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The Nigerian Dilemma

By the “Nigerian Dilemma”, I am referring to the ethno-sectarian divide that defines the perennial conflict between North and South – between Muslims and Christians in our country. It has virtually become Nigeria’s national curse. It is reminiscent of the famous work on race in America by the Swedish economist and Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal. (An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, London & New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947).

By the “American dilemma”, Myrdal was referring to the tension between liberal democratic ideals and the abject conditions of African-Americans in the United States. On the one hand, we have the American creed and the belief that people are created equal and have human rights endowed upon by the Almighty Himself; on the other hand, blacks, as one-tenth of the population, have been atrociously treated as an inferior race and were denied basic civil and political rights.

Myrdal was assisted by the African-American political scientist Ralph Bunche who also drafted several chapters of that eponymous work. Bunche subsequently worked as a close associate of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his peace efforts in Palestine.

The seeds of the Nigerian dilemma were planted long ago by the British colonialists. The Lugardian indirect-rule system favoured the emirate structures of the Fulani caliphate to the detriment of other groups, particularly in the Middle Belt.

The resurgence of radical political Islam across the world has added fuel to the tinder-box; some of it fuelled with petrodollars from Saudia Arabia, Iran, and Qatar.

It is evident that the American military campaign in Afghanistan and the debacle in Syria has succeeded in breaking the back of the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other agents of global terror. As a consequence, they have turned their ambitions towards West Africa and the Sahel.

It is generally accepted that our country is almost evenly divided between Christians in the South and Muslims in the North; with the predominantly Christian Middle Belt straddling North and South. The structure of politics in Nigeria has often reflected the fissures, regionalism, identity politics, and competitive ethnicity inherent in such a diverse polity. Most Nigerian Muslims are Sunnis, with some of the elites belonging to rival Qadiriyya and Tijanniya Sufi denominations. Other denominations include the Tariqa, the Malikiya, the Ahmadiya, and the Islamiya. One of the latest denominations to make an entry into the religious landscape in northern Nigeria is the Shi’i religion. Following the Iranian revolution of 1979, several Nigerian students went to study in Iran and returned as Shi’i adherents and proselytisers.

In a county of such diversity, ethnic and religious cleavages can easily be exploited by unscrupulous elites to inflame latent tensions, leading to inter-communal violence. In this respect, Nigeria is not any different from other multi-ethnic developing societies where power elites often prefer to exploit what the eminent American political scientist Crawford Young terms “the politics of cultural pluralism”. Outbreaks of communal violence have characterised multi-ethnic nations such as India, Malaysia, and Kenya. In the context of poverty and dwindling economic opportunities, horizontal inequities, whether real or imagined, can aggravate latent tensions, leading to violence and conflict. Politicians who lose out in power struggles do often resort to religion and ethnicity as banners for political mobilisation. This largely explains why violence has been a characteristic feature of the Nigerian political scene since independence.

For much of the first decade of independence, politics in Nigeria was characterised by widespread political violence, including violent coups d’état and, ultimately, civil war during 1967-1970. The traditions of democratic politics have been marked by electoral violence and occasional bloodletting between rival political parties. Succeeding governments, whether civilian or military, have sometimes engaged in what could only be defined in terms of ‘state terrorism’.

With the widespread misery occasioned by Structural Adjustment Reforms and the ensuing repression and political decay in the 1980s, Nigerian ethnic communities began to seek succour in new primordial associations. Regional and ethnic militias became the order of the day. Notable among these were groups such as the Movement for the Actualization for the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Egbesu Boys and O’Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC) in the West, Niger-Delta Volunteers Force, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). These militant groups on their part resorted increasingly to violence and kidnapping in their struggle to ensure ‘resource control’, in addition to participation in oil bunkering.

The re-introduction of Sharia criminal law in several of the northern states during 2000 and 2001 was to lead to widespread unrest in the northern states. Sharia criminal law had been the dominant legal culture since the Fulani revolution spearheaded by Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio in the early nineteenth century. It was more or less abolished when the British conquered Nigeria. The common law was made to replace all those practices that were deemed to affront ‘natural justice, equity and good conscience’.

The genocidal killings by terrorist groups, estimated to have claimed 100,000 victims over the past decade, have forced other regions to develop self-defence groups such as ESN in the East and Amotekun in the West Nigerians may well be in for a long night of brutal struggle between Good and Evil.

To add insult to injury, the 1999 constitution is patently a fraud. Nobody knows who wrote it. In good hands, people could live with a bad constitution. In the hands of hands of closet Jihadists, however, it represents the triumph of tyranny. This explains the current clamour for “restructuring by various sections of our country today. The majority of Nigerians will not accept anything less.

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