THE WAVE OF ARBITRARY CULTURE IN A NASCENT DEMOCRACY
Governor of Enugu State
International Conference Centre, Abuja
The Abuja Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ)
May 20, 2002
If I stand before you today, I do not pretend to have mounted this podium because I have any unrivalled knowledge or experience to take up these weighty issues as you have suggested in your broad seminal theme “National security: the media, stakeholders and 2003 elections.” Whereas I see in this theme a challenge, which every democrat must pick on and proceed to show that the actual future of Nigeria rests with the nurturing of organic democratic culture, I marvel at what might have motivated this topic at this period of our political expectations.
Indeed, I do not quarrel with the suggestion of the theme but it is a wonder to me, as I guess it baffles you too, that we may not have pushed hard enough to further our collective interests against the depreciating factors of society which have tended to retard, slow or derail our hope of joining in the global stream of civilization characterized by debate, varied options and plurality of ideas otherwise referred to as democracy.
First of all, I feel honoured to be invited to Abuja, the seat of the highest government in Nigeria, to talk about national security. I am immeasurably excited to grab another opportunity at sounding out our great men of the Fourth Estate of the Realm about the deadly threat they perhaps unknowingly pose, even in their very legitimate calling, to this democracy of this season which is about our only passport to the civilized world. It is, also, a thing of joy for me to talk about stakeholders, be they of national security or democracy just as I am elated to, once again, take up matters on the year 2003, which appears to be our own reminder of the inevitable fallibility of man.
Abuja, to me, is where we should talk national democratic culture. Abuja is also where we have put a stamp of the reality of oneness of this emerging nation-state which promises have appeared in colourations which even bedazzle earnest keen watchers as it has left many with no clear view of what is at their beck and call even as they craved national paradise while they stand right in the city of God. I come into this city quite often but when I am called upon to do a talk as in this challenging assignment-to join in the effort at elaborating points of discord as well as possible harmonies – for a better tomorrow, I feel particularly honoured.
But in my usual joy at approaching this city which ought to, which has been and which was the marked departure point for our bold nation-builders, I am filled with trepidation about a city which represents a state with great promises but which, from time to time, reveal the aborted propulsion which would have underlined the texture of modern nationalism for a state whose peculiar experiences offer the best in the factors that bring about the best in the new order.
Indeed, I talk about Abuja with emotions. I look at Abuja with awe. I perceive Abuja with tremendous hope and I cherish the Abuja dream, of early planners, with zeal. The dream of a poster-city with all that may constitute the entire trappings of hope in a vastly multi-ethnic state cannot be aborted in a seasonal fit of disregard for order.
If then, we are with ourselves on this rising great city, we may quickly give credit to those who feel it is the part of Nigeria, which should take up the poster-status of the binding factors, which in turn, should make this nation work. In the same vein, it is the city, which should take up the challenges of rearing a character format for the security profile of Nigeria and a standpoint for the elaboration of the values of variety, options, debate and good governance. In other words, it is the city where we should hold this seminar and under the auspices of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Abuja Council.
Actually, before I proceed on this lecture, it may be proper for me to let you know that I had virtually concluded not to have any more to do with, or say on, the platform of any group of journalists. I was particularly compelled to so view matters now that it appears to me that whereas it is clear to every reasonable Nigerian that our press which started out in the early days of this nation with a ground-swell of ideology and virtuous nationalism, had so soon degenerated into a mass of disorganized activities for individual players whose pre-occupation can hardly be located anywhere beyond the basic drive for personal survival.
It is true that this was not the first time I reached this conclusion, which though, I am violating for the second time now, but I dare say that I may not have been alone even as I view myself as a moderate assessor of the press. The way I feel today about the press, arising from my perception of the gap in the role of information and proper grounding of our people for the furtherance of this democracy, I felt in early October 2001 when I was virtually compelled by certain factors to undertake a talk on the platform of the Plateau State Correspondents’ Chapel of the NUJ. If you understand me, I am saying that I do not have anything against the press but I am getting increasingly pained that the road to our proper democratistion has always come under threat due to the failure of the press to shape a proper expectation framework for our people. It is strange to me that our great players in the revered Fourth Estate of the Realm could fail (or is it deliberately refuse) to appreciate the enormity of the duty in bringing up the citizenry who have just emerged from a brutalizing and crushing age of prolonged militarisation. The failure in this role, to my mind, informs the state of confusion, rudderlessness and apprehension which, unfortunately, now make up the psyche of our hapless and harassed citizenry. As Shakespeare would say: the name of Cassius honours this corruption, and chastisement doth therefore hide its face.
However, I must admit that Abuja journalists, as those of Kaduna, Plateau and the national NAWOJ differed markedly in their effort at providing the appropriate fora for review and projection of this democracy, which we have never hesitated to say, is nascent. It must have been a proper sense of duty, which informs the current enterprise of your Council, at giving this seminar for the critical evaluation of the media alongside highly contentious issues of democratic stakeholders and year 2003.
