President Buhari’s address to the nation two days after the massacre of some young Nigerians who were protesting against police brutality, and the failings of his government, was shocking and painful. His speech lacked empathy; he took no responsibility; his words were not convincing and he made no connection with me as I listened. His speech didn’t connect with the cries of the youth and the endless cries of a suffering and anxious nation. Indeed, his speech only darkened the ominous cloud hovering over this nation, following the social convulsion that is pushing the country on the edge of the precipice.
Nigeria should be in mourning for the death of our nation as many of us watch helplessly as our young people burn with anger against the state, and as those who are meant to protect us turn their guns on our children.
In his address to the nation, President Buhari did not tell the nation who unleashed the military and the police against innocent and peaceful Nigerian protesters. He must tell the nation how many Nigerian youths were killed by his forces because he is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The answer to this national outrage is not to outlaw peaceful protests and shut down the country.
It has become clearer to me more than ever that Nigeria’s democracy is under threat from the Nigerian military. This ever-revolving cycle of a unitary, centrist, and authoritarian governments run by the military or ex-military men and their anointed ones is a travesty of democracy, and will not take us anywhere as a nation.
It is important that Buhari and his slim circle of advisers understand why the Nigerian youths are protesting and why Nigeria is convulsing today in the ferment of a social revolution led by our young people who have lost faith in their elders. The immediate cause of the current social unrest and protests in Nigeria is police brutality exemplified in the excessive violence of the now defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
According to Amnesty International, “despite repeated government pledges to address the problems in the Nigerian criminal justice system, little progress has been made. Among the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) there is flagrant and widespread disregard for human rights and due process. People are subjected to enforced disappearances and unlawfully killed by the police before or during arrest in the street or at roadblocks, or subsequently in police detention. Many unlawful killings appear to be extrajudicial executions, and the perpetrators usually go unpunished.” Amnesty International’s report is also consistent with the report of the Nigerian SBM Intelligence which reports that 81 young Nigerians have been killed so far by security operatives during these anti-police protests. It also reports 149 extra-judicial killings in Nigeria since 2019, and 640 killings by Fulani Islamic terrorists, who operate freely in Nigeria under the cover of herdsmen
Another reason for the current protests in Nigeria is the failure of the present Nigerian government to protect the lives and properties of Nigerians. This was a pledge made to Nigerians by the current president, whose military background gave him initial credibility among Nigerians that he would be a law and order president, who would rein in the Islamic fundamentalists, particularly in the North-East.
Unfortunately, large swathes of Nigeria’s territory are still under the control of Boko Haram, splinter cells of the Islamic State of West Africa, and other local and foreign Islamic terrorist groups who are waging asymmetrical warfare on the Nigerian state. Since the last ten years, over 29,000 Nigerians have been killed as a result of radical Islamic terrorism including 37 foreign aid workers. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), there are over 830,000 Nigerians in the North-East who are displaced and who cannot be reached by aid workers.
Many of us have lost friends, colleagues, and family members to violence and crimes. Economic and agricultural activities have been stalled in many parts of Nigeria because of the near breakdown of law and order. The once bustling social life in Nigeria has been lost to criminals, parasites, death squads, and terrorists who freely roam about unchecked murdering and maiming fellow citizens on our highways, farms, and streets some of them clad in police and military uniforms.
Many Nigerians wonder how these criminals and so-called herdsmen could easily acquire high-caliber weapons capable of killing so many people. The brutality and savagery of these men are as despicable as they are condemnable, and yet we claim to have a government in Nigeria. It is intriguing to me that a government that has failed to fight these terrorists and criminals and protect her citizens, could easily deploy thousands of soldiers today on our streets and highways against innocent citizens!
Nigerian young people are pouring onto the streets because they are exhausted from long years of suffering, hunger, and starvation, and are being sentenced to a punishing bleak future if this status quo continues.
Many years ago, the late Nigerian social theorist, Claude Ake, argued that Nigeria is a maladjusted nation that needs to embrace the process of democratization in order to build the national structures, systems, and institutions for an inclusive constitutional democracy. The maladjustment of Nigeria is because our nation is built on a false and shaky foundation and has developed since Independence on the structures of injustice, oiled by corruption, and fueled by tribal politics, clientelism, and religious bigotry, intolerance, and fundamentalism.
