Fellow Nigerians, Welcome to Infinity War 2021
When I was a preteen, I would spend hours every week reading through the stacks of current and past editions of TELL Magazine, Newswatch and The Daily Times which lay around the house plentifully. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to keep abreast of current affairs as it was a search for entertainment.
The news headlines were shouty and scarcely believable; the stories even more so, with the added bonus of unintentionally hilarious. “Babangida bans the colour blue!” “Buhari personally flogs an Ikeja man for jumping the bus queue!” “Abacha bans sex!” OK those are exaggerations, but the actual headlines were only slightly less unbelievable.
I always came away feeling simultaneously horrified and entertained by the sheer destructive energy of Nigeria’s military governments – everything was some kind of fight, war or struggle with them. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that this deployment of forever warfare is a trademark tool of dictators and authoritarians.
Forever Warfare – The Tool of the Authoritarian
Even as an 11 year-old in JSS1 with a limited understanding of how governance worked, I had an idea that the name “Oby Ezekwesili” which came up in the news regularly, represented something positive. I may not have fully understood her job at the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit, but it was clear that the nickname “Madam Due Process” hinted at an institutional shift away from the madcap fire brigade style of the Babangidas and Buharis toward something more useful.
Instead of a “war” against one enemy or the other making up the bulk of its governance style, the Obasanjo administration used words like “process,” “consultation” and “negotiation”. This was a marked departure from the ways of the 3 successive nightmares who came before. In their case, as I later came to understand, the only worry that kept them up at night was maintaining their hold on power – not you know, what they actually wanted to do with power.
For the authoritarian without a positive or realistic strategic vision, the Infinity War is a basic tool of governance. It eliminates the need to work toward a highest common factor and instead defaults to the lowest common denominator, which of course, is generally easier. Instead of building productive capacity in an economy so as to reduce its import dependency, you declare a WAR on importation and do something bone-headed like lock your busiest land border for 17 months. Of course you have no idea how to build productive capacity, and you don’t really want to do that anyway – all you want to do is create an enemy to fight against because Infinity War is what clueless authoritarians do.
Wake Up, Pick a New Enemy and FIGHT!
Abacha for example, banned BBC broadcasts in Nigeria, knowing full well that people could still access said broadcasts by switching to the AM frequency and he could do nothing about it – which clearly made the FM ban superfluous and pointless. The point however, was not to prevent Nigerians from listening to BBC content because he had no real capacity to enforce any such thing – the point was merely to create an enemy and focus the energies of his lieutenants into a series of hopeless, unwinnable, heartbreakingly stupid forever wars.
Buhari in 1984 canceled the Lagos Metropolitan Railway project which would have reduced the pressure on public road transport in Lagos, but his solution to bad behaviour like jumping bus queues was to flog queue jumpers – instead of in solutions that would make queue jumping unnecessary. “War Against Indiscipline!” he called it. Buhari in 2021 is back at his old tricks, trying to ban the whole internet allegedly because of Nnamdi Kanu and IPOB. In reality, while he may indeed have such lofty ambitions, he has zero capacity to achieve or enforce such a thing. The entire point of this soap opera is the sheer spectacle.
This goes to the heart of what is fundamentally wrong with authoritarian leadership – it is a cult of personality that revolves around the dramatics and emotional state of one little man. The man’s only existential purpose in leadership is to be in leadership, not to actually do anything with it. In the absence of any kind of capacity to carry out his good or bad visions, and a painful lack of intellectual aptitude which permeates the entire cult of Fulani chauvinism he has built around himself, the only governance tactic left is war.
Sometimes the war takes the form of economic warfare, typified by the utterly nonsensical 17-month southern border closure. Sometimes it takes the form of open warfare, typified by the Nigerian military and police’s current criminal onslaught in Nigeria’s southeast against the only opponents they are ever able to fight – unarmed civilians. Sometimes it takes the form of information warfare, typified by the ongoing fight to regress Nigeria to 1996 and reduce Nigerians’ access to information – a daft, pointless and extremely unwinnable fight.
That is the only thing you can swear by when an authoritarian is in office – a war on everybody. Everything changed since 1984, but actually some things never changed at all.