I am therefore grateful to you not just for the opportunity given to me to be a part of this all-important business, but also for the boldness in taking up the issues as vital and tasking as these. In fact, since one of your officials, Joy Idam, made that first trip to Enugu and presented my staff with the request for my participation, I had committed my mind to reasoning out the perspective I would tackle your challenging topic to fit into the current trend in democratic evaluation as well as the projections for year 2003. I had wondered what position you had expected me to take in discussing national security and the other adjuncts, which you brought into the proposed topic when, in reality, I may not have been grounded in matters relating to such high stake businesses. I was particularly made more curious by your deliberate inclusion of year 2003 as a segment of the broad national security and democratic culture question you have set for us to discuss.
I guess that what gave me a hint of your drift in this matter was your loud pronunciation of the media and stakeholders as grey matters in the elusive democratic culture. It became clear to me, therefore, that I might have been faced with a tricky topic, which was crafted to take in so much in an ambitious effort of some journalists to take on vital issues of national survival and perpetuation in this season of national cynicism. My conclusion as I got into the preparation for this talk was to try to narrow it as much as possible so as to, first, have enough leverage and time to take up an issue of national democratic culture as a factor for the making or marring of the running democracy; and secondly, to leave enough room for other contributors in this programme who may have felt as strongly as I do in the matters under review.
In that respect, I decided to take a closer look at our nascent democracy as it rides the wave of some elements of our social processes which should have fostered, not attenuated, popular debate, multi-options and viability of community. In so doing, I am joining those Nigerians who feel that the viability of this democracy as in the desired perpetuation of the state depended largely on the very conscientisation and understanding of the common Nigerian whose ultimate drive is to live and let live. I must, therefore, confess to you that this personal interest had caused me to slightly alter your designed topic, which I feel at liberty to bring in as an adjunct of your broad national security question. My interpretation of your media, your stakeholders and your year 2003, as contained in your original topic, all point to the perspective of the social wing on which the current trend of democracy will ride. I have tried to put this together and the effort has resulted in my seeing in your concern at casting this topic a dread of such factors, which have deviated our democratic society even as they have come of a preceding social as well as political settings.
If you get my drift, now you will certainly appreciate my worries about the failure of the mass media to mount the high horse to tell Nigerians what the true nature of the last few years of militarisation was and why the key operators must be more statesman-like in ignoring the mundane, the transient and the immediate, to explore that which shall be permanent but which more gainful results will take time to mature. You will also be apprehensive as I am that this democracy can only survive if the expectation framework is properly shaped by the mass media and if the citizenry are acquainted with the true indices of building an otherwise previously devastated society. You may not also ignore the great threat of the failure of expectation which has induced unparalleled impatience and further caused the rise of savage thirst for vengeance, distrust for the new order, subversion of the new order and in many cases, outright rise in arm against the order.
At this stage of our democratic development, it may be too harmful to look the other way while we all know that the society, which runs on people – the stakeholders, and the media – the vehicles for the most effective socialization, has degenerated into a pervasively quasi-military and anti-plurality culture, which constitute the highest threat to civilization.
As in our usual failure of analysis, we have chosen to tackle matters of national cohesion by lifting that which serves personal interests above that which affects the larger society and in consequence, have had a derailed polity. Over the years and through the period of military forays in governance, there was a rise, indeed with intensification of militarisation, of a command society the way it was never done in any civilized world. That exercise had resulted in the development of arbitrary sensibilities, which tended to build into the social psyche of the people the rude points in vertical and polarized inter-personal relations, intra and inter-group relations and community interactions, all evidenced in restiveness and antagonism.
At first, it seemed the in-thing to act out that arbitrary way with the political culture of immediacy and impatience, which had given vent to the rise of the conducts tailored after the collective behaviour of the military institution. This had appeared to give hope to a populace desirous of immediate changes in their individual life and the social setting of their environment.
Tragically, there was this fatal failure of the mass media to rise to the seasonal challenge of informing and educating the citizenry on the futility of such claim. To that effect, the custodians of the growing arbitrary culture never had the chances of understanding that in running a plural polity such as ours, there should be no such infusion of militarisation and immediacy in an attempt at lumping the varied people, in their varied temperaments into one unit of view, as could be sustained in military institutions. That baffling failure of the press in this respect had given further armour to the military chieftains and apologists in politics to pursue and consolidate the viewpoint that the process of immediacy as it worked in full-fledged military institutions was indeed capable of moving the nation forward.
Also having failed to enlighten Nigerians on the reality and prevalence of the pains in nation-building, the impression was created and sustained by the mass media, that matters of nation and in this case a multi-ethnic state, can be worked without regard to feelings of some citizens and in total disregard of debate. This position which has largely come by the force of arms only went further to induce in the ordinary citizen to cultivate the values of violent imposition of his viewpoint without a hint of respect for other views. The percolation of this emerging behavioral outlook only went further to provide leverages for forces in a society, which were not fully weaned of pre-colonial arbitrary culture to virtually return to a high level of intolerance.
