How to deal with the Nigerian state

Since the Nigerian army violently crushed Isaac Adaka Boro’s twelve-day revolt in 1966, the Nigerian state has found it expedient to employ brute force to suppress any legitimate expression of frustration and dissent by the people of the region. Ken Saro Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) tried the peaceful means in 1990 to press for “political autonomy to participate in the affairs of the Republic as a distinct and separate unit” and the “right to the control and use of a fair proportion of economic resources for Ogoni development”. But, as usual, the Nigerian government responded to MOSOP’s demand with a brutal crackdown and, ultimately, decapitated the leadership of the group. Many towns in the region do not even have as much as a police post, but security forces – the army, police and navy – are constantly deployed to protect oil installations that dot the region.

These security forces constantly engage in torture and extra judicial killings of people in the communities and are rightly viewed as henchmen of a distant government concerned primarily with securing the oil and gas facilities and installations scattered across the regions on which the Nigerian economy, and more particular, the Nigerian federation, depends.

Even with the return to democratic governance in 1999 and the attendant freedom of expression it guarantees, the people of the region still found out that the Nigerian state was unwilling to listen to any legitimate agitation and was determined to employ maximum force to crush any form of dissent and protect oil installations.  Gradually and with time, the people of the region came to understand that the only language the Nigerian government understands is that of force.

Fortuitously, politicians in the region, who were locked in deadly struggles for the capture of state power, found it expedient to recruit and arm youth groups to fight their political battles. Finding themselves well armed and knowing they would soon be dispensed with after elections are won and lost, the youth groups moved quickly to assert their own relevance by resuming the Niger Delta struggle but this time through arms struggle.

Thus, by 2005, violence became the chief means by which power and resources were negotiated in the region. Consequently, the loci of power shifted from community elders – a group the government and particularly the multinational oil companies found expedient to negotiate with and settle to quieten agitations – to militant youth groups who have been using violent means to successfully challenge the legitimacy of the Nigerian state.

These disparate militant youth groups used the instrumentality of violence to successfully threaten the economic survival of the Nigerian state and consequently negotiate an amnesty programme, in 2009, with the Nigerian state, worth billions of dollars and set the precedence for violent confrontation as the only viable means of resolving disputes with the state.

The Boko Haram insurgency virtually followed this template. The Nigerian state responded to the group’s growing influence the only way it knew; through violence. Yusuf, the founder, and many of the sect’s members were brutally and extra-judicially executed. Those who survived the crackdown took refuge in the forest and had no option left than to take up arms against the state. So lethal and successful had the group become that the Nigerian state, on several occasions, has offered them amnesty and continues to dangle the amnesty option before them just to get them to agree to come to the negotiation table. The rehabilitation and release of repentant militants, the proposed bill to set up a commission just to take care of ex-Boko Haram members are signs the Nigerian state has almost run out of options in fighting the group militarily and is desperate for some respite.

Shouldn’t that have taught the state some lessons about employing violence in response to largely peaceful and non-violent agitations? You can’t bet on the Nigerian state to learn any useful lesson.

Shouldn’t that have taught the state some lessons about employing violence in response to largely peaceful and non-violent agitations? You can’t bet on the Nigerian state to learn any useful lesson

Upon coming to power in 2015, Buhari, an ex-military General and dictator, began another round of brutal crackdowns on largely peaceful groups. In December 2015, the Nigerian Army massacred close to 500 members of the Shiite sect – the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) – in Zaria for having the temerity to block the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff. Not done, they proceeded to the group’s headquarters, destroying their shrines, killing people inside and taking the leader of the Sect, his wife and several other members, hostage. Although those held hostage have since been granted bail by the courts, the government has refused to release them. Many more members of the sect have been killed since then simply for protesting peacefully to demand the release of their leader being held hostage. To add salt to injury, the government has outlawed the group, declaring it a terrorist organisation.

Similarly, in 2016, the army went on another killing spree, mowing down dozens of members of the Indigenous people of Biafra (IPOD), supporters and bystanders at three locations in the Onitsha town and environs.  Initially, the army lied that they acted in self defence, that the protesters were armed and actually attacked the army first, but on the ground reports and investigation by Amnesty International put a lie to such concoctions. AI accused the Nigerian military of “Opening fire on peaceful IPOB supporters and bystanders who clearly posed no threat to anyone.” Such action, according to the watch dog, “is an outrageous use of unnecessary and excessive force and resulted in multiple deaths and injuries.” Indeed, “In one incident one person was shot dead after the authorities burst in on them while they slept.” The watch dog tagged these shootings “extra judicial executions”, calling for urgent and independent investigation and the bringing to justice of anyone suspected of criminal responsibility. Indeed, the watch dog averred that the exact number of deaths is unknown largely because the Nigerian army took away corpses and the injured. To this day, members of the group are still being hunted and killed across the five eastern states. As you might guess, the government has since declared the group a terrorist organisation.

It is clearly obvious that the Nigerian state has learnt no lessons and has continued to use crude violence and force to respond to peaceful agitations. The unspoken message to these groups that are continually being massacred and mowed down by the army is that peaceful demonstrations or protests never pay. The only chance they have of being taken seriously is by engaging in armed and violent confrontation with the state.

The army is thus forcing the Shiites, the Indigenous people of Biafra (IPOB) and other such agitators to look at Boko Haram, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and even the marauding and deadly Fulani herdsmen with envy. At their strategy meetings, there are bound to be voices pointing out the successes being recorded by these groups and how seriously the Nigerian state responds to their demands and agitations and may be pushing for the jettisoning of the non-violence method. As the Nigerian state continues with its brutal crackdown on these peaceful groups, such hardline voices within them may eventually be gaining grounds and may soon displace those urging for the continuation of peaceful struggles.