and other security agencies have serious implications for Nigeria's image and the way the country is perceived by the international community. In the West, these events are interpreted in various ways. For example, Nigeria is currently perceived as the sick man of Africa, an unstable country that is fast turning into a centre for the breeding of religious radicals. Some Western diplomats believe that the persistent destruction of lives and property in various parts of Nigeria suggests that the country is well on the path to social, economic and political disintegration. They may not be far from the reality on the ground.

Further evidence that Nigeria is truly on the precipice of instability is provided by the current state of ambiguity over the country's political leadership. President Umaru Yar'Adua is away on an indefinite sick leave. There is no substantial evidence of his health condition. There is no indication when he would return, whether he would return at all, and whether he would ever be compelled to hand over power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. The public is asking questions about national leadership. Public requests for answers have been met with contemptuous silence and deliberate stonewalling by presidential aides.

Worse still, in the face of these troubling times, the Senate and the House of Representatives have chosen to bury their heads in the sand, pretending not to understand the seriousness of the current leadership vacuum, debating the issue with the tips of their toes rather than with their brains. We are passing through this phase of leadership uncertainty and national boredom essentially because the National Assembly has shirked its responsibility to hold the ailing president to account.

At a time when the nation expects the Senate and House of Representatives to take up the challenge of locating our missing president and forcing him to abide by the constitution, the honourable legislators have chosen to tread the path of dishonour. Understandably, public disapproval of the behaviour of the legislators has been satirised in various print outlets associated with biting humour.

The poor performance of the National Assembly members reached its apogee prior to Yar'Adua's departure to Saudi Arabia, when the Senate and the House of Representatives engaged in a meaningless arm-wrestling duel over the choice of an appropriate venue for Yar'Adua to present the 2010 budget. The nation watched as members of the National Assembly who should serve as role models behaved badly and became unmanageable. But it's not only at the National Assembly that serious matters of state have been reduced to a joke.

Weeks before his departure, Yar'Adua struck a deal with some leaders of the Niger Delta activists. He used the shaky deal with the activists to showcase his government's commitment to peace in the troubled Niger Delta. So far, peace (be it fragile) seems to be holding in the region although indications are beginning to emerge that some of the activists are getting ready to return to the trenches to resume underground warfare if the government prolongs delivery of the financial and non-financial promises made to their leaders. Yar'Adua's long absence from office and the uncertainty over who is in charge of national affairs have not helped.

It would be a shame if the Niger Delta activists and their leaders resume the killings, abductions and blowing up of oil pipelines that marked the highpoint of the conflict because of the government's failure to fulfil its promises. Are there no set of laws that govern how prior commitments made by Yar'Adua should be discharged, even if the man stays away from office for an interminable period of time?

Nigeria is certainly an embarrassment to its founding fathers. No one is willing to take responsibility for the confusion in the land. The tragedy of modern Nigeria is that the leaders are sick; worse still, they are unaware of their ailment and they are unwilling to listen or respond to public requests for basic needs. Surely, these are not the qualities of a true continental giant.

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