In fact, according to Adigun Agbaje (Mobilising for a new political culture), “a new political culture more supportive of democracy through a carefully designed programme of social mobilization” ought to take place to fully supplant primordial African political environment, which Crawford Young bemoaned as the “structures and forces that deliberately limit popular participation in governance and seek to demobilize the populace.” By some strange irony of faith, Nigeria, nay Africa, whose main nationalists brought about the most elaborate and sudden rise of broad-based political participation in the course of their independence struggles, soon pursued a decline in political participation, by an equally strange zeal in limiting the democratic energy of the people through the reintroduction of and elaboration in arbitrariness.
Of course, the political class would not entirely have been strongly guilty if such conducts of the military apologists provided sufficient, even if not adequate, justification of the creeping but evidently pervasive command culture which tended to take roots in the reigning days of the army boys. This had resulted in the alteration of the political character of the average individual who became resentful of debate, as he was irritated if engaged by a differing viewpoint. This markedly bizarre development illustrated the emergence of an anti-value system steeped in the celebration of the demise of holders of opposing views which went to establish in fuller forms that culture of arbitrariness.
Were it to be said to the average Nigerian of the 1970s that time was when those who differed from the mainstream view were grabbed and sold into slavery through the agents of the Aro Slaving Oligarchy, he would strongly insist that such never happened in the recent past. But were this to be said to a Nigerian of our time, today, he will nod in affirmation that the man who differed deserved what he got in the hands of kinsmen who sold him out to slave merchants.
Of course, this degeneracy did not come of a one-track event that got hijacked by some correctionist-soldiers who left in their trail a perverse mini-culture. Indeed, in looking at the earlier political development of Nigeria, we can detect some elements of arbitrariness, which had come of the struggle for independence and in the effort at enforcing a unity of the country without regard to debate and varied views. This, we know, contradicts the famous Chinese revolutionary injunction: Let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand ideas contend.
Our early freedom fighters had started out on a track of quasi-militarism as the terrain, in their view, looked like there was going to be some intense fight before the colonial masters relinquished power. They seemed to be right. Many have today argued the point that were the colonial masters more liberal in the enforcement of their supremacy, the emerging nation-state would not have started out on the violent note which pursues one-sided viewpoint in virtually all matters of national life and in the interaction of the populace. This, however, has been contradicted by the reality of the spread and indeed, the inevitability of the battles for control of territories, which made it not only usual but also coordinated by the various social classes, which had to duel in the drive to control the apparatus of state. The clash of classes, the contradictions of social order, the battle of vested interests and the tussle for the formation of central ethos, all go to show that there is no making of nation without force and the attendant exchange of blows.
Nigeria could not have been any exception in the process of nation-building but as the will and forces of figures and leadership created the central values which worked the societies up to the point of evolving popular debate, it should be expected that the state in the making begins to pick much of the culture of variety. Besides, having started out on the track of modernism, which had lifted the state on the podium of global development trends, it was not expected that political degeneracy would result to the point of inducing total intolerance and disrespect for others’ views.
For you to catch my drift in this talk and follow, in full, my option of topic, I may have to invite you to examine the situation of arbitrariness which ride on the crest of just one segment of social disharmony as in the ethnic-militia which have become prominent and influential in our daily life. Many have argued that what tends to disfigure the social state of Nigeria has its principal roots in the failure of the state to offer hope to the people. While I do not dismiss this, I am inclined to contend further that the failure of the state as in the pernicious years of military dictatorship could not have constituted the all-time leadership of the emerging nation state which is currently having a go at democracy. Given the situation that we had a military state that failed and created all sorts of deviations in our system, it cannot be argued that we now have a given political leadership situation which is stagnant and which cannot inspire new values.
Again, I hold the press responsible because the failed state ought to be a yardstick to measure the inability to work the defective system while the rise of the plural culture should be the basis of a proper expectation framework into which the populace should be indoctrinated. The press did not do this. Rather, the press accentuated and actually exploited the people’s impatience; promoted their transient needs and sought immediate pleasure for a people who should have been made to be in waiting for the revival of the state. This actually culminated in the wave of taking-the-laws-into-our-own-hands or denying our compatriots those rights we claim for ourselves– and even in defiance of constituted authorities. That is the arbitrary culture of the individual. The landscape would no doubt have been immensely more salutary were the press to uphold the principles of a certain sage who states: I vehemently disagree with your viewpoints, I nevertheless uphold your right to hold to your ground.
