Chilling. I mean very chilling. I felt a shiver down my spine on Tuesday when I saw the video of “new” Niger Delta militants, with war weapons, threatening to bomb Abuja and Lagos because of the “underdevelopment” of the oil-producing region. It brought back sad memories – memories of 2004 when organised lawlessness began to take unimaginable dimensions in Nigeria and we finally lost our “innocence”. Between then (when the militants started a campaign of kidnapping oil workers as well as bombing pipelines) and now, Nigeria has become a nation encircled by gunmen: terrorists, insurgents, bandits and kidnappers. The latest: 317 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Zamfara on Friday.
In 18 years, Nigeria has virtually gone to seed. Any Nigerian who died in 2003 and rose in 2021 would be incredulous. Oil workers kidnapped for ransom? Are you joking? Niger Delta activists were only known for media interviews and street protests. They sang solidarity songs and waved fresh leaves. Herders carrying AK-47? Are you sure? They only used to carry sticks and small knives, often clashing with farmers after unleashing their cattle on farmlands. Travellers being kidnapped for ransom on highways? You don’t mean it! Kidnappings were usually for ritual purposes; ransoms were neither demanded nor paid. Armed robbery used to be the biggest headache for travellers.
Secondary school students being abducted en masse in northern schools? Nigerian soldiers being killed heartlessly by their compatriots in their own country – and not by enemy troops? Bandits invading villages and killing women and children in cold blood for nothing? Traditional rulers being kidnapped? Suicide-bombers attacking motor parks, shopping malls, churches and mosques at will, killing innocent people just like that? You mean Nigerians can strap bombs to themselves? Are you kidding me? Are you sure you are not talking about Afghanistan or Lebanon? Nigeria? No, please. Stop spreading fake news. All these things can never happen here! Never, never in Nigeria!
Yes, it may be stranger than fiction, but the Nigeria of today is unrecognisable from what it was 15 years ago, or 30 years ago, or – to make it completely weird – 40 years ago. We have lost our innocence. Before our very eyes, Nigeria has degenerated. Can you imagine Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Chief Obafemi Awolowo rising from the dead today and seeing the “new” Nigeria? They would relocate to Ghana or Senegal instantly. We have moved slowly and steadily from frying pan to fire, and we are now descending dangerously into Armageddon. I get calls from hysterical Nigerians every day asking me what’s happening – as if I had the answers.
We are encircled by gunmen. The security agencies are stretched. Nigeria, our motherland, is resembling a grim gangland: Boko Haram relentlessly terrorising the north-east (they are now said to have the capacity to launch rockets); bandits and kidnappers shooting and looting at will in the north-west and north-central; herders in the forests of the south-west running kidnap and rape rings; separatists setting up a “security” outfit in the south-east; and now, “new” Niger Delta militants threatening to restart from where their pre-amnesty colleagues left off. As if these woes are not grim enough, ethnic nationalism is on the rise again. The tensions are touchable.
As we put out fire in one corner, another starts elsewhere. Take a look at recent weeks. Kidnappers, identified as Fulani herders, struck in Igangan, Oyo state. Sunday Igboho, the “Yoruba rights activist”, gave all Fulani residents seven days to leave town. Their houses and settlements were burnt. Riots broke out in Shasha and dozens got killed. Kagara schoolboys were kidnapped in Niger state. Nigerian troops and separatists clashed in Orlu, Imo state. “New” Niger Delta militants announced their arrival. Boko Haram launched rocket attacks and killed boys playing football in Maiduguri. And now, 317 schoolgirls have been kidnapped in Zamfara. What next? Where next? Who next?
Although the insecurity is nationwide, I find the current trend in the north gravely disturbing. I am, unfortunately, not hopeful it would be brought under control soon. There are too many factors at play. The biggest is that the Nigerian state seems incapable of protecting its citizens. If there is capacity, then we cannot feel much of it. Despite the billions spent on security, the state has consistently and persistently failed to secure its citizens. The average Nigerian would say “God is my security”. As kids, anytime we played football without anyone volunteering to be the goalkeeper, we would leave the posts empty and joke: “God is our goalkeeper!” That is where we are now.
Even though the security agencies are apparently overwhelmed, they need to ask themselves serious questions about their overall operational strategy. How do these bandits move around? Do they escape all forms of surveillance, even with the use of modern technological tools? All local governments in Nigeria have security attachés. Are they doing their job diligently? What kind of reports are they filing? How are these reports being processed? What pro-active actions are being taken by their superiors? Are the security agencies lacking in personnel and equipment? Is it that we do not have the funds to recruit, train and equip more personnel? What exactly is the problem?
I understand that several things make policing the north very difficult and complex. I am not totally ignorant of that. Insurgency and banditry thrive where the geography is horrendous. Mountains, caves, forests, mangroves and creeks are easily exploited by insurgents and bandits. The vast lands in the north (many them ungoverned) and the porous borders can really make the job difficult for the security agencies. But these challenges are meant to be confronted and addressed. We cannot throw up our hands in surrender and wave the white flag. I do not want to believe for a minute that the bandits and insurgents have more resources – both human and material – than a whole Nigeria.
