Last week, in the wake of escalating sectarian violence in Kaduna and Yobe states, President Goodluck Jonathan replaced two key members of his security team. General Patrick Aziza (rtd) was let go as National Security Adviser; retired Colonel Sambo Mohammed Dasuki replaced him. Defense Minister Bello Haliru Mohammed was also flushed from the cabinet. At the time of this writing, his successor was yet to be named.
It’s hard to fathom what informed these personnel changes. The Nigerian presidency is notorious for withholding information from Nigerians. And our media reporters, unfortunately, are often content to vend street-level speculation instead of cultivating sources capable of offering confidential tips.
It’s harder still to predict whether the president’s moves will yield the Jonathan administration any real strategic advantage in confronting the ulcerous Boko Haram. Even so, some Nigerians permitted themselves to go into states of rapture on account of Mr. Jonathan’s firing of his security adviser and a minister. I followed a typical reaction on Facebook. There, one woman rhapsodized about the president’s action – and then urged Mr. Jonathan to tackle a myriad other crises, riding on the momentum of the cabinet changes.
It’s remarkable that the president’s sacking of two men would inspire extravagant applause in some quarters. It points to how thin the commodity called hope has worn in Nigeria. Many – arguably most – Nigerians have long succumbed to despair, starved of the merest hope. Accustomed to a remote, nonchalant and comatose presidency, some of us would go into frenzies of praise anytime the president demonstrates an ability to fire one person – or two.
Let’s give President Jonathan his fair shake. Even if the departure of the former NSA and Defense Minister isn’t rewarded by a noticeable drop in bombing of Christian churches as well as secular spaces, there still remain good grounds to rusticate Mr. Azaza and Mr. Mohammed. Nigeria’s state of insecurity deteriorated under their watch. It was about time the principle of holding members responsible was brought to bear in Nigeria. It’s time to do away with the culture of executive evasion of responsibility. Men and women who are given exalted posts – especially cabinet positions – ought to demonstrate that they know what they’re doing, that they grasp the environment of their primary task, and are equal to its challenges.
In Nigeria, sadly, political appointments are occasions to revel in aggrandizement. Too many occupants of political space are simply out to occupy space. They come armed with no clue, talent or will for making a difference. They thrive in Nigeria because the country is an address where ineptitude and mediocrity are often rewarded whilst the truly talented are often disdained or disesteemed.
Mr. Jonathan’s dismissal of two top members of his national security team is, within the context sketched out above, in order. In the event of failure to rise to the challenge of their office, political appointees should step aside, voluntarily or by compulsion.
One wonders if Mr. Jonathan engaged Mr. Dasuki in an extensive conversation prior to offering him the national security job. Did the president, one, take time to spell out his expectations and, two, ascertain from his new appointee that the man felt up to the task? Did the president satisfy himself that his new NSA has compelling ideas about IMMEDIATE measures to stem, or contain, Nigeria’s most horrific scourge: Boko Haram’s incessant attacks on Christian places of worship?
One has stressed the word immediate because Nigeria doesn’t have the luxury of time. The country is at a point of explosion, and has been for a while. The recent conflagration in Kaduna State, occasioned by Boko Haram’s bombing of churches and low-grade reprisals by Christians, was a microcosm of a wider, bloodier war to come unless the spree of violence is checked – NOW.
Yet, it’s clear that President Jonathan’s personnel changes constitute, at best, a palliative. At heart, Boko Haram’s deployment of violence is a mirror and expression of Nigeria’s inherent incoherence. Lord Lugard and British fiat cobbled together a space they baptized Nigeria. Yet, a hundred years later, this space remains essentially a hodgepodge, a patchwork of hardly cemented fragments. In short, Nigeria – the idea of a cohesive nation called Nigeria – has never been realized. We all inhabit a fiction, a make-belief, a flimsy, papier-mâché contraption sustained by our collective fantasies about a “national cake” and by the greed of the most privileged among us who, unable to bake a cake or anything for that matter, have cornered the one cake in town.
Greed, coercion and a concatenation of falsehoods have never forged an enduring nation. For more than fifty years, Nigerians have tried to achieve that unprecedented feat. It won’t happen. We either take seriously the task of founding a nation – with what slim prospects exist today – or we must give up, speak to one another with innocence, and agree that it is sheer evil to continue to waste innocent lives in pursuit of a woeful, doomed experiment called Nigeria.
That’s why, in the end, I could neither muster nor understand the enthusiasm of those who virtually venerated Mr. Jonathan for shooing off two men from his cabinet – to invite other men to take the vacated seats. The president’s maneuvers struck me as one of those political acts defined by motion without movement. The gullible and easily impressed would be persuaded to hope and dream anew. The unimpressed will be chastised for their lack of faith, their impatience. They will be told to give the president (more) time.
My answer is: Nigeria long ran out of time. A nation that fought a war more than four decades ago in which millions of people perished has no business behaving as if that war never happened, as if those millions never lost their lives. The provocations that precipitated the Biafran War are matched – in fact, arguably surpassed – by today’s menu of assaults. There’s Boko Haram’s egregious use of violence to eviscerate people, to chill innocent people’s desire to worship or live as they choose. There’s the absolute incapacity of the state’s law enforcement machinery to protect the victims of terror. In fact, the state is the most gleeful, the most horrendously efficient user of violence to intimidate, maim and kill so-called citizens.
Think, for a moment, about Nigerians’ perceptions of the police. It would be quite hard to find more than a handful of Nigerians who see the police in positive light. Ironically, it’s criminals, not law-abiding citizens, who are most likely to like the Nigerian police. Daily, the police are detailed to guard the worst breed, among them politicians: men and women who ought to be serving long jail terms. The police mount road blocks all over Nigerian highways and streets, not to apprehend criminals, but to importune commuters for bribes. Yet, the same police are apt to flee whenever armed robbers show up in any vicinity.
President Jonathan did not create the mess called Nigeria; he’s merely its latest custodian. But he should not be festooned with praise simply because he removed an incompetent NSA and appointed a yet-to-be-tested one.
Even so, the president – if he has spine – has a real opportunity to become Jonathan the great. There are two routes to that destination. One is to ground himself in Abuja (foreswear any more gallivanting excursions to such places as Rio de Janeiro, Washington, DC and Bonn) and, for the first time, begin to act as a leader. He should summon the Inspector General of Police and the head of the EFCC, and tell them to start doing their jobs without first seeking leave of the Presidency. And as the law enforcement agents fan out to arrest the country’s legion of embezzlers, fraudsters, money launderers, fake billionaires and sundry thieftains and “steakholders,” Mr. Jonathan must switch off his phones and make himself unavailable to those who would ask him to intervene. The question is whether Mr. Jonathan has the ethical credentials to make a move so radical.
The other route is for President Jonathan to give voice to a fact universally known, even if widely ignored, even denied. That fact is that Nigeria is a mere shell of an idea, a hollow mask for a nation. Unless there’s some magical recipe for recuperating Nigeria, Mr. Jonathan’s stature as a leader may well rest in his ability or willingness to offer himself as an undertaker: the man who presides over the task of peacefully breaking up a behemoth that brought its ostensible citizens little more than sorrows, tears, and blood.
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