The challenge before all democrats and indeed all stakeholders in the nascent democratic experiment is not to, for any reason, suddenly begin to take this emerging process for granted. In fact, it is an unpardonable conduct in irresponsibility for actors and watchers to fail to take up this challenge of wresting the rising arbitrary culture, which is now finding its way into such plural points as democratic offices and assemblages. Scarier is the tendency to evaluate views on the basis of one’s ethnic origin, ignoring in the process, the gains of democracy on the anonymous individual who only has to be a democrat to belong.
In the broad spectrum of our national life, the process of national evolution has seen Nigerians ride certain tendencies, which have creatively reinforced the goal of promoting national unity and integration. Inter-ethnic marriages, the National Youth Service Scheme, the federal character principle, the unity school concept in our educational system, etc, are but a few of these interactive sets and social policies that ought to foster oneness and cohesion.
However, there are other tendencies negative and intensely regressive, which stand in contradistinction with those wholesome trends and outlines above. Readily we can identify the vexatious twin issues of citizenship and indigeneship, discriminatory employment policies in different states of the Federation, ethnocentricism, religious bigotry, resurgence of ethnic militias, armed robbery, all of these indices of generational wastage and devaluation, subsumed in a culture of arbitrariness.
To reach for the now obvious cliché, let me remind us that our present experiment with democracy is nascent. It is just coming into being. But we must be reminded that although it is nascent, it is bound to contend with the burdens and stormy trails of this generational wastages and devaluations.
Without doubt, some of the indices we have identified above have, on a continuing basis, recurred in the agenda of our national discourse because they form the integral part of the forces, which intensely fan the exacerbation of the country’s Gordian knot, otherwise called the national question.
In the several fora and outings in the course of my humble efforts at critical analysis of the frontline topical issues in our national life, I worked several of these themes. Today, it is again my humble pleasure to add some few words, on that creeping, yet stubborn and persistent phenomenon, which lies in ambush to the very object of our national integration.
The wave of arbitrariness sweeping across the length and breadth of our country, it would appear to me, betrays an unconscious effort on our part as citizens, official and public officers, to lay our hands on what makes Nigeria. The sheer anxiety it should provoke and its inherent refractory characters, must bestir us to a critical awakening to its threshold of disintegrative potency.
I shall here attempt an analysis of arbitrary culture as yet one very sore aspect of the wrathful roadblock to our true national integration and against the backdrop of the 2003 democratic and electoral expectations.
The phenomenon of arbitrary culture has implications for our own national democratic culture and prosperity. As we proceed we shall afford to shed light on its ramifications so as to bring to bear upon its full length, the implications for these two critical categories in our national life.
Arbitrary culture is a derivative of the exercise of absolute power. In a way, it is symptomatic of anarchy. But because power itself can be thought of as the instrument by which all other values could be obtained much as a net is used for catching fish, arbitrary culture defines power negatively. However, for many people, it is often the prize fish.
Power is exercised at the various levels of human relations, from the family circles to the highest forms of super structural order in non-political as well as political organizations. Since power functions, both as means and end, as net and fish, it is a key value in politics as in all other spheres of life.
When the great Fulani conqueror, Uthman Dan Fodio, forcibly entered the territories of the seven Hausa States and staged a religious conquest, of Islamic order, he did not give the helmsmen or inhabitants of these States any opportunity for negotiations nor for building consensus. In fact, as he bluffed his way, he treated with disdain the local plea: Casarmu Ce – this land is ours – and pursued his inclination. His was a mission to conquer a people and impose a religion and regime. There was neither a constitution nor a social contract character. The religion and rule did indeed come.
To enable Islam settle down among the people, the rule invited no opinion from the conquered. The regime proceeded rather, partly on the very principles of the religion, under which aegis the conquest had been staged. It was despotic. It was absolute and capricious. It was arbitrary. On the other part, the operative theory was that the hitherto free people, in their natural traditions, were in- capable of thinking for themselves in a better way than their state of minds then could go. The assumption therefore was that the minds of the people could not be affected positively in any other way except by such episodic antimonies.
About one whole century earlier, the rage and fury of the Aro Slaving Oligarchy had peaked and the people who were carted into slave ships never had a say, never debated and even as they defiantly thunder ani a gba oso…this land cannot be carted away, their captors had the rein without mercy. In the same vein, the old Oyo had erupted on the drive of some men who aimed at imposing their will on others.
Even as a rainbow community, Nigeria from ancestry has had experience in both the arbitrary and strict traditions. The example of the Fulani conqueror, Uthman Dan Fodio and Nta Okorie Nta of the Aro slaving machine, will suffice to account for arbitrary beginnings in our environment.
The Igbo in their republicanist culture, with decentralized forms in administration and political life, took decisions at all levels of the community and such decisions ran on conformance or orthodox grounds. The situation such as the Igbo example provided space for accuracy of predictions of outcomes in matters of conflicts. It was easy thus to build harmony and systemic order. It did not celebrate arbitrariness as tradition would never have allowed it until the rise of the Aro slaving Oligarchy which if not for the arrival of colonial rule would have obliterated the consensus system and degenerated the polity.