That apart, we must also come to terms with the fact that our security is in the hands of some unprofessional people. Brig-Gen Bashir Magashi (rtd), the minister of defence, recently asked hapless Nigerians to defend themselves with bare hands against bandits bearing war-grade weapons. He said: “I don’t know why people are running from minor things like that. They should stand and let these people know that even the villagers have the competency and capability to defend themselves.” That is the mentality of the people watching over us. In a saner clime, he would have been fired or forced to resign by now. But that is too much a thing to expect in Nigeria.
It is also very tragic that Nigerians are now relying on Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, an Islamic cleric, to give them daily updates on banditry. He is just a private individual with no official position or title in government. From the way he has been talking, it appears he has some agenda. Gumi has been trying to create a false equivalence between Niger Delta militants (who, at least, officially claimed to be fighting for economic and environmental justice in the region that produces the nation’s biggest source of income) and the bandits, who are mercilessly kidnapping and killing people and extorting ransoms. He says we should not call bandits criminals but “ethnic militants”. God have mercy.
Some of the governors are also not helping matters. Senator Bala Mohammed, governor of Bauchi state, recently sought to justify the bearing of arms by herders, saying they are only protecting themselves. He tried to amend his statement, but I think this is reckless and devoid of tact. It is only in failed states that individuals carry AK-47 to defend themselves. Even in the US where people have gun rights, individuals are not allowed to carry war weapons. Mallam Bello Mutawalle, governor of Zamfara state, also said “not all bandits are criminals”. He later tried to explain that he didn’t mean what he said, but these tactless remarks are hard to process as mere slips of the tongue.
Security was a major issue ahead of the 2015 elections that brought President Muhammadu Buhari to power. He promised to keep us safe and secure, citing his military pedigree. We were frequently reminded of his exploits against Maitatsine and Chadian rebels who trespassed into Nigeria. It’s now almost six years that Buhari came into office. While we can say Boko Haram no longer bombs Abuja, Kaduna and Kano, that will not tell the whole story. The president cannot look us in the face and say that Nigerians are more secure today than they were in 2015. Certainly not when we are now surrounded on all sides by gunmen – who are asking us to either surrender or be captured!
Meanwhile, why are no bandits on trial? Why are no herders on trial? Could it be that not a single one has ever been arrested? The impression this creates is that some people are above the law or are enjoying the backing of the powers that be. When Gumi and some governors say that banditry is not a crime and that carrying AK-47 is cool, the security agencies are being undermined. It is like a coded message to them. If they really want to act, they do not think they have the necessary political backing. Nobody wants to be sacked. The incentive for crime is getting really high: hefty payoff and little consequences. The result is an emboldened and incentivised criminal enterprise.
For me, Buhari has to come out forcefully and start firing on all cylinders. To start with, Nigerians need to be assured and re-assured that the government is still in charge of Nigeria. The impression many are getting is that the gunmen are in charge and it is just a matter of time for them to overrun the country. The gunmen have encircled us from all positions. Issuing press statements may serve some purpose but the optics of a commander-in-chief in action will serve us much better. We are talking about a country of 200 million people, not some archipelago! Buhari must do whatever it takes to deal ruthlessly and decisively with the insecurity. Let us see the general in him.
And four other things…
Bawa on board
President Buhari pulled a bit of a surprise on us by nominating Mr Abdulrasheed Bawa as the new EFCC chairman. The ouster of Mallam Ibrahim Magu, who held the position in acting capacity for nearly five years, shocked many Nigerians, especially as he was thought to be doing a good job. Bawa has many unique attributes: at 40, he would be the youngest chairman; he is an economist and financial expert; he is not a police officer, unlike all previous appointees; and he is the first among the EFCC cadets to get the chance to lead the organisation. My friendly advice to him: do your work diligently and do not engage in media trials – and you will be fine. Professionalism.
Sheik Ahmad Gumi, the Islamic cleric “negotiating” with bandits, engaged in classic profiling at a recent meeting with them. In a viral video, he told the bandits that it is non-Muslim soldiers that are attacking them. Hear him: “What I want you people to understand is soldiers that are involved in most of the criminalities are not Muslims. You know, soldiers have Muslims and non-Muslims. The non-Muslims are the ones causing confusion just to ignite crisis.” The life of every non-Muslim in the security agencies is now at risk. Of course, we know Gumi’s claim is blatantly false, but that is how profiling works: just put a tag on a people on the basis of their race, ethnicity or religion. Jaundiced.
Let me take a bet: politicians and other public office holders will be the priority for the COVID vaccine roll-out in Nigeria. In countries where leadership means service, it is the most vulnerable that will be prioritised. But in my dearly beloved country, to be a leader means to be served first. Others manage the crumbs. I remember when Jack Ma donated test kits to Nigeria last year. Suddenly, ministers and governors started saying “I tested negative”. The people who really needed to be tested, particularly the frontline workers, were left in the lurch. Leadership in Nigeria is all about “I, me and myself”. Until this mentality changes, Nigeria will never change. Selfishness.
Apostle Johnson Suleman, the founder of Omega Fire Ministry (OFM) who is always in the news for one outrageous thing or the other, recently said that he was praying that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed 2.5 million people globally, should not end. Why? “In COVID, I bought a jet. The third one. I have three. I was praying for COVID not to end because I was resting. While people were complaining, my wife asked, ‘Can life be this sweet?’” he said. He has tried to withdraw the statement, saying it was a slip of tongue. However, I don’t think he needs to be apologetic. The Bible says out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. He should keep having fun. Amen?