Fresh from his return from a 103-day stay in London, President Buhari waxed lyrical about national unity in his televised address to the nation. Nigeria’s unity, he said, “is settled and non-negotiable”. He apparently agreed on this with the late Ojukwu, and he thinks “majority of Nigerians” share this view. He has very strong words for Nigerians on social media who have crossed “the national red lines” by “daring to question our existence as a nation”. And, by the way, only the national assembly has the legal mandate to discuss these things.
So there you have it. In a single fell swoop, President Buhari did more to undermine the message of unity he was preaching than any of the ethnic agitators have done in his 104 days absence. It reminds you of the biblical king Rehoboam, who came to power when the nation was on the tethers of a breakup. At the time, the tribal agitators decided to give one last diplomatic push for a united nation, seeing there was a new national leader who they hoped would address their concerns and do things differently. Sure enough, the new leader consulted his advisers. A group of them advised him that listening to the agitators and addressing their concerns will do the trick. “If you will be a servant to these people today, and serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will (also) be your servants”. He rejected this advice, of course. He turned to the other group of younger advisers, who advised him that he needed at that critical time of national tension was to project strength like a lion. To listen to the concerns of the agitators will be showing weakness. Addressing their concerns and speaking “good words” would only embolden them. This reasoning seems to align with Rehoboam’s own thinking, who then went on to give an extraordinary oration to the agitators: ‘my little finger shall be thicker than my father’s waist! And now, whereas my father put a heavy yoke on you, I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scourges!” We know how that turned out.
In his national broadcast, President Buhari missed an important opportunity to calm the tension in the land. He aggravates it, instead. Rather bizarrely, he took umbrage at ordinary Nigerians ventilating their views on social media. By merely discussing and debating the question of Nigeria’s unity, they have “crossed the national red lines”. This is extraordinary.
Let’s consider this carefully. For the better part of the last decade, Nigeria has been ravaged by Boko Haram terrorist insurgency, mainly in the Northeastern part of the country. For longer than that, militants in the Niger Delta had taken up arms against the Nigerian state, inflicting heavy losses on oil infrastructures, among other things. Before the advent of militancy in the Niger Delta- or in between it if you consider Isaac Boro-citizens sought by non-violent activism to seek redress on the environmental carnage in the region. The era of non-violent activism was effectively ended by the gruesome murder of environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa. Since then, and until now, the kingdom of environmental rights and self-determination has suffered violence, to use the biblical parlance. The difference is that this violence is not of the metaphorical sort. Many activists seem to have come to the conclusion that the only language the Nigerian state understands, or at any rate compelled to recognise, is the language of violence.
This is dangerous. Of course it is, not least for a nation whose military is already stretched on several fronts. The bigger tragedy is that, by meting out such strong words on citizens discussing and debating nationhood, President Buhari has given a life to the destructive narrative that violence is the only thing that works, or can work, in Nigeria as an instrument of change. The criminalisation of public intellection- at the very time in which this is the only promising path to peace- is mind boggling. Buhari’s intervention is effectively a call for citizens to turned their pens to swords and their pruning hooks into spears, if they want to be taken seriously.
In a liberal democracy, debates and discussions about nationhood should not be a “national red line”. Indeed, such debates and discussions are the most important instrument of raising national consciousness, improving the social contract between the citizens and the state, and promote peace, progress and prosperity. If debates are outlawed, what other options are left? Your guess is as good as mine.
Before it is too late, this government should summon the sense and will to listen to various agitations and, for once, lead the nation in an urgent process of restructuring. War is not a tea party, and at the moment this government is as complicit, if not more so than the ethnic agitators, in fanning the embers of violent conflict. The time is very short to get this right, but let’s hope- against the odds- that they do.