The advent of colonialism, on its own, was an intervention, which would not be challenged by the indigenous peoples because of the superior firepower of the invading colonialists.
Colonial invasion came with coercion, raw and undiluted, merely ameliorated by the introduction of Christianity, which preached the brotherhood of humanity as children of one God. The sheer enormity, incompatibilities, and perhaps inscrutability of this African culture (as perceived by the colonialists) in the face of the advancing colonial imperatives and culture inspired a resort to forms of arbitrary culture by the colonial master minds. This was clearly manifested in the indirect rule model, which unpretentiously set out to impose upon the people a style of local administration that was strange to their social and political heritage. The aberration of this innovation got its earliest and fiercest rejection from the Aba women in 1929. That initiative at arbitrary culture was fractured and it collapsed in Igboland.
In the several epochs of our troubled national evolution, this phenomenon has besieged us as it has continually retained effects on us, in varying proportions. But none yet has had on us such pervasive effects as the arbitrariness that characterised military rule.
However, the incidence of military intervention in politics and rule is NOT exclusive to Nigeria. We must note this with caution. Nonetheless, that Nigeria is not alone in the experience of military intervention is not to suggest that universally, military rule has deposited evenly, equal and similar amount and genre of influence, in both corrupt and productive terms, on the whole.
Historically, such a nation as France which lived under Napoleon Bonaparte’s military rule survived a conformative nation with systemic order gaining ascendancy over the command and strait-jacket or jackboot culture of the military. Perhaps, this must be because France had shed virtually all shades of arbitrary culture, had become sober and inebriated in systemic order and had come to traditionalise and treasure the values of tranquility and stability as imperatives for national growth and development. In all probability too, this must have arisen because the French society had been weakened financially and socially by a series of wars beginning with the war of Devolution (1667-8) leading to the seven years war (1756-63) before the Revolution proper 1789 which preceded Napoleon’s military rule in 1799 when he overthrew the Directory and established the First Empire in 1804. Besides, the lessons of the Revolution itself were pandemic and pervasive, bequeathing to the cultural plain of France certain social and political grains merely conducive to and irrevocable in systemic order and conformity. The internalization of such cultural persistence among the French obliterated the chance of emergence of an arbitrary culture in the French social and political system.
Probably the above historical overview could mislead us to a hasty conclusion that the current Nigerian tragic experience in arbitrary culture must be because Nigeria does not possess the exact or somewhat similar historical credentials or tracks as the French in national evolution. But it must not be lost on us that France is less heterogeneous than Nigeria. That may not make all the difference but it starts the point. Perhaps again, the current phenomenon could also be attributed to the absence and weakness of, if there was any, tendencies, for meeting of divergent ideas. This mode of national interaction was not offered or was weak and provocatively inhibited in an environment, which directly needed the clash of ideas to provoke critical discussions and free the individuals from grooved thinking. Or, still perhaps, the environment was not mature for such critical intervention. It is not also unlikely that the cultural drift which upturned our ancestral heritage in systemic order and tranquility has been due mainly to a want of any sectional persistence in the milieu of our rainbow cultural settling.
A plural community riding some severely fractured ethics and ethos could be productive of civic disloyalties or obstacles to common social controls. It is also likely to be vulnerable to such culture distortions as they were, and subjugation could bring resistance and conflict capable of upturning earlier unifying factors. The explanation to this tells in the absence of a conscious drive to acculturation which otherwise could have ensured the survival of the valuable aspects of the host culture. This suggests that our environment had been predisposed to the emergence of arbitrary culture, which got further extended in the painful protraction in the track of military rule in Nigeria. This had pervaded the socio-political system with such cultural distortions, which overthrew the pillars of systemic order, values and conscionable productive culture.
Indeed, poverty, ignorance and sheer coercive intimidation merely wheeled the citizenry to a lethal acquiescence to such dismal interposition. Any wonder then that in the desire for reconciliation of ideas which ran into conflict with the command culture of the military, more obstacles and confusion occasioned by the military’s abstractive rough and tumble pattern, in social, economic and administrative environments, Nigerians were compelled in all events.
Subsequently, Nigerians had to internalize the use of arbitrary language and arbitrary decision-making models of the military. At a point, Nigerians were physically whipped in the public places to fetch water to drink. The failure in following official communication language and executive/administrative styles in the bureaucracy and public sector crystallized these distortions.
What became the order of the day were with immediate effect; dismissals from office without interdiction or trials; intemperate language in public podium; corporal punishment for minor civil offences; hiring and firing of officials and top functionaries on the radio or television wave, etc. What I have said so far is in no way an attempt to set aside the benighted marriage of the tendency with the centralized administration – unitary – the gravest threat to the survival of democracy in the land.
