• Sunday, June 23, 2024
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BusinessDay

A more divided people

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When there is a conflict between an individual’s words and his visible actions, I have learnt to focus on deeds rather than rhetoric! President Muhammadu Buhari pledged on July 3, 2016 in his hometown Daura that all parts of Nigeria would be treated fairly under his watch without any other consideration. He swore that “issues and situations will be considered objectively and no action will be taken for or against any section of the country on the basis of prejudice.”

This was at the end of a week in which the president appointed another Northern Muslim as Acting Inspector General of Police. With that appointment, every major security and law enforcement position, with the exceptions of the Chief of Defense Staff (who has no operational troops under his command) and the Chief of Naval Staff (which has always been treated by the powerful army as a “civilian” institution), is occupied by a Northern Muslim. The Minister of Defense, National Security Adviser, Minister of Interior, Chiefs of Army and Airforce, Director General of the State Security Services, the heads of Immigration, NSDSC, Prisons and Customs and Excise. The Attorney General of the Federation and Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission are also Northern Muslims. In order to appoint the new IGP, the President opted to retire scores of senior police officers of the ranks of AIG and DIG prematurely putting to waste the nation’s huge investment in these individuals’ careers. It is difficult to accept that the complete domination of the nation’s security apparatus by officers of particular ethnic, regional and religious persuasion is an objective co-incidence devoid of prejudice!

At the end of the same week, the president “promoted” the Delta-State born Minister of State for Petroleum and Group Managing Director of the NNPC to Board Chairman and replaced him in the national oil corporation’s executive management with another Northern Muslim. There was a certain air of inevitability about that particular switch, which had been speculated several times earlier, but which may have been stalled by intense lobbying by the incumbent probably regarding the “promotion’ as a poisoned chalice. In the end the imperative, it seems, to have the NNPC properly aligned within the regime’s personnel preferences was overwhelming! The composition of the new NNPC board is so lop-sided in favour of Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri Muslims that on social media some sceptics have renamed the government-owned oil company Northern Nigerian Petroleum Corporation! Some weeks back, the president sent a list of 47 ambassadorial nominees to the Senate. The legislative house duly suspended consideration of the selection based on complaints that four Nigerian states were not represented in the nominations while some other states had as many as four nominees. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation did not defend the nominations on the basis of any objective criteria, except to affirm diplomatic appointments as the president’s exclusive prerogative! As has been highlighted by many commentators and groups, there is no ambiguity about the general pattern of appointments since President Muhammadu Buhari came to office-they have reflected a grave disproportionality in favour of Northern Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri Muslims.

Actually early in his administration, Buhari appeared to speak more truthfully about his intentions in relation to appointments and perhaps the priorities of his administration! In a notorious comment at the United States Institute for Peace on July 22, 2015 less than two months into office, Buhari said “I hope you have a copy of the election results. The constituents, for example, gave me 97% [of the vote] cannot in all honesty be treated on some issues with constituencies that gave me 5%. I think these are political reality.” This obnoxious “principle” appears to reflect the “strategic intent” of the Buhari Presidency and explains much of developments since May 29, 2015 including appointments, and perhaps the administration’s policy choices such as initial refusal to deregulate oil prices; preference for a fixed exchange rate; attempts by the president to foreclose discussions relating to the 2014 Constitutional Conference and political/constitutional restructuring; and concerted attempts to force through grazing routes/reserves for Fulani herdsmen across the country.

I believe the obvious and apparent inclination towards regional preferences in appointments and policies has led to an escalation of ethnic and regional grievances in Nigeria. The security forces have dealt in a harsh and repressive manner with peaceful demonstrators whether they be Shia Muslims in Zaria or pro-Biafra activists in Onitsha. In both cases, it appears unarmed protesters have been mowed down in a manner that may rise to the standard required for characterization as crimes against humanity! The only group the administration has dealt with in a sober and considered manner, after an initial attempt to apply force, has been the Niger-Delta “Avengers” who have their own apparatus of violence and ability to inflict damage on the nation’s oil economy. The other group the government has treated with kid’s gloves have been the so-called Fulani Herdsmen, the AK 47 wielding terrorists who have killed, murdered and pillaged across the country, while government argued for grazing reserves on their behalf! Again the “97%-5%” principle appears to explain government’s curious restraint in this regard!

The consequence of all these is heightened ethno-religious sensibilities across the country and new sources of political risk-in the Niger-Delta, oil production volumes are being disrupted by resurgent militants; pro-Biafra sentiments are surging again in Igboland, calls for restructuring and “true federalism” are rising again in the Yoruba West; fears of Fulani domination are elevated in the Christian Middle-Belt; and concerns over religious marginalisation and sectarian differences are topical once again. One of the key opportunities President Muhammadu Buhari had in 2015 was to unite the nation behind a big and bold promise of change. While some continue to delude themselves, my sense is that opportunity is being frittered away in favour of pandering to narrow constituencies while failing to define a broad national vision everyone can sign on to, apart from anti-corruption. Even the anti-corruption effort, while generally supported, is obviously subject to ethnic, partisan and regime considerations. The way the government rushed to exonerate Army Chief of accusations that he owned properties in Dubai at the same time others were being hounded based on similar allegations has done no small damage to the regime’s credibility.

The first time General Buhari ruled Nigeria, he was accused of constituting the most non-inclusive government in the country’s history, with the Head of State, his deputy, defense chief and army chief all Northerners and the Supreme Military Council overwhelmingly dominated by the same tendencies that are becoming prevalent today. Buhari has proven by his change of track on economic policy that he can change his direction where his approach is not producing optimal results. He needs a more inclusive and broad-minded attitude towards governing Nigeria or else the nation may splinter under him. He must also be willing to discuss the political and constitutional aspects of Nigeria’s required reforms. If anything his actions make the subject inescapable!

Opeyemi Agbaje