As a result of this state of affairs, Nigeria constantly gravitates endlessly from one pole to another without any sense of history, direction, national identity, or political culture. Every region in Nigeria has suffered under this sinful structure. Every Nigerian has his or her own story to tell of our collective guilt, collective shame, and our collective burden.
There are so many deaths in Nigeria; so much suffering and violence; and inexcusable failure by successive governments to take care of the citizens. The majority of Nigeria’s young people are out of school and out of work. Poverty is spreading like a wildfire in Nigeria, and nothing seems to be working in the country. Rather than servant leaders who care for their people, we have a leadership class who watch helplessly as this nation is turned into a river of blood and a valley of tears and inexcusable and perilous existence, filled with tales of anguish, doom, and gloom. Nigerians at home and abroad are suffocating under the punishing weight of the pandemic, national ennui, and structural violence.
Ultimately, the problem of Nigeria, like the foremost African novelist, Chinua Achebe, said many years ago is leadership. Nigeria is convulsing today because of a corrupt and unpatriotic circle of elites. Nigeria’s military, ex-military men, and their civilian and religious acolytes have run Nigeria’s economy aground by siphoning and mismanaging Nigeria’s oil wealth. They have frustrated the hopes and aspirations of Nigerians through extractive and authoritarian leadership and exploited our ethnic and religious diversity to create a false schismatic us vs them binaries. Nigeria, for example, lost more than 220 billion pounds of her national wealth in the first 40 years after independence through the elite network and gatekeepers who control 90% of Nigeria’s GDP. According to the London-based Chatham House, Nigeria loses about 1.5 billion dollars every month to oil theft.
With over 70% of Nigerians suffering from grinding poverty, there is a deep frustration and anger in Nigeria today. Nigeria has overtaken India as the country with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world. In the Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) report of the Development Finance International (DFI) Nigeria placed bottom in a ranking of 157 nations. How Nigeria, the 6th largest oil-producing country in the world, should now become the poverty capital of the world requires greater probing. According to an Oxfam report in 2019, beyond poor planning and management of the economy; and lack of strategic visioning for projects, and the use of ethnocentric and religious motivation for citing projects over needs and economies of scale, Nigeria suffers from persistent failure to reorder her priorities according to her assets, capability, and needs. This is why health, agriculture, education, social security, and safety net receive the least budgetary allocation, compared to the cost of running the government bureaucracy.
Nigeria continues to run an ever-ballooning cost of bureaucracy and ‘settlement’ of long chains of redundant government parastatals, arms of government, and state officials. Nigeria wastes her national wealth on these redundant government agencies, positions, and boards, while having the highest number of out-of-school dropouts in the continent, and one of the lowest levels of labor rights and placing 152 out of 157 in the world’s measurement of the human capital index (CPI). The CPI is a predictor of the level of human security of any nation based on five indicators—chances of a child reaching age five, healthy growth, expected years of schooling, quality learning available and the adult survival rate (life expectancy), quality-adjusted life-year (QALY), and disability-adjusted life year (DALY). Now, with our universities shut for most of this year, and an unemployment rate of over 27%; rising debt burden, and life expectancy of less than 55years, Nigeria is unhinged; our young people are restless and restive; our democracy is in peril and our President has done little to heal the land.
Most Nigerians, especially the poor, are suffering and dying in droves from malnutrition, failed public health care, violence, and hopelessness. The future outlook of the nation is grim. This is because rather than create wealth and produce capital, Nigerian politicians are obsessed with wealth distribution. Rather than address the cries of the poor, Nigerian politicians are obsessed with unethical forms of power-sharing and the parceling away of our national wealth. Rather than dialoguing with the youths, we are killing them on our streets. Rather than address the structural violence and injustice in the land through a national dialogue and restructuring of Nigeria, our leaders are obsessed with pursuing a deceptive and empty national unity at all costs. Nigeria faces a frightening future if this sad state of affairs continues.
*Stan Chu Ilo is a Catholic priest of Awgu Diocese in South-East Nigeria, research professor of World Christianity and African Studies at DePaul University, Chicago, USA; Honorary professor of Theology and Religion at Durham University, Durham, England.