When people are brutalized; their gods desecrated; their values upturned; their cherished symbols rendered valueless and their psyche traumatized, they are bound to seek protection and expression somewhere. They may even be propelled by the imagination that the tendency arises from subjugative actions of internal colonizers and they are bound to put up some fight to stay afloat, right or wrong.
This now forms one of the bases for the rise and proliferation of ethnic militia across the state in the closing stages of the 16 unbroken years of military rule, 1984 – 1999. This situation, which ranks in my view as one of the most perplexing and indeed astounding developments in Nigeria’s recent political history, has made a stubborn entry which spread like a gangrene and affected, in different degrees, all citizens – moderates and extremists, alike.
Of course, I am among those Nigerians who strongly believe none of it came by accident, what with the attendant pattern of relations and style of enforcement, which though illustrates our descent into impatience, debate-hating and arbitrariness, revealed a core of deliberate disorderliness, so to say.
Actually, I am inclined to share the view that the emergence of the phenomenon followed a definite pattern attendant on the logic of militarisation of civil society and indeed the failure of the press to pursue with an unremitting zeal, the development of debate-culture, patience and tolerance. To my mind, the crisis of illegitimacy in which the military was enmeshed in the aftermath of the June 12 imbroglio, was one indicator of such frustration which brought about a status of quasi-legitimacy for some ethnic militia such as the O’dua People’s Congress (OPC) in Lagos and other parts of the West as well as the Federated Egbesu Boys in the Niger Delta. These seemed at first the budding nucleus of ethnic-based counter resistance against the campaigning force and menace of the repressive machinery of military command and control as the latter fought a last ditch battle to assert its suzerainty.
Inevitably, as the military lost grip of power and with prospects of a return to civil rule, these militia groups repositioned themselves to champion the interest of their respective ethnic groups in the impending all-out scramble for what remains of Nigeria. In the same vein, there were expectations in highly informed circles that, the opening up of the democratic space as a result of the disengagement of the military from the reins of power would create an enabling environment for these groups to fizzle out. In other words, the ethnic militias were expected to re-channel their energies and pent-up grievances bordering on their total exclusion from the decision-making process under military rule into the consolidation of the emerging democratic process, under a new all-inclusive political economy.
Sadly, I must say, this ended up not being the case. It seemed that this expectation was either exaggerated or misplaced altogether. Ethnic militias and other forms of militant social outfits have mushroomed instead. Thus, in addition to the OPC and the Egbesu Boys, the advent of the fourth Republic witnessed the birth of the Bakassi Boys, an ethnic militia with the Southeast area as the primary enclave of its operations. Soon enough, the Arewa People’s Congress (APC) ostensibly with the core North as its catchment area, was born. The floodgate was immediately opened to the phenomenon of ethnic militias across the country.
For the avoidance of doubt, we must get one thing clear. One primary reason of this explosion of the groups is the failure of the past system to live up to the functions of providing for the people, as they would have done for themselves. Another was the now mounting distrust of institutions of governance by the populace. It was like the old freedom fighting days when our early and later-day nationalists concluded that they were short-changed and so sought to overthrow the old order for the benefit of their people.
It is the argument of many that there is hardly a doubt that the phenomenon harbours equal capacity for good and for evil. The latter points to the potential threat which the proliferation of ethnic militias pose for the security of the country as well as the future of democracy. On the other hand, Nigerians have also been witnesses to the scope of community service, which the ethnic militias are capable of rendering in their less contentious role as vigilante groups, providing community-based policing against the menace of hooligans, miscreants and armed robbers in the society.
In cases as above, the elements of the political class who got involved in this enterprise tend to use same to secure political advantages and to forcibly shunt aside the interests of others.
In this my conceptualization of the ethnic militia phenomenon, I am, of course, only setting out to analyze the spread of arbitrariness and the extremely deleterious and unsavoury consequences of such eruption in an emerging democracy. I am getting increasingly concerned about the fading of dialogue, the perpetuation of intolerance, the moulding of anti-debate culture and the possible release of energy to such enterprises, which seek to drown the other viewpoint, by the force of arms. It gives me the jitters that in our honest desire to express ourselves, after some perilous years of forced silence, we are getting un-mindful of our timeframe which anchors, at this moment, on democracy but which if negated could erode the gains of popular participation in governance.
About a decade ago, some African states such as Somalia, Sierra-Leone, Liberia and Burundi presented marked examples of the negative potentials of arbitrary culture, particularly one powered in the trend of hate exhibited by ethnic based militia organizations which cut the profile of representing an unquestionable, even though un-debated, interests of a distinct people in a state.
Remember, this comes first on account of real or perceived failure of the State to discharge its functions, particularly in the protection of the people. Somalia’s emergence as a failed State some eleven years ago was a direct consequence of the centrifugal tendencies steeped in arbitrary culture and unleashed through the unwholesome activities of armed clan militias out to seize control of the State and impose their hegemony over rival militias. As that Somalia experience aptly illustrates, the activities of such armed militant groups served as a precursor to the emergence of warlords who further transformed such outfit into private militia as they sought to partition the country and its natural resources among themselves. The warlord syndrome regrettably has since been replicated in a number of places like Liberia and Sierra-Leone with disastrous and far-reaching consequences. In these countries, there is ample evidence to suggest that what later transformed into full-fledged guerilla armies and rebel movements started out as ethnic and clan militias, with principles, aims and objectives fanned by arbitrary culture and resentment of debate and intolerance as is currently emerging in our society.
I am infinitely optimistic that our state of affairs may never quite degenerate further, but even as I say this, the actual fact of the existence of the arbitrary culture in our midst and the spectre that the phenomenon feeds the lust to own and control some militia, serve as a sufficient reminder to any enlightened leadership that if it could be so tragic in some of these other countries, it could in all probability also happen here. Why do I say so? It is precisely because human history is after all, a cycle of repetitions. It was the American Social Scientist and Polemicist, George Santayana, who forewarned that those who fail to learn from the past, particularly the tragic past, are condemned to relive it.
Indeed, the prevalence of the unitary culture and the attendant destructive tendencies gave birth to the suffocation of the citizenry in virtually every facet of the national life. It got so worrisome in the mid-1990s that the then federal military government instituted a national committee for the devolution of powers. But rather than tackle the job and see to the distribution of the leverages of the state, the then chairman of the committee, Alhaji Abdulrahman Okene, declared to journalists, on the very first sitting that he was not going to preside over the dissolution of the authorities of the federal government or the Nigeria state.
Of course, the clamour for devolution was just a straight drive at terminating the arbitrariness of the unitary culture, which placed the state and all the leverages in the hands of a few who were arbitrary, dictatorial and inconsiderate. It was also a clamour for popular participation and a cultivation of equality rather than privileges. If elsewhere in the world it is the tradition to hold on to the inviolability of the powers of the majority, Nigerians were on the right track in demanding the diffusion of power for effective application in the peculiar environments.
It was then on that note it was asked why a local council Chairman should be content with operating a fiscal policy in which he alone solely decides the way and manner of executing budgetary provisions in total disregard to the expressed intentions of the budget and without the faintest consultation with the councilors? What would the supervisors be doing in their various departments if the chairman executes all projects?
Following this is the question; why should the portfolios of Ministers and Commissioners be now treated as virtual clerical positions with the incumbent Ministers and commissioners having only to hear about allocations made to their ministries in the budget books while the chief executive doles out to them sums of money occasionally to keep them going?
These have all come of the tradition of the military because the wholesome practice and principle of devolution of powers and functions, which remain the key to modern administrative systems, were supplanted by the Nigerian military and betrayed by some current democratic players in the celebration of the regime of arbitrariness.
This has since permeated the larger society and individuals, even in the pursuit of their personal enterprises tend to be arbitrary. What appears more attractive in this regard is taking laws into our hands. What can we be festive about in a setting where otherwise respectable personalities abruptly develop a penchant for invasion of terrains outside their domain of endeavour with certain intemperate language, blathering away in slander and sedition against persons in constituted authorities? The act itself attracts a band of fans and sponsors as if the land has since been turned into one vast refuge for lawless and senseless musketeers.
The intensity as well as the elaboration of this orgy of national failure did not spare the media constituency which otherwise should be dutifully engrossed in the fine art of the demands of its status as the Fourth Estate of the realm. Sensationalism and the incapacity to make clear distinctions between actual public opinion (preponderant sentiments) and latent but enduring public opinion (community welfare) seem to have been enthroned as the hallmark of some sections of the press. However, this is not to suggest that a good section of the press has not lived above board.
By and large, the point I want to stress here is that in a democratic country, sovereignty lies with the people and the people are supposed to be supreme. This presumably means that important decisions depend, if only ultimately, on public opinion and that the day-to-day activities of government in some way or other reflect that opinion. Only dictators are convinced that they have mastered both means and ends, and thus are able to view public opinion as a stumbling block to progress or as a lump which they alone are gifted to mold.
In particular, because leadership also had its deficiencies, it is essential to recognize the complexity of the issue, which involves public opinion. The diversity of our peoples, their drives, their society, their culture, the idea of the good or the just, social change, leaders, natural and artificial environments – these are some of the factors at work. The variables are too numerous, the interactions too intricate and the final results too unpredictable. But these are not impossible to tackle for a leadership with the political will while at duty.
However, this wave of arbitrary culture sweeping the land cannot wholly be placed at the doorstep of shunting public opinion aside or a total lack of it. After all, public opinion has its limitations. People can be ignorant and they too can be wise. They can be misinformed just as they can be educated. Their reactions depend on their expertise, and their expertise depends on their drives and their knowledge. However, experts can give better judgements about aspects of some problems, but experts cannot necessarily prescribe the good life, particularly one based on sentiment. Over a long period of time, people decide their own fate. There is no one who can or who should make this decision for them completely.
What I did not press quite amply in the foregoing is that poverty; ignorance and corruption have immensely abetted our drift into this negative cultural phenomenon. Perhaps little do we realize that in the drive to survive, to get even the basic minimum out of life, we have at one time or another shown deference to influential rather than typical groups in the community. And psychologically, we have thus been molded to internalize the culture of obedience to orders from the influential before judgement. The problem is that even the capacity for judgement of events, issues and problems in our society has been dastardly blunted not necessarily from the failures of our natural endowments but from sheer routinisation of behavioural patterns notoriously responsive to the animal stimuli, which beset us.
The imperatives of a wholesome democratic practice, among others, which are antithetical to a culture of absoluteness in the interactive fields of cohabitation and nation building, must of necessity be adopted and internalized as the guide for our nascent democracy. As Nigerians are being wheeled into the year 2003 by a cluster of intricate, unpredictable and uncontrollable variables, the culture of arbitrariness thus posits itself as the nascent natural question. And so we can now ask: Can our democracy survive under a regime of arbitrary culture? How would a multi-ethnic nation grow where the vestiges of dictatorship tend to rub off the consciousness of the critical imperatives on whose stead great nations are built?
Presently, on many Nigerians, the impending election year 2003, has been impacting so feverishly in unresolved expectations and in configurations of diverse imaginations of its expected wonderments only parallel to the public pulse at the eve of the Y2K.
The Culture of arbitrary mode of life can hardly promote the desired good life based on variety in a national setting. It can hardly provide any enabling environment for either growth or development or for stability and erection of complete civic loyalty.
For one explanation, it must not be lost on us that power over men is something for which men must and do compete. Inherent in this mode is the fact that whatever one competitor wins in a zero-sum game; he can win only from the loser or a rival, so that any winnings of anyone must come out of the losses of others. Consequently, in so far as power in politics is competitive, sometimes with the dreaded machiavellian-zero-sum character, the contest for power is without end or mercy.
This model must be repulsed. Every Nigerian winner or loser, in a power contest, should be made a visible beneficiary of the national wealth. That way, democracy becomes meaningful to the greatest majority and the people will cherish the wholesome values of the culture of debate and dialogue, not arbitrariness and hate. Consciously and otherwise, they would internalize those spiritual and cultural tenets, which foster enterprise and prosperity and peaceful co-habitation.
I will not hesitate to aver that the Nigeria nation is so big, so wealthy, that festering of any negative tendency must be a consequence, inescapably, of the failure of power wielders, dispensers of national wealth and ethical exemplars – leadership – to have turned democracy on its rightful head.
Year 2003, no doubt, is about recruitment of new leadership for the nation. Nigerians are a very anxious and what-will-happen-next loving people. Usually, their expectations run high even on the least anticipated changes affecting such national phenomena as power, authority and resource retention. A blend of arbitrary culture with this tendency can inspire an ominous feeling of prodigious proportions. Politicians and particularly the army who made some forays in governance can exploit such psyche. In reality, they have done so perfectly here, making Year 2003 appear as a looming Armageddon.
In our experience, a year of national political recruitment has always had feverish and expectant moments spread in its course. But if the power seekers will eschew those traits which inspire arbitrariness and conspire against the tendencies of national integration, the Year 2003 should be looked towards to with expectant joy and resolve to enthrone the enduring values of development democracy.
Thus, the challenge of democracy 2003 in Nigeria will be the dethronement of the current form of arbitrary culture so that we embrace Alexis Tocqueville in his Democracy in America to proclaim that “in proportion as castes disappear and classes of society draw together, as manners, customs and law vary, because of the tumultuous intercourse of men, as new facts arise, as new truths are brought into light, as ancient opinions are dissipated and others take their place, the image of an ideal but always fugitive perfection presents itself to the human mind. Continual changes are then, every instant, occurring under the observation of every man; the position of some is rendered worse, and he learns but too well that no people and no individual, however enlightened they may be, can lay claim to infallibility; the condition of others is improved, whence he infers that man is endowed with an indefinite faculty for improvement. His reverses teach him that none have discovered absolute good; his success stimulates him to the never-ending pursuit of it. Thus, forever seeking, forever falling, to rise again, often disappointed, but not discouraged, he tends unceasingly towards that unmeasured greatness so indistinctly visible at the end ofthe long track which humanity has yet to tread.”
If we do this and perhaps reflect on that which must have informed the August 1979 declaration of the then military head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo that ‘Nigeria will become one of the ten leading nations in the world by the end of the century’ – though already aborted, then we can say that we have started out and for which we say, if this democracy stays, then as instructed by Christ – choose ye who to follow – we who have chosen democracy and seek to pursue popular debate, in love with the greater mankind, will rise and declare:
To God be the glory!!